Alison Head interviewed by Library Journal's Steven Bell

The more academic librarians learn about student research behavior and the role faculty play in shaping it, the better equipped they are to adapt their information literacy initiatives to achieve designated student learning outcomes. The impact of Project Information Literacy (PIL) in helping academic librarians through the provision of research findings about our students and faculty in the context of information literacy cannot be overstated.

Since 2009, six PIL reports have shed much light, through a mix of surveys, content analysis, focus groups, and interviews. The good news is that PIL recently received, by way of an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, a new extension of funding that will allow for more research and new reports—all good for academic librarianship. In a recent interview with Alison Head, who is currently executive director of PIL and has been with the organization since it began, I was able to find out what’s happening with PIL now, and to what we can look forward.

Steven Bell: Hi, Alison. Can we start with having you share your thoughts about what PIL has meant for academic librarians and their information literacy efforts. In other words, why do you want to keep PIL alive and well?

Alison Head: Thanks, Steven, I’m happy to talk about PIL and the research we’ve conducted, and explain why I think it matters to information literacy efforts everywhere. The short answer? PIL matters because it’s a national research study across US colleges and universities that gives a voice to today’s students. Our research reports explain how students find, evaluate, and use information—the sources they choose and rely on and the reasons why—whether they are conducting research for courses or for use in their everyday lives. We tell this story through students’ accounts and, often, in their words.
Academic librarians have often told me PIL’s value is that we identify revealing gaps existing between today’s college students, librarians, and educators. For instance, in several of our studies, we found a gap between the incredibly rich information sources libraries make available to students and the sources that students actually use: a small set of familiar, tried-and-true resources, which infrequently includes librarians. It’s finding gaps like these that drive PIL’s reason for being. These gaps give librarians and educators a way to think about today’s college students and how they can best learn to become critical thinkers and better researchers.

How did PIL get started?

I led a forerunner study at St. Mary’s College of California in 2007, where I had taught for 10 years. We found some interesting results about how students there completed course research. I wanted to expand the study to see if the patterns I had first discovered at one college held up at other institutions. So, Mike Eisenberg (of Big6 fame) and I first discussed the idea of creating a PIL study back in 2007. We have similar backgrounds—we are both researchers, professors, and librarians (Mike is Dean Emeritus and a Professor at the Information School at the University of Washington). We both saw the need for a national, ongoing study. We set out to get the first-hand story from students about how they completed course research assignments and found information they needed in their daily lives. We are close colleagues and good friends and we are fascinated by college students today and their information literacy challenges. We both love learning what PIL studies tell us so we can discuss what the larger implications may be.

How’s PIL set up and who does what?

Mike and I co-directed PIL until June 2012. Then, I became the Executive Director of PIL, which is now a registered nonprofit. I am also a Research Scientist in the iSchool and a Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Our latest study, which began in December, is about lifelong learning. I am the PI and Mike is the Chairperson of our Lifelong Learning Advisory Board.

PIL is a totally grassroots organization. Some librarians are surprised to find out how small a team we are. One key to our success is our Volunteer Sample. We have librarians from 200 colleges and universities who have signed up with an interest in being in a PIL study. This gives us access to two million college students!

Another important key to our success is the PIL Research Team. These are diligent and hard working individuals (i.e., librarians and iSchool grad students) that choose to work on a PIL study. Sometimes they conduct interviews for a study. They often weigh in as we analyze and discuss data, too. They’re a smart crew and they bring a lot to our studies. The latest PIL study about freshmen had an incredible team of researchers, including Beth Black (Ohio State University), Laureen Cantwell (University of Memphis), Kirsten Hostetler (University of Washington’s Information School), Ann Roselle (Phoenix College), and Michele Van Hoeck (California Maritime Academy).

What is the idea behind the Passage Studies? How do you think this will help academic librarians involved in information literacy programs and research?

A few years ago, Mike and I were planning the large-scale 2010 survey about how students evaluate and use information. We were drinking lots of coffee when one of us blurted out, “But what happens the day after graduation?” It was a pretty intriguing question—worthy of a study of its own.

During 2011 and 2012, when I was a Fellow at the Berkman Center, PIL received funding for a Planning Study from IMLS. This gave us the ability to conduct our first Passage Study. We studied the “passage,” or more specifically, the critical information transition, college graduates go through and how they solved information problems once they joined the workplace. A big takeaway from the workplace study was the information competencies recent graduates said had value for them in the workplace (i.e., framing questions, evaluating sources, and finding published materials online).

Moreover, we found that employers, who we also interviewed as part of our study, found the recent graduates they hired lagged in the “social side of research.” By this, I mean exchanging results and working out solutions to information problems with co-workers. Instead, employers found, to their dismay, that recent college graduates had an instinct for instant information and often worked in solitude searching for the quickest answer they could find online.

It’s good stuff, especially for information literacy and instruction librarians assessing their impact on students. Importantly, these findings have implications for critical thinking and the information competencies students take with them from college. These are competencies that may get them hired and that librarians often teach.

Bring us up to date, what is the newest research PIL has released and what does it tell librarians?

Later this week, we are releasing another Passage Study report, this time about college freshmen, called How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College. Cengage Learning and the Information & Society Center in UW’s iSchool helped fund the study. Here’s a short preview video we produced about the study.

We studied the challenges today’s freshmen face, and the information strategies they use and adapt, as they make the passage from high school to college and begin to complete college-level research assignments. We collected data from high school and college librarians to do a comparative analysis of information resources in each setting. We also did an end-of-year survey with a national sample of high school and college students, with thanks to the post on the EasyBib site that linked to our survey. The centerpiece of the report is the in-depth interviews with first-term freshmen at six US colleges during fall 2012 (Belmont University; California Maritime Academy; Harvard; Mesa Community College; Ohio State University, Newark; and Santa Rosa Junior College).

Overall, we found a wide gap between the Google-centric search skills that many first-term freshmen brought with them from high school and the information competencies they needed to meet the far higher research expectations at college. We also found gaping holes in many freshmen’s understanding of how college libraries—and the vast array of digital resources they provided—could best meet their needs for finding the trusted sources they wanted. The instruction that freshmen received in their first months of college from librarians and English Composition instructors helped considerably, but it only got them so far. Many freshmen faced greater problems with scaling up their high school skills. We make recommendations for bringing freshmen up to speed early on in college, when we think the most gains may be made.

Can you offer an outlook at what we can expect next from PIL next?

The next two years will be exciting at PIL. We have just begun a large-scale, two-year IMLS-funded study about lifelong learning. It’s the Holy Grail of information literacy. In today’s world, most of us need to stay hyper-informed in order to engage in the civic life of our communities, stay employable and competitive in the workplace, and manage the myriad details of modern living. Librarians have long held that the more skilled people are at finding, evaluating, and applying information, the more empowered they will be as lifelong learners. However, today, pathways to and the uses of information have become far more complex.

We will study a sample of recent college graduates from six US colleges and universities to investigate their lifelong learning needs, use of information support systems, and best practices. Through work with our Lifelong Learning Advisory Board, which Mike Eisenberg will head up, we will make 10 recommendations for increasing lifelong learning opportunities in and beyond libraries that are feasible, practical, and affordable.

Thanks, Alison, for bringing the academic librarian community up-to-date on what’s happening at PIL. We will look forward to the new study and the one coming next with great anticipation. We are all in the debt of PIL for exposing so many new insights into our students’ research behavior—as well as recommendations and techniques we can put into our practice. There is no doubt PIL will continue as a leading source of research to advance the integration of information literacy in higher education.

Story published by Library Journal, Dec. 4, 2013.