Them or us? Ethical considerations when reviewing Information Literacy provision

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I have recently acquired the word ‘assessment’ in my job title. A relatively strong and seemingly rigid word (I would often rather talk about ‘evaluation’ – more on similar semantics later!) but commonplace and usually understood in the library world, particularly amongst our US counterparts. ‘Assessment’ = ‘measurement’, assessing a service = evaluating that service. Simple, right? For me at least, not quite so simple when it comes to our teaching and information literacy provision. Suddenly, assessing our work as librarians and our provision is linked to assessing them as students. In the front of my mind, working within one of the oldest ‘assessment’ (in the formal, capital A, exams-type assessment sense) institutions in the world, this becomes slightly scary! In the back of my mind, I know that we absolutely should be assessing and evaluating our information literacy practices and provision, in order to continuously improve and to ensure that we are providing the best possible experience for our students.

CILN is now over two years old and thoughts are naturally moving towards gathering data and evidence to demonstrate the value it provides for Cambridge students. At the same time, we are thinking about how to continue to measure the awareness of CILN amongst academic and administrative staff at our University, as these channels are vital in ensuring that CILN has University-level engagement and impact. Within individual libraries at Cambridge, the work of CILN has supported librarians in focusing on evaluating and revising their teaching and training provision, with the aim of providing the best possible offering for their students and other users. These varied aspects of evaluation require very different tools and approaches, with related ethical considerations.

Some of the areas outlined above can be measured with little to no involvement from students (and therefore relatively little risk and ethical concern) through exercises such as desktop research. If we are thinking about assessing the extent to which CILN is engaged at a University-wide level, this could be achieved through, for example:

  • Analysis of key University of Cambridge teaching and learning-focused websites, to measure the extent to which CILN is promoted and that CILN outputs such as CamGuides are referred and linked to.
  • Assessing the extent to which CILN is represented at formal University committees related to teaching and learning.

Quite rightly, it is when we start to think about our students that we start to be more concerned about the ethics involved. Although not working in formal pastoral roles, we have a moral duty of care to our students and are aware of the importance of libraries being safe ‘spaces’, in the widest sense. Nevertheless, we still need to evaluate to improve. Although we should reflect on and consider the ethical implications of any evaluation or research we are planning to undertake, particularly with student participants, we should also not let this unnecessarily hinder our efforts to improve what we do.

As a first step in this area I have made some brief guidelines related to ethics in research and assessment, as well as template documents that can be adapted for local instances of information literacy evaluation, available at the CILN website in the ‘Evaluation and assessment’ folder

Click here to access the CILN website

It should be stressed that these are general guidelines only; local arrangements with and commitments to colleges, departments and faculties, for example, will mean that approaches to conducting this type of work will vary depending on circumstance.

Being asked to write this blog post now was timely, as it provides an opportunity to promote the recently-established Cambridge Higher Education Studies Research Ethics Committee (CHESREC). Formally approved by the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC), CHESREC includes membership from CILN (in the form of Meg Westbury and myself), as well as from other ‘non-school institutions’ such as the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) and the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning (CCTL). It is chaired by Ruth Walker of CCTL. CHESREC provides a first port of call for staff without an immediate academic school-based route to ethical review (read, many of us at the libraries!) to seek ethical review for any ‘educational research’ they are undertaking. CHESREC are able to review and approve those proposals and to escalate any non-low risk proposals to UREC.

Click here to access the CHESREC ethics review and guidance pages

One thing I still struggle with is what constitutes ‘service evaluation’ and what constitutes ‘research’ (I said there would be more semantics!). This (again, depending on local context) has implications related to whether formal ethical review should be sought. Unfortunately, our first Committee meeting proved that I am not alone in my confusion! Luckily, Ruth at CCTL has done sterling work outlining some of the differences and what this might mean in practice – find this at the ‘Research and/or Evaluation’ link at the left of the pages linked above this paragraph.

The main message from me (at least for now) is that we should be reflective about the ethics of ALL of our practices – research, evaluation or otherwise, but that we should not let this hinder us continuing to do new and great things!

David Marshall

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