A March 2012 virtual presentation at the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference, Austin, TX
These recommendations are based on research examining the extent to which students’ online forum involvement improved their information literacy proficiency. The researcher hopes to explain how students observing teammates’ information literacy proficiency demonstrated in writing and research can gain insights that improve their own information literacy proficiency. This proposal reports on the experience of students enrolled in a research methods course at a metropolitan university in the fall 2008 semester. Four students with high and low initial information literacy assessment scores were placed on each team. After they acquired an article using library subscription databases and posted an excerpt of that article, students were prompted to critique teammates’ excerpts. In the context of this study knowledge building took place when one individual communicated something that changed another person’s writing. There was a paper trail beginning with the student’s original excerpt in the forum, the changes suggested in a teammate’s critiques and the revised excerpt embedded in the term paper students were expected to write. Since their forum involvement had a nominal grade impact students decided whether to spend time and energy on their forum work and they proceeded accordingly. The forum transcripts and students’ term papers provided the researcher with excellent indicators of what took place.
Review of Literature
In order for a person to expend the effort to becoming a good writer he/she must have a passion to attain this goal (Bazerman 1980, 657; Booth et al. 2008, 14; Belcher 2009, 5; Germano 2005, 16). To compel students to write their thoughts as persuasively as possible is a daunting task especially when motivation is a factor (Collins 2002, 43; Chuy 2012, 7; Nicholls 1992, 273; Reeve 2009, 183). Reading is basic to this endeavor. The challenges of writing one’s own thoughts and of trying to understand what others have written are related (Bazerman 1980, 656; Howard 2008, 86). One can expect to have a deeper understanding when reading materials on a topic he/she has written about. Similarly materials that a person reads will influence what he/she writes (Bazerman 1980, 660). The peer review process advocated in this presentation is based on the interplay between reading and writing. Students participating in this innovative study were given the chance to become critical readers of others’ work and to receive feedback from their teammates’ critical reading of their own work (Engbers 2009, 400). The excerpts students read and peer reviewed were easily accessed. Since they had experience writing prior study excerpts they could now recognize and appreciate the techniques classmates used to overcome writing challenges.
To assess whether this learning intervention effectively strengthened students’ information literacy proficiency a case comparison methodology was used. A 4 x 4 crosstab table compared students’ information literacy proficiency at the beginning and at the end of the course. The table crossed students’ initial assessment scores and the ranking two objective evaluators gave their term papers. Data for the two performance indicators listed above and all of the posts from her team’s forum transcripts as evidence of the collaborative research footprint were needed so that a student could be included in the case comparison. There were 40 participating students but due to the lack of requisite data 26 were not included in the table. Complete data were available for the 14 students who were included in the case comparison table. In some instances, interview testimony provided more detail or insights that would not have been evident if online forum transcript data, survey scores and term paper rankings had been the only data available for analysis. However, a student could be included in the case comparison if he/she had not been interviewed.
The straightforward case comparison of students’ initial assessment score rankings and their final term paper rankings classified students to three categories. If a student’s term paper ranking was higher than the ranking of her initial information literacy assessment score her forum involvement was beneficial. If her term paper ranking was lower than the ranking of her initial assessment then her forum involvement was not beneficial. If her term paper ranking was equivalent to her initial assessment ranking then her forum involvement did not affect her information literacy as reflected in her term paper. The crosstab table revealed that the beneficial impact of three students’ forum involvement as reflected in their term paper outcomes was counterbalanced by the detrimental impact of three other students’ forum involvement. Six students received the same initial assessment and term paper rankings so the intervention did not impact their information literacy, one student neglected to submit her online forum posts so her forum involvement did not impact her term paper outcome and one student plagiarized so the ranking her paper received was not valid.
Students who worked hard at their research predictably had the most impressive term paper outcomes, however this finding deserves further explication. Five of the 14 focal students wrote and posted an article excerpt that they ultimately did not include in their final term papers. Ideas gleaned from these feeder or gateway articles helped a given student identify what he/she really wanted to study. These “3 article” students did more work than their instructors expected them to do. They subjected themselves to the additional task of finding, reading and summarizing three articles when working with only two was required. They found an article they liked better than the first one they investigated. Maybe these students sought greater cohesion among their articles, or modified the premise of the term paper as they became more knowledgeable about their topic or they simply found a new article that intrigued them. Significantly a disproportionate number of the students with the highest term paper scores were “3 article” students.
In contrast to the “3 article” students there were two “1 article“ students who used the same article for both excerpts they posted. The precipitous drop in one of the “1 article“ student’s initial assessment score compared to her term paper score was not totally unexpected. Case studies of the two “1 article“ students revealed that they became committed to one article early in their research. Consequently, their synthesis of divergent ideas was made more difficult because they lacked sufficient familiarity with more than one well chosen article. Had they analyzed two different articles, ideas introduced in that second article might have changed the course of their study. Students who excerpted the same article twice also subjected their teammates to the uninspiring task of rehashing ideas already considered in the first round of peer review.
When she recognized how underdeveloped her ideas were one of the “1 article“ students tried to compensate for deficiencies in her term paper by plagiarizing. This student legitimately paraphrased her article for the excerpt she submitted to the discussion forum; however she appropriated seven sentences verbatim from the original empirical article for inclusion in her term paper. While students were participating in the forums, this student posted legitimately paraphrased excerpts presumably because the instructor had greater opportunity during that period to make sure that students were paraphrasing properly. However when her writing was evaluated and given a grade this student appropriated polished, edited sentences written by a published author. Her term paper seemed to be so well written that it received an outstanding score but she compromised her academic integrity in order to achieve this distinction. Please note the plagiarized excerpt was discovered many months after the semester ended so the student suffered no consequences for her actions.
The remaining seven students excerpted two articles and used both articles in their term papers. Among the “2 article“ students three had high term paper scores, three had mid range term paper scores and one had a low term paper score.
In addition to being a means for strengthening students’ information literacy skills the online forums were designed to introduce students to knowledge building. Forum submissions and the final term papers were snapshots of the progress of a student’s attainment of information literacy proficiency. Therefore each student’s documents were searched to find out if one of her forum excerpts had been revised to incorporate a teammates’ suggested change before inclusion in her term paper. Fourteen of the 31 critiques received by the fourteen case comparison students contained feasible suggestions for change. In seven instances the changes were applied before embedding an excerpt in the students’ term papers. Three suggested changes were not enacted because the critique recipients were “3 article” students who opted to replace an article.
A number of students became mutually supportive of their teammates by following the progression of one another’s writing and critiquing one another’s work. Interviewees also divulged that diversity among their teammates prompted them to shed the misconceptions they held about people who are different. For example when an accomplished writer articulated how a particular flaw marred a teammate’s writing he/she was able to see more clearly how the same flaw impacted his/her own work. Similarly a less accomplished writer could witness the progression of a more accomplished writer’s work and appreciate how starting a writing project early enough to gracefully accommodate startling discoveries, dramatic reformulations and unremarkable incremental editing is important for success.
When students investigated classmates’ posts without initiating any communication with those classmates, they lurked. The potential positive as well as negative consequences of lurking have recently received significant attention in the literature (Stepanyan, Mather, Jones and Lusuardi 2009, 372; Thomas 2002, 356; Kahnwald & Kohler 2010, 164; Nonnecke & Preece 2003, 130; Arnold & Paulus 2010, 194; Dennen 2008, 1631; Beaudoin 2002, 151). Several interviewees did not establish highly fulfilling connections with the members of their own team because it was difficult for them to respond to their mixed ability/mixed ethnicity teammates. These students increased their opportunities to read relevant materials by perusing the work of classmates on other teams. Feeling a greater affinity towards students with whom they could only interact vicariously was a common theme among interviewees. If these students had been assigned teammates whose posts were easier for them to respond to they might not have tried to examine the work submitted by other teams as extensively as they did. Consequently, the mixed writing ability/mixed ethnicity team assignments helped students broaden their perspectives on the social problems that they were writing about and introduced them to a greater variety of writing conventions (Engstrom et al. 2008, 161).
Forum transcripts and students’ term papers revealed that teammates with diverse ethnicity and writing ability infused their online discussions with divergent ideas. On two teams diversity led to innovative research challenge solutions. The obligation to post an excerpt in the fourth week of the course prompted students to start their research. This gave a number of students sufficient lead time to make several passes through the relevant literature before they formulated the focus of their research. Unprecedented access to other student’s writing process compelled some people to strive more diligently than they might have otherwise; others became highly intimidated and were tempted to plagiarize. The quantitative case comparison table showed that the overall impact of the online forums was neutral, although there was a rise in three students’ information literacy proficiency there was a drop in three other students’ information literacy proficiency. Qualitative case study analysis however revealed significant information literacy proficiency gains.
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