Niels Jørgen Blaabjerg and the Learning Objects Web development project
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
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.
|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|
SWIM1 was brought out in 2002 in Danish; however it was quickly realized that an English version was needed to have international impact. This was brought out in 2006, with much interest in the concept as well as the product. The project is funded by the Denmark’s Electronic Research Library.
SWIM uses interactive video to create a role-play in which three students and the user(s) (more than one can play the game) navigate their way through the information-seeking process. It uses professional actors for greater impact, and the characters, three students, are believable and use different information-searching strategies. The professionalism is shown in the way that the actors look not only at one another but also out of the screen at the user, thus creating a greater sense of involvement.
Figure 2. Screenshot from SWIM video
The story is about a group of students who are working on a research project, and is divided into five different situations, five acts which reflect different phases in the project. In each phase, the learning needs are different, according to the inherent information-searching process.
Each phase sets up dilemmas, which the student or the group has to choose from (Blaabjerg likes the idea of groups as these benefit discussion), and the video moves on differently according to the choice. In each phase, the user is given the opportunity to correct his or her choice or to stick by it. The structure of the video is clear and easy to follow.
Figure 3. Screenshot from SWIM, showing choice of three responses
The choice they make is reflected at the end of the programme in an evaluation, which takes the form of the group’s examiners giving feedback about the information-seeking strategies selected – for example, you might have selected an option which made an inappropriate use of keywords, or chosen to select books randomly from the shelf.
The product is fun to use and students gain a mark based on their choices, which appeals to their competitive streak. However, it is also based on firm concepts and principles. Not only does it use the phases of information seeking as described above, but also, the three students represent Jannica Heinström’s description of different personalities and learning styles – the fast surfer, broad scanner and deep diver (Heinström, 2002, quoted in Blaabjerg et al., 2007). The iterative path which the user is obliged to follow, continually checking and re-checking choices, is based on the constructivist principle of "double loop learning", i.e. meta reflection (Argyris and Schon, 1993, quoted in Blaabjerg et al., 2007).
The SWIM programme was initially intended as a standalone product, but early prototype trials convinced Blaabjerg and colleagues that it would be better to use it in a blended context where people could discuss and check understanding with information specialists. They are encouraged to make links with their own knowledge and experience of project work, and have appropriate resources recommended (staff will be familiar with course descriptions).
The primary market is second year students, and their tutors and advisers, although the product has been used at every level from high school up to masters level.
FLOW – Flexible Learning Objects Web
In early 2008, SWIM was joined by FLOW – Flexible Learning Objects Web. FLOW is based on the same pedagogy as SWIM, with the five phases (see Figure 4 below). The difference, however, is that rather than being a learning object in its own right, with a didactic purpose, it is a tool for students to manage projects, and to reflect on what they are learning. Students can access it from within their virtual learning organization (VLE) and can log on individually or as a project group.
Figure 4. Screenshot of FLOW
The project’s focus and functionality was decided after an evaluation of a prototype: the original intention had been as a placeholder for SWIM, but the other purposes seemed to be highly valued by students. Thus being a container for learning objects was very much a secondary rather than a principle aim. The departure point, according to Blaabjerg, is "the students' actual tasks and working processes based on what they are doing in their writing process, rather than placing our learning objects on top we placed our own learning objects on the bottom so the top level is the students’ learning process…the learning objects are placed underneath so that they can go down into that level when they feel they need to get some help".
Figure 5: The Tasks in FLOW
Function-wise, FLOW comprises a specific part where the learners can lodge their projects, and a generic part consisting of learning objects relevant to each of the phases outlined above, for example Flash activities or checklists for writing.
Figure 6. The process guide, screenshot showing learning objects for each one of the phases
Examples of the project specific parts of the tools are a task tracking system which enables the definition and assignment of tasks. Unlike more conventional project management systems, however, tasks are not deleted once completed but stay in the system so that student and tutor can reflect; "Process notes" is intended to help this purpose, as is "My comments". "My Stuff" is intended as a self-made reference source for the user to input useful learning objects.
Figure 7. Screenshot showing the "My tasks" part of FLOW
The ultimate effect is to create something which combines project management software with support for the creation of an electronic portfolio. This, Blaabjerg feels, is a Web 2.0 approach. "We want to create a community where you could work together, you could set up groups for instance and you could share things and assign tasks, a sort of group conferencing with the possibility of inviting others into the group, such as a librarian that they can ask for help in the process, as well as their counsellor or teachers or any other persons who could be a resource for them in the process. So we are trying to incorporate a lot of things that are similar to Web 2.0 developments".
Both products are clearly influenced strongly by the pedagogical model of problem-based learning (PBL), with its iterative search for a problem definition, and its requirements that students define issues, decide on the methods of research, and pose questions before identifying answers. The emphasis on careful definition of a problem, on drawing on one’s own knowledge, on skimming information to get an overview before going into depth, on taking time to define appropriate keywords, is also of great value.
The observation was made earlier about the strong theoretical link of both SWIM and FLOW. This link could prove a weakness in situations where the constructivist, problem-based model did not apply. The students spend much time defining the problem and identifying the research question that they want to tackle – typical of PBL, but what happens when the information search is very clearly defined at the outset, for example when a particular topic or essay title has been set?
The link with the writing process is also interesting, although it would be good to find out more about how to draft chapters while you are still information seeking. Many would see the latter as a precursor to the former. The model also does not describe the critical use of information, contrasting the various theories presented, looking for gaps in the data and inconsistencies in the argument, or the ability to organize it, and synthesize it so that new knowledge is created. The latter has often given rise to difficulties for students who struggle to structure their assignments and present an argument. The students in the SWIM role-play are all highly motivated and intelligent – how would the approach fare with weaker students?
However, the fact that these products themselves pose so many questions is in itself an indication of the strength and thoughtfulness of the approach. What is needed now is a broader forum for Learning Objects Web, and a vigorous discussion which can lead librarians to look beyond the standards to the whole pedagogy of how you help students seek information in a way that will also fire their learning.
Argyris, C. and Schon, D. (1993), Organizational Learning (2nd ed.), Addison Wesley, Reading, Mass.
Blaabjerg, N.L., Hansen, T.V. and Øgaard, L.S., (2007), "It’s not about the library, it’s about the student! – Supportive roles and systems in students’ interaction with information", paper presented to Online Information 2007.
Heinström, J. (2002), Fast Surfers, Broad Scanners and Deep Divers, Åbo Akademis Förlag, Åbo.
Kuhlthau, C.C. (2004), Seeking Meaning (2nd ed.), Greenwood Press, London.