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Niels Jørgen Blaabjerg and the Learning Objects Web development project

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The context

Most academic librarians who are switched onto the digital age would agree that a major part of their job involves teaching about information literacy. Nor are they short of guidance – standards for information literacy have been developed all over the English speaking world (in the USA, UK and Australia, which is described in more detail in the information management viewpoint on information literacy). What librarians have been more reluctant to reflect on, however, is a framework which links information literacy with the learning process.

An exception to this is the innovative work done by Niels Jørgen Blaabjerg and his colleagues Thomas Vibjerg Hansen, Lotte Stehouwer Øgaard and Bo Hvass Pedersen at the Learning Objects Web development project at Aalborg University. Located in the Northern Jutland area of Denmark, Aalborg has become a byword for innovation and is known as the "Aalborg Experiment": particular features are its emphasis on interdisciplinary research and its use of problem-based learning. Based in the library, the Learning Objects Web uses e-learning to teach information literacy.

Originally, Blaabjerg and colleagues were looking into new technology, on a fairly small-scale basis, for user education. Management expectations however were for pedagogical innovation in library innovation, so they developed Streaming Web-based Information Modules (SWIM), which uses streaming video to create an interactive role-play on information searching. Eventually SWIM was joined by Flexible Learning Objects Web (FLOW), which took the pedagogy of SWIM a bit further by creating a tool to support students in their project work, rather than simply offering instruction.

Both tools are user friendly, attractive and have high production values, however, their most noteworthy aspect is their strong theoretical and conceptual basis. The second, international version of SWIM was based on a collaboration with information studies theorists Carol Kuhlthau and Jannica Heinström, and both products draw on a range of other authors.

The main premise behind Blaabjerg’s approach is that information searching is integral to the learning process. Blaabjerg defines information literacy as:

"…the ability to evaluate, select and/or act in a situation where you need to find or use that which makes a difference in solving an information problem. Information literacy is the individual’s ability to move between levels of action and reflection (meta level) in the understanding and handling of his/her information need, and the ability to use the result in the process that lies ahead" (Blaabjerg et al., 2007).

Such an approach is different from the more usual Anglo Saxon one of the standards (for example, the SCONUL seven pillars approach, see part 2 of the "Information literacy viewpoint"), which are expressed as capabilities, moving up from definition of need through accessing information, evaluating and using it in a coherent way, to synthesizing information in a critical way and using it ethically.

The latter approach certainly includes higher order skills in the form of critical analysis of information and its reproduction in the creation of new knowledge; it does not, however, deal with a common problem, that of uncertainty. The "definition of need" stage – "The ability to recognize a need for information", SCONUL – implies that the student knows what he or she needs to find out. But what happens if you don’t know what information you need, how do you go about searching for it? This is Kuhltau’s "uncertainty principle", and in one scene in SWIM, the librarian gently probes the student group towards the realization that they need to work on their problem definition. "The beginning process, whether you are working with an assignment or a project, everything looks very daunting and difficult to get hold of things but maybe you have a lot of ideas and that’s what kicks off this process", says Blaabjerg. "But perhaps after a little while you begin feeling a bit frustrated and that’s what we’ve tried to work with, to find out which stage they have actually reached, talk to them about how far they’ve come and help them with different methods that they can use in their information strategy".

SWIM and FLOW are both based on constructivist principles – you construct learning based on your own knowledge and experience, and any information-literacy intervention needs to support that process, letting students make their own decisions, and using their own knowledge as a starting-point. Thus when two of the characters in SWIM want to raid books and databases, a third insists that they should start with their own knowledge based on lectures. "From the beginning", says Blaabjerg, "we want to be working with them to make them aware that the information they need is their own prior knowledge of the subject, and that of other group members. They can use that as a starting-point for generating ideas and get a lot of things out in the open".

New role for the librarian

In Blaabjerg’s model, the librarian is a counsellor in the process of knowledge acquisition rather than a custodian of knowledge. He quotes Kulhthau (2004) on the need to move away from the bibliographic paradigm, where the librarian organizes information, and recommends and points to resources, to one where he or she acts as a counsellor during the information searching process (Kuhltau, 2004, p. 107ff.). In the former model, the user is aware of what he or she doesn’t know and expects the librarian to help him or her find it. "People think of information searching as just the physical act of going to the library searching for books and picking them from the shelves and then going back into your room or wherever you’re working", says Blaabjerg. "We want people to see the information searching process as integrated into the whole learning process, right from the beginning to the end".

If the library is to follow the user, it must seek them out where they are, in both real and virtual place and time. Nor will it exist purely as its own independent entity, virtual or physical (e.g. library website or building); it will integrate, for example with the student’s own virtual learning environment, so it will come to the student in a form easily understood and a format regularly used. "You have to go out to the users and meet them where they are whether it’s in their physical environment or in their virtual environment…we want to create services that we can provide, for instance in the students’ learning environments both virtual and physical". Tutors, for example, may not be attuned to the concept of information literacy – "we talk about wanting to support the students’ learning process, that’s the same language as is being used in the learning community".

The five-stage process

A key to understanding the pedagogy behind both SWIM and FLOW is the five-stage model of information searching, developed by Kuhlthau (2004). This can be depicted graphically as follows (the sixth stage, evaluation, is where you reflect critically on your strategy):

 

Figure 1. The information-seeking process - Diagram illustrating the information searching process: Step 1. creative idea development; Step 2. exploration; Step 3. critical focusing; Step 4. research; Step 5. conclusion, broader perspective; Step 6. evaluation.

Figure 1. The information-seeking process

 

The process is partly one of movement away from uncertainty towards clarity, often facilitated by mediators, who may be librarians, tutors or project advisers. One of the most striking things about this model is the way in which the search for information, rather than being a separate stage to be completed before the major writing starts, is actually intertwined with it. Thus the initial problem definition may be accompanied by some mind mapping and free writing, reading of literature accompanies writing, drafts are written and revised, and new information is sought throughout the process. The table below describes the stages, and shows how information seeking and writing overlap.

Five-stage model of information searching, developed by Kuhlthau (2004)
Stage Information seeking Writing
1. Ideas – creative development: brainstorm ideas on a particular theme or topic Draw on existing knowledge from lectures, the media, course books, experience, interests, etc. Post-it notes, mindmaps etc
2. Explore – creative exploration: this is about getting an overview of the topic, and possible problems Overview information, easily obtainable and introductory rather than scholarly Pre-writing to help students relate to the topic and clarify ideas
3. Focus – critical focusing: the objective here is to reach the preliminary problem definition stage Very definite information needs, but recommendation is to stick with resources gathered in Phase 2 Keywords, to help with in-depth search for information
4. Research – critical analytical research This is when the scholarly and scientific research is done. Databases searched with keywords The most demanding part of the writing – drafts of chapters written
5. Conclude – and broader perspective The problem should now be answered, and this is the stage when it should be placed in a broader perspective, with new problems and questions. Revisit material discarded at an earlier point Write conclusion