Higher Ed Accreditation and Big6 – Making the Connection

Author: Ru Story-Huffman

Accreditation. While this word may not exactly strike fear in the hearts of higher education administrators, faculty, and staff, it does imply concentrated research, committee meetings, and determined work over a long period of time. Accreditation and re-accreditation by a regional accrediting agency is necessary for many reasons, including to develop a strong institutional reputation and to ensure eligibility for federal student loan money. “Accreditation is a process of external quality review used by higher education to scrutinize colleges, universities, and educational programs for quality assurance and quality improvement” (Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 2006, para. 1). In the United States, there are six regional accreditation agencies, which are responsible for initial accreditation and re-accreditation of higher education institutions within specific regions.

Recently, the University of the Cumberlands, my workplace — was slated for its ten-year re-accreditation visit. This task presented novel challenges, since the accreditation agency that oversees my institution had recently changed the requirements to include a program that addresses student learning. So, we had an idea of what we needed to accomplish, and knew that this would be an information-rich problem – what better tool to use to guide our way than Big6? Since we had an idea of the complexity of the problem we faced, work on the project began two years prior to the actual visit and evaluation.

Big6 to the Rescue
Our task was to develop a curriculum, program, or course that addressed and enhanced student learning. We began the process by addressing the question, “What do my students need?” According to the committee members, this is a question with many answers, including study skills, problem-solving abilities, advanced research skills, and developing a connection between disciplines. My response to the question of what my students needed was information literacy skills — in many ways, information literacy skills form a bridge between all of the answers provided by the other committee members.

As librarians, and those interested in information, we understand the need for information literacy and advocate for an information literacy component in curriculum and learning. To fully achieve the learning we desire for our students, they need the ability to recognize the need for information, have knowledge of where and how to locate the information, and the skills to use information once it is located. Information is essential to academics, from research papers, to reading textbooks, poster presentations, pubic speaking, and classroom discussion. To participate as an active learner, students need information, and information literacy theory and practice in the program of study are important components of the liberal arts curriculum.

Critical Thinking Skills and Information Literacy
After much consideration, debate, and thought, our committee determined we wanted to address the issue of critical thinking, developing a program that provides students with an opportunity to use critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is a key aspect of information literacy, and through published research, personal knowledge, and persistence, I was able to get information literacy as one of the four components of critical thinking addressed by our program. The other areas of emphasis addressed by the curriculum are reading, writing, and oral communication.

But before we could progress, it was necessary to conduct a literature review to determine historical and current research in the field of critical thinking in higher education. This is where my skills at using the Big6 became very helpful. I identified the necessary components chosen by the committee; information literacy, reading, writing and oral communication, then began the information seeking process. I knew we would need books, scholarly articles and web sites to establish research and provide guidance.

I continued the Big6 process through Location and Access, including obtaining materials using the Inter Library Loan system. Our critical thinking components included four subject areas. A lot of information was located, so members of the larger task force conducted the Use of Information stage of the Big6. Each person on the reaccredidation committee was a member of a subcommittee that focused on one of the four components. Synthesis of information was achieved through reports at the large group committee meetings, and the evaluative measures helped to determine the usefulness of the information and its impact on the final outcome.

In all, the Big6 steps were extremely useful in the literature review stage of the project. I explained to committee members that by working through this process, they were practicing information literacy skills. As academicians, they had all conducted a literature review in the past; they did not realize the role the steps of information literacy played in the process.

As part of the process, I developed a bibliography of materials owned by our library that addressed the four components of critical thinking outlined in our program.

Bringing It All Together
Academic librarians are aware of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education published by the Association for College and Research Libraries. The standards address information literacy in higher education, and provide guidance for program development and continuation. Correlation between the ACRL standards and the Big6 is shown in an article I wrote for the Big6 eNewsletter in 2004. Therefore, it was natural for me to think of the Big6 when I thought of the importance of information literacy and accreditation.

Currently, eight faculty members are in training to develop ways to include critical thinking into coursework. These eight faculty members will spend the fall 2006 semester infusing critical thinking into one of their general education classes. Their other classes will be taught the same as in years past. We hope the data gained through pre- and post-testing will expose critical thinking skills as a gained outcome. Next year, seven to eight more faculty will join the program, bringing the total number of classes infusing critical thinking into the curriculum to approximately 17. The program will run for five years, with each year more faculty joining the core group, until the majority of the faculty eventually participate in the process.

As a member of the original committee, I work closely with the director of the program. I design training modules, compile bibliographies, and work with the faculty as they include information literacy as a means for critical thinking in coursework, assignments, presentations, and research opportunities. It is an exciting adventure, and with the use of the Big6, I feel I am able to train the trainer with ease. The training modules will use the Big6 as the model from which faculty are trained to use information literacy in the critical thinking classroom. I find the flexibility of the Big6 to be its best “selling point.” Once faculty understand they can develop an assignment that emphasizes Task Definition, or a group project in which students develop a bibliography using Location and Access, they begin to realize the possibilities for integrating information literacy into everyday assignments or activities are endless.

Evaluating Our Work
The final aspect of the re-accreditation process is an onsite visit by the accreditation team. This group of faculty, selected from colleges and universities within our accreditation region, was charged with reviewing the documentation, understanding the proposed program, and offering comment on the final document and idea. We were very lucky to have a librarian on our visiting team, who was very progressive and an enthusiastic advocate for libraries and learning. Her understanding of information literacy and support for its inclusion in our program was enlightening and exciting. It was wonderful to interact with someone who held the same passion for information literacy and its benefits. I am proud to say, our university was reaccredited with flying colors, and I know I did my part by campaigning for the inclusion of information literacy as a vital component of our program.

Accreditation agencies have realized the importance of information literacy theory and practice by incorporating terminology in Standards documents that emphasize the importance of teaching information literacy in colleges and universities (ACRL, 2003). But, just because it is suggested by the accreditation agency does not mean one should undertake the inclusion of information literacy and accreditation lightly. Information literacy is a serious topic in the academic library and world. Dedication to the cause, hard work, and passion for teaching and learning are important factors for all information literacy initiatives, not just those developed for accreditation. I believe information literacy to be a continual process, and one that is important for higher education. Instruction librarians who are excited about the process of providing information literacy training are the first step to successful students.

I have long wanted to include an information literacy component in formal education on my campus. Due to limitations posed by a small faculty, my efforts to include information literacy were limited to each library instruction session I presented. I had developed online tutorials about the topic and offered information literacy as one of the instruction subjects that are available each year. With the inclusion of information literacy as a component of the new critical thinking curriculum, I now have the opportunity to teach a subject for which I have a passion, learn from others, watch students as they learn new methods for using information, and hopefully develop new converts in my fellow faculty.

The program will begin in fall 2006, so the anticipation is building. I will be visiting the critical thinking classes, talking with the professors, and I know follow up committee meetings are on the horizon. Data gained during the next few years should provide information on the success of the program, allow for guidance, and establish the validity of the program. I hope students who complete the critical thinking classes gain knowledge they can use in other coursework and beyond. It would be wonderful to be working with a student in the near future that was able to tell me that they needed help with task identification for a research project. I would then know that student had achieved a form of information literacy training, and was putting it to good use.

Accreditation and re-accreditation are opportunities to investigate current information literacy initiatives on your campus. It is also an excellent rationale to instigate information literacy as a vital component of the entire process. Good luck and good accrediting!

Reference List
Association of College and Research Libraries. (2003). Information Literacy and Accreditation Agencies. Retrieved June 13, 2006, from http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlissues/acrlinfolit/infolitstandards/infolitaccred/accreditation.htm

Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (2006, April). Profile of Accreditation. Retrieved June 1, 2006, from http://www.chea.org/pdf/fact_sheet_1_profile.pdf

Selected Resources
Association of College and Research Libraries. (2006). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from

http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/informationliteracycompetency.htm

Association of College and Research Libraries Instruction Section. (2005). Regional
Accreditation Standards
. Retrieved June 13, 2006, from

http://www.ala.org/ala/acrlbucket/is/projectsacrl/infolitdisciplines/regional.htm

Rockman, Ilene F. (2003). What do Accreditation Agencies Say About Information Literacy? California State University. Retrieved June 13, 2006, from http://www.calstate.edu/LS/Accreditation1.doc
Story-Huffman, R. (2004). Big6 in Higher Education: Considering the ACRL Standards in a Big6 Context. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from http://www.big6.com/go/2004/07/27/big6-in-higher-education-considering-the-acrl-standards-in-a-big6-context/

Thompson, G. B. (2002, Fall). Information Literacy Accreditation Mandates: What they Mean for Faculty and Librarians. Retrieved June 13, 2006, from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1387/is_2_51/ai_96305914