19 Aug 2013

Are our students "academically adrift", and what does this mean for academic libraries?

CC Image: Matt Coughlin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/18123948@N00/3009788248/
Last week began with the news that Irish Universities could lose up to €50m of funding if they fail to meet key performance objectives relating to student retention, research and matching graduates to the needs of industry. Fortunately, good news came in the form of the 2013 Shanghai Academic Rankings, which placed 3 Irish universities in the top 3% globally: TCD, UCD and UCC (See Brian Lucey's Actually Irish Universities are Outstanding for more discussion). Notwithstanding this, the suggestion that the higher education system may be failing to equip graduates for the 21st century workplace has pervaded discussion at a global level, not just within Ireland, for some time now.

Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift is just one of many publications that tries to make sense of this challenge. It raises some of the big questions in higher education in the US, which can't be ignored further afield either: What do students learn - if anything - during their time at university? Does the college system reduce or increase inequality?  In short, does the current system actually produce graduates who meet the needs of today's economy? One of the flagship findings of the study is that 45% of students demonstrated no statistically significant improvement in critical thinking, reasoning or writing after completing their first two years at college - the time period when most learning typically takes place. Moreover the gap that exists between low and high performing students on entering college is an enduring one, with the former not benefitting from any 'catching-up' effect. Could the shift towards online education be widening this gap even further? These findings have clear implications for university management, administration and faculty. However, what do they mean for academic libraries?

The root of the problem is arguably outside our control to a certain extent. Many students are arriving at our university gates without adequate preparation for third level education; clearly this needs to be addressed at primary and second levels. As Arum & Roksa note, this problem has been exacerbated by the current culture of "university for all" - even those who may not be particularly suited to, interested in, or committed to, the academic environment. Innovative initiatives like NUIM Library's outreach programme for local secondary students could make a real difference in this area, but rolling out this model more extensively would be too much for current third level library staffing levels to bear.

This trend also reaffirms the view that helping our students to develop information and digital literacies is a key challenge for today's academic librarian. The intuitive nature of modern discovery services can help greatly in how we teach IL. Instead of having to focus on explaining complex database-specific rules and regulations, it frees up valuable time for teaching our undergraduates skills like comparing and contrasting different kinds of information sources, and synthesising evidence to construct and support their own academic voice. However, I do believe that information literacy is something far broader than just the handful of competencies related to critical thinking and reasoning, and we must not lose sight of this or allow it to be diluted.

The truth is, I believe in many instances we are already doing excellent work in this area: supporting college-wide orientation programmes; targeting first years and other at-risk groups; providing subject or faculty liaison services that offer a visible and approachable contact point for students. Maybe we need to be more vocal in articulating the explicit contribution we can and do make in this area? We need to make sure we can also provide evidence of the positive impact of our IL interventions to support our case. However, the more embedded our instruction becomes, the greater the difficulty in extracting and isolating the library's influence from other confounding variables. It is not an easy task, but at the very least it is a conversation we need to start having.

Publish or Perish has become a mantra in higher education in recent times, but what about Teach or Trail? Certainly, scholarly communications and measuring the value of research is an important and evolving area. However the terrain of teaching has also been changing, with new technologies and theories emerging. How are we measuring, assessing and improving our instruction? Perhaps it is time to open up this debate, and look at how we can help support more effective student learning.


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