A few weeks ago I purchased a premium WordPress theme for my campus. This isn’t something I typically do, but it fit nicely with an initiative I am building around supporting new types of learning interactions.
A professor I’m working with uses blogs in her courses but wanted to push the experience further. I’m hearing this more often as faculty express interest in a more flexible and personalized learning environment as opposed to the LMS model. Sakai, Blackboard, and similar tools are seen as utilities rather than virtual communities.
I think we’re seeing a shift occur. In the past it was “how to use a blog in your course” and now it’s “how to build an online social learning environment for your specific needs.” These conversations are the result of faculty becoming more comfortable and sophisticated using the social web. I’m finding many who are eager to expand their platforms and try new things.
That’s the case with this particular professor. In order to teach the way she wants, she needs capabilities that the standardized themes do not offer. She doesn’t just want to migrate content online, but is carefully curating a learning experience.
I’ll post about the pedagogy later or maybe we’ll write a conference paper together, but right now I wanted to ask a more library-oriented question: where does this fit in? Where does purchasing a blog theme (or similar product) fit into our reporting? Maybe it doesn’t. It’s not a book. It’s not a subscription. It’s not a database. It falls into a gray area that doesn’t show-up on annual reports or the ARL stat sheet. Maybe we need new categories? Personalized virtual communities for teaching and research are primed to be one of the next big things for librarians and academia. It’s part of the transition we face from content providers to engagement developers.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how libraries create value. How will we (and our users) define services and collections in the future? If our overarching mission is to advance teaching, learning, and research then where do plug-ins, add-ons, iPad apps, and things like premium blogs themes fit into that objective? As these needs shift from novelties to necessities what is our role?
With this professor I easily could have said I can’t help you, we buy books not blog accessories and the conversation would have ended there. But as we spoke I realized this wasn’t about software it was about pedagogy. This inexpensive purchase was symbolic. While on one hand it enables the instructor to do something that she otherwise couldn’t, this was also a statement about the library investing in learning environments. Blogging (and related tools) has become a vital part of courses. I didn’t help this professor by purchasing a better blog interface, but rather, by purchasing the ability for her to provide the experience she wants her students to have.
Here is a visual to consider:
You could host a class in either one of these rooms. Both are adequate for teaching, but depending on your objective, one room is better than the other. One is suited for lecture and the other for team-based active learning. Metaphorically that’s what premium themes and features can do. They enable educators to transform the way they teach. They enable different types of interactions to occur more effectively. They can also change the way students feel about and interact with content and each other.
There seems to be several levels to this:
Installers. You might have librarians (and other campus partners) working with faculty to launch blogs or other tools within their courses.
Participants. You might have librarians embedded in a course and directly interacting and contributing to the learning experience.
Partners. You might have librarians offer custom coding or programming to expand or tweak the capabilities of existing tools. This could also include purchasing premium themes or other features, as well as helping devise learning strategies, assignments, and peer interaction.
Developers. And finally—this is aspirational for me—you might have people who can develop novel experiences. Instead of purchasing a premium theme, what if you could build one? What if you could develop a course around particular series of interactions based on a virtual community that doesn’t exist yet? What if the course involved building the environment together? Why should faculty be limited by what is available? What if we encouraged and empowered them (and their students) to imagine new types of scholarly expressions or engagement? In this instance, librarians become software developers creating supplemental (open source) tools or enhancements designed to enrich academia.
If this professor’s request were just a one-off I probably wouldn’t be blogging about it. But the fact is I am having these types of conversations with multiple people. They’ve dabbled with social web tools (personally and professionally) and want to try new things. Sometimes they need help brainstorming and planning. Sometimes they need help with settings or configuration. Sometimes they need help with pedagogy or applying the tool to a particular context. And sometimes… what they really want…. are features or functions that don’t exist. This is an opportunity to impact learning in a new way. We talk a lot about learning spaces… sometimes those spaces are virtual.