Curating a learning ecosystem



It is very common for librarians to serve as liaisons to academic departments. They teach classes, purchase materials, answer reference questions, assist with research endeavors, and generally get involved with the odds-and-ends of those units. Some librarians also liaise with defined user communities such as first-year students, international students, or students associated with particular residence halls.

This classic approach enables librarians to connect their expertise with different user segments that likely share similar needs, interests, or perspectives. In short, these librarians serve as the human interface of the library.

But things are changing. I think we are in the initial phase of the next evolutionary step of the librarian as liaison. I touched upon this in my Chronicle post about the shift from “knowledge service provider to collaborative partner.” ARL is also focusing on “new roles for new times” exploring the move from a collections-centric to an engagement-centered model. And recently a paper from Ithaka (Anne Kenney, Cornell) builds upon this theme by outlining how librarians are becoming more embedded in the research life of campus. This includes things like technology development, data services, grant assistance, and publishing support.

I’d like to include a scenario from the learning side.

Virginia Tech announced plans to build a new classroom building. This will be a dramatically different type of place on our campus. It will hold fifteen classrooms and teaching labs, as well as three tiered auditoriums, SCALE-UP rooms, and informal study/group zones as well.

The core attribute will be the high concentration of ten adaptive classroom environments. This provides encouragement for faculty who want to explore and practice active learning pedagogies. In the spirit of new roles, engagement, and collaborative partnerships — here are five ideas for librarian involvement with this type of facility:

1. Foster an instructional community for all instructors who teach in the building. This would involve many campus partners (teaching/learning center type of groups) with shared interests. The objective is enabling faculty to share their experiences: what works, what doesn’t. Shifting from lecture-based delivery to active learning can be a challenge; it might help to have a support group of peers who are going through the same type of change.

2. While instructors can take workshops, join seminars, watch webinars, and read about active learning techniques – actually doing it is something else. It’s kind of like learning to teach all over again. Your mindset at Week 1 will be different from Week 5 and different yet at Week 11. The key is being adaptive and changing expectations and outcomes during the course of the semester.

This is where a librarian (with pedagogical expertise) can help. I could imagine informal progress meetings (in a café) with conversation around how the class is unfolding—and brainstorming different tools, techniques, and technologies.

Additionally, the librarian could gauge student perspective. Why wait until the end to evaluate a course? It could be more insightful to gather feedback about the types of learning interactions that are effective.

3. Logistics is another area of focus. While there will likely be classroom technology support, what about furniture management? If you have ten classrooms with tables and chairs on casters you expect things to move around; in fact, that’s part of the pedagogy. It’s going to get messy. Over the last decade librarians have evolved into curators of learning spaces. I could see applying similar practices in a building like this.

A librarian with a team of student assistants could rapidly arrange the rooms to meet the daily needs. This takes the burden off the instructor and might actually encourage more experimentation. The librarian becomes a consultant who shapes the ideal environment for the particular assignment at hand. I could also see this extending to management of the informal group and study spaces throughout the building as well.

4. I keep hearing the phrase “interdisciplinary science” being mentioned in connection with the classroom building. This could be a great opportunity to mesh the disciplines a bit more. Invite a bio class and a psych class to meet together for a week. Or have chemists and physicists work on an assignment collaboratively. Here we have this great proximity of science students combined with new instructional methods, why not take that further by literally removing the walls and inviting students to engage with each other? I could see the librarian coordinating, connecting, and threading this all together.

5. This building becomes a great opportunity to showcase the learning that is happening in real-time. Through digital displays, social media engagement, tangible exhibits, pop-up instruction and events, and basic show-and-tell methods— we can create new ways for students and faculty to interact with each other.

Find out about the cool stuff happening on that geology class. Look at that interesting problem in that stats class. Hear about that faculty member who just published an article on a new synthesis process. Learn about the intern program at Procter & Gamble. Scientists Without Borders has a volunteer opportunity. Did you see that digital art made out of cancer cells?

I could see a librarian dedicated to collecting, chronicling, and shaping the life of this building– curating, expressing, packaging, and facilitating everything that’s happening. Creating multiple entry points of conversation and bringing people together to celebrate their interests and ambitions. In short, the building becomes more than a bunch of classrooms; it becomes a participatory learning ecosystem.