Engaging the learner: Embedding information literacy skills into a biotechnology degree

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  • Biotechnology Education

    Engaging the Learner: Embedding Information LiteracySkills into a Biotechnology Degree

    Received for publication, April 25, 2007

    Helena Ward and Julie Hockey

    From the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, University of South Australia, South Australia, Australiaand Academic Library Services, Division of Business, University of South Australia, South Australia, Australia

    One of the challenges of the Biotechnology industry is keeping up to date with the rapid pace of changeand that much of the information, which students learn in their undergraduate studies, will be out ofdate in a few years. It is therefore crucial that Biotechnology students have the skills to access the rele-vant information for their studies and critically evaluate the vast volume of information and its sources.By developing information literacy skills, which are part of lifelong learning, Biotechnology graduates arebetter prepared for their careers. Students also need to understand the issues related to the use of infor-mation such as social, political, ethical, and legal implications. This paper will outline the embedding ofinformation literacy skills within the Biotechnology degree at the University of South Australia. Examplesof specic activities and their link to assessment will be discussed.

    Keywords: Information literacy, biotechnology education, lifelong learning, learning outcomes, collaborativelearning.

    This article describes a project undertaken to embed thedevelopment of information literacy into the three yearBachelor of Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnologydegree at the University of South Australia (UniSA). It was acollaborative project between the authors, an academic andliaison librarian. Information literacy encompasses the abilityto locate, retrieve, evaluate, manage, and use informationeffectively and efciently. These skills are required to suc-ceed academically and are transferable to the workplaceand across the lifespan. The project followed a review of thedegree which revealed a lack of developmental informationskills across the curriculum. The project was planned, devel-oped, and implemented using The Australian and NewZealand Information Literacy Framework: principles, stand-ards and practice, 2nd ed. The Framework has been adaptedfrom the (US) Association of College and Research LibrariesInformation literacy competency standards for higher educa-tion. The Framework provides standards and learning out-comes that can be used to shape information literacy educa-tion [1]. Over 30 Australian universities are using the Frame-work in varying degrees to facilitate the development ofinformation literacy skills across academic degrees. Invaria-bly, the key to success has been when curriculum develop-ers, study advisers, and librarians work collaboratively.


    The modern biotechnology industry began in 1976with the formation of Genentech by Robert Swanson and

    Herbert Boyer in the US [2]. It has now developed into aglobal industry, which is worth more than US$41 billionand includes over 4,000 biotechnology and associatedcompanies [3]. One of the challenges in this rapidly grow-ing industry is being able to keep up to date with the everincreasing volume of information and knowing how toaccess the appropriate information. The major informationsources include articles published in peer reviewed journalsand patents. As an example of the growth in biotechnologyinformation, the number of biotechnology patents publishedincreased from 2,160 in 1989 to 7,763 in 2002 [3].It is crucial that biotechnology students are able to

    access the relevant information for their studies and cancritically evaluate information and its sources. Informationliteracy is part of lifelong learning and prepares biotechnol-ogy graduates for their careers. For example, the past dec-ade has seen an explosion of information in the form of theHuman Genome Project as well as new techniques such asmicro-array analysis and real-time polymerase chain reac-tion. Students therefore need to develop information liter-acy skills to access, evaluate, and manage the vast volumeof information and apply it to their studies and later on totheir professional life whether it be a career in research or inthe commercial sector of biotechnology. They need to beable to use information effectively to create new knowl-edge, solve problems, make decisions and understandsocial, political, ethical, and legal issues. Thus, they needto be able to demonstrate that they are information literate.


    The curricula in many Australian universities are de-signed around a series of graduate qualities or attributes,

    }To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:helena.ward@unisa.edu.au.

    DOI 10.1002/bambed.79 This paper is available on line at http://www.bambed.org374

    Q 2007 by The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY EDUCATIONVol. 35, No. 5, pp. 374380, 2007

  • such as lifelong learning. These generic attributes arebecoming a common prerequisite to graduation frommany universities and collaboration between professionalstaff such as academics and librarians plays a crucialrole in allowing for their development. UniSAs teachingand learning strategy is based around the concepts ofstudent centered learning, graduate qualities, and exibledelivery. At UniSA these graduate qualities are embed-ded in the curriculum development of all programs withthe objective of developing in students a unique set ofattributes that employers look for. These are the ability tobecome effective problem solvers and excellent commu-nicators, knowledgeable individuals who can work col-laboratively and autonomously, and employees with aninternational perspective and a commitment to ethicalaction and lifelong learning. Information literacy is thus akey component of lifelong learning [4].Information literacy needs to be owned by all educa-

    tors [5]. One of the reasons for this is the changes occur-ring in the higher education sector. Higher education inAustralia has undergone major changes in its educationalsystems and structures partly due to the shift from elite tomass participation in education, the merger, and amalga-mation of institutions, changing funding relationships andexternal involvement in the policies and practices of insti-tutions [6]. Increasingly the role of the academic library isbeing re-examined in this context. There are a number ofmajor factors, which will impact on how information liter-acy is advanced within the higher education sector inAustralia. These include the use of information and com-munications technology, accountability and performancemeasurement, the scholarship of teaching and educa-tional imperatives such as the diversity of the studentpopulation and emphasis on generic capabilities [7].The authors believe that the skills and concepts associ-

    ated with information literacy should be an integral part ofthe curriculum, not isolated from it. By embedding theseinto an academic degree, students are developing skillsby engaging with the curriculum. This should be done atthe curriculum level, encompassing the objectives, learn-ing outcomes, and assessment tasks. The QueenslandUniversity of Technology (QUT) Library has developed aseries of tools (QUT Information Literacy Framework andSyllabus ILF&S)) to assist in the development of informa-tion literacy initiatives, which are based around learningoutcomes, curriculum development, and assessment [8].The authors used these tools to assist in this project.


    The rationale for this project followed a review of thedegree, which highlighted a lack of information literacyrelated activities and resources across the entire curricu-lum. Although a communication subject was run in therst year of the degree (and there were information liter-acy components included) this subject was common tothree other degrees. This meant that the support devel-oped or intervention was generic. The authors interpre-tation of intervention in the context of this paper is thedevelopment of resources (such as learning activities,assessment tasks, online help, and case studies) to sup-

    port delivery and evaluation of curriculum pertaining toinformation literacy.There was also no other support developed across the

    degree and this was evident in the general quality of stu-dents assignments, which reected poor use and under-standing of the scientic literature. The decision wasmade to set up a separate rst year biotechnology com-munication course, which encompassed communicationskills and professional issues of direct relevance to thatprofession.The UniSA Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology

    degree is assessed via a mix of exams, laboratory tasks,written assignments and reports, online discussion,group and individual oral presentations, and participation.For this project we focused on those subjects with ahigh component of written assignments and reports thatrequired literature searching. We also identied somesubjects with less emphasis on written assignments thatwould also benet from intervention but these were out-side the scope of this project.The aim of this project was to embed incremental skill

    development within the identied subjects across thedegree. This was to be achieved via different modes ofdelivery such as face to face and online workshops,lectures and self paced generic modules to allow for var-ied learning styles. By linking the development of informa-tion literacy skills to assessment tasks, the learning pro-cess was seamless and was placed within the context ofwhat students were learning. Though these skills werelearnt from completing specic assignments they couldthen be applied to other subjects, where there was nodirect intervention. However, sometimes skills needed tobe reinforced or revised, but at a different intensity andwithin a framework of reection and evaluation. For exam-ple, it was preferable to offer support for those complexassignments where students were expected to writepapers based on comprehensive literature searches. Otherminor assignments did not require such in depth supportprovided students applied the skills they learnt from previ-ous tasks. In cases such as these it required reinforcingthe level of skills required to complete the task.


    The process involved a number of distinct stages andused the tools developed by the QUT Library to assist inmapping learning outcomes.The three year degree was examined against the infor-

    mation literacy framework to determine the expectedgeneric level of prociency required to perform any giventask for each year of the degree (Table I). The prociencylevels as dened by QUT are elementary, procient, andadvanced (Table II). The natural progression is from ele-mentary to advanced; however, there will be some skillsnot required for particular tasks and occasions when thestudent is not expected to develop beyond elementaryor procient. For example, academic staff expected thatfor the Information Literacy outcome construction andimplementation of effective search strategies studentswould need to develop skills from elementary in year onethrough to procient in year two and advanced by year


  • three. However, students would not be expected to de-velop beyond procient for the information literacy out-come of uses diverse sources of information to inform

    decisions (Table I). These were decisions made by theacademics based on their expectations of students skilldevelopment.

    TABLE IMapping of the biotechnology degree

    Standard Outcomes Acquisition


    The information literate person: Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Consequential

    No. Attitudinal

    1 The information literateperson recognises

    the need forinformation and determines

    the nature andextent of the

    information needed.

    1.1 Denes and articulates the need for information Developmental

    1.2 Understands the purpose, scope andappropriateness of a variety of information


    1.3 Re-evaluates the nature andextent of the information need


    1.4 Uses diverse sources of information to inform decisions Consequential

    2 The informationliterate personnds needed

    information effectivelyand efciently.

    2.1 Selects the most appropriate methods ortools for nding information


    2.2 Constructs and implements effective search strategies Developmental

    2.3 Retrieves information using a variety of methods Developmental

    The table shows an example of the IL mapping process for the three year UniSA Biotechnology Degree. Each IL Standard (column 1) hasa number of Outcomes (column 2). The prociency levels and acquisition types needed for the various IL outcomes were mapped by theauthors. The horizontal hatching represents an Elementary level, the black sections Procient, and the vertical hatching Advanced (asshown in the key below). Column 4 shows the acquisition level, which describes the type of intervention used to achieve the prociencylevel (the acquisition levels are described in more detail in Table II). The acquisition level for each outcome was determined and thiswas used to design the type of intervention. Adapted from Queensland University of Technology, QUT Information literacy framework andsyllabus [9].

    TABLE IIProciency levels and acquisitions types [9, 10]

    Prociency Levels

    Elementary The student has a basic understanding of the concepts associated withthis task and can perform most of the relevant skills with little or no guidance.

    Procient The student understands all of the concepts associated with this task,can demonstrate mastery of all the relevant skills, and apply them with no guidance.

    Advanced The student exhibits a thorough understanding of all the concepts associatedwith this task, understands the contexts within which they apply, and can performall relevant skills independently and at the highest level across a range of contexts

    Acquisition typesDevelopmental Task-specic skills requiring direct and planned interventionConsequential Secondary-level skills learnt as a result, or consequence, of direct and planned interventionAttitudinal Knowledge and concepts which underpin task-specic and secondary skills

    development that develop over time and with experience

    This table forms part of the QUT IL mapping tools as described in the text. These were used in the UniSA mapping project.

    376 BAMBED, Vol. 35, No. 5, pp. 374380, 2007

  • The next stage of the process involved examining thedegree at the subject level. Subjects were identied acrossthe degree where the assessment required students tolocate information such as written assignments, case stud-ies, and industry proles. We then determined whether ornot intervention was required for these subjects.Assignments from four subjects were checked against

    the Information Literacy standards to determine whetherthe outcomes associated with each standard wererequired for it to be completed successfully. For exam-ple, one of the outcomes is the abi...


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