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5 IL: Trust, Authority, Judgment, and Skills

5 IL: Trust, Authority, Judgment, and Skills

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Pathways into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

I mean, then I would use it. . .. (conversely) you could tell that it was somebody

had just. . . you like, well “I think”, and some of them do say “I think” blah blah.

I don’t want to know what they think, I want to know what the people who

actually talked about it think.

The student explicitly describes a strategy of selecting information on

the basis of a known authoritative named source and finding reactions to

that person’s views that are ultimately sourced within books, even if those

books are found via the Internet. The final sentence is interesting, revealing a sharp distinction between information from those sources who

merely voice opinions (somebody had just. . .I think) as opposed to information from those who are actively engaged in research in the area.

The following quote from a student illustrates several interesting

themes related to IL and students’ study-related activities. When asked

how she went about finding information, she replied:

I think that’s one of the main bits I kind of struggle with because I’m a totally, I

go off on tangent quite a lot and I can feel myself maybe looking at one thing

and then maybe jumping to look at a next thing but obviously I got the book

I’m just looking at psychology because that’s what I’ve applied to do next year,

obviously when I got the book I found that really helpful because I felt as if it

was like chapter by chapter so it was easy to see right this is the chapter I’m

looking at and you had your page that you had to look at so just look and

stay there instead of flicking through the next chapter and doing that so just

try and be strict with myself and just be like this is what I’m doing for the next

hour or the next hour and a half, this is what I’m looking at and I take a lot of

notes I seem to find it kind of goes in better even if I’m just re-writing what I’m

reading I feel it kind of sinks into my brain better than what it does just by

reading it so yes I basically just kind of rewrite and make smaller notes and

smaller notes so that I know, until I’m down to like basically bullet points to the

main things and then try and go off on that.

One issue that clearly troubles this student is the avoidance of digression, and for her, the book format has several virtues. Unlike a virtual

document containing hyperlinks, it has the appearance of being selfcontained, although, of course, the use of the bibliography or reference

sections could result in much more extended reading, and each chapter

or chapter section can be treated as such, allowing concentration of effort

on a more limited package of information and by implication deeper consideration. The possibility of digression appears to be presented as an issue

in self-control or the lack of it, e.g., “so just try and be strict with myself

and just be like this is what I’m doing for the next hour or the next hour

Toward a Community of Epistemological Practice


and a half.” There is clearly a degree of metacognitive awareness on the

part of this student (“I seem to find it kind of goes in better even if I’m

just re-writing what I’m reading. I feel it kind of sinks into my brain better than what it does just by reading it”) leading to a no doubt timeconsuming and laborious but very likely an effective strategy of creating

successively more abstract summaries of what has been read.

Students were also typically quite hazy about precisely how they made

quality judgments about information sources (“I think you just know”).

The sources used typically were textbooks recommended for the course,

and these were obtained via recommendations from their tutors, and this

is an example of a lecturer cueing the students’ practice. The students

report having sought advice on finding further materials from public

librarians and family members who had attended or were attending university, but not, interestingly, their peers on the course. This finding

appears to contrast with one of O’Donnell and Tobell’s, given that they

note the existence of informal study groups and information sharing

among their students.

In the case of our data, the responses of some students were suggestive

of such informal study group activities, but we did have evidence of other

individuals explicitly eschewing involvement in such groups. Unlike

O’Donnell and Tobell, therefore, we find a wide range of views on the

value of discussion. At one extreme is the lady who claims to engage in it

all the time. In the middle are those students who claim that it happened

for some disciplines rather than others, and moving toward the opposite

extreme are those who claim that it is only used to compare marks retrospectively. At the opposite extreme are those who explicitly say that they

don’t want to do it. For example:

If I’m having any difficulties, or there is a lack of clarity with something certainly

other than that, no, I like to just keep myself to myself and do the work as has

been prescribed by the lecturer. I will try and assist people if they have any problems with clarity or any problems with the knowledge or anything like that. I’ll

certainly help them if I know.

The above student arguably sees some value in discussing courserelated matters with other students but also exhibits a preference for

working alone (“I keep myself to myself ” being an oft-repeated cliche´

among this group). Interestingly, discussion is characterized as a means of

helping other students rather than obtaining help in understanding for

oneself. The next student acknowledges undertaking limited discussion


Pathways into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

with peers, albeit again with a degree of reluctance to engage in it being


. . . we more or less compare marks afterwards, and we get into discussion there.

Not so much, maybe other students (discuss issues) more so, but I tend to keep

myself to myself on the access course to be honest. I probably shouldn’t, but at

the end of a long day, I don’t feel like necessarily discussing things.

Another student notes the importance of a prior friendship when it

comes to peer discussion:

One of my good friends started along with me. She left just before we started

Psychology. She just didn’t want to do it anymore. There’s one woman who I

text and things just to discuss what’s happening and to find out how she’s getting on. But before I had my friend, but she’s gone.

The implication of the above comment seems to be that the student

now has fewer opportunities to discuss academic matters given that her

friend has discontinued the course; the possibility of actively engaging

with other students is not mentioned. The student below again claims

that peer discussion is limited largely to the comparison of marks following examinations or assignments:

I think it’s natural, it’s only natural obviously when an exam’s being handed in

or exam papers are being handed back to you or something so people to turn

round and say obviously what did you get, or you know what I mean or about

the subject did you find it hard, but to be honest, I think that would put me off

if I was to discuss it with other members of my course because, like I say, I need

to work at it myself, and it doesn’t come natural to me or what I feel anyway.

The quote from the student again underlines the desire for some students at least to remain anonymous and to not engage too much in dialogue about course-related matters:

I kind of liked the anonymity of it and just because I didn’t actually tell many

people when I started the course because I just wasn’t sure of my skills. I didn’t

know whether I would stick it out.

The final example comes from a student who clearly does see the

value in discussion with her classmates, albeit as a means of rehearsing

tentatively held ideas without facing the potential embarrassment of sharing them with the lecturer in front of the entire class:

I find that (discussion) more helpful because you might have an idea of something, but you are too scared to ask if it’s correct or not. . . you don’t want to

look silly, but if you are in a group of two or three, then it’s more secluded so

you can maybe say to them, one or two of them might share your view, but

then somebody might say that’s not correct, this is the way to do it.

Toward a Community of Epistemological Practice


As the last example above indicates, students often justify their claims

with recourse to emotion, typically fear of failure or of looking silly in

front of the lecturer or classmates. This is an interesting point in itself and

one that echoes Waller’s (2005b) work. Taking both O’Donnell and

Tobell’s (2007) observations and our own together, it is clear that there is

a diversity of views among the students around the issue of groupwork

and peer discussion. We will discuss this further as an aspect of the social

nature of the course and the student experience.

Another interesting overarching theme that emerged was authority,

which related to the students’ judgments about the trustworthiness of

sources but which also had implications for their reactions to particular

pedagogies as sources of and influences on practice. Evidently, students

bring an awareness of and facility for some academic practices (e.g., writing an essay, reading strategies). However, on joining the academic community, the student is then exposed to suggestions/cues from lecturers

that enable the students to review and improve their practice. For example, one student noted that she had a marked preference for attending lectures rather than taking part in peer discussion sessions on the grounds

that she would rather, as she put it, spend her time hearing the views of

an expert who knows his stuff rather than listening to the mere opinions

of another student. This view, which was far from unique within our

sample, very much suggests that these students typically subscribe to an

absolutist, dualistic, right-versus-wrong view of knowledge that could

influence their adoption, or otherwise, of particular study practices (this is

discussed further when we discuss epistemological development) and leads

them to seek the truth or the correct answers and to fail to appreciate the

value of the process of debate for developing their own thinking.

Our findings that students have an unsophisticated lay epistemology at

the start of their studies and somewhat mixed feelings about the value of

groupwork have been corroborated by other similar studies of student IL

(Jones & Allen, 2012; Whitmire, 2003) and of the adult returner experience more generally (e.g., Brine & Waller, 2004; O’Donnell & Tobell,

2007; Waller, 2005a,2005b).

It should be noted at the outset that the pre-entry course was not explicitly designed to foster a CofP as described in the literature, although as we

will describe, the CofP lens can be applied to yield pedagogical insights. In

its concept, the design of and teaching practice within the course were relatively conventional in that individual students are the basic unit, with small

group discussion featuring as a natural part of the experience. That said, we


Pathways into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

will contend that there is an implied CofP in play to the extent that participants are being recruited to the epistemological communities of their various

subjects of study. On initial recruitment, participants typically have prior

assumptions about the nature of university study, which can be represented

as nascent or incomplete epistemologies. For example, it is not unusual for

incomers to believe that all knowledge and wisdom lies with the lecturers,

who will impart the knowledge in manageable chunks, which it is the student’s job to imbibe. Thus a naăve transmittal model of teaching and learning

can be easily discerned, often with fixed notions of what constitutes knowledge: factual as opposed to opinion based, up-to-date and contained in reliable sources such as books and journal articles by authoritative authors.

Our case study, therefore, illustrates some basic epistemological views

held by adult returners. Those views are naăve in the nonpejorative sense,

and if left unchallenged, they could impede the development of a sophisticated blend of practices associated with learning, epistemology, and IL. A

significant issue that arises in relation to the CofP construct is the degree to

which these epistemological beliefs might militate against the formation of

a CofP amongst course members on the grounds that there would be little

of value, beyond basic social support, to be gained. Equally, such beliefs are

unlikely to dispose returners to adopt sophisticated approaches to sourcing

and searching for information going much beyond lecture content, class

reading lists, and any additional library resources, which might be required

to complete assignments. This would in effect be a lecturer-driven and relatively basic process approach to IL. Consequently, whilst participants will

experience sustained relationships with other class members, there is no

particular impetus to form a community to share perspectives.

We suggest that the concept of a community of epistemological practice(s) is particularly relevant to our case study, as it will take us beyond

relatively obvious generic features from the literature about CofPs such as

sharing information, sourcing knowledge, and harvesting tacit knowledge.

From our perspective, whilst such features can be observed, the focus in

the case study will be on the epistemological dimension, particularly in

terms of the experience of and potential for maturation of epistemic

awareness on the part of adult returners.

8.6 IL AND CofPs

The term IL can be interpreted in a variety of ways, with both formal

and informal settings in focus. It can be viewed as a purposive process of

Toward a Community of Epistemological Practice


systematically seeking relevant information, using various sources, with a

view to using found information to complete some task or clarify understanding (Eisenberg & Berkowitz, 1990; Kulthau, 2004; Kuhlthau,

Maniotes, & Caspari, 2015). Other scholars have related IL and CofP

concepts to develop a body of commentary (Bruce, 2000; Lloyd 2010,

2011, 2012; Nazari, 2011). All have linked IL to the issues of context,

workgroups, and practice, which seem central to the CofP narrative as

described in the literature.

Harris (2008) relates CofP thinking specifically to IL in higher education and offers it as a corrective to what he sees as a dominant discourse

within IL, which assumes it to be an individualistic and rather solitary

process. Harris addresses his critique to the Association of College &

Research Libraries (ACRL hereafter) standards (ACRL, 2000) in particular. It should be noted that ACRL has subsequently revised the standards

to introduce a new framework for IL (ACRL, 2015). However, Harris’s

discussion of the social nature of learning, the implications for pedagogy,

and the options for relevant educational development remains pertinent.

These formulations have clear associations with settings such as education and many workplace situations, where information is a significant

resource and has to be systematically accessed and utilized. In both formal

and informal settings, some mechanism to develop a persons IL beyond

his naăve practice is needed, particularly where expensive information

resources are involved. The development of IL is most obviously required

when people enter a new and perhaps more complex information environment. However, initial instruction needs to be built upon over time to

develop more sophisticated capacity and innovative understanding of the

nature of IL in the Internet age. This is a key point, in stark contrast to

the “one-shot-slot” approach to the teaching of IL. The point is that the

quantity and the quality of change required (entailing as it does epistemological development) needs repeated inputs plus time for reflection and

consolidation in between. In accounts of instruction and learning, the

notion of the CofP as a site of such development has entered the discourse and is a central concern of this chapter.

Librarians in higher education have taken on a professional responsibility in collaboration with researchers, lecturers, educational developers,

and educational technologists to improve student, and sometimes staff, IL

(Breivik & Gee, 2006; Bruce, 2008; Elmborg, 2006; Hepworth &

Walton, 2009; Jackson, 2007; Johnston & Webber, 2004; Limberg,

Alexandresson, Lantz-Andersson, & Folkesson, 2008; Lupton, 2004;


Pathways into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

Rosling & Littlemore, 2011; Secker and Coonan, 2013; Walton and

Hepworth, 2011; Webber, Boon, & Johnston, 2005; Webber & Johnston,

2000). Several instructional approaches can be observed: individual advice

given as part of the response to an enquiry; whole class/student group

general overview (e.g., talks to incoming students); more specific instruction to students in relation to their study subjects; and application of

online teaching methods, including learning management systems, social

media, and virtual spaces. Whilst there is a strong move to embed instruction in the design of courses (Johnston, 2014), it seems that much effort

is still deployed in one-shot-slot sessions.

Obviously, subject lecturers play a role in developing IL by, e.g.,

designing teaching and assessment to require increasingly sophisticated IL

(Jones & Allen, 2012); collaborating with librarians to provide instruction

(Lindstrom & Shonrick, 2006; Medaille & Shannon, 2012; Mounce,

2010; Pritchard, 2010); and giving direct teaching of IL as part of their

subject teaching (Halverson, Siegel, & Freyermouth, 2010). This highlights the distinction between stand alone and embedded IL instruction.

Common themes of active and collaborative learning, critical thinking,

and complex course designs are dominant in the literature of IL within

higher education and are in line with current constructivist thinking on

the nature and practice of higher education pedagogy (Entwistle &

Tomlinson, 2007). In short, the social life of study is complex and

dynamic, and the question is how to harness social capital/energy to

learning and specifically to developing IL.

Clearly students have a responsibility to appreciate their information

needs and to develop their awareness of and capacity for IL. This development will ideally involve some form of reflection on experience and

practice in using information resources. We can identify some key features of IL that illuminate particular information-related study practices

and may link to notions of engagement with epistemological development and transition:

• A concern to develop knowledge of sources, searching, and


• Reliance on process models of searching and development of relevant


• Emphasis on formal settings involving induction and development

over time;

• Engaged with inquiry and critical thinking;

• Requires reflection, metacognition, and epistemological development.

Toward a Community of Epistemological Practice


These five points can be viewed as the ground upon which an epistemologically sophisticated IL might be built and, therefore, provide a

guide to course design, pedagogy, and creation of CofPs.


Much has been written about the ideas and experiences associated with

the term CofP since Lave and Wenger (1991) originated the concept

drawing on earlier ethnographic work. Lave and Wenger’s fundamental

point is that learning is not just the accumulation of items of knowledge

by an individual, as conceptualized by many classical cognitive theories of

learning. Rather, learning occurs through participating in the practices

of a community, and what is acquired during learning is the capability of

participating in the practices of the community. In the case of academe,

the relevant practices include how to go about academic reading/writing,

information gathering and selecting, and also epistemological practices to

do with making informed and plausible judgments. Initially, learners are

legitimate but peripheral participants within the relevant community. As

they acquire the practices of the community, their participation becomes

more central within it. Learning is thus conceptualized as somewhat akin

to an apprenticeship within the community, with peripheral members

being involved in relatively simple tasks, but as their experience builds,

they are allowed to take on more complex tasks. One example that Lave

and Wenger used was insurance claims assessors. Initially, neophyte claims

assessors are given the simplest types of cases to deal with. With increasing

experience, they are allowed to handle more and more complex cases,

and at some junctures, transitions to more central roles are formally

marked by ceremonies within the community.

This conceptualization of learning can be readily applied to academic

work. For example, a first-year undergraduate student can be considered

to be a relatively peripheral but legitimate participant within a university

community. As the student progresses through successive academic years,

he becomes more engaged and more adept at participating in the practices of the academic community, e.g., by making arguments within

essays, by designing dissertation studies that explore new ground, and so

on. Key transitions are marked using examination diets, the award of

merit passes and formal graduation. If the student progresses to postgraduate study, his expertise in enacting the practices of the academic community becomes stronger and stronger, to the point where he can be


Pathways into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

formally employed within the community. Thereafter, the journey toward

centrality within the community continues. New lecturers are given

teaching loads and administrative roles that are commensurate with their

degree of centrality within the academic community, and again, the

accrual of increasing experience within these roles can result in further

travel toward the center in the form of, e.g., the taking on of increasingly

central administrative duties such as course leader, adviser of study, or

head of department.

The emphasis, therefore, within the theory of CofPs is very much on

situated cognition, situated learning, learning through participation in

practice, and learning through dialogue with other members of the community. It should be noted that enculturation into the community

involves not just the acquisition of knowledge and skills but also the

learning of informal practices such as slang and community folklore.

Participation can have consequences for the individual’s identity (as discussed by O’Donnell and Tobell, 2007), and individuals can be expected

to be simultaneously engaged in several CofPs, with varying peripherality

or centrality and potentially conflicting norms. For example, one can be

simultaneously involved in occupation-related and hobby-related CofPs.

A more subtle contrast may be between the main academic CofP that

involves all staff and students, and students’ own separate sub-CofPs in

which they use social media tools to set up their own discussion fora that

explicitly exclude university members of staff, with attendant risks of

them reinforcing each other in the entrenchment of less effective practices, the propagation of false rumors, and the unchecked circulation of

inaccurate information or folklore, as we describe it.

Cox (2005) has provided a cogent critical analysis of the CofP construct in relation to the domains of education, information science,

knowledge management, and organizational behavior. Cox based his analysis on four works (Brown & Duguid, 1991; Lave & Wenger, 1991;

Wenger, 1998; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002), which he characterized as seminal statements in the development of the concept of CofP.

The four works displayed common aspects, e.g., socialization into a practice/set of practices in a given setting; illumination of formal and informal

settings in terms of structure, power relations, purposes, and experiences;

emphasis on workplace learning; construction of meaning and identity;

tensions between spontaneous communities to meet the needs of members and management-guided creation of communities to serve corporate


Toward a Community of Epistemological Practice


However, Cox also identified divergences between the four works.

For example, concepts that appeared in one would be absent in another;

variability in the emphasis on what characteristic is most significant; shift

over time in the focus from analytical accounts and more practiceoriented guidebook style accounts. (Note: Cox provides a useful table on

p. 537 setting out a comparative summary of the four works, which interested readers should consult for a more detailed account of his analysis.)

In short, the emergence of a community in relation to the practice(s) of a

given setting will not easily conform to a simple checklist of relatively stable, de-contextualized characteristics, which can be observed across different settings. This argues for care and attention to the context in which a

CofP operates in order to avoid a superficial use of the CofP concept.

Each example of a potential CofP needs to be analyzed in its own terms,

with due regard to unique features as well as any apparently common features of CofPs identified in the literature.

Finally, the question arises of how best to conceptualize epistemological development within a CofP, with a view to adopting a

suitable pedagogical strategy to achieve such development. We will discuss

these issues in more detail. In our reading of Cox, we identified several

aspects of the CofP:

• The centrality of the idea of the social nature of the community irrespective of specific setting;

• The ambiguity of the concept in relation to the structure and dynamics of a given setting;

• The importance of developing a nuanced account of features such as

self-awareness and self-efficacy, dialogue, reflection, and metacognition;

• The need to understand the epistemological nature of a given CofP.

When academic work is conceptualized as involving the operation of

a CofP, it is not unreasonable to seek to ascertain (at least in outline)

what the relevant practices are. In this chapter, we do not naively seek to

enumerate the large variety of practices that a student has to master. Such

an enterprise would be a major undertaking in its own right; witness

Ennis’s (1987) enumeration of over 200 separate identifiable aspects of

critical thinking alone, to name but one construct that is relevant to academic work. Rather, we will focus on a related group of practices that

can readily be argued to be central to academic work, namely the bringing to bear upon problems of a sophisticated understanding of the nature

and limits of knowledge (i.e., a sophisticated epistemology), the related

capability of exercising critical thinking in a manner that allows, e.g.,


Pathways into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice

clear distinctions to be drawn between better-supported, stronger ideas,

theories, suggested solutions to problems and so on, from weaker, more

speculative ones, and the metacognitive control that allows the thinker to

regulate his own thought processes in such a way that the process of critically evaluating ideas is itself thorough and unbiased. We would argue

that these three capabilities together are part of the very bedrock of academic activity and should be made explicit in CofPs (Anderson &

Johnston, 2016). We, therefore, briefly examine each of these three elements in turn, link these to IL, and consider how this constellation of elements relates to the notion of CofPs.



Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of

knowledge. Accordingly, the notion of epistemological development concerns the way that people’s ideas about the nature of knowledge change

as they grow up. More pertinent in the present context is the body of

research on the way that students’ ideas about knowledge change as they

progress through their course from first-year undergraduate through graduation and beyond into postgraduate study, and we would argue that this

phenomenon of epistemological development needs to be taken into

account in course design at each of these stages. In lay terms, the epistemological content of the student trajectory can encompass notions of

study skills, critical thinking, and awareness of disciplinary differences.

That trajectory will involve social-affective situations such as transitions

from outside to inside the academy; prior assumptions about knowledge/

university teaching; life history, present purposes, and perceptions of

knowledge; and may also involve dissonances between expectations and

experiences and in discourses between different disciplines.

To summarize very briefly what is a substantial body of research literature involving combinations of interview and questionnaire-based studies,

the first-year undergraduate typically arrives at university with a dualistic

view of knowledge as either right or wrong and a correspondence theory

of truth that holds simply that those items of knowledge that are correct

or true are so by virtue of the fact that what they assert corresponds to

what is actually the case in the world. Thus, the atomic theory of matter

is seen as true because matter really is made up of tiny particles. Later, as

the uncertainty of many areas of knowledge begins to become evident,

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