mum-photo.jpgIt’s a month now since I returned from the (very) sunny Northern Hemisphere, and the tan lines have all but faded away. The trip certainly included plenty of fun (and shopping!), but most of all it was an opportunity to present our research findings at two significant conferences on higher education.

Both conferences looked very relevant to the work we’re doing in the Information Literacy Spaces project. The first conference was the European First Year Higher Education Conference, held in beautiful Utrecht. I had high hopes for this conference, as I have a long-held interest in student transition to higher education, both from a research perspective, but also in my role as a Director of Teaching and Learning at Massey University. And, indeed, there were some interesting papers. But the whole focus of the conference seemed to be about testing students at point of entry and ensuring students’ skills/knowledge matched the course they were enrolling in. Apart from our paper, literacy barely received a mention.

The second conference was the Higher Education Academy Conference, in Birmingham, UK. This conference had a broader scope, and presented some interesting ideas about the future of higher education. The first keynote was especially challenging. Dr Christine Jarvis, PVC of Teaching and Learning at the University of Huddersfield, defined a purpose for higher education in the future that was quite different to the way we have conceptualised university study in the past. Our role, she said, was to “ensure that future generations are equipped to face the global challenges [e.g., global warming, increasing social inequality, growing religious and political intolerance] they will encounter in the coming decades”. That’s quite a mission, with huge implications for what and how we teach.

But, again, what struck me about this conference was that there was so little discussion of literacy in higher education. Yes, there were a couple of presentations, but they were practice-based rather than evidence-based. And I felt really concerned that long-established ideas (e.g., literacy is discipline specific) seemed to be news to most of the (small number of) people who attended one such session. Given that we know literacy is central to successful educational achievement, that literacy will be a core competency for anyone heading into the workplace, and that critical information literacy is an utter necessity in a world saturated with fake news, shouldn’t literacy be top of the agenda for any meeting about higher education? Especially if, as Dr Jarvis says, we need to prepare students for the global challenges of the future.

So I’ve come away from these conferences with a big puzzle on my mind:

How do we make literacy central to discussions about the transition to, and the purposes of, higher education?

Our work with practitioners, teachers and librarians and principals in Aotearoa New Zealand will always be at the heart of what we do. BUT if we want to have a broader, more systemic impact on secondary and tertiary education, we need to consider some bigger questions:

* How can we improve the visibility of literacy in the broader educational and research communities?

* How do we reach the policy makers and the people who decide on the important conversations around transition and learning in schools and tertiary institutions?

* How do we make sure that our research does more than preach to the choir, that it doesn’t just connect with those people who are already interested in literacy?

Answering these questions seems to meet the mission of preparing students to face the global challenges of the future.

I haven’t found answers yet – but I am on a mission! We have made a start: our social media strategy is beginning to reach a national and international audience, but we can and must do more. Certainly we need to publish our findings for this project in education and education policy journals, not academic writing journals. Perhaps we need to write more opinion pieces in national and international media. As a team we will be engaging fully with this question of visibility and influence.

If you have ideas about how we could raise the profile of literacy within national and international conversations, please get in touch with us or comment on this blog post. We invite you to help us answer these questions and spark what we think is a crucial conversation.

Lisa Emerson

IL Spaces Project Director, Massey University