Developing information literacy programmes to support research uptake

17 December 2010

17 December 2010SCESCAL pre-conference seminar on Strengthening Information Literacy Interventions, December 2010

While many major universities in Africa enjoy access to as much as 80% of top journals in most subject areas, this increase has not brought with it corresponding improvements in the quality and relevance of materials used by academics, students, and researchers. 

This can, in part, be put down to technological barriers such as poor connectivity, limited bandwidth, and lack of equipment; problems which will persist well into the future, despite expected improvements throughout Africa in coming years. However, even if these problems are resolved, it is a lack of skills in searching, retrieving, and evaluating information that will form the largest gulf separating researchers from the information they most need.

Information literacy strategies to help African academics and students make the more of research

In early December, IDS and the Information and Training Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA) brought together a diverse array of people involved in information literacy programmes at a pre-conference seminar of the Standing Conference of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa Library and Information Associations (SCESCAL) in Botswana. Entitled "Strengthening Information Literacy Interventions: Using Creative Approaches to Teaching and Learning," this event provided a forum for librarians, academics, researchers, students, and administrators to learn from each others' work and to begin to develop some common approaches drawing on the lessons learned from this sharing.

The event was facilitated by Dr. Mark Hepworth, Professor of Information Literacy at the University of Loughborough, and included presentations by representatives of IDS, ITOCA, the International Network for the Availablity of Scientific Publications (INASP), the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the University of Pretoria, the University of Zimbabwe, the University of Malawi, and the University of Zambia. These presentations were followed by a workshop session in which participants came up with solutions to the various challenges that they faced in developing and implementing information literacy programmes.

The role of libraries in building information literacy capacity 

One theme that emerged in these presentations and discussions concerned the role of the libraries in their institutions. Among librarians it is a well-known fact that the strongest information skills within higher education and research institutes are usually to be found in the libraries. A refrain commonly heard in the workshop was that even among professional researchers, information skills for finding and using the most recent and relevant material available are often inadequate. Furthermore, the importance of information literacy to the quality of research and education that an institution delivers is often not fully appreciated by decision-makers within them.

Good programmes alone are not enough: embedding information literacy

As a result, an important strategic focus to emerge from this event was that of embedding efforts within institutions. This means ensuring that information literacy initiatives are fully integrated with broader institutional strategies, and that they have the buy-in and support of higher-level administrators.

Deputy Director of Library Services at the University of Botswana, Babakisi Fidzani, explained that the success to date of information literacy programmes at her university has been due to the extent to which these programmes were developed together with faculty, the library, and senior administrators, under the broad vision of creating excellence in teaching, learning, and research. "Good programmes alone aren't enough," she said. "The university needed to see information literacy as part of the excellence they were seeking in order for the programmes to take root and produce results."

Similarly, Dr. Akakandelwa of the University of Zambia said that for years, beginning when he was working in secondary schools in Zambia, he felt like he was "a lonely voice advocating for information literacy," but that now the University is in the early stages of creating an information literacy centre that would cut across disciplines.

A year of information literacy programme development at IDS

For IDS, this event marks the end of a year of programme development on information literacy spearheaded by the British Library for Development Studies. During the course of this year, IDS Information Literacy Programme Manager, Siobhan Duvigneau, has worked closely with ITOCA and a range of stakeholders in African institutions to develop a series of courses, materials, and strategies to strengthen information literacy skills.

According to Ms. Duvigneau, the barriers to finding good information are not those that people generally assume. "With big search engines such as Google being used so widely, it might seem that searching has become easier," she says, "but in fact people are finding themselves overwhelmed with too many search tools and too much untargeted information."

IDS and its partners are developing approaches that help adults learn information skills quickly and in settings where poor connectivity and power outages threaten to derail courses on these skills. This work has included looking at strategies for integrating information literacy into broader institutional strategies.

The event was an opportunity to share the results of these efforts and to further strengthen them in collaborative work in the future. As Gracian Chimwaza, ITOCA's Executive Director, put it, "in the end, it's all about how people can use information to improve lives. With this conference, we have laid the foundation for a network of like-minded organizations throughout Africa to work together to help put knowledge to good use."