Library Journal’s upcoming Directors’ Summit at the Los Angeles Public Central Library made me think of irises, one of my favorite flowers, regardless of the variety. The problem with irises, aside from the occasional borer, is that they bloom so ardently, with rhizomes ever productive, that after three of four years the gardener has an enormous clump with declining vitality. The only response is to lift and divide. However, this deracination, this disruption, ultimately results in multiple new sets of sword-like foliage and prismatic flowers that re-animate the garden in a beautiful and mysterious way.
Public library directors are like four-year-old clumps of irises, and they now are being disturbed. What directors around the country have been feeling is the penetration of a pitchfork into their familiar turf and an unsettling leveraging at their root ball. And they are not alone. What we want to do at this directors’ summit — with a mix of librarians, educators, museum workers, and cultural planners — is examine how this broad, unsettling uplifting not only disturbs and divides but also revitalizes.
Gardner Phylis Stephens briefly explains:
Plutarch said that the mind is not a vessel that needs filling but one that needs igniting. Daphne Koller, Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University and a co-founder of Coursera, recalled this saying during a talk she gave at the ITHAKA Sustainable Scholarship conference held in New York City on October 15-16.
Coursera, based in Mountain View, Calif., is a MOOC, which stands for massively open online courses. Although a creature of higher education institutions, they are truly an online revolution with the potential to bring education to everyone.
Coursera started in October 2011 with three large computer science classes at Stanford University being made available to the world for free. Each class had an enrollment of 100,000 or more. Koller calculated that to reach the same size audience via a typical classroom setting would require 250 years of teaching.
“That experiment really drove home to Andrew and me and to many of us the potential impact and the opportunity that there was here to effect dramatic change in providing a really high quality educational experience from some of the world’s best institutions to everyone around the world for free,” Koller said at the ITHAKA conference, referring to her co-founder Andrew Ng.
Coursera hit one million students on August 9; six weeks later it was at 1.5 million; and in mid-October it was at 1.6 million students.
“It just keeps growing at a steady rate of about 70,000 new students every week which I think really is a testament to the hunger for high quality education that exists around the world,” Koller said.
Students get a certificate at the end of a class (it is not for credit toward a degree).
“But it’s an indication of mastery that the students can present to an employer when they are looking for a job,” Koller said, “and we have heard from many of our students around the world that these courses have actually gotten them jobs that they really wanted.”
“This kind of online format in which the marginal cost per student is effectively zero is our opportunity to make education available to everyone so that anyone around the world no matter their geographic or financial circumstances has the opportunity to really make a better life for themselves,” she said.
The Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed some students about their views of Coursera, and after hearing Koller speak I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tool Coursera or other similar MOOCs might provide public libraries, which serve as the de facto source of digital access for so many of this country’s dispossessed. Increasingly, the lack of that access means a poorer education, and here is a revolutionary alternative for public librarians, who all are educators, to contemplate.
Koller is in great demand (below is a Ted talk she gave in August) so she will be in the United Kingdom during our directors’ summit.
But Julia Stiglitz, who is in charge of community and business development for Coursera, is going to speak at the summit and discuss the philosophy underpinning Coursera and the potential bridges to the public library world. She is, in her own words, “a former fourth grade teacher, Teach For America staffer, joint MBA/MA education Stanford GSBer, and Googler (where I managed the Google Apps for Education team). I’m a current San Franciscan, outdoor-loving, Courserian working on bizdev and community development. I fell in love with the unrealized potential of ed-tech to improve education (for everyone) in grad school and joined Coursera to help actualize it.”
At the Ithaka conference, Deanna Marcum, the managing director of Ithaka S+R and the former associate librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress, explained the shifting educational terrain this way: “Classrooms are not what they were, faculty are doing different things, technology has really allowed us to think in quite different ways about how people learn, how we engage with people and what the expectations are of those who want to learn.”
Public library directors need to grasp what those “different ways” and “expectations” are—and to exploit them.
Rebecca Edwards has been actively doing so as an education specialist, family audiences, at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. At the directors’ summit she will explain how the Getty has engaged those changing expectations by using new technologies for museum education and services in the midst of institutional disruptions.
For example, Edwards recently explained to the New York Times, that the Getty has created an audio tour in which animals in various works of art talk about themselves.
It is not seen as a money maker but as a way to increase the number of visitors. “What these do is provide parents a way for their children to focus on art that perhaps they could not have done themselves,” Edwards told the Times.
For an even broader perspective, Gail Dexter Lord will deliver a keynote and share her theories and practices around cultural planning.
Lord is co-president of Lord Cultural Resources, which is based in Toronto and “dedicated to creating cultural capital worldwide.” It is the largest cultural planning firm in the world, with more than 2,000 projects in over 50 countries, including museums, mixed-use developments, cultural centers, art galleries, science centers, world expositions, visitor centers, heritage sites, festivals, theaters, archives, libraries and gardens.
“We offer services that range from facility planning (of museums and other buildings) in collaboration with architects, to the development of the itinerary along with design experts, to the preparation of a strategy or study of the local market that will enable the optimum use of the resources of each place,” she told the Spanish-language edition of Esquire earlier this year (English translation).
She and her husband, Barry Lord, who is co-president of the company, were recently profiled in Lifestyles Magazine – Winter 2012 issue in the article “Lord Have Mercy” by Marc Weisblott.
This year, the summit (which Susan Kent, the former director of the Los Angeles Public Library, the Minneapolis Public Library, and former chief executive and director of branch libraries for the New York Public Library has been instrumental in helping to organize) is also going to feature a reception with special guest Natasha Trethewey, who began her duties as United States Poet Laureate in September. Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007 for Native Guard.
After the reception for summit attendees, Trethewey will be making a reading open to the public at the library that attendees are free to attend as well. Here is Trethewey reading from her book Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast:
In addition to this cross-pollination from outside the library world, the summit is going to bring in some of the top public library directors from around the country to discuss how they are tackling disruptions.Besides John Szabo, the city librarian for LAPL who is hosting the event with LJ, the summit is going to feature presentations by Brian Bannon, the Chicago Public Library Commissioner, Patrick Losinski, the director of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Gary Wasdin, the executive director of the Omaha Public Library, Deborah Barrow, the director of the San Diego Public Library, Jan Sanders, the director of the Pasadena Public Library, Corinne Hill, the executive director of Chattanooga Public Library along with Nate Hill, Chattanooga’s new assistant director of technology and digital initiatives, and Margaret Donnellan Todd, the county librarian of the County of Los Angeles Public Library.
The summit is being held Nov. 29-30 at the Los Angeles Public Central Library. Registration is open. Let’s see what we can make grow.