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Friday, 14 December 2012

International tests and multiculturalism with a sprinkle of evidence

Suzana Sukovic

In the wake of the latest international testing results (TIMSS, PIRLS) the Australian media is struggling to provide an explanation as to why Australian students are not rating very high in maths, science and reading. International tests like these are important and relevant because they are indicators of how we measure up with the rest of the world but, like any test, TIMSS and PIRLS should be taken with a big grain of salt. Even if they were the best measure of students’ achievement in tested areas, they don’t consider a number of factors such as creativity and innovation potential, which may influence individual and national achievement over a period of time. While keeping this in mind, I read the test reports with great interest looking for evidence to inform my professional practice. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is coming at the right time for our library as we are considering how to revamp reading programs for next year. However, this blog post is not about a thoughtful interpretation of test results. Quite the opposite – it is about first responses in the media and how first interpretations of test results are becoming a test of evidence-based practice in their own right.

The Other

Listening to recent discussions, it appears that multiculturalism has a lot to answer for when it comes to education. At an educational conference in Sydney, a keynote speaker said Finnish successes in educational testing are understandable considering that Finland isn’t a culturally diverse country and has a strong work ethic. This statement echoes similar claims by American and Australian educators posted on social media. The first media reports about the most recent TIMSS and PIRLS results continue in the same vein.  Media analysis includes scenes from classrooms full of non-Caucasian children followed by explanations that, unlike countries like Japan, Australia is a multicultural nation so its education can’t be measured in the same way (ABC 7.30 Report, 12 December).

Our sense of what the hierarchy is in the league of nations is shattered. It seems particularly difficult to accept that Australia is in the same category with some nations that don’t appear particularly appealing to Australian reporters. For example, “The Daily Telegraph” wrote on 13 December: “Two startling new global studies have revealed our students have slipped down the international learning ladder to perform on a par with Eastern European minnows Lithuania, Bulgaria and Poland”. “The Daily Telegraph” editorial on the same day pointed out that some countries emerging behind the “iron curtain” developed their education fast and are now on par with Australia: “Education standards have vastly improved across the former communist bloc, to the point where many Australian students are being matched or beaten by students from what were previously considered backwaters”.

A sprinkle of evidence

When we deal with international comparisons, it’s worth remembering that our self-evident truths may not hold once we cross the border. Let’s look at some evidence in reverse order! I haven’t sought any comparative test data from the cold war era but, believe it or not, a number of countries from the former Eastern bloc claim that their educational standards have slipped since they’ve started embracing Western values. As for “minnows” (let’s assume it referred to the size of mentioned countries), the population of Poland is larger than that of Australia.

More serious and more damaging are suggestions that multiculturalism or multiethnicity is to blame for Australia’s inadequate test results. The fact is that some multi-ethnical countries such as Canada and England achieved much better results than Australia. Canadian results are particularly relevant considering a number of similarities with Australia.

Another question concerns a relationship between ethnicity and test scores. The language spoken at home is presumably an important factor influencing test results. According to the report PIRLS 2011: Canada in context (p.39),  26 per cent of Canadian students didn’t speak the test language at home, which is similar to the international average. The number of Australian Year 4 students who didn’t speak the test language at home was actually smaller – 21 per cent (ACER's reports Australian Results TIMMS and PIRLS). Australian and Canadian reports both indicate that students who spoke the test language at home achieved higher reading results than those who didn’t, but the gap is smaller for Canadian students. Why this is the case isn’t clear, but answers may be counter-intuitive to many Australians. Research into bilingualism confirms the rule in language development “strong first language - strong every other language”. Canada’s reputation in supporting bilingualism may be the case in point.

The relationship between ethnicity and reading results is far from clear, particularly considering the significance of other factors such as socio-economic status, living in rural areas, quality of early childhood education and parents’ influence, to name some. In PISA test the first generation of Australian immigrants demonstrated significantly better digital reading literacy than both Australian-born and foreign-born students. Students from non-English speaking homes were represented more at the bottom of the scale. However, high achievers in reading were coming equally from English and non-English speaking homes (Preparing Australian students for the digital world, p. 32). Simplistic explanations won’t go far in clarifying the results. Like in other affluent countries, Australian immigrants are likely to be better educated than native-born citizens (Degrees of mobility, The Economist). Studies repeatedly show that immigrant parents highly value education and encourage children to obtain university degrees, a contributing factor to students’ academic achievement. More relevant in Australian society are questions about the details of complex influences rather than the sweeping statements we often hear in the media. At this early stage, explanations of the test results are saying more about our understanding of other cultures and the global scene on which we compete than fostering deeper understanding.


If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it certainly takes a whole country to educate one. Whatever the meaning of current results may be, I believe that young people in Australia have one significant advantage over many counterparts across the globe – their bad starts and missed chances can be reversed, they have more opportunities throughout their lives. Over the coming weeks and months, a thoughtful analysis may provide some pointers on how education, and the library and information sector can use international studies to inform its practice. A quick read assures me that librarians will find evidence in support of our position as key providers of opportunities for lifelong learning and intellectual growth. I believe that as a profession we are well positioned to look far beyond the national borders as well to make sure that historical and national memories are kept alive.

Thanks to Alycia Bailey and Katherine Rogerson for their comments about this blog post!
The photograph by Hannah Berekoven, student at St.Vincent's College, Potts Point.

This post also appears at the SVC's National Year of Reading blog.

Dr Suzana Sukovic is Head of the Learning Resource Centre, St.Vincent's College, Potts Point and Research Associate, the University of Sydney.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Technology and research in our schools

 Adam Carron

We can all agree that technology strongly shapes how we conduct research. The very idea of “research” has monumentally changed in this digital world. The approach in which this is carried out effectively still needs to be addressed in our schools. Our students have the use of multiple devices at their disposal. It is now about how we harness this power to help our young people obtain relevant, trustworthy and rich information that will drive their learning.


How can schools address this ‘skills’ gap?

Educators are now faced with the task of teaching and embedding research skills or competencies by utilising technology in new and innovative ways. Teaching research skills in isolation is not an effective way to help our students. Students must be armed with a project to manage that requires well-intentioned research. Our young people need to recognise that there is a need to judge the quality and merit of information. This is clearly a skill which an immense number of educators consider to be central to effective research.

According to a recent study carried out by the Pew Research Centre, 2012, many teachers openly acknowledged that they do not feel suitably qualified to teach genuine research with their classes. The study identifies that a ‘good use’ of technology can give our young people the tools to research more fruitfully. The study identifies that it is not a good idea to give students an ‘isolated weighty’ research project. It is important to provide smaller, ongoing manageable projects in which educators can provide ongoing feedback and support.

Technology is providing our students with quick and easy ways of carrying out research. Web based tools such as Instagrok are designed to help our students to develop the ability to research, curate and synthesis information. EasyBib now enables our students to build their own bibliographies with ease and precision. EasyBib’s beta research area now provides students with the ability to share citations with others.

It is both the role of the teacher and library staff to communicate with our young people the difference between a project that is plagiarised and a project that is not. It is vital that educators utilise and share the wealth of knowledge and expertise of their colleagues to provide the most creditable learning experiences for our students.
The library staff play a significant role in embedding effective research skills to both our students and to our teachers. As identified above by the Pew Research, 2012, we need to also provide professional learning experiences to our teachers to equip them with ability to transfer effective research competencies in the digital age. We are in exciting times!
Image is taken from Corbis Royalty free images: 

Adam is a research, library and computing teacher at Newington College, Sydney. Working as part of the library team, he is heavily involved driving information literacy across the school. He has a keen interest in research education and technology.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Open Access: Researchers, Librarians, and Library Research

Amy Croft

Image from the iCommons website:
This week is the 6th international Open Access Week, an annual event to promote the benefits of open access to the academic and research community. So what better time to discuss its impact on researchers and librarians?

What exactly is Open Access?

Open Access (OA) was defined in the Budapest Open Access Initiative Declaration of 2002 as “free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.”

A fantastic starting point for those new to OA is Peter Suber's overview. The two main options are known as gold OA (publishing in OA journals, sometimes for a fee, which provide free access to the article) and green OA (providing a version of the article to be stored and made available in an OA repository).


Impact on researchers

Having publications freely available online rather than behind a paywall increases the potential for discovery, and thus citations and impact for researchers. Open access allows authors to promote, and directly link to, their research on social media platforms. Sten Christensen of the University of Sydney Library’s Sydney eScholarship Repository has blogged that the most viewed items in the repository were those that the authors promoted using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Brian Kelly has observed the same results with his own publications, and recently shared his Top 12 Tips for researchers to maximise the visibility of their work.


Impact on librarians and libraries

Harvard University Library famously advised all faculty members in a memo this year that the increasing costs of subscribing to major periodicals cannot be sustained, and urged them to consider open access options. In an article in the Guardian, Robert Darnton (Director of Harvard Library) said he hoped other universities would follow suit, saying “We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”

OA provides a chance to solve the ‘serials crisis’ and make scholarly information available in a more cost-effective way.


Demonstrating our value

A survey conducted by InTech showed that librarians believe that OA is changing the role of the librarian in the following ways:
o Librarians need to be better integrated with their research
community as a research partner and innovator (96% agree)
o Librarians need to be developing value‐added discovery and
delivery tools (92% agree)
o Librarians should focus on workflow within their institution to
improve efficiencies and enhance collaboration (87% agree)
o Librarians need to find ways to create trusted information
environments (86% agree)
o Librarians need to develop enhanced search and discovery skills
(83% agree)
o Librarians should support authors in relation to rights with
advice on publishing options and agreements (83% agree)
o Librarians should focus on metadata creation and management
(83% agree)
o Librarians need to focus less on being gatekeepers and have
more active involvement in the creation and dissemination of
content (80% agree)
o The role of the librarian should now be focused outward,
promoting the output of their institution worldwide (77% agree)

In other words, this is a wonderful opportunity for libraries to stop being mere warehouses of information, and for librarians to step up and take an active role in the creation, discovery, and use of scholarly information.


Impact on library research

There are still many questions about the costs and benefits of OA, and how it will develop in the future. This provides opportunities for library researchers to play their part in finding some answers.
Check out the research in progress and especially some “research questions in need of researchers” on the Open Access Directory wiki.

Which direction is your institution taking with OA? How do you see it affecting you as a librarian and/or researcher?

Amy is the Library Manager at CQUniversity Sydney, where she is also involved in the International Education Research Centre. She is interested in the use of technology to improve library services.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

LARK Diigo group

I am starting to see a value of hanging in one place long enough. The LARK Diigo group started in 2010 when a few librarians from UTS prepared a presentation for a workshop at Information Online 2011. The presentation was called Two birds with one evaluation and it was part of a research workshop presented by the ALIA Research Committee. The rest is a (personal) history.

Diigo bookmarks were shared with 2011 workshop participants; then the UTS group and I went in different directions (while remaining in touch); I kept adding bits and pieces; another workshop by the ALIA Research Committee was organised in 2012 and Diigo bookmarks were on offer once again... And here we are with the LARKs to share what was gathered in the last two years.

Is there a message in this accidental, let's-see-what-happens-history? Maybe that if we keep putting twigs on that fire, it will survive rainy and forgetful days. Maybe it will give some warmth to a soul in need of a research flame. Who knows...Let's offer that Diigo group here and see what happens.

Suzana Sukovic

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Why library research?

Suzana Sukovic

The most of this blog first appeared on ALIA Sydney blog, 30 June 2012

For the first LARK post, here is my plain and bold statement: librarians need to do research. It is necessary for us and good for the rest of the world. And here are six reasons why.


3 reasons why practice-based research is good for librarians

1. To save our skin. At a recent teacher-librarians’ conference, Di Laycock argued for the importance of research in school libraries and showed us a picture of a frog. If you throw a frog in hot water, she said, it will jump out immediately. However, if you gradually increase temperature while the frog is in water, the adaptable animal will stay in the water until it boils alive. In a demanding information world, librarians are a bit like frogs. In order to save our skins, we need to monitor our environment regularly and systematically to be able to act accordingly.

2.To evolve through evidence based practice. In the complicated and sometimes dangerously hot information environment, we can’t afford to rely only on our experience and impressions. We need rigorously gathered evidence to inform our constantly changing practice. Gathering reliable evidence takes time but it is still faster than guess work. It is a bit like asking locals for directions – you stop the car, but get to your destination faster or make an informed decision about how to continue your trip. (I acknowledge that asking for directions is an impossibly difficult thought for some people.)

3. To broaden our career options and strengthen reputation. We already apply research skills in a number of careers outside our main domains. An ability to do primary research may open some new options such as participation as equal partners on research teams, particularly cross-disciplinary ones. Numerous possibilities will open as the demand for innovation and evidence-based practice in many professions increases. At the same time, benefits for our individual and collective professional reputation will be substantial.

3 reasons why librarians’ research is good for the world

4. To keep saving the free thinking world. In our information world domineered by a few big players and swamped by many smaller ones who are trying to get their piece of profitable pie, who is going to defend the right to free information? Librarians and Friends, of course. Knowing about information trends first hand and using that knowledge to be the best we can is something we owe to nothing less than Democracy and Free Thought. Librarians existed well before googles of the modern world, kept the record of civilisations dead and alive, and survived as one of the last civic places. At the time of tremendous changes, we are not going to trust you-know-who to tell us about information trends, are we?

5. To contribute insights from a unique perspective. By serving everyone every day, we have unique insights into the information world. We have been great curators of knowledge records, but now we have a special position to become great ethnographers of the fast-changing world of information and knowledge. We have unparalleled access to potential data about information needs and behaviours on a daily basis - and we have a reputation and tradition to be trusted curators and interpreters of that information. Our perspective is valuable.

6. To enhance our academic field. Academia traditionally saw itself as self-sufficient and all-knowing, but it increasingly recognises the value of connection with practice. This connection is particularly important in the library and information studies which, like it or not, is predominantly an applied discipline. Some important lessons can be learnt from other applied fields. For example, there are good reasons why most academics in faculties of medicine are practicing clinicians and why they have a well-developed system of university hospitals. The sooner our field recognises advantages of different types of research and practice, the sooner it will benefit from a stronger reputation, better career paths, an improved position in negotiating research grants, and increased enrolments in postgraduate courses.

Da Vinci Institute has predicted what the future holds for libraries and made some recommendations. The first is to evaluate the library experience - to ask for opinions, to survey - in other words, to do research. There is no doubt in my mind that practice-based research will be critical for thriving libraries. When it comes to research, the question is not whether or why, but how and where to start.

Suzana is the Head of Learning Resource Centre, St.Vincent's College, Potts Point and Research Associate at the University of Sydney. She has a long history of boundary-crossing. A drive on a simulator train and a doctoral degree in information studies are some of her proud professional achievements