published quarterly by the university of borås, sweden

vol. 22 no. 1, March, 2017

Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Conceptions of Library and Information Science, Uppsala, Sweden, June 27-29, 2016

E-learning objects and actor-networks as configuring information literacy teaching

Trine Schreiber

Introduction. With actor-network theory as the theoretical lens the aim of the paper is to examine attempts to build network for shaping information literacy teaching.
Method. The paper is based on a study of a project in 2014-2016 where information professionals representing ten educational libraries produced and implemented e-learning objects in information literacy teaching. The material was collected through interviews, observations, documents and feedback sessions.
Analysis. Latour's concept of translation and Callon's four translation moments are used to analyze the network building during the time of the project. The analysis followed the network building and retraced different knowledge claims which were put into play by the actors.
Results. The study reveals that the e-learning objects produced during the time got an important role in a network building. Further, it also shows that a network configuring information literacy teaching based on new interactive roles has not been stabilized.
Conclusion. The paper concludes that the strength of actor-network theory is first of all the mediation of an overview of different kinds of actors involved in network building. Further, the paper proposes to combine findings of earlier research on conditions of information literacy teaching with studies based on actor-network theory.


In this paper Science and Technology studies (STS) in general, and actor-network theory in particular is used to bring new insights into the conditions of information literacy teaching. One of the analytical principles of actor-network theory is to avoid taking concepts such as mental structures, society, profession, school discourses, technological development, etc. for granted. However, such psychological and sociological concepts have so far been a pivotal point in the research on conditions of information literacy teaching within the field of library and information studies. In Kuhlthau's study of information seeking and user education a main element was concepts about mental structures referring to emotional aspects as uncertainty (Kuhlthau, 2004). In Sundin's study of user education on the web main elements in the analysis were concepts about profession, expert knowledge and information technology (Sundin, 2008). Sundin found that the user education on the web was formed in relation to the development of not only information technology but also professional knowledge. In Alexandersson and Limberg's synthesis of research concerning conditions for students' learning and information interaction from 2012 concepts such as society and school discourses were central. They discussed how to improve information literacy instruction to support learners’ in-depth reasoning about information collected. Such an improvement was related to among others a social change involving a shift in school discourse from teacher directed instruction to student-centred learning methods. All three studies have contributed substantially to research on conditions of information literacy teaching. Therefore, the following suggestion to examine the subject without taking neither psychological nor sociological concepts for granted is an exploration into what the approach of actor-network theory as an alternative perspective may provide of results.

According to actor-network theory the concepts mentioned as well as every kind of knowledge are effects of associations between heterogeneous elements (Latour, 2005). Therefore, the task is to study associations between elements by examining attempts to build network. Further, in an actor-network theory perspective it is particularly of interest to identify those entities, or actors, who achieve an important role in maintaining or expanding such a network. Concerning the concept of conditions one comment more is needed. Actor-network theory does not share social science's understanding of conditions as something indicating a causal relationship (Latour, 2005). Instead conditions are understood as the process itself in which a temporary actor-network progressively takes form. Thus, the aim of the paper is to study attempts to build a network for shaping information literacy teaching. To do this a specific information literacy teaching project has been chosen for a closer investigation. The project was carried out during the period from September 2014 to April 2016 in ten Danish educational libraries aiming to develop information literacy teaching by using e-learning technology. An identification of the actors involved in the project will be part of the analysis.

In the following study of the network building between human as well as non-human actors involved in the project the concept of translation from actor-network theory will be used (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1986; Latour, 2005). This concept has already been applied in the field of library and information studies (Carlsson, 2013; Carlsson, Hanell and Lindh, 2013; Rivera and Cox, 2014) but not in relation to an analysis of conditions of information literacy teaching. Translations mean negotiations, through which both human and non-human actors are enrolled in a network. The introduction and implementation of e-learning technology in information literacy teaching is therefore seen as a spontaneous and pragmatic translation process consisting of interwoven human and non-human actors.

The project involved information professionals from ten Danish educational libraries. In autumn 2014 about twenty of these people participated in a competence development course on practicing e-learning. The course should make the participants competent to develop and implement e-learning technologies in information literacy teaching, i.e. to develop so-called e-learning objects adjusted to each local library context. All participants from the competence course were engaged in both design of e-learning objects and adoption of these during 2015. The concept of translation is used to show how different knowledge claims were put into play by the actors during the time of the production and the implementation of e-learning objects and how the network building was part of these knowledge claims. To follow the network building during the time of the project is to consider the social relationships the work brought about and to retrace how the different actors through translation were related to each other.

The actor-network theory

One of the primary interests of actor-network theory is to describe the relations between both human and non-human actors that can potentially lead to the formation of actor-networks. A network has been defined as the sum of efforts invested into establishing such an infrastructure of tightly bound socio-material objects, which allow entities to circulate (Sørensen 2009). In 2005 Latour described it as a concept which was developed “to designate flows of translations” (2005, p.132). Thus, networks should be seen as continuously evolving and transforming through processes of translation. In these processes an actor-network may take form in a limited period of time or more permanent. The result might be that certain entities end up controlling others (Andersen, 2013; Callon, 1986; Rivera and Cox, 2014).

The project about e-learning-based development of information literacy teaching in ten libraries is considered as flows of translations, where actors are enrolled in a network of human, symbolic, and material actors (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1986; Husted and Plesner, 2012). The project can be described as a manifold of processes on all possible levels constantly influence the development of activities and understandings of what was going on and what the 'right' thing was to do. Thus, an interpretation might entail a description of the ways influential actors persuaded others to understand information literacy teaching in certain ways. It might also contain an analysis of how technologies enabled or constrained different kinds of actions.

Translation means “a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting” (Latour, 2005, p.108). In relation to the project described translation is seen as a designation of the process, where different actors negotiate how to define the different entities by which they want to build and explain their world. Callon introduces four moments of translation (Callon, 1986). First in the problematisation phase statements about problems are made from different actors with the aim of making themselves indispensable. Then in the phase of interessement they might develop new goals to make one another interested in joining forces. This might enable the phase of enrolment where actors through negotiations show interests for being enrolled in a network. Finally, through the phase of mobilisation the network will eventually be stabilized or with a concept of Latour it may be black boxed. Mobilisation means “the ability to make a configuration of a maximal number of allies act as a single whole in one place” (Latour, 1987, p.172).

However, networks are fragile. Translation is a process which may fail (Callon, 1986). Therefore networks constantly have to be kept alive through translations, especially by associations with material entities. As mentioned by Law in 1992 “a relatively stable network is one embodied in and performed by a range of durable materials” (Law, 1992, p.387). Materials influence the practices and the configuration of the relationships. Therefore, materials can be the entities, which create a preliminary establishment of a network.

As shown, the word 'materials' stand for entities that have achieved non-human character. However, the concept of materiality refers to material as well as social relations. Materials often appear as isolated entities at the service of the modern society, but to go beyond this assumption the concept materiality is needed in the meaning of a kind of hybrid constructed out of social as well as material components. The last thing is important to highlight especially in relation to the project described. As Sørensen has mentioned, researchers often present digital technologies as a means to educational aims. They first consider how pupils learn and later investigate how technology can be applied. However, it might be the other way around. According to Sørensen (2009) and Hasse (2013) researchers theorize about learning the way they do because they have certain learning materials in mind when they account for learning. The e-learning objects in use might therefore influence the information literacy teaching and the understandings of this and thereby affect the formation of learning. We will return to this theoretical point later.

Material collection and strategy of analysis

Information professionals from ten Danish libraries participated in the project. At each library two or three persons formed a group who in 2015 had the responsibility for developing information literacy teaching by applying e-learning technology. The same persons participated from September 2014 to April 2015 in a competence development course about e-learning. The author conducted interviews with the ten groups two times in 2015 with an interval of about half a year. The interviews, which were audio-recorded, paid particular attention to questions such as how they were planning information literacy teaching using e-learning technology and later how they were practicing the teaching, but also to aspects such as the roles of the collaboration and materiality.

The interviews were combined with visiting the places where people worked. Also other methods for material collection were used, namely attendance at the competence course and meetings where all ten groups participated as well as at the project's digital website for internal discussion and it's weblog for public communication. Also documents in form of project descriptions, meeting agenda and reports were part of the collection. The task of the author was to evaluate the project concerning developing information literacy teaching in the ten libraries. During 2015 the author wrote a text describing the different ways the ten groups had developed their information literacy teaching. The description was read and corrected by all groups, and the text formed the starting point for the analysis of this paper. In the following the work of the ten groups are referred to as the ten cases.

As expressed by Callon the analysis starts when “the story starts”, namely at the beginning of the project and the e-learning competence course in autumn 2014 (Callon, 1986, p.202). Thus, the analysis is in great extent inspired by Callon's article from 1986 and it follows the same structure.

The coding of the material collection took place on two levels. Firstly, the coding was carried out on basis of the hypothesis that the progress of the project took form of a translation process. The four phases were used to describe sequences of activities in the project. The accounts of the actors were examined with the intention to work out a list of assumptions about how the constitution of the social relationships was understood. Afterwards it was the author's job to ensure that these assumptions played a role in the analysis as a whole. Secondly, since it was investigated how e-learning objects were produced and used, the coding followed traces of the involvement of non-human actors with an ambition of letting the materiality be visible.

Actor-network theory is anti-essentialistic in such a way that it hardly likes to be a theory (Law, 1999; Latour, 1999). Any analysis has to avoid a priori typecasting the empirical and in this way it wants to be agnostic (Callon, 1986). Therefore, the strategy of the analysis has been to follow Latour's announcement in 1987, namely “We will enter facts and machines while they are in the making; we will carry with us no preconceptions of what constitutes knowledge” (Latour, 1987, p.13).

Analysis: the four moments of translation

In the following subsections the attempts of building a network and making social relationships of the project are described. Through this description two knowledge claims appears. The construction of a network of relationships have to show how human as well as non-human actors mutually try to control each other's actions and identities and what Callon calls their “possibility of interaction and the margins of manoeuvre” (Callon, 1986, p.203).

I. Problematisation

Callon describes the problematisation phase as “a system of alliances, or associations, between entities, thereby defining the identity and what they 'want'” (Callon, 1986, p.206). Regarding the project the potential actors in such alliances consisted of a document of project description, information professionals participating in the project, e-learning experts who were teachers at the competence course, selected e-learning literature, e-learning technologies, colleagues from the libraries, digital information resources in the libraries, the learning management system used in each of the involved educational institution, among others.

On the competence course, the e-learning experts present the knowledge claim that to engage students today an important part is to give them an active role. In presenting this assumption they referred to e-learning literature (as for example Bovill and Bulley, 2011; Salmon, 2002). From being passive receivers it seemed essential to let students have control over some of the decisions and in general offer them a role as co-creators of the teaching activities. The role of the teacher would then be not an instructor but a facilitator or moderator. E-learning activities had the potential to enhance elements of more participative learning by increasing interactivity and collaboration between students and teacher.

The information professionals were motivated by the competence course to develop a network for changing the information literacy teaching, but how it more precisely should happened was not given from the beginning. Following the e-learning experts the knowledge claim regarding the necessity to change roles for both teacher and students was an obligatory passage point, which meant that everyone had to pass through it to form part of an e-learning network.

At the same time one more knowledge claim was articulated but from another side, namely from the document of the project description. A main goal following the document was to integrate the virtual library into the learning environments at the particular educational institution by opening up the learning management system of the educational institution for information literacy teaching. These learning management systems were daily used by teachers from the educational institutions to support their physical teaching activities in the different disciplines. Each course had a website in the system. The knowledge claim emphasized that an integration of the virtual library into the learning environment presupposed use of the learning management system in collaboration with the teachers of the disciplines and their course sites.

In order to form a network, an actor must be brought to bear on other actors. They must be brought together so as to work together. To integrate the virtual library into the educational learning environments the information professionals had to be brought together with teachers from the educational institution. The learning management system could be seen as such a meeting place. Through the competence development course the information professionals had been motivated to enhance the digital communication with students, develop some kinds of interactivities and in that way, hopefully, increase the use of the libraries' e-resources. The assumption was that if the information literacy teaching could be visible on course sites in the system, the opportunity of digital contacts with students would follow. In that connection the learning management system was an actor which translated the need of the information professionals so it was adjusted to the system's conditions. The learning management system thus had a central role as an actor. It became another obligatory passage point for building a network.

In sum, the problematisation phase in the project involved a need for establishing social relationships between four actors: The e-learning experts, the project description, the information professionals, and the learning management systems.

II. Interessement

The phase of interessement is defined as translation moments where actors “sought to lock the other actors into the roles that had been proposed for them” (Callon, 1986, p.196). The problematisation phase has the character of being hypothetical. In the next phase, however, relationships have to be established and thereby the two knowledge claims have to be tested.

The competence course introduced the information professionals to a number of different e-learning technologies. They learned what an e-tivity was, i.e. an online activity involving a group of working together (Salmon, 2002). They also learned about peer assessment activities using rubrics, which was an online tool helping students to understand learning objectives (Reddy and Andrade, 2010). The application of videos to the concept of flipped classroom were discussed in the course, and gamification were introduced, i.e. how to add game elements to e-learning objects. They used padlets, a tool for collaborative writing, and they explored the Adobe Connect programme, etc. E-learning technology had now been translated to many technologies.

The introduction of the different e-learning technologies seemed at once to be in the interest of the actors. As formulated by Callon, all these “interessement devices” extended and materialized the hypotheses (Callon, 1986, p.209). The e-learning technologies extended and materialized the two knowledge claims made by the e-learning experts and the project description concerning the necessity of changing the teacher's role from instructor to facilitator and of using the course-sites in the learning management systems. At this stage in the process there was no disagreement between the two knowledge claims.

During the time of the competence course, from September 2014 to April 2015, the e-learning experts were constantly in a recurrent process of negotiations with the information professionals. Many of the information professionals posed questions about how to use the different e-learning technologies and how to carry out a role as facilitator. An opportunity to make alliances was “embodied in and performed by” the different technologies mentioned (Law, 1992, p.387). An alliance seemed to involve not only the four actors mentioned above but also the e-learning technologies.

III. Enrolment

The enrolment phase involves negotiations between the potential allies. Callon described that “no matter how convincing the argument, success is never assured” (Callon, 1986, p.211). In the next phase the different e-learning technologies tested their capacity for supporting the established associations and knowledge claims. The e-learning technologies were now translated to a local production of e-learning objects, i.e. the concrete production of e-learning objects at each library situated in the particular educational context.

Some of the information professionals made videos about how to find relevant information about certain topics. Sometimes teachers from different disciplines were involved in the production. The information professionals uploaded their videos on the teacher's course site together with for instance an e-tivity. The e-learning objects were a central part of the information literacy teaching and mediated a kind of blended learning. Some produced e-tivities as integrated part of the teaching of the discipline; others produced it as an autonomous activity of the library but still uploaded on the course site controlled by the teachers from the particular discipline. The information literacy teaching included as usually questions about information sources, sources' trustworthiness, research integrity, relation between the choice of database and formulation of arguments, etc., but the settings were different. In some cases students were invited to affect the kind of activities, to give feedback, to comment and in some cases give input to the content. In other cases the information professionals developed gamification objects in close collaboration with a number of teachers from different disciplines. These teachers had in great extent influence on the content of the produced objects.

The local production of the many different e-learning objects during 2015 involved collaboration with many new actors, e.g. teachers from the different disciplines and staff from local pedagogical- and IT-departments. The information professionals got a lot of help from these actors solving technical as well as pedagogical questions. Hence, the collaborative pattern differed from the one educational institution to the other.

When it came to adoption and uses of the e-learning objects in the learning management systems and in the particular course sites in spring 2016 the potential alliance was once again tested. A number of problems seemed to have arrived.

The learning management systems could act in contradiction to the experts' knowledge claim. The systems and the course sites had generally been used for announcements and distribution of texts from teachers to students. So the systems and course sites were spokesmen for an instructor-culture rather than for a facilitation of interactions between teacher and students. This appeared to be a kind of barrier for about half of the cases in relation to carrying out the planned communication with the students. However, in other cases a more positive collaboration between systems, the information professionals and students was achieved.

Also the teachers could act in contradiction with the knowledge claim mentioned. A central question in many of the cases was whether teachers from the disciplines during their teaching activities explicitly would refer to the information literacy teaching on their course site or not. Both situations occurred. Another problem was when teachers from the disciplines carried out a role as an instructor and in that way were spokesmen for the more traditional pedagogical perspective. This had negative consequences for the information professionals who tried to develop new facilitating roles.

Finally, also the negotiations with students raised problems. In some cases, the students did not use the e-learning objects on the course sites, or at least, they did not use the objects in the expected amount. In those cases, they acted in contradiction to both knowledge claims. Often it was the instructor-culture of both the learning management systems and the teachers from the disciplines, which was interpreted as the problem.

The first knowledge claim said that engaging students presupposed a change in the roles. As shown the learning management systems and the teachers from the disciplines only in some cases acted in a way which supported the claim. At this time the competence course was finished and the e-learning experts took no longer action in the network. Therefore, their influence on the alliance had decreased.

Also the second knowledge claim got problems assuming that to integrate the virtual library into the learning environment the use of the learning management systems was necessary. In some cases the information professionals succeeded to get digital communication with students by using the local produced e-learning objects and the particular learning management system. However, in other cases it failed. So, only in some extent the second claim was supported.

The local produced e-learning objects now began to be a particular noticeable actor. First of all, this was caused by the materiality of these objects. As a non-human actor the e-learning objects created both interessement and enrolment in each of the ten cases as well as in the project as a whole. It was through these objects that the project could be described, and it was through these that people in the institutions as well as across could collaborate. The e-learning objects began to enhance a new potential alliance where they achieved the pivotal role.

IV. Mobilisation

The mobilisation phase is the final one of the four translation moments. The phase is about what happened with the social relationships in the longer run. Was there only the few spokesmen representing the knowledge claims as shown, or was a collective configuration for these claims later possible to establish (Callon, 1986)? The preliminary answer is that in the end of the project none of the two knowledge claims had found a stabilized alliance accepting them as knowledge.

The local produced e-learning objects took at the time of the implementation a dominant role in the network building. Many of the objects had a feature of flexibility and they could be packaged quite easy in a common repository. A major part of the objects was expected to play a central role in the future, and therefore a repository for storing and sharing was created. The e-learning objects became a kind of boundary objects (Star and Griesemer, 1989). In all ten cases the objects could be interpreted and filled with different meanings depending on each context. In that way they could bind all the cases together in a network. At the same time it was objects in the making which meant that they were flexible in relation to future translations. A new alliance consisting of the local produced e-learning objects, the repository, the information professionals, and members of staff from libraries as well as local pedagogical- and IT-departments seemed to be established.

One thing is important to be aware of regarding these objects. As mentioned in the beginning of the paper, throughout a number of years researchers have been criticized for not having acknowledged that learning materials determine the way the researchers have theorized about learning (Sørensen, 2009). E-learning objects are such learning material. They can appear as isolated entities, but they are embedded not only in technologies but also in social structures, which simultaneously might be enacted in routines and practices of other related actors. Therefore, in a network they might have the capacity to coordinate the activities in a non-transparent way and thereby influence the information literacy teaching more than actors in the network maybe are aware of. The risk is to let the e-learning objects be the controlling actor in the development of information literacy teaching without discussing which pedagogical perspectives are wanted to be represented in the design (Lee, 2013).


The e-learning objects got a powerful position in the new alliance between the objects, the repository for storing and sharing the objects, the information professionals, and members of staff from libraries and other departments. Through the translation process described above we have entered two knowledge claims and many different e-learning objects while they were in the making. However, at the end of the project the association developing information literacy teaching using e-learning objects had not yet been black boxed. There was a controversy about technical issues and pedagogical perspectives which was still open (Latour, 1987).

New insight into the conditions of information literacy teaching seems first of all to concern the position of the e-learning objects. The analysis of the network building using the concept of translation made it clear what important role the objects got in the new alliance. The consequences could be that the pedagogical perspectives disappear in favor of a focus on the learning material. Therefore, the study shows the importance of being aware of which actor-networks the chosen objects transfer to information literacy teaching activities. Not all social relationships might open up for a change in, for instance, the roles of teacher and student.

However, translation means ambiguity and transformation, and this will also mark this conclusion. Without doubt, future translations will compose and stabilize new actors in the process of developing information literacy teaching. By using actor-network theory we can investigate divergence and multiplicity in and around the e-learning objects and the information literacy teaching, but not predict what will happen next.

In earlier research on conditions of information literacy teaching in the field of library and information studies, psychological and sociological concepts have been used in order to show different kinds of causality between mental or social phenomena (Kuhlthau, 2004; Sundin, 2008; Alexandersson and Limberg, 2012). However, actor-network theory substitutes the concept of conditions for associations between heterogeneous elements and social relationships configuring an actor-network. Therefore, in the analysis above, the conditions of information literacy teaching were seen as a relational phenomenon entailing a process where relations between actors were shaped, modified, and weakened through translations. The result of this was that it became possible to consider what kinds of human and non-human actors were involved, how they acted in relation to certain knowledge claims, and how they made barriers for one another. Therefore, compared with earlier research, which has suggested that certain phenomena like profession, expert knowledge, educational discourses or technological development influence the conditions of information literacy teaching, the analysis based on actor-network theory mediates a kind of overview of the different actors involved in the process but at the same time also points at a specific influential actor. This actor was the e-learning objects, which had an agency in the project caused by its character of being a boundary object.

Rivera and Cox (2014) have pointed out that actor-network theory sheds light on how power manifests itself at the level of the actors, e.g. how actors in powerful positions failed to persuade others, or how processes of betrayal and competition occurred over time, etc. In agreement with this the analysis above revealed how some of the actors in periods had more powerful position in the network building than others. A limitation with actor-network theory might be the attention it gives to micro level dynamics. Rivera and Cox (2014) give the proposal of combining the analysis with concepts from other social theories. Such a complementary perspective could inspire to combine the findings of earlier research on information literacy teaching in library and information studies with studies based on actor-network theory.

About the author

Trine Schreiber is Associate Professor at the Royal School of Library and Information Science, University of Copenhagen, Birketinget 6, DK-2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark. The research interests are information literacy, information practice, and theoretical approaches such as Science and Technology Studies (STS) and practice theory. She can be contacted at trine.schreiber@hum.ku.dk.


How to cite this paper

Schreiber, T. (2017). E-learning objects and actor-networks as configuring information literacy teaching. Information Research, 22(1), CoLIS paper 1605. Retrieved from http://InformationR.net/ir/22-1/colis/colis1605.html (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6oJcW2sRp)

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