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Service-Learning and Information Literacy: Right Time, Right Place

Posted on Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Let me begin this guest post with a short introduction.  My name is Chris Sweet and I am the Information Literacy Librarian at Illinois Wesleyan University (Central Illinois). I had been following Maureen's blog as well as her publications for some time prior to meeting her in-person at this year's LOEX Conference in Columbus, OH. Both of us have discovered a real passion for service-learning and have seen first-hand how adding information literacy elements to service-learning courses can create even stronger and more effective classes. I want to thank Maureen for allowing me to share some of my thoughts regarding service-learning and information literacy here. This year at the LOEX conference I gave a presentation entitled: "The Role of Information Literacy in Service Learning Courses: A Case Study and Best Practices."  My powerpoint slides from the presentation are available here and the handout here.  The gist of my argument (which will be more fleshed-out in a forthcoming book chapter) is that strong synergies can be created by combining information literacy and service-learning.  True service-learning courses always have some sort of reflective / contextual component.  Students need to understand the "why" behind their service to create a more meaningful experience. For example, if students in a service-learning course help adults in a community ESL learn English that is certainly a great thing. To move beyond mere volunteerism though, those students could research statistics regarding local employment rates for those who can't speak English versus those with bilingual skills. They could also research local immigration trends to understand how many people are migrating to their local community and where they are coming from. Doing this sort of contextual research obviously requires basic information literacy skills. Teaching information literacy through service-learning has been the most successful approach that I've encountered.  I think the reasons for this are simple.  In a service-learning course students are researching to address some tangible, immediate problem in their local community.  This is information literacy as it plays out in the "real world." Moreover, students get the connection as evidenced by these statements from the course evaluations for the service-learning course I co-taught:  “I learned that it is quite enjoyable researching a topic you’re passionate about. This was my first opportunity to do so in such depth. I also learned what a difference one person can make in making something happen.” Another student  wrote: “I am proud that I actually did something meaningful instead of another seemingly pointless class project.” My subtitle for this post is "Right Time, Right Place."  I honestly believe that service-learning can solve some of the big problems facing American Higher Education. Our big land grant universities were founded on the concept of educating students to become effective citizens who would improve their communities.  Over time, higher education has drifted from this civic mission, but there have been many high-profile calls for a return to civic engagement such as the Wingspread Declaration on the Civic Responsibilities of Research Universities.  Service-learning courses make learning practical and relevant for students, but they also re-engage the institution with the local community. I've had far more interest and follow-up responses to my LOEX presentation than all my other scholarship combined.  Due to the interest in the conference presentation I was asked to give a follow-up virtual presentation.  I've answered a bunch of e-mails regarding librarians reaching out to those teaching service-learning courses at their institutions. I did a conference call a few days after LOEX with an instruction librarian who's director was meeting with the entire service-learning department in a few days.  The service-learning movement is quickly gaining steam.  Integrating information literacy into these courses will only make them stronger and more pedagogically sound. Librarians need to do more than just talk to each other about these issues.  We need to reach out to disciplinary faculty at their own conferences and make our case to our academic administrators.  It's the right time and place and it would be a shame if academic libraries missed this great opportunity to show that information literacy is truly a practical skill that is critical to lifelong learning.