William Badke

I.                    Standards

The ACRL Standards for Distance Learning Library Services ( state:

Every student, faculty member, administrator, staff member, or any other member of an institution of higher education, is entitled to the library services and resources of that institution, including direct communication with the appropriate library personnel, regardless of where enrolled or where located in affiliation with the institution. Academic libraries must, therefore, meet the information and research needs of all these constituents, wherever they may be.

The standards go on to assert:

Direct human access must be made available to the distance learning community through instruction, interaction, and intervention from library personnel in the provision of library services and in facilitating successful use of library resources, particularly electronic resources requiring computer literacy and information literacy skills.

While tutorials and brief sessions with students can be useful, a deeper level of support can be achieved through credit-bearing courses.


II.                 Features of a Successful Information Literacy Course Regardless of Delivery System

The ACRL distance learning services document (above) includes a great deal of information on development and content of information literacy instruction at a distance. For a briefer analysis of crucial elements, read on.

Basic features that need to be included in any course:

A.     Emphasis on a strategically planned research process.

The days of the architectural model of bibliographic instruction (“Here is the catalog; here is the reference collection”) are long gone.  Students require a context, a strategic framework, into which they can fit virtually any research topic and move from topic to completed project through a series of well-defined steps.  Such an approach may seem “canned” or simplistic, but it does not have to be.  Examples are to be found in my textbook, Research Strategies (;

The element that keeps a research strategy framework from being simplistic is the use of strong information theory.  For example, we know that the best way to acquire complex information is to build on what we already know.  Thus students are urged early in the process to develop a background, a working knowledge.  We are aware that information is of little value without a purpose, thus we urge students to develop a research question in order to focus their information search to that which will be most relevant to their purpose.  We understand that larger collections of information, such as books, tend to be more established and to cover a topic more broadly.  Thus we send students first to books before moving them to the more narrowly focused periodical literature.

B.     Emphasis on information as a means rather than an end

People do not acquire and use information simply so that they may know but in order to solve problems with it.  This emphasis reflects the goal orientation of information gathering and results in an analytical rather than a merely descriptive product (the research essay, research report, etc.).  Thus there is stress on critical thinking, with information being a tool rather than a product.       

C.     Emphasis on evaluation of information

Information can be useful to a purpose or not, accurate or inaccurate, sophisticated or naïve, scholarly or popular, relatively objective or strongly biased.  With the growing influence of the Internet, students of Information Literacy need to be given tools to evaluate all information as to whether or not it meets established criteria of usefulness.  This is not merely a test of how scholarly or “peer reviewed” the information is, but how suitable it is to meet the goals of the research project.

D.     Emphasis on information ethics

Since information is rarely ethically neutral, students need to be aware constantly of established conventions for its use.  This includes issues of copyright, plagiarism, manipulative use of evidence, slander/libel, misrepresentation, and so on.

E.      At least some coverage of the philosophy of information and information systems

The very idea of “information” is changing dramatically in our time, with the rise of Postmodernism’s emphasis on the subjectivity of all information, the growth of electronic media that can both disseminate information rapidly (I first learned of the Sept. 11, 2001 events in New York 4 minutes after the initial aircraft hit the WTC) and can alter that information without a trace of the original form being left.  Large questions are arising – Who owns information?  How can we guarantee that the information of today can be preserved for tomorrow?   What is the final form of a document?, and so on. For a presentation that incorporates the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy, see my "What is Scholarship?"


III.               Guidelines for a Successful Online Course in Information Literacy

A. Structure is all important

1.      Determine what elements of Information Literacy you wish to cover.

2.      Form your content into modules that can be covered by a student in 10 hours or less each for three credits; 3 hours or less for one credit.  If using a strategies approach, as recommended, construct the modules around the various steps of research, from developing background and formulating a research question, through the various steps of information gathering, to evaluation of the materials gathered, to development of the final research essay/report.  In general, 5 to 10 modules should be sufficient.

3.      Make sure that your format/instructional pattern/assignments remain constant in each module so that students know what to expect and will not be put off by a constant variety of presentation.

B. Both instructional content and opportunity for direct experience must be provided

    1. For ILI to succeed, students need instructional content. 

               Information Literacy is not simply a matter of method and skill but of understanding and evaluative ability.  A course may use a print or online textbook or provide links to the many sites on the Internet that provide instruction in all aspects of Information Literacy. (Note that there are ethical/legal implications to providing links to some materials).

     2.   Students need opportunity for relevant hands-on experience

            a. Relevance

                 There has been an increasing emphasis on point-of-need instruction, which stresses that students are not ready to learn research skills until they have an actual project to work on.  An online course functions best when students are allowed to do Information Literacy assignments using actual research projects they are doing for other courses, or at least topics from their own interests.  In allowing topics from other courses, the online developer may need to go through a permission-seeking process with the institution’s academic dean/faculty.

            b. Extensive small assignments on every aspect taught

Information literacy students need to practice, practice, practice.  This can take a variety of forms, from having them develop a topic from initial research question to completed essay using assignments in each module, to reference question scavenger hunts, web-based tutorials (such as The Internet Detective for evaluation of Internet sites).  How is all of this to be accomplished in an online course?

i.                     Have students turn in a variety of assignments using tools on the Internet or through remote access to your library. 

ii.                   Provide links to online tutorials, informational sites, and so on.

Clearly, the grading of a myriad of assignments from each student is labor-intensive, but there seems to be no way around the need for practice.

D.     There must be opportunity for student interaction with the professor and one another.

This can be as simple as providing a listserv or as complex as convening a Net meeting.  Some courses use scheduled chat sessions.  The intent of interaction is primarily to provide the sort of community and community benefits found in a classroom.  Thus students can get clarification, encouragement from others, the opportunity to present findings in a group setting, and so on.  You may find, if students are doing their own projects with their own topics, that there is resistance to spending a lot of time in student to student interaction. There is no rule that such interaction must be included in your course, though the student's relationship with the course instructor must be a priority.

E.      A workable platform must be in place

Most institutions are now using a designated platform – Blackboard, Moodle or some other.  An Information Literacy online course will need to fit well into such a platform, allowing all of the above functions to operate well. Alternatively, tools like LibGuides can form a platform as can a designated website.

IV.              A Possible Model for Module Construction

The following is only a suggestion of the kind of structure that could be found in a module.

Module Two: Develop Background Information

A.  What you need to know

[Provide textbook reading, a Web link, or your own material on the importance of developing a working knowledge of a topic before proceeding with the gathering of more in-depth information about it] Indicate in your assignment submission below that you have read the materials indicated.

B. Topic Assignment

Locate two subject-specific reference sources that have entries on your topic and use these to find comparable background information. Write a summary of the basic features of your topic. Include two possible problem areas that could be investigated in a research project.

When this module is done, turn it in by e-mail to your professor as instructed.


                        William Badke, Trinity Western University, April 24, 2015