IMG_0176.JPGMark Douglas Frier
Branch Manager: Athlone Library
Western Cape College of Nursing
Cape Peninsula University of Technology

Comments on Information literacy Interventions in Nursing and Engineering Courses at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa.


Students who arrive at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) do so wholly unprepared for to face the rigors of university education. We as information professionals see their struggles in our libraries on a daily basis. Information literacy education and instruction can only take place once students are at ease in front of a computer. Until this point, many have not used a computer, let alone know what the Internet is. The remarkable change in students’ approach to information searching and gathering can be witnessed in one semester after exposure to sate of the art IT, whether these students are in IT, Mechanical Engineering or Nursing, the results are the same, remarkable progress once immersed in the world of IT. Once they are made to be at ease with the world of technology, their information horizons broaden substantially, and once they know what IT and the internet can do for their knowledge base, then they ease into the academic discourse community they belong to. To witness this change, is surely the most satisfying part of the job of an information professional in South Africa. Sadly though, not all these cases are success stories and I will focus on both successes and failures in my presentation. Questions such as the following will be addressed: Do engineering and nursing students really need information literacy education? How prepared, in terms of information literacy education, are these students for university education? What remedial practices can be put in place so that the attrition rate can be reduced?

Key Words: Information literacy, Engineering, Nursing, Evidence-Based Practice, Remedial Tertiary Education Practices, University mergers: South Africa.

  1. Introduction

Defining information literacy within a South African context has taken on many forms. The most widely accepted definition has been that which has been documented in the literature by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). This definition as outlined in the registered unit standard of SAQA, states that the basics of information literacy education, within a South African context, of library users is the following:

  • the ability of users to analyse information needs at appropriate levels
  • the ability of users to select and identify appropriate information sources
  • developing users who can independently locate and access information relevant to their needs
  • guiding users in the evaluation of located information
  • explaining the basic concepts of plagiarism, the ethical use of information and the need to acknowledge sources of information
  • planning appropriate learning experiences in which the principles of information literacy are applied.
Essentially, therefore, Frier (2006:277) defines information literacy, based on the unit standard by SAQA, as the ability to read, write and retrieve information sources to solve daily problems, whether personal or academic in nature, and to use these skills to foster life-long learning. Fox (1996:182) concur with Frier, stating that the goal of an information literacy education programme is to develop student’s skills, in locating, evaluating and applying information for use in critical thinking and problem solving.
SAQA and the NQF have both also identified information literacy as a critical, cross-field outcome, essentially stating that it cuts across all disciplines. The author can attest to this, as he spent 11 years serving the Engineering faculty at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) as subject librarian, where the need for students to be information literate cut across all the departments in the faculty, whether they were in Mechanical Engineering or IT. Although subject knowledge of the field one serves as subject librarian, is a recommendation, it is not always a key factor. The author had a basic knowledge of engineering, and his current position of head of the nursing college library of CPUT, is only enriched by his past experience of completing three years of biology at the undergraduate level. It is with this backdrop having been sketched, that I will attempt to piece together the information literacy education landscape in South Africa, particularly focused on my experience of teaching information literacy over the past decade.

  1. Information Literacy in a South African Context

One of the most important studies on information literacy education in a South African context, was Yusuf Sayed’s “The Segregated Information Highway.” Sayed’s title says it all for teaching information literacy education in South Africa. Apartheid divisions still loom large over the education landscape, from primary school through to tertiary education. Although the past decade has seen a steady integration of education on all fronts, much still remains to be done. Many black South Africans, however, still arrive at university wholly unprepared for the rigors of tertiary level education. Many black African students approach higher education from the vantage point of English, which is the lingua franca in South Africa, being their second and sometime third language. Others, like myself, having grown up in “coloured” communities in the Western Cape, have a bit of an advantage as English is spoken in the home. This language barrier, and where tertiary level education is not taking place in the mother tongue of the student, places a significant burden on the information professional who wants to engage students in information literacy education.
Many a time in the first few lecture periods/ sessions of the year, the librarian providing information literacy education, which is to a large extent integrated with the programmes of study, struggles to provide basic computer literacy skills to a student population that has never used a computer, let alone seen one. Morgan (2007:43) provide some insight into how to manage this situation, stating that the “timing of the [information literacy] class is important; instruction needs to occur after an assignment has been made, but before the majority of the semester is over in order for students to fully take advantaged of what they have learnt. When students have a chance to participate in hands-on practice, they will be more engaged and remember more of the instruction.” This has been the case at both the nursing college where I am currently based and in the engineering faculty which I served for 11 years. Timing the information literacy education session can be crucial, too early in the semester and you run the risk of losing the students who see the session as merely an add-on to their already full workload. Too late and then they are not interested either because all their assignments are done and they are preparing for exams. However, because students are generally also not computer literate at all during the first semester, places an onerous task on the information professional/ librarian who has to present these information literacy education sessions. These sessions usually take the form of database training where databases such as Ebscohost, Gale, Emerald and Proquest are discussed and taught as well as time being set aside to teach OPAC navigation.
To break here briefly, I have to add some historical perspective at this juncture. When I first arrived at CPUT, which was then called Peninsula Technikon before the merger with Cape Technikon, information resources and IT hardware were extremely scarce. The library had an annual budget for materials of less than R500 000 (about US$63 000). That amount was increased substantially to more than R4.5 million since we merged with Cape Technikon to become CPUT. This increase represents a nine fold increase in the library’s budget for materials. Needless to say, the chairperson of the library subcommittee, had for many years bought into the need to expand the library services. When he moved from his position of Dean of engineering to Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic, he substantially increased the library’s budget across the board. More staff, more money for materials, both print and electronic, meant better service delivery. Also, on the Bellville campus, a new state of the art IT building was commissioned and completed four years ago. Although students had access to PC’s in some of the laboratories scattered across the campus, relatively few had direct, dedicated access to a working PC. I will briefly discuss the history of CPUT and how it relates to this study at a later point in this study

Many PC’s in the various labs were old and out of date, as departments struggled to keep abreast with new IT developments. This picture was sharply altered when the new IT building on the Bellville campus went live in 2005. Suddenly, students had access to thousands of PCs, in structured and unstructured environments across the Bellville campus. This campus was to serve as a model and catalyst for a paradigm shift in IT provision amongst senior managers. What was originally seen as an add-on programme and department, went on to be viewed as an indispensable vehicle to propel academe into the future. Essentially, IT and it’s continuous provision and upgrading as new technology came on board, was to become the central focus of academic work on campus. This mind shift was a boon for staff, students and the institution as a whole. Our library director, once the new ITcentre was up and running, declared that we could no longer be seen as a “historically disadvantaged institution.” We had taken a bold leap onto the information superhighway, from which there would be no retreat, and information literacy education was right behind this development, with information professionals/ librarians taking full advantage of this prospect.

However, this significant investment in IT didn’t do much for the underprepared student population, many of whom see IT as an obstacle needing to be bridged, rather than an enabling tool which facilitates academic work. A previous study carried out by Frier (2006:288) suggested a significant lack of connectivity to the Internet in the home across the board of CPUT students, from first to fourth year students. Many came from homes where food on the table was a more pressing priority than IT, books, journals, newspapers
and magazines. 78% of first year correspondents surveyed in this earlier study (Frier: 2006:285) indicated that they did not have internet connectivity in the home. Education takes second place to basic survival and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs saw the majority remaining at the very basic level of subsistence procurement of food and essentials, the “physiological stage”, i.e. the bottom of the pyramid. Here we as a nation could wallow in the excesses and depravity of the past and bemoan the apartheid system as some politicians still do, or we could embrace a common future, one where Black, White, Indian, Coloured (I didn’t place these in any particular order) and increasingly, foreign minority groups such as Somalians, Ethiopians, Zimbabweans, and others from practically every corner of the globe, where we come to live as that immeasurably positive vision of the rainbow nation!

Internet connectivity is taken for granted in the developed world, where broadband, fast and reliable connections are seen as a must have. Even though the tertiary education sector in South Africa has seen relatively fast and reliable internet speeds, and their reliability needs met 24/7, this is not pervasive throughout South African society. Fast, reliable internet speeds still remain illusive and only the middle and upper classes can afford the luxury of broadband which has only recently become a reality with the Seacom cable being laid in Durban. This cable will give the east cost of Africa , and Southern Africa, access to the Far East, the Middle East and Europe, and bring access to broadband to many more within South Africa at affordable rates.

However, much needs to be done in the classroom to bring students up to speed with new technology. The reality of the classroom situation is that many of our students arrive from the impoverished rural areas of the Eastern Cape. Although the entry level requirements for all CPUT students is that they should have successfully completed high school, many struggle with the material presented to them in lectures. The technological gap that exists between high school and university, only adds to this problem. The application and utilization of IT in this context cannot be a generic approach among first year students as is done in the developed world. Sayed (1998:15) quotes two important yet dated reports which are nevertheless still relevant to the status quo in South Africa.

These reports are “the Working Group on Libraries and Information Technologies (WGLIT) to the National Commission on Higher Education and the Technology-Enhanced Learning Investigation commissioned by the Department of Education.” These reports are of importance when trying to sketch the information literacy education landscape in South Africa as they were ground breaking and marked a serious move toward considering information literacy education as a vital part of the higher education curriculum. Although heavily laden with IT as the central theme, they do acknowledge information literacy as an overarching term. The raison d’être of these reports has been to bridge the gap between high school and university. This has occurred with moderate success rates, with high schools in affluent city centres and suburbs benefitting the most, while their rural counterparts fare less well.
When looking at the racial profile of those who seemingly score well academically, then the white urban dweller scores best and the poor rural school pupil scores the worst. (Facts about Children:2009) The prevalence of HIV has also had an impact on this aspect of information literacy education, with thousands of households being headed up by children who should otherwise be in school. (Facts about Children:2009) Essentially, therefore, rural black children are the most disadvantaged when it comes to technological and information literacy skills acquired at high school, so as to fulfill the minimum entry requirements to university. As the numbers of rural black and “coloured” students are increasing exponentially on all South African university campuses, the burden on information professionals to bring these students up to speed with regard to tertiary level information literacy, follows the same pattern.
When examining the first year pass rate of students at university, the same picture emerges, with black and “coloured” first years fairing the worst among all racial groups. (Gibbon, 2006:401) It must be noted here that the racial terminology employed, although based on apartheid racial stereotypes, is still used in the South African context to examine how these racial groups are fairing at university. As stated at the start of this paper, the remnants of the Apartheid régime still loom large over the South African landscape, be it socially, economically and politically, and no analysis of information literacy education can ignore this.

  1. Background to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology

As a result of a ministerial decree, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) has come about due to the merger of Peninsula Technikon and Cape Technikon. One of these institutions was predominantly white and the other predominantly black and “coloured”. Upon publication of Sayed’s “The Segregated Information Highway” there were initally five tertiary level education institutions in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. These were the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Stellenbosch University (SUN), Cape Technikon (CapeTech) and Peninsula Technikon (PenTech). These have been reduced to four, with the merger between the technikons which have become a university of technology, having proven very successful. The new institution, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) has emerged as a much larger institute than the two Technikons described in Sayed’s work, rivaling the three larger established universities, namely UCT, SUN and UWC.
The size and scope of the new institute, which has a total of approximately 30 000 students and nine campuses across the Western Cape, has brought its own difficulties. This new, much larger and more complex institute, provides its own challenges to the information professionals serving the nursing student community. Not only do we now offer nursing on three campuses, we also have to provide for the information needs of these students at their resident campus. At the Athlone campus, where I’m based, the teaching staff are not paid by CPUT and subsequently do not have access to the electronic databases which their students have direct access to. This makes for somewhat of an awkward situation as the students, who are CPUT students, have access to the databases and electronic information of CPUT, but the teaching staff, who are employed by the provincial administration of the Western Cape, do not.
As teaching staff do not have access to CPUT’s electronic information at Athlone, they are somewhat reluctant to refer students to electronic resources for their assignments. However, the librarian has made access available from the library to teaching staff so that they at least have access to the electronic information provided by the library. As this method of access is still within the library’s IP domain, the copyright issues in this regard are not infringed. Given this peculiar situation where teaching staff are managed by a different employer, and students fall under the jurisdiction of another university, makes the marketing hurdle which library staff have to overcome two fold.
Not only do we have to convince teaching staff that it is in their best interests to use and place assessment criteria on the use of electronic sources of information, but we also have to convince students to use these resources as well. For many staff and students at the Athlone campus, this is a paradigm shift in terms of information use, with many of these users still very comfortable with the “chalk and talk” method of education where reliance on textbooks and notes taken verbatim from the lecturer is used to get through the course. Very little reliance on electronic sources of information, on both the part of the teaching staff and the students, actually takes place. There is also a heavy reliance on past question papers on the part of the student population, to track what is required in terms of the assessment for the course.

  1. Review of the literature and my own experiences as a subject librarian.

In the Engineering faculty at CPUT where I served as subject librarian for 11 years, the picture, if somewhat scattered from department to department, looks very much the same as that of the Nursing college, in terms of information literacy education provision. . Although many professors and lecturers across the Engineering faculty have bought into the concept of “information literacy” and apply it to their work on a regular basis, much work has yet to be done to see 100% compliance with regard to information literacy education assessment. Perry’s cognitive model, as outlined by Fox et. al. (1996:183), identifies four phases of intellectual and ethical development in students:

a) the first phase is dualism, where students rely on professors to provide a knowledge base, never questioning the accuracy of the information provided and ignoring differences of opinion.

b) in the second phase, multiplicity, students recognize different points of view but are confused by them and rely on emotions when making decisions.
c) the third strategy, relativism, students begin to think analytically and are willing to integrate the ideas of others into their world view.
d) the fourth and final stage, commitment to relativism students become willing to discard their own ideas when the expert opinions of others appear more valuable and objective.

In the Engineering Faculty and in particular Mechanical Engineering, the department that used to apply all of Perry’s stages, had the most success rates in terms of students passing their coursework. Needless to say, this approach engendered a hunger for learning and questioning the status quo, which other approaches seem to lack, particularly once students reached the final stage, i.e. commitment to relativism.

In my experience few departments and even fewer students at CPUT reach this final stage in their undergraduate years. Many course presenters/ professors and students don’t go beyond the first phase which is “teacher-centered”. The mechanical engineering programme is in many ways the exception. Here some students do reach the stage of commitment to relativism before they complete their undergraduate coursework. But, this is the exception rather than the rule. Each Mechanical engineering student has to enroll in a compulsory English reading and writing course which is taught in the first semester. During this course the Subject Librarian is given two class periods of two hours each to focus on teaching database searching, the successes and pitfalls of searching the internet for reliable information and successful referencing techniques. This type of course which focuses on basic information literacy skills for an entire semester, is non-existent in the Nursing Faculty in which I now serve. The entire course offered by the Mechanical engineering dept is information literacy centered whereas in the Nursing Faculty the subject librarian’s information literacy presentation is an “add-on” to the computer literacy course offered in the faculty. This is less that desirable as Frier (2006:279) has quoted Macdonald elsewhere:

Discipline-based faculty members and [the computer literacy lecturer in the Nursing dept] usually request these sessions and content tends focus on demonstrating particular library tools that will help students successfully complete an assignment for the course. This system of customized library instruction does not operate with an explicit plan or strategy. It depends almost entirely on individual faculty members taking the initiative to request sessions in the library. In addition the “one-shot” instruction de-emphasizes a conceptual understanding of information, the development of broadly applicable research strategies and the critical evaluation of information in favour of a “which button do I press next” approach to demonstrating sources needed to complete particular information gathering tasks.

In the literature in general and given my own experience, this is the approach to information literacy education which is less desirable. What comes across as of vital importance in the literature is collaboration and cooperation between librarians and teaching staff. Another important aspect of an integrated approach to information literacy education among nursing students is the evidence-based practice approach for health professionals. Engineering students of do not have this added facet to information literacy education. The need to review how we teach information literacy and this added facet of evidence-based practice to nursing students comes across clearly and significantly in the literature under review. Schulte et. al (2009:57) state that “both information literacy [education] and evidence-based practice (EBP) require cooperation between the library professionals and Nursing teaching staff.”
Nursing educators need to rethink their curricula and consider how these skills can be integrated throughout their programs. They also require nursing educators to examine their own abilities to find and utilize nursing research that is relevant to their practice, research interests, teaching pursuits and students’ practical needs. Therefore, collaboration between teaching staff and librarians is of vital importance to both Engineering and Nursing students, in achieving their goals of becoming information literate. Schulte (2009:1) states that EBP and information literacy education for nursing students are not mutually exclusive educational approaches. EBP and information literacy go hand in hand in educating nursing students whom one would like to see as information literate at the end of their academic careers.
Schulte (2009:8) also quotes from the work of Pravikov, Taner and Pierce, who are, according to her ”much cited” which “showed that current nurses did not appreciate research and lacked the skills necessary to find research.” This is a clear indictment on the teaching and learning practices currently underway and even though the work done by Pravikov et. al. was based on research in the developed world, this fact is even more pertinent in the developing world, particularly in South Africa where I practice my profession. Schulte et. al.’s (2009:58) work is particularly enlightening when they discuss their findings “which showed that 72.1% of [their] respondents had had librarians conduct instructional sessions for a course they taught at some point in their teaching career.
This ties in with what I have been advocating throughout my career, that these instructional sessions are more at a “which button do I press?” approach to information literacy education and is less focused on an integrated model. Although Earl’s (1996:192) work refers directly to medical students one can extrapolate from the conclusions made here to that of Nursing students as the subject matter is relatively similar to that of medical students. Nursing colleges and medical schools offering formal instruction in information literacy education have increased in recent years and the numbers of nursing academics writing about information literacy education, has grown exponentially. However, even though there is this awareness among Nursing students and faculty regarding information literacy education, many only use their textbooks and a limited number of other sources. Pravikoff (2009:99) is concerned about this very fact, stating that senior students about to graduate, confessed to her that “they had yet to spend any time in the school/college library searching for research papers or care plans. They got [all the information they needed] from the World Wide Web, their textbooks or the journals to which they subscribed.”
Leckie and Fullerton (1999:11) concur with this finding, stating that in Engineering and science disciplines “students may primarily use standard texts for as long as the first two or three years of study and thus do not begin to develop information retrieval skills until their senior year or even until graduate school. In other words, it is quite possible for science (nursing) and engineering undergraduates to avoid the library, if not completely, at least until very late in their educational experience. This is evidenced in my current position as well. Getting students to read current periodicals is extremely difficult even when one tries to convince them of the benefits when it comes to talking intelligently to their peers about their profession. If these budding nurses were able to make a positive assessment of an illness before the doctor makes his final diagnosis and the rules of EBP are followed, the nursing student/budding nurse would be treated better professionally. Sadly, this is not the case in South Africa. The nursing profession as a whole is not viewed with the kind of respect that they should be in South Africa, mainly because student nurses do not, along with their professional colleagues, keep abreast of new developments by reading their journals. As stated by Schulte et al (2009:1) most nurses in the South African context also lack serious research skills.
Nursing and engineering students engage in their work in the nursing and engineering profession with English as a second and most of the time, third language. This places a significant burden on the student as they not only need to gain subject knowledge but have to battle with the English language as well. The planning, assessment and delivery of an integrated information literacy education plan has to take this notable fact into account. As educators on the Southern African subcontinent where, particularly in the Repubic of South Africa, English has become the lingua franca, we cannot ignore the fact that even at a tertiary level, our students simply do not understand what we are teaching them. My information literacy education classes have to describe in detail for example, what a database is, what it does, how it differs from the PC which they are using and the basics of how relational databases work.
I have discovered and the literature concurs that the most effective approach in such a case is to teach information literacy skills in such a manner as to be directly related to the students’ coursework. Tucker and Palmer (2004:3) state that, “information literacy training delivered when students have an immediate need for it in their studies is likely to find students highly motivated and/or be the most effective method in teaching these skills.” With all the hurdles that these nursing and engineering students have to cross, they also need to engage in what has become known as evidence-based practice (EBP). Klem and Weiss (2005:380) emphasize the link between EBP and information literacy stating that “the implementation of evidence-based practice (EBP) requires the acquisition and use of a complex set of skills including the ability to locate and critically evaluate clinically relevant research literature, essentially one of the cornerstones of information literacy education. The need to continually evaluate complex data which is relevant to the coursework is relevant for engineering students as well.
Indeed, even though the differences between the subject matter differ vastly the experienced librarian can easily understand the similarities as well as the differences in approach to information retrieval skills for each profession. One of the major differences, though, is that the nursing student not only needs to evaluate the data and where possible assist the doctor with a diagnosis and prognosis based on the clinical data, but they also need to engage on a somewhat personal level with the patient. Although engineers do design and manufacture products for people to use, their interaction with humans is somewhat removed compaired to that of the nursing student. The nursing student by contrast, needs to be a well rounded communicator who needs to know how to interact with ill and sometime terminally ill patients with compassion. In engineering, however, the end product is what is seen and used buy the person who uses it. The need to tailor one’s information literacy education sessions in such a way as to take this fundamental difference into account is of vital importance.

  1. Conclusion
Ultimately the success of one’s impact with regard to information literacy education depends on a number of factors. These are how committed the students are to their work, how effectively one gets them to engage in the basics of the subject matter and how effectively one can kindle their interest in reading about their subject matter. This subject matter is covered mostly in the journals, both print and electronic, subscribed to by their library. The most important factor can be how well prepared one’s students are for tertiary education in an age awash with technology. This is where we on the southern tip of the African continent come up short in information literacy education. Students engage in their particular academic discourse where it is there second and sometimes third language. The hurdle for information professionals in this context is therefore greater to overcome than that of their colleagues in societies which are homogenous and a single language is sufficient. On the other hand, South Africa has eleven official languages as reconised by it’s constitution. Mother-tongue education is one means by which we can solve the problem of a high attrition rate among black South Africans duing their first year of university. This approach succeeded for the Afrikaners and I believe that if the effort were made, it would succeed for Xhosa and Zulu speakers as well, who make up the majority of traditional language speakers in South Africa. Essentially we as educators, have failed these students by ignoring or side-stepping this vital issue.

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Proceedings of the 3rd African Regional Conference on Engineering Education. Univeristy of Pretoria.

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