Information Literacy in Vocational Education: A Course Model

Ying Xing
Farmingdale Public Library
United States

Haipeng Li
Oberlin College
United States

Michael B. Huang
Stony Brook University
United States

ABSTRACT: Vocational education has undergone major changes in recent years. The need for incorporating information literacy into the vocational school curriculum exists, given the nature of the mission of this particular type of educational institutions. Over the past decade or so, vocational education has shifted its focus from preparing students for occupations that required less than a baccalaureate degree toward a broader preparation that develops the academic, vocational, and technical skills of students for more competitive careers or advanced degrees. This shift has broadened the purpose for vocational education, demanding more attention to issues and skills related to information literacy. This article introduces a course model of teaching information literacy skills at one vocational school, the Katharine Gibbs School in Melville, New York. It describes the guidelines in place for incorporating information literacy into the curriculum and its implementation, including the course design and the evaluation process.

I. Introduction

With the development of information technology, vocational education has gone through major changes in recent years. Computers are now available in almost every office. And information is exploding regardless of the field of study. Consequently, vocational education is high in demand and more specialized. However, how this type of education should be conducted to offer students necessary skills and knowledge remains in question.

The library literature presents little scholarship on the issue of information literary and vocational education. As a result, practice of integrating information literacy into vocational schools is little known to the outside world. While scholarship on incorporating information literacy into the classroom is widely available at the college and university level, the need to examine how the issue of information literacy is dealt with in vocational education seems to be urgent to certain degree, given the nature of the mission of this particular type of educational institution.

The Katharine Gibbs School in Melville, New York, is one of the vocational schools which have experimented with incorporating information literacy into the vocational education, and in the authors’ opinions, has successfully done so. A course model of teaching information literacy skills at the Katharine Gibbs School will be introduced. And the guidelines in place for incorporating information literacy into the curriculum will be described as well as their implementation, the course design, and the evaluation process.

II. Vocational Education

Vocational education is a relatively modern educational development. Until the 19th century, such education was provided only through apprenticeship. With the growth of industrialization during the 19th century, however, several European countries began introducing vocational education in elementary and secondary schools, and it was established in Great Britain in the 20th century. By the late 19th century, public school vocational education in the United States consisted of manual training and practical arts. These programs were gradually expanded until 1917 when Federal aid was provided to public schools for trade and industrial, agricultural, and homemaking courses.[1] After World War II, the demand for trained paraprofessionals in the relatively new fields of computer science, electronics, and medical services led to an increased interest in short-term postsecondary specialized training programs in these areas as an alternative to a traditional college education. Michael E. Wonacott, a research scholar at the Center on Education and Training Career and Vocational Education at Ohio State University, describes:

…In the last hundred years, vocational education has evolved from its original inception in response to changes in society, technology, education and education philosophy, and the workplace. At the dawn of the 21th century, vocational, or career and technical, education goes far beyond the specific technical knowledge and skills required for a particular occupation; today, vocational education encompasses not only technical preparation but also sound academic foundations, higher-order thinking skills, and personal qualities needed for success in the workplace.[2]

In more recent years, there is a steady increase of interest among high school students in taking courses in vocational education. The data from the National Center for Education Statistics[3] indicate that almost all public high school students take at least one vocational education course, that 16 percent of all public high school credits are earned in vocational education, and that 49 percent of all students seeking subbaccalaureate degrees major in vocational fields.

In the past decade in particular, with the Internet and online resources becoming increasingly available, vocational education faced challenges in more specialized fields. For example, about one out of every five public high school graduates who take a concentrated vocational program also completes a rigorous "college prep" program; and over half (55 percent) of the public high school graduates who take concentrated vocational coursework enroll in a postsecondary institution within 2 years of graduation.[4] About half (49 percent) of all subbaccalaureate students major in a vocational field. Among subbaccalaureate students, those pursuing a vocational major are more likely than those pursuing an academic major to have a previous postsecondary credential; and as the education level of their parents increases, subbaccalaureate students are less likely to major in vocational fields and more likely to major in academic fields.[5]

III. Information Literacy

Library associations in the United States have attempted to define the concept of information literacy. And efforts have been made to incorporate information literacy into the curriculum on various levels. The National Forum on Information Literacy (NFIL), created in 1989 as a response to the recommendations of the American Library Association's Presidential Committee on Information Literacy, describes information literacy as: “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.”[6]

The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, a degree-granting agency for colleges and universities in the Middle States region, has further defined information literacy and requires it to be incorporated in the regional accreditation standards. In Standard 11, the section on educational offerings, it defines information literacy and sets the framework in which information literacy is an important part of the general education:

Information literacy is an intellectual framework for identifying, finding, understanding, evaluating, and using information .… Information literacy is vital to all disciplines and to effective teaching and learning in any institution. Institutions of higher education need to provide students and instructors with the knowledge, skills, and tools to obtain information in many formats and media in order to identify, retrieve, and apply relevant and valid knowledge and information resources to their study, teaching, or research.[7]

The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools further requires that “upon degree completion, students are proficient in oral and written communication, scientific and quantitative reasoning, technological capabilities appropriate to the discipline, and information literacy, which includes critical analysis and reasoning…”[8] Consequently, an effective mechanism is built in the process of education that is necessary for students to be equipped with lifelong learning skills.

IV. Information Literacy and the Vocational School Curriculum

With the shifted focus in vocational education in recent decades and the support and recommendations from organizations such as degree-granting agencies and professional associations, efforts in incorporating information literacy into the vocational education curriculum have taken serious and substantial steps. These efforts have focused on active learning, lifelong learning, critical thinking, problem solving, career preparation, undergraduate research, and assessment of learning outcomes. The confluence of the changes in information technology, information explosion, and educational reform, makes “the time ripe for a traditional mission for teaching ‘library skills’ into a broader mandate for teaching ‘information literacy.’ ”[9]

These efforts have been met by the support from legal organizations and government agencies, which provide policy guidelines for vocational education. Stevenson pointed out that “It is … not surprising that the importance of information literacy skills has been associated with the employment and education policy of national governments throughout the world during the last decade. Many of these policies conceive of information literacy as being a functional competence necessary for the modern workplace.”[10] Such policies have lent a great deal of support to establishing guidelines regarding the role of information literacy in vocational education.

V. The Katharine Gibbs School

The Katharine Gibbs School[11] at Melville, located on the Long Island of New York, 30 miles from New York City, is one of the 82 private, for-profit vocational institutes of Career Education Corporation (CEC). The Katharine Gibbs School offers associate degree programs in Business, Medical and Legal Office Administration, Computer Network Operations, Criminal Justice, Graphic Design, Health Care Administration – Long Term Care, as well as many certificate programs with the goal of preparing students for professional careers.

The school currently has 838 enrolled students at Melville,[12] including both traditional and non-traditional students. A typical student seeking associate degrees takes four courses, about 12 credits, in each quarter, which lasts eleven weeks. The Katharine Gibbs School, like most of the community colleges, serves students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, levels of academic preparation, educational aspirations, work and family responsibilities, and levels of English competency. Incorporating information literacy into the curriculum needs to take all these into consideration.

VI. Information Literacy Course Implementation

Information Literacy, as a full 3-credit course, has been implemented across the curriculum as one of the fundamental courses since January 2003 with the hiring of a full-time Information Literacy Librarian and other adjunct professors. This was the result of persistent effort of the head librarian who took over the library in 1996 and had been working as a solo librarian till the year of 2003. As discussed earlier, the Katharine Gibbs School as one of the higher education institutions under the Middle States Association for Colleges and Universities, is required to have information literacy integrated into the school’s curriculum. The Information Literacy course was first developed to provide information literacy skills to three programs in the school’s curriculum, and was expanded to seven programs in less a year. The course had been well received by faculty, administrators and students. It proved that Information Literacy is desirable for all students on the Katharine Gibbs School campus and plays an important role in the preparation for the professional workforce.

The Information Literacy course is mainly taught by librarians at the Katharine Gibbs School. Librarians and faculty members collaborate to have information literacy incorporated into a subject course as part of an assignment to address information literacy issues tailored to that course. The fact that librarians have already established strong relationships with a number of faculty members provides a favorable environment.

VII. Course Design

Based on the recommendation from the American Library Association’s (ALA) mission statement for the global information society in the 21st century, and as required by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the Katharine Gibbs School incorporates the concept of lifelong learning into the school’s mission statement.[13] To accomplish that goal, the Katharine Gibbs School Library has developed the following objectives to address information literacy.[14] An information literate person is able to:

With the goal of developing a curriculum that would motivate students to become information literacy competent, the course was designed with student active learning in mind and ways to incorporate information literacy, based on the objectives developed. Each session consists of a combination of lecture and demonstration, followed by a hands-on exercise, designed to reinforce skills or concepts taught earlier. Homework assignments expand on in-class instruction and exercises. These instructional methods are appropriate because information competence is best learned and/or enhanced by “doing”. Hands-on exercises in collaborative groups give students an opportunity to try out techniques which have been demonstrated by the lecturer in a non-threatening environment with help readily available. The course is taught with a focus on life-learning skills that are transferable from one occupation or profession to another.

It should be noted that students at the Katharine Gibbs School share much the same characteristics with those at most community colleges. According to Schuetz, about half of all students entering community colleges need to be assigned to some remedial course, mainly in Math and English.[15] This is also true with students entering the Katharine Gibbs School. Compared with their counterparts at four-year institutions, students at Gibbs may benefit more when provided with the opportunity to learn fundamental and systematic knowledge about information.

VIII. Course Development

According to Hunt and Birks, “To achieve information literacy goals successfully, instructors must first break down the skills and concepts into their basic components. These components should then be presented sequentially and in increasing levels of complexity allowing time for practice and repetition.”[16] Accordingly, the Information Literacy course at the Katharine Gibbs School has been developed for an eleven-week long term with the following objectives and measures:

Week One

This session gears towards discussion on general issues surrounding information. Information is ideas, facts and imaginative works of the mind that can be communicated, recorded or published formally or informally in any formats.[17] Despite the realization that information is organized generally by subject terms, few students have knowledge of schemes of such organization. This session discusses popular existing classification systems, with an emphasis on the Dewey Decimal Classification System and the Library of Congress Classification System. It also introduces the information characteristics, including factual vs. analytical, subjective vs. objective, and primary vs. secondary.

Students are required to establish a research topic that would motivate them to undertake a “formal information research”[18] project throughout the whole semester. The topics can either be issues that interest them or an assignment from another class. It would be a perfect match if students use what has been discussed from the Information Literacy class for their writing assignment of another class. Needless to say, when students see its immediate benefit to their course work or to an assignment that they need to accomplish, they will be most receptive to learn.

Each student needs to keep a research log to contain all details in the process of information searching. The log should include specific citations retrieved, steps, errors made, tools used, skills or strategies applied, and any thoughts for information evaluation. The research log serves several functions:

Week Two

It is generally a difficult task for students to know what to write about, and even more difficult when they need to narrow down a topic. Prior to addressing this issue, librarians discuss facets of a topic and the relationship between disciplines, subject fields and topics. Facets of a topic, according to List, refer to aspects or angle of a topic, and discipline refers to the three major divisions of knowledge: the Sciences, the Social Sciences and the Humanities.[19] Each discipline contains an expandable number of subjects which are not equivalent to topics. List continues to say that: “a topic is the idea you’re researching and its subject field is the field of knowledge or study into which your idea (topic) fits.”[20] It is important to teach these conceptual differences to students.

Clarification of the relationship between topics, subject fields, and disciplines provides tremendous help in the process of broadening and narrowing a research topic. Consequently, students find it easier to work out focused research questions. In order to help students understand research process or steps, as defined in the course objectives, students are required to select a research topic, explore the research questions from any possible angles for a better understanding and mold it into a searchable topic, write research statement paragraphs, and construct the research outline.

Students are guided to brainstorm concepts or terms associated with their topics. Once the research topic is narrowed down to a manageable level, a set of search terms will be created to provide means of access into the literature.[21] The most important, and sometimes frustrating, part of finding information is to identify key words, as pointed out by Larkin and Pines.[22] Once again, students find it beneficial to have done analysis and discussions about the relationship of disciplines, subjects and facets of topics, as one needs to understand the topic well enough to come up with the right set of terms or concepts for information searching.

The hands-on section focuses on familiarizing students with selected reference materials for further understanding of concepts at different levels. Students are asked to construct a conceptual taxonomy, in which a search term or keyword can be positioned in a framework of “superordinate (broader), subordinate (narrower) and co-ordinate (synonymous)”[23] Students were instructed to use the Subject Heading’s list from the Library of Congress, thesauri, dictionaries, and encyclopedias to facilitate this task.

Week Three

Information is organized with the purpose of being accessed so it can be utilized.[24] Apparently, means of access is the key. Although students are comfortable accessing the Web via popular search engines, few of them have the knowledge of looking for various types of information through other tools available.

The library’s online catalog is an ideal tool for manipulating search terms and “unlocking a library’s resource”.[25] Oftentimes, it is not surprising to see one retrieve hundreds or even thousands of hits when searching library databases or the Internet with one term. However, the library catalog may return nothing due to incorrect search terms used. For instance, a student will not get any relevant results by typing in “ecstasy” into the School’s online catalog until he or she tries “drug abuse”. The library catalog as a search tool is an excellent starting point to provide students with a relatively controlled environment for understanding the concepts of access points: author, title, subject, or keyword. In other words, students will find it easier to apply those skills as to other databases or the Web. For the hands-on part, students are expected to do the following:

  1. Complete an exercise on using School’s Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC);
  2. Use both School’s and other networked OPAC to locate books, and then select one book source and two reference sources relevant to their topics to enter into their research logs;
  3. Write an annotation for each source, and record their searching experience;
  4. Finish a well designed exercise on using reference works;
  5. Write a research question.

Week Four

Concepts such as scholarly communication, peer-reviewed and scholarly journals, and scientific communities are fairly foreign to the student population. Before discussing these issues, students are divided into groups, with 4-5 students in each, and provided with a set of periodicals comprising popular, professional or trade, and scholarly journals. They follow instructions to identify similarities and differences of selected articles on features, contents, structure or format, length, availability of commercials, authorship, etc.

Discussions ensue on concepts of peer review, scholarly communications, and scientific communities after students have had first-hand experience with the publications provided. Based on the knowledge gained on different types of periodicals in print version, it will be natural to introduce the concept of electronic publications, especially scholarly journal articles which could be found in subscribed electronic databases. According to the pre-testing results done during the first session, the majority of students may not be aware of the availability of electronic databases. In fact, the Katharine Gibbs School makes available a range of electronic databases mainly through Career Education Corporation – the Cyber Library, which functions as a comprehensive virtual library, supplementing to the School’s physical library. It provides access to full-text databases, electronic books, links to relevant websites, and guides for research through a group of database providers such as EBSCOhost, ProQuest, Thomson Gale, and Wilson Web. These vendors provide both general and discipline-specific databases, including Academic Search Premier, CINAHL, Business Source Elite, Art Full-text, Criminal Justice Periodicals and National Newspaper. After being instructed on how to use the above databases, students will be given an assignment to locate two scholarly and two popular articles on their topics, recording entries to the research log and completing a 3-page exercise as a reinforcement on using electronic databases. Questions from the exercise intend to familiarize students with the various database interface structures.

Week Five

The ability to evaluate retrieved sources is even more desirable in today’s rich information environment. Students are expected to be critical thinkers who possess the ability to assess the authenticity or accuracy of information claims or arguments to successfully meet information needs within this setting.[26]

Students again work in groups with distributed sample books, articles, pamphlets and audio-visual materials. They follow given guidelines, which help them to evaluate any given source in aspects of authoritativeness, timeliness, credibility, objectivity, and intended audience. The detailed evaluative content should be presented in the form of questions within each category. For instance, in category of “Credibility”, students should answer the following questions: Is the information based on facts? Are the facts supported by authors in other sources? Is the information trustworthy? Then the class will get together to have a focused discussion on the results from each group, where students are given an opportunity to elaborate on their choices and opinions, through which critical thinking skills are exercised.

Week Six
Midterm Objective:

The test is administered in the form of multiple choices, true/false questions, and short essays. It is designed for students to apply previously learned knowledge and skills in locating required information and evaluating that information. It is important and necessary to test on previously learned knowledge, something that is often missing in information literacy instruction. Instructors are often pressed by time and tend to present a tremendous amount of information, skills or concepts to a group of learners with little learning experience. Julien and Boon ask the right question: “How can one know whether anything has been learned if students are not tested on the content of that learning?”[27] This exercise will prove that learning needs to be reinforced.

Week Seven

Issues surrounding information technology will be addressed here. Basic Internet concepts, including search engines, relationship between the subscribed databases and the Web, portal and nonlinear feature of the web are discussed in class. Type of information the Web provides, and special features coming with the information presentation will also be investigated. Website content evaluation is the primary theme in this session. Use of clues from website addresses such as .com for commercial, .gov for government, etc. for making initial filtering is recommended. Students may find it hard to locate author(s) or responsible body of the site, to distinguish from title of the whole site and title for a specific piece of information on a page, and to search for credential information of the site’s creator. These types of information tend to be hard to locate and are not presented in an organized manner. Based on the findings, students will realize that information from the open Web may have issues of credibility and reliability. They will also learn that being critical is the key in Web searching.

The assignment for this session is to locate and evaluate two websites on chosen topics, to make entries to the log, to complete a search exercise on comparing the Internet and other electronic databases, and to construct an outline for the research paper using guidelines from the textbook.

Week Eight and Week Nine

Instruction on citing sources using a specific style is seldom provided in regular two-year colleges. And quite a number of students experience difficulties in this area. The Modern Language Association (MLA) style is adopted at the Katharine Gibbs School. How to cite books and print journal articles in the MLA style is demonstrated and discussed in detail so that students will understand essential elements of a citation and therefore be able to create citations. Students are instructed to use the title page, front and verso, for needed elements of a book citation. They are provided with a photocopy of a book title page (both sides) with notes added. In the case of a journal, by the same token, a copied page with necessary information is provided. Students have a writing manual to follow. But the instruction and discussion will be of great help. Issues on plagiarism will be addressed extensively, which clarifies concepts between a direct and an indirect quotation, paraphrase, and summary. In-text citation will also be addressed.

By now, students should be able to compile their annotated bibliographies containing the following sources: one primary source, one secondary source, two reference entries, one book source, one or two scholarly articles, one or two popular articles, and two websites. They are also prepared, at this point, for the upcoming presentations based on research logs.

The last two sessions are used for students presenting their accomplishments, experiences, successes and failures in the information searching process. Each student is required to give a presentation in front of the whole class on what they have found and how they have done it. They are encouraged to create and communicate information using various media.

IX. Course Evaluation

Instructors shall observe students’ progress in learning information literacy concepts and skills through interactions and consultation with students throughout the course. A pretest and a posttest will be given to students to collect information on the level of their knowledge in information literacy, based on Stevenson’s theory of “initial assessment and summative assessment.”[28] Students’ final presentations are served as an important means for them to communicate and present to the class what they have leaned in terms of information literacy competence, based on the objectives set forth during the course implementation process. A quantitative evaluative study of this course model to determine the value placed in the program will be highly desirable.

X. Conclusion

Many lessons are learned during the course implementation process. First of all, it is important to have information literacy standards as guidelines to determine the goals to be achieved. Objectives should follow, designed to accomplish each specific goal. It is also important to know your students for whom these goals and objectives are designed and implemented, particularly in the vocational educational environment.

As discussed in this study, the world of information is changing, and so is vocational education. Vocational education must meet the needs of the students who are changing with the environments they are in. The Katherine Gibbs School is facing these changes and meeting these challenges. The case at the Katherine Gibbs School may serve as a model for other educational institutions in their endeavor to meet the challenge of providing a broader education that develops the academic, vocational, and technical skills of students for more competitive careers or advanced studies.

Reference Notes

[1] Vocational Education. In Encyclopædia Britannica Online. URL: " (Accessed on 21 February 2006).

[2] Wonacott, Michael E. (2003). History and Evolution of Vocational and Career-Technical Education (p. 2). Columbus, Ohio: Center on Education and Training Career and Vocational Education, College of Education, Ohio State University.

[3] Hudson, Lisa. (2001). The Data on Vocational Education (DOVE) System.Education Statistics Quarterly, 2(4). URL: (Accessed on 14 April 2006).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The National Forum on Information Literacy. Forum Overview. URL: (Accessed on 14 April 2006).

[7] The Middle States Commission on Higher Education. (2002). Standard 11: Educational Offerings. Characteristics of Excellence in Higher Education: Eligibility Requirements and Standards for Accreditation (p. 33). Philadelphia, PA: The Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

[8] Ibid, 38.

[9] Thompson, Gary B. (2002). Information Literacy Accreditation Mandates: What They mean for faculty and librarian. Library Trends, 51(2), 218.

[10] Stevenson, John. (2003). Developing Vocational Expertise: Principles and Issues in Vocational Education> (p. 115). Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

[11] For more information on the Katharine Gibbs School, please go to

[12] National Center for Education Statistics. URL: on 14 May, 2006).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Katharine Gibbs School, Melville. (2003). Master Course Outline (p. 4). Melville, New York: Katharine Gibbs School.

[15] Schuetz, Pam. (2002). Emerging Challenges for Community Colleges (p. 2). Los Angeles, CA: ERIC Clearinghouse for Community College.

[16] Hunt, Fiona, & Birks, Jane. (2004). Best Practices in Information Literacy. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 4(1), 28.

[17] List, Carla. (2002). Information Research (p. 2). 2nd Ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

[18] Ibid., 60

[19] Ibid., 64.

[20] Ibid., 61.

[21] Duff, Alistair S. (1996). The Literature Search: a Library-based Model for Information Skills Instruction. Library Review, 45(4), 14.

[22] Larkin, Judith E., & Pines, Harvey A. (2004). Developing Information Literacy and Research Skills in Introductory Psychology: A Case Study. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(1), 42.

[23] Duff, Alistair S. (1996). The Literature Search: a Library-based Model for Information Skills Instruction. Library Review, 45(4), 15.

[24] List, Carla. (2002). Information Research (p. 3). 2nd Ed. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

[25] Duff, Alistair S. (1996). The Literature Search: a Library-based Model for Information Skills Instruction. Library Review, 45(4), 17.

[26] Boyd-Byrnes, Mary K., et al. Library Workshop Manual: Section 4 B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library, C.W.Post Campus, Long Island University. URL: (Accessed on 20 May 2006).

[27] Julien, Heidi E., & Boon, Stuart. (2002). From the Front Line: Information Literacy Instruction in Canadian Academic Libraries. Reference Services Review, 30(2), 146.

[28] Stevenson, John. (2003). Developing Vocational Expertise: Principles and Issues in Vocational Education (p. 75). Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

The authors wish to acknowledge their appreciation to Joan Kurtz, head librarian at the Katharine Gibbs School, for the provision of research materials and her support during the preparation of this paper.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 2 September 2006.
Copyright © 2006 Ying Xing, Haipeng Li, & Michael B. Huang

Xing, Ying; Li, Haipeng, & Huang, Michael B. (2007). Information Literacy in Vocational Education: A Course Model. Chinese Librarianship: an International Electronic Journal, 23. URL: