I recently attended a very interesting and thought-provoking course on learning theory, the aim being to gain ideas about how best to put across information to members of my organisation enrolled on information skills courses.

Long story short – it appears that the term information “skills” is something of a no no. As you may have gathered by the quote marks, it’s the “skills” bit that’s the problem. According to the course leader this could imply a set of predefined processes that a “student” may assume is the only way to approach a problem and that all information inquiries (in this case) can be solved by following the same set routines. “Skills” is therefore giving my “students” an unrealistic expectation about what they should be taking from/what they will get out of my courses.

The problem that I have with this is pitching it to my target audience. I have resisted using the industry terminology “information literacy” because, in my opinion, the inclusion of the term “literacy” will give the impression that I am condescending towards this audience who are almost certainly unaware of its use in this context.

My aim is not to give the impression that every information need can be fulfilled by the same routine set of processes, and nor do I think the title “information skills” imply this.  My aim is to raise awareness of techniques that can be used in searching for information in online or real-world environments.  For example, the use of truncation and wildcards in search engine queries, or even the simplest things like the use of synonyms (which can easily be applied to both Web/database searching practice, and searching the index of a book).  I want to equip those who participate in my courses with some “tools” that will make them more effective searchers, more “skilled” searchers. However, in order to do this I have to get people to come first!  They won’t come if they don’t feel they will be getting anything practical from it, and woolley terminology like “problem solving” simply won’ cut it with my target audience I’m afraid.

So, the dilemma is one of semantics versus the “greater good” – namely encouraging as many of my target audience as possible to think more carefully about information searching and retrieval, and resource evaluation when conducting their enquiries.  Narrow-minded though this may seem, the success of these courses is far more important to my organisation than the relative merits of the terminology, so for now I will set the semantics to one side and concentrate on the content.  I fully appreciate the arguments of the course leader, and I accept that in the field of academia “information skills” may be divorced from the “reality” of the learning experience provided, but in the real, my real world the semantics aren’t the issue – the results are.  As long as those attending the courses take away more than they came with, and find the work we do on the day useful, I’ll be a happy bunny! 😉

I should say that the rest of the course that I attended was very useful indeed, and I gained a lot of useful ideas about how to approach a subject in ways that would benefit all types of learners and people at various stages of understanding and development… but that’s one for another post – watch this space!

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