Open Education Week 2015: A Reflection on IP, Infrastructure, and Interest

This year, Open Education Week ran from March 9th to March 13th. Open Education Week, like Open Access Week, is a celebration of what has been accomplished and what is currently being done within the greater open movement. The Open Education Consortium sponsors the week by compiling resources, marketing materials, and educational tools for librarians, faculty, and other instructors around the world. One of the best parts about this process is that after the week ends, the Open Education website becomes a repository of sorts for events that happened that year. The resources for each event include recorded lectures and webinars as well as supplementary guides and tools. This year, just the webinar topics ranged from ensuring quality of digital content in the classroom to the impact of the open educational movement on the internationalization of universities globally.

This is the first year that UIUC has participated in Open Education Week and I was lucky enough to help create and lead two of our events, which were spearheaded by the Office of Information Literacy. Before I describe my experience with those events, it might be helpful to back up and explain why open education is important, especially within the library community, and what Open Educational Resources (OER) are. SPARC defines OER broadly as any learning resource that is released “under an open license which permits…free use and repurposing by others”. I would argue that the most important word in the last sentence is repurposing. The Open Education movement is built on the idea that education is about sharing, expanding, and refining knowledge. That can only happen if licenses allow educators to revise, adapt, remix, combine, and then redistribute resources. If you take a learning object that another educator created, improve upon parts of it, and then only share it in the classes that you teach, some would argue that you are not fully participating in the Open Education movement. Re-sharing is key.

But why does all of this matter? The Open Education movement works to mitigate the legal and technical barriers that impede collaboration and instructors’ ability to create the absolute best learning objects possible. Instructors are often frustrated with traditional learning content platforms, like textbooks and even course packets, which paint their course with a broad brush and often do not allow adaptation and flexibility. Likewise, students become frustrated when they have to buy a $100+ textbook and it is not completely or consistently used. To make the matter more complicated, many educators (including librarians) find fair use law subjective and confusing. OER is a solution to many of these issues. In addition, OER often reduces the costs we put on our students, many of whom are drowning in an incredible amount of debt already. The use of OER has been proven to increase retention and foster equitable access to learning regardless of socio-economic status. Librarians obviously care deeply about both of these goals.

My department hosted two sessions, one for library staff and one for instructors across campus. We used the same companion LibGuide for both sessions but the learning outcomes for each session were different. I taught the session for staff and my colleague, Crystal Sheu, taught the session for instructors. It’s important to mention, however, that we created the lesson plans and presentations together and we often consulted each other and our boss, Lisa Hinchliffe, about learning activities and presentation details. I share a few reflections below with the hope that others will think about how this type of programming could affect their library programming and culture and possibly make OER a more central conversation on their campus. Please note that these views are my own.

Interest

Getting buy-in is difficult! Both of our audiences were definitely smaller than we had hoped. This was our first year doing this type of programming so smaller numbers are to be expected. At the same time, it is important for us to think about why there might not currently be a large audience for this topic. Do faculty already know about OER? Do librarians get enough OER training through their professional development experiences? Do faculty not have the time to find and adapt OER? Are librarians weary of telling their faculty about yet another thing they should think about doing? Should we have used different marketing techniques?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions and I think that’s okay. Still, whenever we do this type of programming, whether it is internal or open to the entire campus, I think it is important to find a deeper understanding about what’s happening. Sometimes there are just odd conflicts or planning issues. But for the most part, there are structural reasons people do or do not find value in something. Even putting the programming out there allows us to gauge our audiences’ interest and then do further research based on that.

IP

Somehow it always surprises me just how complicated intellectual property and copyright is. OER definitely attempts to reduce the confusion around the legalities of sharing by using Creative Commons licenses. We introduced these licenses on a very basic level, in case any of our audience members weren’t familiar with them.

Nevertheless, even CC licenses can be complicated and require thoughtful planning. One great example is the Share-A-Like license. We tried our best to tell participants that Share-A-Like requires intentionality. When you take an OER (or any licensed material) under a Share-A-Like license and adapt it, reuse it, and then share it again, it has to be licensed under the same original license you started with, which is obviously some variation of a Share-A-Like license.

When I first learned about this license, I was excited about its function. On face value, the license seems to take a major tenant of the open movement and put it into practice. If you use something that someone else has spent time and energy creating, you, too, should share your final product openly. Yet, a more critical look of this license paints a more nuanced picture. By making openness “infectious,” we take away the creator’s ability to choose how they would like to share and disseminate their work, which (I believe) is one of the most important reasons we have become author rights and open access advocates. Note: this assertion is most definitely being influenced by some of the resources I have been exploring lately, including one of the best critiques of openness and assuming openness is always the best option that I have ever read and a project that contextualizes information instead of assuming that it should always be free and open to all, specifically in regards to cultural heritage objects that have historically been attained through violent and colonialist means. I also recognize that “open” often means different things when thinking about educational resources, publications, cultural object, data, code, and software and we can’t group them together. While I think sharing is the point of OER, I’m not sure licensing is the place we should force educators to do it.

I’m currently taking a data policy seminar with Victoria Stodden. A trained statistician with a legal background, Dr. Stodden has been an incredible advocate for the open science movement. She regularly speaks about sharing data, code, and software to increase reproducibility and progress within the scientific community. Our last class session focused on intellectual property, with a more specific focus on licensing data and code. The Share-A-Like license came up in our conversation and, of course, I was a huge proponent for it. I explained that in a movement like Open Education, where the goal is to take some power and autonomy back from the commercial entities that make textbooks and other learning materials, Share-A-Like is imperative for making sure that no one is selling OER that have been adapted downstream. Her point, however, was that Share-A-Like actually impedes the OER movement to some extent. She argued that if an instructor finds two OER under different Share-A-Like licenses, they can’t combine these two resources and re-share whatever they make. Why? Because both licenses require you use that same license and you can’t use two licenses on one OER.

This is getting confusing, right? My point is simply that as we embrace CC licenses, many of which make our lives easier and make sharing less complicated, we need to continue to be critical of their purpose. Likewise, we need to teach instructors that CC licenses aren’t a quick fix for everything but instead one option in an entire toolkit of legal resources. Moreover (and this is my epiphany from Open Education Week), every library that expects to do robust outreach around OER or OA needs to have at least one person on staff that understands some of the intricacies of copyright and intellectual property rights.

Infrastructure

This brings me to my next point. Before really starting OER outreach, your library should start to think about what kind of infrastructure it has to support such a movement. It is difficult to get people excited about an OER initiative when there isn’t much in place within the library to help get it off of the ground. Now obviously some libraries have more resources than others. But I’m suggesting you ask the same questions you ask before you start any outreach, including everything from information literacy sessions to collaborations with other campus programs.

Who will be the primary contact person for OER? In other words, who is the face of the library’s initiatives in this area? If you have a strong subject specialist model, how will the library foster collaboration between OER experts and subject specialists? What forms of internal training are needed? Similarly, who will be the point of contact for IP and copyright issues (if there isn’t one already)? Is this person familiar with OER and CC licenses? What’s really challenging is that the library needs to help instructors with copyright, instructional design, and technology. This means that teamwork and internal communication is essential.

I believe that one of the most important forms of infrastructure in the OER conversation is the University IR. If we are telling instructors that sharing and re-sharing is important, are we backing that claim up through our resources? Many institutions, including the University of Michigan and MIT, have repositories for their OER. This fosters internal collaboration and sharing, especially when two instructors might teach a similar class and learn from each other. Additionally, most (if not all) of these institutional repositories for learning objects are open to non-affiliates, which aligns with the greater open movement. I’m not suggesting that learning objects have a place in the IR that usually holds research materials. But there needs to be an outlet or service for instructors that would like to go beyond disciplinary or general OER sharing.

Alternative uses

The session aimed at staff really surprised me. We based our lesson plan on the standard subject specialist model: you talk with your faculty about OER and teach them the standard process of finding, evaluating, and repurposing OER for their classroom. Our participants had much more nuanced and complicated reasons for using OER. Some examples include using OER as a solution to sharing educational materials internationally. We often think about this as giving others access to our OER but I think we have just as much to learn from their learning objects. Covering this intended use meant taking a minute to talk more explicitly about access and repositories in other languages.

An additional use that we hadn’t thought of was using OER when working with unaffiliated patrons at the reference desk. Because of the size of the library and our great VR service, Illinois often gets questions from around the nation and world. Community members are also some of our most regular patrons. We are often able to help patrons with their needs, but if they do not have access to our electronic or physical collection, OER could be a potential resource for their question because they can be accessed by anyone.

Moving past consumption

The Office of Information Literacy recently applied to present some of this information at Illinois’ Faculty Summer Institute (FSI). If we are accepted, our primary audience will be faculty members that have applied to be a part of the institute in order to learn more about new instructional movements at Illinois. Our goal for this session is simply to go beyond consumption. The two workshops we just taught were primarily based on how to find, evaluate, and use others’ OER. But what if you have an existing learning object you’d like to share as an OER? What is the right venue for you? How can you use your subject expertise to create metadata and documentation that allows re-use by others? What license fits your needs? Our profession is continuing to teach students and instructors that they aren’t just consumers of information. They create and disseminate information every day. Our hope is that faculty are see the value in sharing their expertise with others teaching within their discipline.

Libraries are apt to do this work!

I made the following graphic for my session with staff. I think that it’s important to keep all of these in mind when doing open education work.

library explination

We are experts in many of the areas OER touch upon! Our time at the reference desk is often spent locating hard-to-find information through a variety of sources. We teach information evaluation everyday. Many of us have some expertise or understanding of copyright and/or copyleft. We are trained in instructional design and instructional technology; we spend a lot of our time crafting learning outcomes and identifying activities and assessments that can foster experiences that address these outcomes. We have all of the tools we need to be conversant with faculty, staff, administrators, and colleagues about the need for open education and the use of OER. It is time for us to embrace the Open Education Movement as a valuable tool for increasing access to education, improving learning, and furthering the mission of the campus library.

A special thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for letting me explore my interest in OER. Thanks, too, to Crystal Sheu for collaborating with me to make this vision a reality. Thanks to Sveta Stoytcheva, Kyle Shockey, and the Twitterverse for pointing me to the awesome critiques of openness discussed above.

 

The Key Word is Scalability

Cal State Fullerton is a campus of 38,000 students and 2,000 faculty. We have about sixteen instruction librarians (figuring in part-time people). That’s 2,375 students and 125 faculty for each librarian.

From these numbers, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that we are very interested in exploring scalable solutions to reach more of our campus. Of course, our staff isn’t going to be scaled up anytime soon. Minimized over the last few years through attrition, instruction librarian staff here is already struggling to keep up with existing obligations. We also have a fixed number of computer classrooms available for library instruction – just three.

Altogether, we have limited instruction staff, time, and space. With limited time, we need to prioritize higher-level work. We need to repurpose and reuse wherever possible. We already have to say no to some instructors that request a library session simply due to lack of space, and we’re currently serving only a handful of online classes.

These challenges mean that we have to explore novel pedagogical solutions – either trying flipped classrooms, or automated online lessons, or online lessons facilitated by librarians.

The One-Shot is Outdated

I’ve taught information literacy one-shot sessions for freshmen at four different institutions, and the format is basically the same at all of them. Students are assigned a research paper by their instructor. Instructor requests one-shot library session. Librarian creates class LibGuide, or offers existing LibGuide. In the one-shot, the librarian extols the virtues of library resources over google. Librarian provides a LibGuide walk-through, and demos databases. Librarian explains how to search Academic Search Complete/Premier. Librarian gives students time to search their own topics.

However, the one-shot library session traditionally includes more informing than instructing, which is likely an effect of the need to cram as much as possible into a single hour. We get only an hour with students so we spend a lot of that hour convincing students to use library resources. However, effective instruction results in measurable behavioral change. Effective instruction is equipping students with new skills (behaviors) through facilitation of active learning techniques rather than attempting to push information through lectures, which are not effective.

Rather than spending time in class informing students, we can shift that information into a pre-lesson for students to complete before class time, and then we can spend time in class working on higher level skills, like research topic formulation, keyword brainstorming, and broadening or narrowing searches. Real research skills. Or we can do a minimum of informing and then have students work through the research process, which is what I’ve been doing this semester, and position the LibGuide as a resource for students to pull information as needed.

Inspiration from a Regional Conference

I went to a wonderful local conference a few weeks ago, SCIL Works, put on by the Southern California Instruction Librarians interest group. A group from Cal State San Marcos presented on their information literacy lesson. Their students weren’t given the option to search with their own topics. They were assigned topics. Students were taught the nuts and bolts of performing research with hands-on activities (through Guide on the Side), and told that they would merely have to repeat the process with their own topics. The librarians didn’t provide instruction on how to search Academic Search Premier – they let students figure it out on their own.

I was inspired! Since I’m a new librarian, I’ve been cautious about deviating from the traditional library one-shot until I was really familiar with my new library’s culture. But by my eighth class this semester, my lesson plan included about ten minutes of “informing” through class discussion, a YouTube video, and lecturing, then a class activity where I have students pair off and work through online tutorials I developed with Guide on the Side and Articulate Storyline. The LibGuide I develop for each class is basically a simple LMS (learning management system) – it serves as the platform for my (brief) presentation, for the class activity, and as an information and research resource for students to return to for the rest of the semester.

So What Does All This Have to Do with Scaling?

Everything I develop for a given class I intend to reuse. I start by not creating anything new at all if I can help it. I scour the web for YouTube videos and learning objects from places like PRIMO and MERLOT. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of good stuff out there that I can use instantly, because of either poor quality, content that only relates to originating institution, or lack of ability to customize. Lucky for me I have Camtasia to make videos, a shiny new copy of Articulate Storyline 2 for interactive tutorials, and a half-installed version of Guide on the Side for quick-to-program activities (the email/quiz feature at the end isn’t functional yet).

As a new Instructional Design Librarian I’m still in the planning/brainstorming phase for library instructional initiatives, but I’m going to help my university library scale up our instruction by developing (and collecting) online tutorials on basic library research skills (and organizing them with useful metadata/learning objectives). I’m plotting to collaboratively design our own badges program to allow instructors to assign research skills modules as they see fit. I’m working on a proposal for ACRL Assessment in Action (AiA) to embed a librarian into an online class to discover best practices for reaching more online-only students. What I’m most excited about is developing campus relationships to tell everyone about what we do at the library, because scaling up can’t happen without faculty taking advantage (ACRL AiA is great for promoting campus relationships).

Enabling Colleagues to Scale Too

Unfortunately I’m the only instructional designer at my library and I have to be careful I don’t take on more than I can handle (still working on this)! I am an Instructional Design Librarian, not just an instructional designer. Some libraries have instructional designers on staff that work with librarians to create whatever they can dream up. At first, I thought I might somewhat fill that role, but because I’m tenure-track, and have instruction and reference duties, and have assigned liaison departments, I don’t have time to fulfill a lot of design requests from colleagues. I have to prioritize my time and my projects.

So I’m planning an inaugural instructional design/technology workshop for librarians, complete with our own internal Instructional Design Toolkit (LibGuide), which I’m still working on but was inspired to complete by Berkeley College (big thanks again to Amanda Piekart for sharing her Toolkit with me)! I want to partner with colleagues to teach them instructional design and development skills, and to empower them to create whatever they dream up. I’m hoping that I will inspire librarians here to scale themselves up, too – by designing or recording their own learning objects that they can reuse again and again, and share with campus faculty. Design and development is a lot of work, but it pays off by having existing templates for reuse. Whatever we create will be repurposable into online courses and into a badges system – learning object development pays off in the long run!

Teaching with Big Ideas: How a Late Addition to the ACRL Framework Might Make Us Rethink Threshold Concepts

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Eveline Houtman, Coordinator of Undergraduate Library Instruction at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

From What’s the matter with threshold concepts? ACRLog Jan. 30, 2015

The notion of threshold concepts is at the heart of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and has been since Draft 1. The notion has also been problematic to many librarians since Draft 1. (For an overview of the discussion, see Ian Beilin’s recent Lead Pipe article. For an earlier, in-depth critique, read Lane Wilkinson’s take on the topic.) I’d summarize my own position as a big yes to conceptual teaching, big reservations towards threshold concepts.

In the face of questioning and opposition, the Task Force did in fact soften the language around the threshold concepts in subsequent drafts – the original six threshold concepts became “frames” in Draft 2, for example, though each frame still contained a threshold concept. When I recently came to take stock of the final approved version of the Framework, I discovered the language was softened even further. Each frame, for example, now contains “a concept central to information literacy” (p. 2) rather than a “threshold concept.”

I also discovered this statement:

At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole. These conceptual understandings are informed by the work of Wiggins and McTighe, which focuses on essential concepts and questions in developing curricula, and on threshold concepts. (p. 2) [I’m pretty sure that should read “informed … BY threshold concepts.”]

But wait, what? Conceptual understandings are now at the heart of the Framework? And when did the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) become a second major influence on the Framework, along with threshold concepts? Did I miss something? (Actually, yes, because it turns out the the changes occurred in the November 2014 draft and and I just didn’t notice. I blame a combination of busyness and Framework fatigue.) Was there any discussion of this late addition? Shouldn’t there be? After all, the threshold concepts were talked nearly to death.

Wiggins and McTighe’s book, Understanding by Design, focuses on the importance of drawing on core concepts or “big ideas” in order to teach for understanding. I suspect it’s been brought into the Framework at least partly in order to bolster the argument for teaching with threshold concepts (that’s how I see its use in the ACRLog post quoted above), though possibly also to signal the usefulness of their design approach in implementing the Framework. But are Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas” actually the same as threshold concepts? Do all our big ideas really need to be threshold concepts? What do Wiggins and McTighe have to say to us now that they’ve been placed in our Framework?

To start with, here are a few things they say about big ideas:

  • “A big idea is a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills” (p. 5).
  • “Individual lessons are simply too short to allow for in-depth development of big ideas, explorations of essential questions, and authentic applications” (p. 8).
  • “Teaching for understanding must successfully predict potential misunderstandings and rough spots in learning if it is to be effective. Central to the design approach we propose is that we need to design lessons and assessments that anticipate, evoke and overcome the most likely student misconceptions” (p. 10).
  • “Teaching for understanding requires the learner to rethink what appeared settled or obvious” (p. 11).

These are all things that could be/probably have been said about threshold concepts. Here’s the thing though: in 370 pages, Wiggins and McTighe never once mention threshold concepts.

So the first big takeaway is that we can engage in conceptual teaching — we can teach with big ideas, we can address students’ stuck places, we can challenge students’ assumptions — without having to invoke threshold concepts. There are many librarians who have already been arguing this, and now their argument is bolstered by a work whose importance has already been recognized in the Framework. I don’t want to suggest that we need the Framework’s “permission” to teach without threshold concepts. At the same time, it means something to have the ACRL’s main pedagogical document acknowledge, if indirectly, that threshold concepts are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of conceptual teaching.

A second big takeaway is that if we’re wondering how to implement the Framework, we could do a lot worse than consult Wiggins and McTighe. In fact their design approach is likely to be very helpful in redesigning our instruction, learning outcomes and assessment around our big ideas. There’s a lot in their book to digest, and I’m only going to point out a few things that struck me.

  • Wiggins and McTighe connect their big ideas to core tasks, which is likely to be helpful as we connect the skills we still need to teach to the ideas in the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to essential questions that get students thinking about the big ideas. Here’s a Faculty Focus article that provides more information. And here’s Nicole Pagowsky with examples of essential questions related to the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to a purpose, such as understanding or connecting to other concepts. I occasionally get the sense in discussions around implementing the Framework that the purpose is to teach the frames. “How can we teach scholarship as conversation?” for example. Shouldn’t we also be thinking past learning the concepts to what students can do with the concepts? Maybe the scholarly conversation metaphor could help students think about their own writing (as in “They say/I say”). Maybe it could help them think about disciplinary discourses, or the effect of different academic cultures, paradigms and epistemologies on the conversation, or the role of social media in the scholarly conversation, or the effect of power relationships and gatekeeping on the conversation….

spiralA third takeaway (it’s part of design but worth pulling out on its own) is the idea that students will need to revisit the big ideas, not just over the course of a class but over the course of their curriculum, each time deepening their understanding of the ideas. This is the concept of the spiral curriculum (which Wiggins and McTighe explicitly invoke) advocated by John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. So elementary students can learn about information literacy at a level appropriate to them.  They can be taught to use Creative Commons licensed images. Students will spiral back to information literacy instruction at various points in their academic life, hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts each time. So early undergraduates can begin to learn about the scholarly conversation but their understanding will inevitably be limited because they just haven’t seen very much of it yet. Graduate students, who have begun to identify as scholars, who need to map who is talking to whom for their lit reviews, who want to figure out their own niche, will have a much richer conception of the scholarly conversation.

The spiral curriculum is a very different metaphor than the threshold that’s crossed once. I think it’s the more useful metaphor. While it doesn’t address all the diversity of our learners, it does take into account students’ growing knowledge, experience and abilities over their college years.

My fourth big takeaway comes out of Wiggins and McTighe’s assertion that “answering the “why?” and “so what?” questions … is the essence of understanding by design…. Without such explicit and transparent priorities, many students find day-to-day work confusing and frustrating”(p. 15-6). This reminds me of the challenge in a great Chronicle of Higher Education article (unfortunately paywalled) that I still go back to: “I am asking instructors to see the two questions that the new epistemology emblazons across the front of every classroom — ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ — and then to adjust their teaching accordingly” (Clydesdale, 2009).

The Framework is a pedagogical document meant for librarians. Obviously (to us) it contains big and important ideas. But it’s sadly lacking in answers to the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. In much of our teaching, the answer to “so what?” has been “this will help you with your assignment.” But if we’re teaching with big ideas we need a bigger answer. Something along the lines of: “You need to be able to use information to learn, now and after you graduate. This involves ways of thinking as well as skills…. Here’s how this core concept will help you….” Okay, this needs work!

To go back to my beginning: after so many months of discussion, we all “know” that threshold concepts are at the heart of the Framework. But if we look at the final version of the Framework with fresh eyes, we can see they’ve been moved to the side, at least in part, opening new possibilities for the ways we teach with big ideas. I suggest we seize those possibilities and run with them.

Clydesdale, T. (2009). Wake up and smell the new epistemology. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 (20).

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. 2nd expanded ed. Alexandria,, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Conferences Full of Academic Librarians

I never gave it much thought, but I can remember wondering briefly in the past why the majority of librarians at many conferences seemed to be from academia. And now I know; it is probably because those of us who are academic librarians are required to attend academic conferences! I was even more interested to learn than not everybody is happy about this job requirement – a realization that surprised me.

As a former high school librarian I am accustomed to feeling fortunate to be able to attend conferences. When you are the only librarian in a high school, going to a conference involves the school hiring a substitute to cover the library in addition to funding your travel expenses and registration. And I was lucky…as a librarian at a well-funded private high school there was a budget to support my professional development which typically included at least one conference per year. Many librarians at public schools are understaffed, their programs underfunded and their ability to hire a sub and spend days away at a conference is extremely limited. I would imagine that many librarians in public schools would be absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to attend multiple conferences a year.

erlpic1So, for me, going to a conference where I get to learn about trends, technologies and events that impact my chosen profession; network with other librarians and maybe even see a bit of a new city is a part of my job for which I am grateful. Most recently I went to Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) in Austin and had a fabulous time. That is a seriously well-organized and enjoyable conference! And from talking to other librarians there I think that the feeling of being fortunate to be there was common. It probably helped that it was the 10th anniversary of ER&L and there were quite a few loyal attendees who were clearly proud of how far the conference has grown in a decade. I’m not sure if that sense of appreciation and gratitude will be quite as prevalent at future conferences.

At any rate, if you are new to academia you might be surprised to find out that going to conferences is required or, if not actually mandatory, it is at least strongly encouraged. You hopefully won’t be surprised that “attendance” really means “participation” because (not surprising!) the institution you work for is probably not going to support you spending a bunch of time out of town on a workday unless you are…working. If you do feel surprised to learn that conferences ? vacations…well, here is your reality check: conferences are great but if they are relaxing or easy then you aren’t doing it right.

So I thought I would write a bit about the conference experience of an academic librarian: things I love, things people complain about and maybe even a couple ideas for making the most of your time. My first tip would have to be: stay positive, don’t let people groaning about “having to go to a conference” bring you down. They are missing out!

First, a few things that are undeniably not-so-great.

1. You might have to pay for the conference yourself.
What?? Pay to WORK? Well…maybe. It depends on where you go and what your university’s budget is. Is there an amazing information-related conference in Maui this year? Expect some out-of-pocket. It might also depend on whether or not you got a presentation proposal accepted at the conference. It probably also depends on how many conferences you plan to attend. If you are going to several you are more likely to have to pony up some cash. And probably also pay someone under the table to do your work while you are away from your desk. (NO, just kidding, that is a terrible idea and you need to stop going to so many conferences!).

2. Preparing for a conference is time-consuming.
Whether you are doing a half-day workshop, a poster session, or serving on committees or in some other capacity there will be work involved to get ready for the conference. Do not put this off. Take it from me, who learned this recently from experience: finishing up a presentation at the last minute makes the days leading up to a trip much more stressful and unpleasant than they should be.

3. Attending a conference is time-consuming.
This seems too obvious. Maybe what I should say is that attending a conference is going to feel like it took up more of your time than it actually did. One day at a conference is not an 8-hour day; if you are doing it right it starts early and involves evening events (meetings, vendor dinners, networking events, etc). If you are an introvert you will find this much more exhausting than a typical workday. Expect to be tired; expect to be busy; expect to go back to your room at the end of the day and still have to type up your notes, respond to emails and prepare for the next day. Embrace the schedule and the busy-ness; it is worth it!

4. Coming back from a conference is always challenging.
This relates to number 3. When you come back you will have all the work you missed waiting for you. I recently spent three workdays at a conference and, over a week later, am still not caught up. How does three days away result in seven days of work overload? I don’t know, it just does.

So those are a few of the challenges. There are many more, I’m sure, but as I stated earlier try to stay positive. Plan conferences wisely and submit proposals early so that your institution is more likely to support your attendance financially. Carefully select the sessions and events you want to attend before you go to the conference but be flexible. I almost always tweak my schedule once the conference is underway but it really helps to have a plan first. Talk to your colleagues that are also attending. I did not realize until the second day of ER&L that I was not supposed to go to the same sessions as my coworkers. This is not a big deal but if I’d known beforehand I would have altered my schedule a bit.

Finally, I just want to say that the benefits of going to conferences far outweigh the challenges. I am always inspired to see the new ideas and technologies. One thing that is different now that I am in a larger library than I used to be is how much more contact I have with vendors and conferences are a great way to get to meet people that I’ve been emailing and talking to on the phone. I love that conferences give me an opportunity to meet people in my field that I wouldn’t otherwise get to know. When I was a high school librarian this was valuable because in that role I spent all of my time being the ONLY librarian and it was so nice to spend time with people who understood the challenges and rewards of my job. In the position I’m in now, it affords me an opportunity to make connections and to learn from others.

Even though it feels like I just got back from one conference — I still have a few notes to type up from ER&L — I am already gearing up for my next conference which is coming up in just a few weeks!

Reflections on the Job Hunt: Writing a Teaching Philosophy

As an LIS student graduating in May 2015, the job search is on my mind a lot these days. One of my more recent applications required a one-page teaching philosophy, in addition to a letter of interest and resume. Like many people that write a teaching philosophy for the first time, I have years of varied instructional experience but I often don’t take the time or space to do intentional, deliberate reflection of my teaching.

I think that ACRL’s recent decision to move forward with the proposed Framework, while simultaneously making a conscious stand not to rescind the Standards is more than relevant to this post. With that being said, I think there has been a multitude of brilliant blog posts on this topic, some of which have taken place on ACRLog. (For some of my personal favorites, see Meredith Farkas’ post, a reflection from Donna Witek, and a resource that Nicole Pagowsky shared).

Instead, I’d like to think more critically about why reflection is important, how it is often integrated into our daily lives (even if we don’t realize it), and what the construction of my teaching philosophy entailed. My hope is that this post might help other LIS students or recent grads in their journey to construct a coherent statement.

One of the reasons I like Twitter is that I am reminded daily about what other people in our field are doing, especially in relation to instruction. Many #critlib discussions have explored critical pedagogy and reflection. Now #moocmooc is exploring some of these topics in more depth while challenging participants to blog and reflect on their professional praxis. I’m personally hoping that these discussions will develop into a longer chapter on critical pedagogy and reflection or teaching assessment in an exciting work that’s still in progress.

One of the more recent #critlib conversations was about critical reference. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of the conversation about how to do good critical reference also applies to instruction. Here’s one of my favorite tweets from that conversation:

critlib conversation

I understand that potential employers want applicants to write a teaching philosophy so that they can make sure the person is well suited for their institution’s teaching culture and set of values. But what I learned is that it does so much more than that. It makes your teaching more intentional and nuanced. When you have to sit down and really ask yourself questions like “Why do I care about or place value on this instructional method?” or “What are the big questions I ask in my classroom?” you become a more thoughtful teacher.

This might seem really obvious but I’m not sure I realized the true value of reflection until I actually did it. As librarians face more and more time constraints, I think that this is something good to keep in mind. Yes, it might take a few hours to hash out how you teach and why, but if it improves your practice and your interactions with students isn’t it worth it?

I’d like to give a tangible—albeit cheesy—example to illustrate what I mean. I try to attend a yoga class at least once a week. It gives me a space to decenter and relax while stretching and improving my posture and strength. One of my favorite yoga classes is a hot yoga session at a swanky yoga center in town. There are a few reasons I like the class. The heat intensifies my stress relief, they let you borrow equipment, and it’s a fairly small, close-knit space. But to be honest, the biggest reason I go out of my way to attend the particular session is because of the instructor. He starts every class by telling students that the session isn’t about replicating the exact pose he is doing. It’s more about how your individual body feels in the pose. In other words, he empowers students to do what they can without feeling shame about not being as flexible as their neighbor. He also solidifies the expectations of the class by saying upfront what the goals are and then he reiterates those expectations by giving modifications for each pose and talking about how your body should feel instead of how it should look.

I am, of course, living on a graduate student budget and I can’t afford to go to this expensive class every week. I decided to compromise by going to a much cheaper yoga session sponsored by the student recreation center every now and then instead. I went to my first session last week and quickly learned that the instructional techniques used there are very different. This instructor scolded students for looking at their neighbors’ pose for guidance instead of looking directly at him. He made students stop the flow they were moving in so that they could move to one side of the room and watch him demonstrate exactly how poses should be done. He never talked about modifications for those with limited flexibility or injuries. In short, he made the practice tedious and maybe even discouraged newcomers from practicing yoga again.

There are many things I learned from these two very different experiences (besides the fact that you get what you pay for):

  • Teachers are not the keepers of knowledge. They are there to facilitate, mentor, and encourage. Being a guide can often be more productive than being an “expert”. And why can’t teachers be both?
  • If both of these instructors would have reflected on not only their respective sessions but also their teaching philosophy and their goals when teaching yoga, there would undoubtedly be some improvement. (Maybe this is me being optimistic or naive, but I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to be discouraging).
  • Teachers reflect on teaching even when we don’t mean to. If that one experience informed my teaching, I know that reflecting more consciously would be even more beneficial.

This brings me to constructing my actual teaching philosophy. I tried to keep all of this in mind while doing so: what is important to me as a student, what good (and poor) experiences I have had with past teachers and why, and how a reflection might inform and represent my teaching. I searched for examples in many different places and asked my mentors to share their teaching philosophies with me. A quick Google search brings up an overwhelming amount of resources. There are many sample philosophies, checklists, and rubrics. If I had to simplify and just give a few pieces of advice, they would be the following:

  • Use examples from fields like rhetoric and composition. Sometimes it’s hard to find good library examples because our field is so diverse. Graduate students writing statements in these areas often have similar goals to our own (facilitating critical thinking, putting information in context, etc.) and I think we can learn a lot from them.
  • Be yourself! More than anything else, your energy should shine through. Think about how your lived experiences have guided your teaching practices and philosophy. Reflect on your role and why you believe in the importance of that role.
  • Give examples. Most of us can write all day about what we want to do in the classroom. But what do we actually do? How do the activities we create embody the concepts we want students to understand? This might seem harsh, but if you can’t give a practical, tangible example of how you teach a particular concept or philosophy, it might not be as important to you as you claim.

My philosophy is in no way perfect. I actually think of it as a living, developing document that I hope will continue to grow and change as I grow and change. Still, I think that sharing parts of it might help others are they are thinking about their own philosophy. Here are a few excerpts:

As an educator, my goal is to foster personal exploration, challenge critical thinking, and frame students’ experiences within larger societal issues. Multiple teaching experiences have taught me that this process only happens if students develop a sense of autonomy and accomplishment. My role, then, is less about being an expert who dictates content and authority and more about being a leader who guides students through learning in the context of their lived experiences.

 I am also an information expert with a tangible agenda for my classroom. The students of today are swimming in information, all of which differs in format, reliability, and means of production. Thus, today’s librarian teachers are facing a very different obstacle than the librarians of even twenty years ago. The challenge is not in teaching students how to find information, but instead in teaching them how to be critical, contextual consumers of the information they already have access to. Therefore, my role as an information expert shapes the way I teach the skills needed to understand the complicated relationship between knowledge, information production, and power.

My greatest calling as an instructor is to help students realize their responsibilities as citizens, consumers, friends, mentors, and ethical human beings. Teaching them not only how to be more information literate but also why it matters is the constant objective behind my instruction.

Have you written a teaching philosophy? How often do you revise it? What advice would you give to new librarians going through this process?