April 24, 2018

What PIL Teaches Us About Lifelong Learning | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterAny day that sees another Project Information Literacy (PIL) report published is a red-letter day for librarians and anyone else interested in information literacy as an intrinsic part of liberal learning. That is to say, it’s valuable for faculty in all disciplines, even those for whom “information literacy” isn’t part of their common vocabulary. It’s equally valuable for anyone with an interest in education policy who wonders how we can make education valuable not just for workforce development or for personal enrichment but for society as a whole.

The latest bulletin, a preliminary report in a two-year IMLS-supported Lifelong Learning Study, describes trends discerned through interviews with 65 graduates of ten colleges and universities in the US. The next step will be designing a survey to be distributed to 75,000 recent grads using questions teased out of the interviews, providing us with the bigger picture.

The interview findings are fascinating. These recent graduates (subjects who completed their undergraduate education between 2007 and 2012) draw on the dispositions and skills they acquired in college, particularly critical thinking, their capacity to seek out, sort through, and evaluate information, and to confirm findings by comparing sources and looking for patterns. Though college students in previous PIL research didn’t think much of blogs, they seem much more likely to use them post-graduation (for reasons we’ll consider in a minute).

Many of the interview subjects sought out learning opportunities, either through formal certificates or graduate education or through more informal means: enrolling in MOOCs or looking for websites and YouTube videos that teach the skills they want to develop. These skills seem largely to relate to enhancing their digital fluency. Graphic design, data visualization, and learning to code are all mentioned in the report. They also were recognizing the social nature of information and the fact that “finding sources to solve a problem” is less important than “finding ways to keep up.” They were beginning to build networks of people and resources that could help them continually learn new things, both for work and for personal and civic purposes.

The idea that scholarship is a conversation, something that the new Information Literacy Framework draft highlights, is a metaphor that seems powerful for working with undergraduates, particularly in the context of their majors as they do more advanced research in upper-division courses. But so far I’ve been unable to persuade students in a course I teach that it’s worth their time to develop methods to stay on top of issues that interest them. RSS feeds seem lame. Twitter too frivolous and distracting. Students tell me that they wouldn’t ever consider a blog post suitable for their academic research projects, even if the blogger is an academic. Next time I teach that course, which mostly enrolls seniors, I think I’ll develop a culminating “create a network” assignment instead, focused on people and how they interact rather than “hey, this technology can be used to . . .” which just isn’t winning them over at all.

Another finding of this new PIL report that will, perhaps, be unsurprising to librarians: the college learning that mattered most to these graduates didn’t align specifically with their major. Whatever their major was, the learning that stuck came through doing things, both extracurricular projects and challenging academic assignments such as a senior thesis or a capstone experience. As frustrated as I often am by the way some students approach research assignments, as something to get out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible with no more than the specified number of sources selected more or less at random, this confirms what other studies have repeatedly shown: that the learning that comes from creating things transfers even if content knowledge doesn’t.

For faculty in the disciplines, balancing the need to have enough of a knowledgebase to ask a good question against the need for assignments that are time-intensive and unpredictable is always hard. But if learning that “sticks” is the object—if we are not simply learning a subject but learning a way to approach life with curiosity and the sense of personal agency—then this report is one more reason to make room in the syllabus for doing things with information, even if less content is covered. Discovering trumps covering when it comes to preparing for continued learning after graduation.

One of the things I appreciate about Alison Head, PIL’s principle investigator and perpetual-motion energy source, is that she’s making the results of the project available as it proceeds and without putting it behind paywalls. The standard approach scholars have taken in the past (and which most continue to follow) has been to establish a research agenda, present findings at conferences, publish articles in academic journals or edited books read only by those academics who have access to them, and perhaps, if they are in the humanities or social sciences, publish an in-depth analysis in the form of a book that might have a print run of 300 copies if it can find a publisher at all. That’s a waste—not just of the researcher’s time and effort, but of knowledge itself. Research that can be shared with a click has much greater potential for impact.

This, of course, matters for lifelong learning if that’s our goal. Most of the research we urge our students to use requires privileged access most people don’t have and which the students themselves will lose upon graduation. Many of those with privilege still won’t have access, so research often travels through a secret underground network of personal contacts, a sort of human torrent. Has anyone come up with a credible estimate of the percentage of scholarly literature that is disseminated that way? I don’t know how you would measure it, but my guess is it’s very large, indeed, and much of it is contrary to the copyright owners’, though not the authors’, terms of use.

I suspect on my campus, which has a very efficient and effective interlibrary loan service that typically delivers articles within 24 hours, dissemination through these underground networks dwarfs our ILL stats when it comes to faculty requests. It’s so common it’s likely becoming the norm—even as many of those who do the research and share it fail to connect the dots and continue to cooperate with the mass incarceration of research. No wonder blogs seem suddenly valuable. The idea that information is considered valuable only if it is sentenced to life in a prestigious prison simply doesn’t work outside of college. It also works against our students understanding the social life of knowledge. Socializing beyond prison walls is complicated when you’re in the joint unless you’re solidly connected with a kingpin. (Okay, I’ll stop with this metaphor before things get out of hand.)

One might also connect these dots when it comes to the political economy of higher education today. As faculty are pushed to produce evidence of productivity and fewer have steady jobs and students are asked to foot the bill for something we once considered a public good, it’s easier for policy-makers to argue for the mass production of courses and degrees. Learning how to do things in an apprentice mode doesn’t scale easily. When we scale up to “deliver” education, as if it’s a pair of shoes, the kind of learning that sticks probably won’t be on the syllabus, because it’s considered a luxury good for those who can afford it—the children of policy-makers, for example.

The good news in this report is that the students we and faculty in other disciplines teach are learning something valuable through our information literacy efforts. While we can do more to make this kind of learning effective, Alison Head is doing a great deal to make a case for it with her incredibly useful and carefully-designed research.  We all owe her and her hardworking volunteers a huge debt of gratitude. Pay it forward. Share this report.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.


  1. Very thoughtful article–one that not only should make us think about lifelong learning, personal learning networks, and how blogs and other resources fit into our learning landscape, but should also inspire us to take actions that more positively support the roles we play in fostering effective lifelong learning for those we serve–and for ourselves. Looking forward to reading the full report.

    • Thanks – and I, too, look forward to final report. I’m so glad this project is tackling the most interesting questions on such a large scales. There’s nothing else like it, and it’s so valuable.

      If grant funding ever runs out before Alison Head’s curiosity and energy to pursue these questions, I think academic libraries should pass the hat to fund this research, which benefits us all.

  2. Yes, conversation or dialogue or networking – they all point to someone engaged and invested in a knowledge area. We need to reflect to learn, we need to dialogue to challenge, and we need to share to be remain motivated. I hope PIL continues its role as facilitator toward greater understanding of learning and teaching.

  3. Excellent post. I used to be checking constantly this weblog and I’m impressed!
    Very useful information particularly the final section :) I deal with such information a lot.
    I used to be seeking this particular information for a long time.
    Thanks and good luck.