Closing the College Readiness Gap

"Mind the gap" sign on a Hong Kong MTR train

The following is an excerpt from a post last week in Campus Technology, reporting on the results of a set of recent surveys of university faculty and employers on college and career readiness:

Neither university faculty nor employers believe that American public high schools are preparing students for the expectations they’ll face in college and career. In fact, compared to 2004, the assessment is even more dismal… Part of the challenge, say students themselves, is that their high schools don’t set academic expectations high enough. Fifty-four percent said that they were only “somewhat challenged”; 20 percent said it was “easy to slide by.”

The area which professors found the most students with no preparation at all was in conducting research. Having worked in higher education, I don’t find this surprising. In fact, when I was working at a community college, many of the entering freshmen had not been required to write a single research paper during high school. Those students with research paper experience had typically taken the AP or Honors track in high school (go figure).

This is a big problem because conducting research is an excellent way to build skills in the other areas that professors found lacking in the survey, including critical thinking, writing, and comprehending complex materials.

The solution? In addition to setting higher expectations for ALL students (Common Core does attempt to do this by including research standards in the writing strand), it’s time for the powers that be to start recognizing the importance of librarians in the college preparedness process. The good news is that some progress is being made in that direction with the recent Reed-Cochran Amendment. The bad news is that the college readiness gap will not begin to truly close until we have a more cohesive transition from secondary school to college.

One part of that transition is the new ACRL Information Literacy Framework, which was informed by the AASL Learning Standards. So it would behoove college librarians to become familiar with the AASL standards and to learn about the issues and barriers that their K-12 colleagues are facing in getting the standards implemented. Middle and high school librarians should also familiarize themselves with the new ACRL Framework to become better informed on what information literacy looks likes at the college level. Most importantly, as individual groups, both school and college librarians have unique sets of knowledge that would be beneficial to share with each other. For example, school librarians have the kind of pedagogical training in collaboration that college librarians need, and college librarians can provide school librarians with insight into the kinds of resources and research assignments that incoming freshmen are expected to complete.

Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

Today, I am going to dig into the concept of communities of practices and what that means for libraries within the context of the new framework for information literacy.

First, consider the following statements:

Information literacy is a social practice.

Information literacy is situational.

The perspective of literacy as a social practice is a way to explain multiple literacies. It also reflects the current understanding of literacy in general.

What does that mean for information literacy? It means that the way we value, interact and create information is driven by the accepted practices of the community in which we belong.

We belong to many communities, meaning that information literacy is also situational. Therefore, we practice information literacy in a lot of different ways — the way we practice it in informal communities (e.g. home environment) is different than the way we practice it in formal communities (e.g. school).

The new framework attempts to define the expectations (knowledge practices) of how information literacy should be practiced within scholarly communities, emphasis on the plural.

Okay, so what are communities of practice?

 “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger-Trayner, n.d.)

Examples of communities of practice at a university:

  • a Comp I class learning the practices of college writing
  • a forensics team honing its debate skills
  • a cohort of pre-service teachers
  • faculty with shared teaching or research interests

Those are just a few examples of the communities of practice found within higher education.

Under the new framework then, one goal of librarians will be to facilitate the development of information literacy knowledge practices within selected communities of practice (e.g. Comp I class). To some extent, this is already being done with current information literacy programs.

Another goal will be to help students transfer their information literacy knowledge practices across communities of practices throughout their academic careers. This is trickier because information literacy is situational, so it looks a bit different within each community (i.e. history vs. science vs. philosophy) even if its practices share common characteristics. This goal can be met through the library. Or more appropriately, the learning commons.

With the new framework, I see the library or learning commons serving as the web that supports the many communities of practice within an academic institution. The librarian’s job will become more important than ever. The library itself will become a sort of meta-community of practice (the mother ship, so to speak), nurturing the information literacy knowledge practices of all sorts of scholarly communities of practice within its physical and virtual walls.

Sounds pretty awesome, right?

So, how can it be done? Here are a couple of strategies:

Cognitive apprenticeship for one, with the librarian as expert and student as novice. And embedded libraries (not just librarians). I’ve written about these ideas before: