August 30, 2014

Library Inspiration from an IT Vision | From the Bell Tower

Depending on the institution, IT and the academic library succeed as partners. Despite different functionalities, resources, and services, moving towards a common vision offers benefits to both.

One of the things I look forward to at the start of the calendar year is the latest installment in Lev Gonick’s look ahead at what is in store for higher education IT for the coming year. He’s been contributing this piece to Inside Higher Ed since 2009. It’s usually a long read, but I think it’s well worth the time investment to learn what Gonick thinks is important in the year ahead. If you maintain a list of “when he/she talks I listen” experts that you follow, consider adding Gonick. This year in particular, with its emphasis on openness, learning, and service orientation, I found some themes in Gonick’s top ten trends in technology that are in synch with some of my own thoughts about where the academic library can better serve the user community. Having had time to reflect on his 2013 essay, I want to share several of these ideas and how I see them applying to both the academic library and IT.

Be Learning Focused

I like that Gonick prefaces the list with his perspective on where we are now as a society and culture, and how higher education fits into this environment. He observes, as have others, that our institutions were built to serve in a world of information scarcity and that no longer should define how we operate. He also observes what could be a guiding principle for the future of work of library and IT organizations:

The emerging learning enterprise is about designing and creating experiences that provide opportunities to discover and gain 21st-century competencies based on assembly, synthesis, perspective, critique, and interconnected systems thinking.

It’s about more than providing physical space, content, or network access. These top tech trend lists tend to focus more on the tech and less on the implications for our learning mission. We are reminded to leverage technology to deliver a unique learning experience that is impossible to acquire elsewhere. How could the library and IT work together to deliver this competency-based higher education? There are great partnership opportunities here.

Embrace Openness

Both Gonick and I (see my opening column of 2013) believe that higher education is being shaken up by new forces of open learning. We both acknowledge that in the past year higher education has turned a corner where there is greater recognition for the possibilities of open education. Focusing his attention primary on Coursera, Udacity, and other MOOCs, Gonick suggests we are just in the early stages of a remarkable experiment. It is creating angst and uncertainty in traditional higher education institutions, but meets a previously untapped demand for global access to high quality courses.

Most of these open educational resources originate and will serve online learners, but over time student use of this content will blend both synchronous and asynchronous online use along with self-directed learning and a multiplicity of face-to-face learning environments.

Perhaps the current crop of open educational resources is being overhyped and the quality is uneven and subject to question, but it has brought about a seismic shift in the possibilities for new options in global higher education. Gonick devotes one of his trends to open data collection and sharing, and we know the library can support this by providing the repository and technology for preservation. He even comments on the value of library data as a valued piece of content for assessing learning:

Data collected by librarians are important not only for knowing the number of patrons who use library facilities, but also for understanding trends in the adoption and use of online and on-shelf resources across disciplines to interlibrary loan borrowing trends and local library portal search terms.

Learn outside the classroom

Another area where the library and IT can collaborate for improved learning is the realm of content and making it accessible to students and faculty. Where I agree strongly with Gonick is on the fate of the paper textbook. Traditional textbooks are losing their relevance in the age of the flipped classroom:

The $5 billion textbook industry continues to overwhelmingly resist and impede the emergence of the rich media learning platforms of the future. The convenience of lecture and textbook model produces little evidence of learning that lasts nor transforms the learner.

Instead, Gonick envisions a transition to rich media learning objects that deliver learning outside the classroom so that the time in the classroom can be spent on problem solving and knowledge creation. The flipped classroom is an established concept and I question if it should be on a trends list, but a case could be made that the idea received a considerable boost of attention in 2012. The library and IT can work together to help faculty create learning objects. “The new frontier for publishers” says Gonick, “is to take a leadership position in the creation of 21st-century learning content.” Publishers need to get away from costly, traditional textbooks, but I’m not sure our institutions should wait for them to take a leadership position. I would prefer to see the library and IT take that position on their campuses.

Always on access

With widespread smartphone ownership by our students, along with growing access to tablet computers with connectivity, Gonick observes that “among our current students and certainly our future students the reality is that they live, work, and play in a world that few in the academy, including many academic technologists, recognize.” Academic librarians have recognized for some time that their community members want all the library resources to always be on and accessible—and when they are not, we hear about it quickly. Providing “always on access” to librarians—for always available research support—is something we continue to work on developing, and with IT’s help, we might get there. With wearable computers on the horizon, the library and IT will need to map out a strategy for serving a community that expects us to be always on and at their service.

Library as learning space

One area in which the library and IT have partnered to improve the quality of the student learning experience is in outfitting the campus library with the technology and adapting spaces to the needs of this current generation of students. Gonick says we still have much work to do in re-inventing and re-imagining our physical learning spaces:

The empirical evidence affirms that well-designed new learning environments can lead to more active learning that supports both engagement and reflection. These in turn lead to a view shared by students that they are learning more as well as to positive learning outcomes. New opportunities exist to create a deployable mix of learning spaces that blend and afford flexible and repurposable furniture, technology, and tools to support a range of learning environments.

I suspect that as the learning and collaborative work technologies advance in complexity, it may be even more critical for the library and IT group to work together to build sophisticated learning spaces in the library that do contribute to intentional learning.

Focus on solutions

Perhaps what the library and IT will most have in common moving into the future is that each is subject to the challenge of becoming more than just an information utility for students and faculty. We should aspire to more than just providing a resource that is always there and flows seamlessly through the network. I previously stated that academic libraries needed to become a solutions provider, not just an ingredients supplier. I think Gonick is looking in the same direction:

The challenge for IT leaders is to cede a modicum of control and embrace the need to experiment in new, more porous, organizational models that facilitate and support the co-production of innovative solutions that meet the needs of higher education moving forward. Becoming a solutions-focused and internal consulting organization is at the core of what I take to be the opportunity for IT in higher education.

Whether it’s in supporting or contributing to a better learning environment, leading the campus into the new world of openness, or bringing assistance to those who work in an always on world, the library and IT can find common ground in become more focused on helping our community members find the right solutions for their information and learning challenges. Gonick says that in the year ahead success is not a foregone conclusion, but with the library and IT working together to “navigate the rapids” success is certainly within our reach.

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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