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LILAC 2017: Reflections and inspiration

LILAC (the Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference) was a couple of weeks ago now, so I have failed in my initial plan to get some of my ideas/reflections down in blog form immediately after the conference while they were still fresh in my mind…

However, having a couple of weeks to reflect has helped me organise my thoughts a little bit, beyond the excited, jumbled mess they were straight after the conference finished! If you want to see my immediate, unfiltered impressions, here’s a Storify of my live tweets and retweets.

For a (slightly) more considered overview, here’s my highlights and ideas from LILAC.



My main highlight was of course Alan Carbery’s barnstorming keynote! If you were on Twitter at all on the morning of 12th April, you may have seen the explosion of excitement this caused. There is a recording available: if you haven’t already watched this, I urge you do to so.

Video recording: Authentic Information Literacy in an era of Post-Truth

Alan covered a lot of ground, which I won’t try to summarise here (seriously, watch the recording!), but the main thrust was about how we can teach skills that actually empower our students to become informed, information literate citizens.

We spend a lot of time teaching students how to use library databases (an approach neatly summed up by another speaker as “click there, try another keyword” teaching), which is of limited use as a life skill! Instead of spending time and effort trying to get students to search for information in the “correct” way on proprietary databases, which 99% of them will never use again after their course is over, why not focus on critical thinking and appraisal of information?

Alan does some fantastic things in his teaching, such as starting conversations about gender roles, rape culture and human trafficking, in the context of the information messages students are getting from many sources. He is able to do this in part because he sees his students much more frequently than most of us manage: Alan sees all undergraduate students seven times throughout their studies, which he announced at the start of his talk makes him the “luckiest librarian ever”!

Although most of us aren’t quite that lucky, Alan did have some tips for incorporating some of this type of instruction into one-shot sessions. One suggestion I quite liked was that if you do have to demonstrate databases during your limited time with students, pick your keyword examples well. For example, with engineering students, try demonstrating a search on women in engineering.

Another suggestion was to bring in things like the filter bubble: this should be relevant to any information literacy session, and is a good way to get students thinking about how they find, receive and interpret information. I’ve tried talking about the filter bubble and algorithm bias in my sessions with Computing students before, and it’s always gone down really well: despite this being far from a new phenomenon (the TED talk linked to above is from 2011), my students had never come across this idea before, were shocked by it and immediately grasped the implications.

Alan’s keynote was on the final day of the conference, and it (I think unintentionally) brought together a lot of themes that had been cropping up in other talks. In and amongst all the talks about teaching techniques, evaluation, etc., there was a strong undercurrent of information literacy for social justice. This was often explicit, as in Angela Pashia’s excellent talk on discussing Black Lives Matter in information literacy sessions. In other cases it formed the context of the talk, such as Lauren Smith’s presentation on supporting young people’s educational transitions (which gave me some good, righteous anger!) and Josie Fraser’s keynote (video) on Librarians as Open Practitioners.

Practical stuff

As well as the inspiring critical information literacy and social justice stuff, I also took away plenty of practical ideas too.

One of my favourite sessions early on was Ray Bailey on coping with the stressors of library instruction. Ray had lots of thoughtful ideas on what it is that makes library teaching such a stressful experience for many of us, and advice on how we (both those of us doing the teaching, and our managers) can reduce that stress or at least make it more manageable.

Ray also made a point which I hadn’t considered before, which is that active learning methods, as well as being good pedagogical practice, can also make teaching itself less stressful. Although planning activities for your class takes a lot more prep time, it makes the actual classroom (or lecture hall) experience less stressful, as it takes some of the pressure off you as teacher having to “perform” for the entire hour, allowing your students to take centre stage for a while. I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at it, and I think he’s right: I certainly prefer managing activities than just standing and speaking at the front for the entire session!

I was also very taken with a couple of sessions focusing on different aspects of the student experience. Monica-Carmela Sajeva and May Warren’s session on the international classroom was fantastic: a really good, immersive look at the particular challenges international students face. We did a brilliant exercise, that I totally want to steal and run as a training session for staff in my own library, which involved us taking on the personas of different international students. It was a really useful way of experiencing some of the anxiety and uncertainty that many international students feel when they arrive at university.

Helen Howard’s presentation on the Second Year Success resource developed at the University of Leeds was a useful look at the particular needs of second year undergraduate students, an often-neglected group. Second years often feel a bit adrift (in the US they apparently refer to this as the “sophomore slump”) – they’re working harder than in the first year, there’s a sense that “everything counts” in a way it may not have in their first year.

Second year students often start to underperform, disengage and are at risk of dropping out – yet there is no proactive support for this group. We tend to assume that because we’ve told them all about the support available to them in their first year they’ll know where to go, but they’ve often either forgotten this by second year, or aren’t confident enough to seek out support for themselves.

I really like the idea of creating a resource specifically for second year students, and I think the Leeds example would be a great one to emulate. Helen deservedly won the Information Literacy Award at the conference dinner that evening.

Finally, I was very impressed with Abigail Heath & Samantha Brown’s work at Plymouth University on evaluating competitive team-based activities to enhance learning. They’ve run duplicate sessions with students: some using competition-based activities (such as Andrew Walsh’s Seek! card game, and online quiz tools such as FlipQuiz – which looked great, and I’m quite keen to try out!), and others as a control group, just using traditional teaching and lecturing methods, then gathered feedback from students afterwards.

Although the data they collected this way was limited (only students from the “active” groups actually returned surveys, they didn’t get any back from the “control” groups – although I think this in itself was telling!), I still really like the way they designed this trial. Their plans are to apply for some funding to re-run the trials next year, this time recruiting students to take part in optional sessions rather than doing the tests in actual, timetabled classes. This is partly for ethical reasons, and partly also to improve data collection as the students involved will know it’s a trial, and will be paid for taking part in the whole process, including feedback/surveys at the end. I’m looking forward to seeing any future results from this.

What will I do with all this?

My question following all conferences, and especially ones as full-on as LILAC, is: what will I actually do with all these new ideas? Here’s my list of three things I am going to put into action following LILAC, in order from easiest to hardest:

1.Have a play with FlipQuiz.

I am always looking out for new interactive tools to use in teaching, especially as pretty much all of my classes are lectures (boo…) so anything I can do to liven them up is a bonus

2. Stop demoing databases, start talking about critical information literacy!

Ok, I might not be able to stop entirely, as I think there is still an expectation that “information skills” means “show them how to search the library’s systems”. But I can definitely keep these to a minimum, and spend more time talking about critical thinking and the filter bubble!

3. Find a friendly lecturer who will let me see some student assignments…

I was really keen on this idea from the start of Alan Carbery’s keynote: Alan gets to see some (anonymised) student work, so he can see how they are actually using information. One thing he discovered was that students will make use of academic sources and cite them correctly – IF this is stipulated in the brief and they are graded on it, otherwise they won’t bother! So he has worked with the academics to build in these requirements into assignment briefs and marking.

I would love to do this, so I think the first stage is to persuade one of the academic staff to let me see some samples of student work, and then build from there. Wish me luck!


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