I’ve been at this blogging thing for a few years now, so I’m bound to revisit issues. It just seems lately I’ve been returning to old topics. No different today.
There’s a lot of talk about students and information literacy. It’s all over the web… not surprising, what isn’t? We certainly talk about this issue on our campus, and in our department we try to prepare H.S. English teachers to help their students with information literacy (yes the term is problematic but I’ll use it as a point of reference).
I continue to be concerned that the real stumbling block on the path to this goal does not have to do with students but rather with faculty. However you’re going to characterize information literacy for undergrads and grads, clearly faculty need to be more literate overall than that (again assuming one can talk about "levels" of literacy). Anyway my point is that faculty as a whole are woefully underprepared to teach in this quickly emerging world. They lack basic skills.
So I’m just going to lay out a handful of basic technical and rhetorical skills I think you’d want students to have.
- Make simple audio and video recordings (we’re not talking Spielberg here; just cruise around on YouTube for a while and you’ll get the idea)
- Make a basic, static website using a simple application like iWeb.
- Do basic photo and image editing in PhotoShop or the equivalent.
- Make a good PowerPoint presentation (I don’t think much of PowerPoint myself, but I’ll throw it in there)
- Understand and use web 2.0 applications
- Find useful information on the web
- Get some understanding of the challenges of participating in an online community (which they should already know from MySpace and Facebook, though they often don’t think through the potential implications of their actions there)
I think it would be generous to say that 10% of any campus faculty have all these skills. I would wonder even what % of faculty can effectively find information on the web using Google or something like that. I mean, what % can find a good sushi restaurant near a motel or research purchasing a new car or find reviews of a new movie or book? 1/3? 1/2? 2/3?
Now I’m not suggesting that you’d need 100% of faculty to have all these skills, but maybe 40%? Think about it the way you think about writing instruction. At Cortland, like many campuses, we have two semesters of composition, followed up by a required two "writing-intensive" courses (which serve a WAC objective). However, writing takes place in many other classes, indeed in most classes, in some form or other. So I think it’s reasonable to say that you’d need 40% of the faculty offering curriculum where students are using these skills in some way, with some of those courses being an intense study of this literacy analogous to what we do now with writing in composition. Indeed, perhaps what I’m talking about is an evolution of composition, but only if the faculty can deliver on it.
The task of building this literacy is nearly overwhelming. Colleges will have to make some harsh decisions. There are some top-down things you could do, but I’m not going to suggest that. You need top-down support and reward, but I’d leave it at that. This support and reward could be both individual and on a department level. For example, my College’s writing committee gives out $5000 grants to departments to improve writing instruction; something similar could be done in this area.
I would place my emphasis on newly tenured faculty (i.e. faculty tenured in the last five years). Why? Well first, I think it is less likely that senior faculty would be looking to make the kind of change to their career and pedagogy that I’m suggesting here. I certainly would welcome any interested faculty, but my experience at Cortland is that, in general, more senior faculty are less interested in meeting this challenge.
On the other end of the spectrum, junior faculty should certainly be encouraged to acquire these skills and develop pedagogies that integrate technologies. However, they shouldn’t be expected to lead this initiative. They need to be able to look to tenured faculty who are doing the same thing, who understand the work involved, and can provide a context for that work when it comes time for tenure review.
Newly-tenured faculty have less pressure on them in personal-professional terms than junior faculty (although sometimes it doesn’t feel that way). They are likely to be younger than other tenured faculty and thus are more likely to have some information literacy and comfort in working with technology (though obviously that isn’t uniformly the case). They are also likely to be looking for ways to define themselves as full members of the campus community and to begin to put their stamp on their program or department in a way they would not have done before they were tenured. That is, obviously, once-tenured, one is in a position to take a leadership role or at least a stand that one couldn’t do before.
Ok, so ideally, I would want to identify a department where I could find at least two newly tenured faculty (it’s better to have support next door). I help them write a campus grant that will support some training for them and then buy them some equipment. I’d start with giving them basic training in these skills (making videos, building websites, using web 2.0 applications, etc.). Then we’d move into more of a support phase where they need to figure out how this new literacy would work in their program, and I function as a sounding board. Then the courses are built, and the faculty receive support for their courses through information resources (e.g. library multimedia specialists, computer help desk, etc.).
Ideally the faculty have a positive experience and serve to encourage others in their department, junior faculty in particular, to join in. Even more ideally, their success is acknowledged and rewarded by the college in some material way. Furthermore, once these faculty have had this experience, you then need to find a way to keep them going, keep them current. Clearly this will have to be founded on their personal motivation, but some mechanism–an online community, faculty development opportunities, grants for new equipment, retreats–will have to be put in place to make it happen.
So my notion is that on our campus you’d need to identify 15-25 faculty every year to work with. We have something like 500 faculty, though most are part-time and there are other workload issues there I’m not addressing in this post. So I’d like to imagine 100 faculty able to do this kind of work five years down the road.
Hopefully by that time we’ll be hiring faculty who have these skills and perspectives coming in the door (graduate schools…this means you!).