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Information literacies for online learning: Coursework Design

Alistair Knock


The context is a course on disability awareness and equality, taken as part of the staff induction programme at a university. The course takes place online over a period of around 6 weeks, and as it does not carry any formal accreditation, the assessment on the course is informal and self-reflective: the student identifies within themselves that they are learning and progressing through the course. The course tutor acts as a steer in the background, ensuring students are on the right track.

This piece of coursework focuses on changes in attitude around disability over a period of several decades, and aims to illustrate that legislation in the form of the Disability Discrimination Act can have subtle but meaningful effects on society's attitude. Having learned about preferred language and the social model of disability in previous sessions, the student should now be able to identify 'good' and 'bad' language and demonstrate this through their selection of information sources.

Coursework Task

The coursework task is as follows:

Select an information source which you know to have been published at different points over the past 20 years or more, and which is likely to cover some aspect of disability either in reporting news events or through opinion. Examples of this could be BBC News, The Times newspaper, a textbook which has been revised several times, or a relevant journal which follows disability studies.

From this source, identify 3 articles which were written several years apart from each other, where possible choosing dates which are likely to impact on the content of the article. For example, one written recently, one written just after the introduction of the DDA 1995, and the third written some time prior to the introduction of legislation. Try to select articles of approximately the same length and subject.

Analyse these three articles and write a brief (500 words maximum) summary on any identifiable changes in language and approach over the time period. This can be done by reading the articles side-by-side and noting any differences in the use of words, or you may wish to use a tool to give a statistical overview to help you focus on key changes. For example, creating a tag cloud to visually show the frequency with which words occur in the article can give an initial indicator of trends. (See TagCrowd for a resource which can create tag clouds from any webpage or selection of text).

The coursework should identify which articles were selected, from where and when they were created, and should explore whether there is an observable change in tone or language and to what degree this is evident. The analysis approach and tools should be briefly described.


This ability to observe changes in tone and to identify different viewpoints on a subject is important to disability awareness and equality since this is a field of work which is relatively new and is quickly evolving and maturing in terms of its intention and impact on society. It is a field within which there are competing views and ideals on how to approach problems, as well as a field which encounters hostility and resistance from many other corners of society. Equally, many proponents of ideas can misuse their position to overemphasise the importance of some aspects of disability, as well as detracting from relevant developments by others. This can be particularly true in opinion/editorial pieces in newspapers and magazines, which are normally regarded as trustworthy in reporting events but which may operate from a now dated negative mindset, such as the medical model of disability, which sees disabled people as 'sufferers', and wheelchair users as 'wheelchair bound'.

The issue of inappropriate language - even at a relatively subtle level - is known to be an issue in the mass media and has a subsequent effect on the way it is consumed by readers, listeners and viewers. Information is portrayed in such a way that systemic bias becomes the norm, and so consumers are unaware that what they are reading is inappropriate and offensive when taking legislation and the current ethical models into account. Wilde (2007) concludes her paper on disability in soap operas by stating:

'Alongside greater inclusion of disabled people within the production process, changes in content are imperative, necessitating deliberate strategies to reconceptualise disabled people, normality, and ideas of the average viewer.'

In a study of disability and sport, Brittain (2004) cites Reiser and Mason (1990) as suggesting 'that this general absence of people with disabilities from television, coupled with the traditional linking of disability and medicine, reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are incapable of participating fully in everyday life while at the same time feeding the notion that they should be shut away and segregated.'

While this exercise has a clear focus on disability coverage, the student is at the same time developing their information harvesting and dissection skills. That disability is not represented highly in news coverage means that students may need to work harder to find articles which are relevant to the particular subject they are looking into, and even harder to find articles from the same resource which are similar in content yet different in attitude. These are not skills which are explicitly related to disability awareness and equality; they are skills which can usefully be developed in any arena, although they are likely to be of most use in those areas where there is less published and publicised research.


Students may encounter some problems with the coursework task for several reasons. Firstly, it may be difficult at first to locate articles which are related to one another from the same publication, because disability is not reported to the extent or depth of other social issues such as politics or healthcare. The exercise is not as clearly definable, for instance, as an analysis of perceptions of fascism in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War.

Secondly, the content of the articles selected may not differ significantly in tone or language. This could be partly located in the fact that the social model of disability is still not widely understood, particularly in the media. While the task asks the student to harvest articles over 20 years, in relative social terms this is a very compressed period to attempt to identify changing views. Such zeitgeist transforms are more observable in activities which have a more rigid and defined remit - for example, the State of the Union addresses given by the President of the United States of America. These addresses have been cleverly aggregated into a timeline based tag cloud by Chirag Mehta and give a clear visual indicator to the user of the pressing social issues of the day, which can be easily referenced to known real events (such as war, the Great Depression, Vietnam, etc.) by those who already know of them, but equally can be used as an efficient way to begin to inform those without any knowledge of the subject's history.

Thirdly, in self-selecting texts prior to any analysis, there is a risk that the student will have difficulty in selecting sufficiently diverse viewpoints even if they do exist. It is only clear after the task is complete whether the articles chosen give a meaningful result in terms of what the task is intended to illustrate. This is not a fault of the student's information seeking skills, but more a restriction in the design of the activity.

Finally, there is the possibility of subjective bias in both the selection of and the analysis of the articles. The student's personal opinions may inform the selection and so mean that there is little observable change in language, or conversely, there is an overstated change which isn't representative of the range of articles available to choose from. The student may then intentionally ignore any effects observable from the analysis: while this can be picked up in marking the assessment, the tutor cannot know whether this is down to intentional bias or by inadequate information analysis skills. This is an endemic issue in qualitative research - of which this coursework task is an example - and in a way is fundamentally important to the wider scope of the study context, which seeks to identify the student's beliefs and understanding of disability, and try to align it with the currently preferred ethical model. The underpinning driver of this course on disability awareness is to help people identify the current (mis)conceptions about disability, determine whether their beliefs are in some way deviating from where society now expects them to be, and apply some correction. However, with this specific coursework task, it is important that it is in some way iterative and reflexive. In the case of a biased selection, as the results are only known after selecting the 'wrong' articles, the student should be encouraged to learn from this outcome and try again, in order to then know what a more suitable selection of articles would comprise.


This task employs two key information literacy skills: discovery and differentiation. The first comes from researching the available information sources, and then deeper into the articles available over a period of time (mapped to SCONUL's Seven Pillars model, these equate to to 'Construct strategies for locating' and 'Locate and access'). The second is displayed through the critical analysis of these articles, reflecting the 'Compare and evaluate' and 'Organise, apply and communicate' aspects of the Seven Pillars model. Appropriately for an active exercise in developing skills, these aspects reflect some of the higher levels in Bloom's cognitive taxonomy, that of analysis, evaluation, and application.

In isolation, the coursework task appears too loose in construction, and prone to the types of problems illustrated here which mostly stem from unavailability of relevant resources. However in the context of the wider training courses into which this task might be incorporated, the probable effects on the learner of (apparent) failure in this task are likely to be less meaningful than they would seem if the task was pursued out of context. In the context of the rest of the course, it is arguably helpful that students fail in some of the tasks, as this further demonstrates that the way of thinking being promoted has - regrettably - not yet permeated the mainstream of society. Ironically, a student's apparent failure in completing this particular task seems to justify the need for it to exist as a learning instrument in the current social climate.

This does not, however, undermine the potential information skills learned by the student in trying to succeed. In a sense, the more difficult it is to achieve success in the primary activity (finding disability-related sources), the more can be accomplished in developing the secondary skills of information literacy. In Vilfredo Pareto's words, 'Give me a fruitful error anytime, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections.'


  1. Brittain, I. (2004). Perceptions of Disability and their Impact upon Involvement in Sport for People with Disabilities at all Levels, Journal of Sport and Social Issues 2004; 28; 429, retrieved 2008-02-13
  2. Mehra, B. (2002). Bias in qualitative research: Voices from an online classroom. The Qualitative Report, 7(1), retrieved 2008-02-13
  3. Olson, H (1995). Quantitative "Versus" Qualitative Research: The Wrong Question, retrieved 2008-02-13
  4. Ross, K (1998). Disability and the media: a suitable case for treatment?, retrieved 2008-02-13
  5. Society of College, National and University Libraries, The Seven Pillars of Information Literacy model, retrieved on 2008-02-13
  6. Wilde, A. (2007), Are you sitting comfortably? Soap operas, disability and audience, retrieved 2008-02-13

Word count: 1,801 excluding headings and references