Peer-reviewed Monday (plus 24 hours) – has anyone tried out this Delphi method?

So this is a little different for peer-reviewed Monday, even though it is a peer-reviewed article about information literacy. It’s different in that I chose the article because of the research method – the infolit topic was just a bonus. I’m going to be involved in a project for the Oregon Library Association that is going to be using this same method, so I wanted to check it out.

(It’s the Delphi method, if you’re curious. And I talked about another project that used it about halfway through this post.)

In the January issue of portal: Libraries in the Academy, Laura Sanders from Simmons College uses the Delphi method to do some forecasting about information literacy and academic libraries. The Delphi method is frequently used for forecasting, which is actually how my project will be using it, so we’re off to a good start.

So, in short, the Delphi method involved identifying a set of experts on a topic. Then these experts are asked to complete a survey – an open-ended survey with lots of room for them to talk about what they think is important. The researcher collects the surveys and synthesizes the responses, and then sends out another set of questions (which may be new and which may be repeats) for another set of responses. This goes on with the goal being consensus – expert consensus on the topic in question. In this case, the experts were asked to examine some potential scenarios for the future of information literacy:

This study develops possible scenarios for the future of library instruction services and offers practitioners, administrators, and library users a sense of how existing technologies, resources, and skills can best be employed to meet this vision.

Saunders identified her experts by their participation in information literacy organizations, publishing, presenting, and research. She identified 27, 14 agreed to participate and 13 eventually did. She did two rounds of surveys. She pulled some potential futures for information literacy out of the literature (things stay the same, librarians get replaced by faculty who take over all information literacy instruction, and librarians and faculty collaborate) and asked the expert panel to talk about four things:

  1. the scenario they thought was most reasonable or likely and why
  2. any obstacles they could see getting in the way of realizing these scenarios
  3. alternative possibilities or scenarios
  4. other comments

After the first round, she kept one scenario (the collaborative one) and created another composite scenario based on responses from the experts (this last scenario posited a reduced need to teach information literacy because of improvements in the technology). Participants could reiterate their initial choice or choose the new scenario. It isn’t clear from the methods section whether or not the participants were given the same four questions again, nor is it clear what information they were given from the first round – did they see everyone’s responses, a synthesis or summary of those responses, or just the new questions?

The research showed that these experts were largely optimistic about the future of information literacy, and that they overwhelmingly thought the collaborative scenario was the most likely. They identified faculty resistant as a major obstacle, and also mentioned staff and money issues as obstacles. They believed that librarians should leverage their expertise to play a stronger role establishing information literacy goals at the institutional level.

They saw partnerships on instructional design and assignment design as a place where librarians would continue to play a role in information literacy instruction, even if classroom faculty took on more responsibility for teaching, but they expressed concern that librarians aren’t ready to take on those roles. They were also not sure that library schools were providing new practitioners with these skills and that knowledge:

For librarians to be truly integrated into the curriculum rather than offering one-shot sessions, they must have much more pedagogical and theoretical knowledge. Although practicing librarians might have experience with library instruction, few have the background to transition easily to the [consulting] roles being described. Furthermore, respondents were unsure that library school programs were developing courses to adequately prepare future graduates for these responsibilities

The experts also argued that assessment needs to be a concern, and they also raised the age-old question of what do we really mean by information literacy anyway. Following along the lines of the researchers discussed in two recent peer reviewed Mondays, they generally agreed that context is significant when it comes to information literacy, and that information literacy must be understood more broadly than “library research skills.” At the same time, some argued for the more reductionist, standards-based definitions because they are easier to assess.

On a methods level, I found this study compelling, though there were two things that nagged at me. First was the idea that 13 is just not enough experts. Too often Saunders was forced to spend significant time on a point only to undercut its significance when the reader realizes that it had been articulated by only one person on the panel. Some of them were necessary correctives or added important subtleties to the conversation, so I don’t fault her for including them. But when it’s just one voice it is just not possible to entirely dismiss the idea that that voice is alone because it’s wacky.

The second thing was related to this and that is that I didn’t get any sense from the article that any kind of real consensus had been reached, or that the experts involved had changed or refined their views as a result of the process. Those who were outliers after round one of the surveys remained outliers. As it was described to us, the Delphi process offers the interactivity and social learning benefits of a focus group, while allowing the participants to provide individual, thoughtful, reflective feedback. That may have gone on in this study, but I don’t feel like I really saw it if it did.

On a content level, I found the argument that instruction librarians needed more pedagogical and theoretical knowledge intriguing. I was struck by the extent to which the expert panel focused on teaching knowledge as the thing separating the faculty and the librarians, as shown by this quote from one of the panelists: “faculty ‘view librarians as having no pedagogic understanding.'”

Librarians frequently talk about teaching as something faculty don’t think we can do, but in my experience it isn’t teaching but research that causes this gap. I haven’t run across many faculty members who don’t think librarians can teach, though some certainly don’t know that they do, but I regularly run across faculty members who are surprised to hear that there is information science research. And when it comes to what would make me feel comfortable approaching faculty and saying “this is what your students need” – it is research on what students actually do need, what they do and don’t know, and more that would help me do that – not better knowledge or teaching techniques. This may be a function of spending a lot of time at research-focused institutions, but I’m not sure. And it may be that this is exactly what these experts mean by knowledge that is more pedagogical and theoretical, but again, I’m not sure.

And this relates to the assessment piece and the definitions of information literacy piece as well. Because these are both examples of places where there is a danger of following the path of least resistance – of defining information literacy like faculty understand it, or of assessing what other people think is important. Not that that has to be what happens, but the danger exists.

And I do wonder how these experts have themselves avoided the gaps they see in others – how they have developed the knowledge of theory and pedagogy that they think librarians need. Or maybe they haven’t – maybe they are including themselves in the number of librarians who aren’t ready to be faculty partners in this way. I’m not sure. But I have been thinking lately that the Delphi method might be useful for getting at that question as well – how do expert instruction librarians develop the knowledge they need to do what they do?

Laura Saunders (2008). The Future of Information Literacy in Academic Libraries: A Delphi Study portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9 (1), 99-114 DOI: 10.1353/pla.0.0030

4 thoughts on “Peer-reviewed Monday (plus 24 hours) – has anyone tried out this Delphi method?

  1. Are you sure you want to strive for consensus? As I read history, people are pretty bad at predicting thinks like the future of information literacy. Think of the guy who predicted that telephones would be impractical because jt would cost too much to build the large exchanges that would be needed. Or the guys who thought the invention of printing with movable type would promote religion. Or the guy who thought that maybe the United States might need four or five computers to satisfy the combined need for information processing.

    Rather than Delphi, perhaps you should try for an approach that seeks a variety of projections — conservative, moderate and extreme.

    Good luck!

  2. If I remember, Ask Ontario used Delphi to identify best practices in virtual reference, though I’m not sure where the predictions came into play. My sense was that it was a good way for their group to buy into the program and agree on what was what.

    It sounds like OLA is supporting you with some leadership or consulting for Vision 2020? That’s awesome, unless they are not, in which case it is less awesome, but still awesome to go about this in a guided way.

  3. Hi John – definitely good points. The project that I am working on isn’t information-literacy focused; it is much broader. And what we need to come up with is not just a prediction of the future, but something more aspirational. In any event, the Delphi piece is only part of the picture. But the different streams idea could be really useful in the narrative that explains what we come up with.

    Yes, Caleb, OLA does have our backs on this – which is great.

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