All posts by Jennifer Jarson

We’re All Ears: Learning By Listening

This post has been co-authored by Maura Smale and Jen Jarson.

The context

Jen: I started a new job at a new institution about two and a half weeks ago after 11 years at my previous institution. This new institution is rather different than my former one. That was a residential, small liberal arts college. This is a small commuter campus that’s part of a huge system. My new job has more administrative responsibilities, too. I learned new things every day in my previous position, of course, but there is something quite different about the blank slate of coming in to a new institution and a new position. So much to learn, so much to do, and so little context or history to help light the way.

Maura: I’ve been a library faculty member at my college for 9 years, three of those as director of the library. But like Jen, right now I find myself in a period of settling in to something changed. I was out on a research sabbatical for six months–most of this calendar year–beginning in early February and returning to the library just last week. I’m in the same job and institution, though the day to day rhythm of my work is vastly different than it was a few weeks ago. As I’ve been settling back in (and trying to remember where I left things in the folders and drawers in my office) I’ve been struck by the similarities to starting a new job. I still have my institutional and historical context, but there’s lots for me to learn (and relearn), too.

What are (the right) questions to ask when you’re trying to (re)learn about a job/institution?

Maura: Since I got back I’ve been arranging meetings with my colleagues to catch up on last semester and their work, and sometimes feel like the questions I’ve asked are quite similar to those I asked when I first became Chief Librarian. What have you been working on? How’re your projects, research, and other work going? Have you hit any roadblocks? Is there any support I can offer? I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, especially my colleague who served as interim director when I was out, for keeping everything running in the Spring. But because nothing is ever truly static there were a few unexpected situations and opportunities that came up while I was away. Learning about those really is like having a new job (though in the same organizational context), especially coming up to speed on new projects in the library for this academic year that hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon before I left on leave.

Jen: I, too, am trying to meet with as many of my new colleagues as I can. For me, that includes library and non-library folks at my local campus, as well as folks in the libraries at other campuses. To prepare for each meeting, I take stock of my running list of questions and choose those that seem most relevant to that person or group. As I look over this list now, I recognize that the questions are a mix of specific (such as, what assessments of student learning outcomes have been done recently?) and open-ended (for example, tell me about your work and responsibilities, how do you think students perceive the library?, what could the library be doing to better meet students’ needs?). Both types of questions provide me with useful information and open avenues for exploration. While the nature or phrasing of some lines of inquiry are likely more productive than others, just showing a sincere interest in others’ goals and challenges and seeking opportunities for alignment and collaboration feels like an important part of what makes this kind of outreach fruitful.

What should we listen for when in meetings, either individually or with committees or teams, both inside and outside the library?

Maura: Listening is important–I’m always working to improve my listening skills (and I think it’s a lifelong process, at least for me). In coming back after sabbatical I’m reminding myself to listen as much as I can: in one on one meetings, in committees, in casual conversations. I’ve been spending some time walking around the library and campus to listen, too, though since our semester hasn’t begun yet it’s still fairly quiet. Typically in conversations we focus on the topic at hand, and I’m reminding myself to listen with both ears open. I’m trying to pay extra attention, not just to the specific task being discussed but to projects and processes in the library as a whole.

Jen: Like Maura, I’m trying to listen on a number of levels. I’m listening for actionable improvements and opportunities, whether in the here-and-now or in the near or distant future. I’m also listening to uncover further questions I should be asking, those that I haven’t yet been able to fathom. I’m listening to understand priorities and goals and challenges and how the library plays a role in supporting or addressing them. I’m listening to figure out how the many moving parts of this large organization fit together and how to navigate and communicate best within and across it. I’m trying to listen for what the other person is really saying, rather than only what I expect or assume they’re telling me. I’m listening for the moments and places where our interests intersect and where we can best collaborate to advance student learning.

What questions do you think are most important to ask when you start a new position or return after time away? What do you wish a new/returning colleague would ask you? What do you find most important to listen for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like?

Perhaps you, too, have been following some of the recent instances of student shaming and blaming. I’m referring particularly to the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author suggests a fictional student is lying about a grandmother’s death as a way to get out of finals. I’m also referring to the session at the 2017 ACRL conference in which a few presenters disparagingly referred to their students as “our sweet dum-dums.” Even just a sample of the incisive commentaries on these and similar instances of student shaming (check out, for example, pieces from Acclimatrix, Jesse Stommel, Jordan Noyes, Joshua Eyler, and Veronica Arellano Douglas to name a few) illustrate how incongruous this talk is with the very real empathy, care, and respect I know we have for our students.

We could dissect the problems that are at the core of these troublesome statements further. We could discuss what happens when we talk like this and why it’s imperative that we don’t. We could reflect on the times we’ve inadvertently said regrettable things ourselves. But what I’m more interested to think about now is how we exercise our empathy, care, and respect for students, and how we can do it better still. What does it mean to keep students at the center of our library practice?

I think it’s worth checking in with the significant history and usage of the term “student-centered” in pedagogical contexts. There, we might see the concept phrased as “student-centered learning,” particularly when contrasted against “teacher-centered learning.” We might sometimes see it called “student-centered teaching” or “learner-centered education.” While these terms might indicate slightly different philosophical orientations, they are essentially variations of the same.

Maryellen Weimer says that learner-centered education is about learning skills for learning, alongside content. It requires learners to reflect on the what and the how of their learning. It invites students as collaborators and leaders of their learning. Learner-centered education, or student-centered education, changes the balance of power and control. “The goal of learner-centered teaching,” Weimer writes, “is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners” (p. 10). In the learner-centered environment, learners have a lot of responsibility and, as Phyllis Blumberg asserts, the instructor’s role “shift[s] . . . from givers of information to facilitators of student learning or creators of an environment for learning” (p. xix).

When we talk about student-centered, then, we’re talking about engaging students in high-impact practices and with skills and resources that contribute to their learning and help them continue to learn. We’re talking about helping students succeed and continue to be successful. We’re talking about empowering our students to be active agents in their own learning.

Student-centered is a guiding principle by which we chart our path. Student-centered is an attitude or a disposition, a way of working.

A student-centered way of working means practicing empathy for students. It means inviting students to co-construct meaningful learning experiences and environments. It also means challenging our students to think deeply, critically. It means challenging them to challenge their assumptions and themselves, and to go further.

A student-centered lens on our library practice means enhancing the role of assessment in our decision-making and improvement, asking what kind of impact we are having (or not having) on student learning and success. It means enhancing student voices in our decision-making, inviting their input in formal and informal ways. This way of working means cultivating an attitude of flexibility, innovation, and improvement. It means collaborating across a library, across an institution.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Building OER Momentum with a Mini-Grant Program

At my institution, we’ve been talking more about open education in the past year. Open access has long been on our agenda, but open education is such a large umbrella. We’ve begun to bring other open education-related work to the fore.

I wrote about open pedagogy in the context of information literacy in a blog post this past fall, while reflecting on Jim Groom’s visit to our campus for our Domain of One’s Own launch. Earlier this semester, Robin DeRosa came to campus to help us grow the conversation around open pedagogy and open educational resources (OER). My colleague, Lora Taub-Pervizpour, shared some curated articles and videos in two great posts (here and here) as our community prepared for Robin’s visit. These conversations have helped us focus in on our motivations for deepening our OER work. Helping to reduce financial burdens/barriers for our students by lowering textbook/course materials costs is a significant motivator for our OER interest, as is often the case. But the pedagogical opportunities OER can help to create are particularly energizing for our community, so deeply invested in teaching. (Check out David Wiley’s recent posts “How is Open Pedagogy Different?” and “When Opens Collide” for some interesting discussion on open pedagogy.)

As open education efforts on our campus continue, my colleagues and I are planning to launch a small grant initiative to help build momentum. We are imagining these stipends as a way to support faculty/instructors interested in adopting, adapting, and creating OER for their courses. We are also excited about the pedagogical possibilities that OER work might offer, so I’m particularly enthusiastic about the option we’re including to support the development of assignments in which students collaborate in the OER work of the course.

We’re developing the application guidelines and evaluation criteria for this grant initiative now. A few searches easily turn up helpful examples of such initiatives at a range of institution types: American University, Bucknell University, College of William & Mary, Davidson College, Old Dominion University, University of Kansas, and Utah State University, to name a few. These have been helpful in informing how we’re shaping and framing our application and outreach process. But I’m particularly eager to hear reflections on the successes, challenges, and outcomes of the work from those who have already taken a lap around this track. I recently revisited Sarah Crissinger’s thoughtful and helpful reflections on her OER work with faculty (part 1, part 2, part 3). Yet I’m eager for more and find myself wondering about your thoughts. I expect many of you have experience administering OER-related initiatives with similar goals. If so, how have you framed your program? What have you found to be important to your success? What barriers have you encountered? Or perhaps you are someone who has participated in this kind of initiative (or would like to). If so, what kinds of guidelines or support were (or would be) most useful? I would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts in the comments.

Growing a peer digital learning program

I’ve been working with colleagues at my institution over the course of the past year to launch a peer digital learning initiative. The program kicked off this past August with our “Learning in the Digital Age” pre-orientation program. Each year, my institution offers a few four-day pre-orientation programs to incoming undergraduate students. These programs give interested students the chance to arrive on campus early before orientation, meet other first-year students with similar interests, and connect with upperclass students, faculty, and staff who serve as program leaders. In our “Learning in the Digital Age” pre-orientation, our program-specific goals were to give students hands-on experience with various digital technologies being used for teaching and learning on campus, generate conversation around what it means to a learner and citizen in the digital age, foster awareness of and reflection on personal agency in learning, and invite students to help build our growing digital learning program in the year ahead. In addition to general community building and fun (LED frisbee was a particular hit), and helping students feel comfortable on campus before the semester started. Hats off especially to our student leaders without whom this program would have floundered.

Once the fall semester began, approximately half of the students who participated in the pre-orientation program plus the upperclass student leaders continued on into our Digital Learning Assistant (DLA) training program. A few other upperclass students excited about digital learning joined training, as well. Our primary goal was to prepare students to serve as tutors to other students in need of assistance with digital learning projects assigned in courses. During the fall semester, students in the training program participated in online and face-to-face activities to help advance their knowledge of core digital tools that faculty use most often in their courses for blogging, digital archives and data visualizations, digital mapping and GIS, digital storytelling, and e-portfolios. Each student selected one of these tracks for their first area of focus. We collected relevant readings and training resources and developed “challenges” to help the students develop proficiency in the area. Students gave short presentations as a culmination of their first semester training.

An important part of the DLA training program is to help students not only develop technical skills, but also think about ways they’ll be able to mentor other students trying to learn these tools as well as consider the tools/skills in the context of digital identity and digital literacy. We used a selection of readings (like Watters’ “The Web We Need to Give Students,” Rikard’s “Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It,” and Vygotsky’s “Interaction between Learning and Development”) to jumpstart reflection and conversation in these areas. The challenges students worked on during training, in addition to other activities, asked students to consider these aspects, as well. This semester, the DLAs began offering drop-in hours to assist students, while also continuing their training on both the technology and peer teaching fronts.

As we begin to gear up for year two, we’re thinking about how we’ll refine and revise both our pre-orientation program and our DLA training program. Our program has so far been inspired by our institution’s rich peer learning culture, as well as similar projects at other institutions like University of Mary Washington’s Digital Knowledge Center. We’re also guided by our shared interests in fostering student agency, developing communities for peer learning, and growing critical digital literacy skills and perspectives. I imagine these goals and values are also near and dear to many ACRLog readers, so I’m eager to hear your thoughts. What do you think are the most important questions, concepts, and models for building a peer digital learning program? What activities, readings, and resources do you think are valuable to help develop a peer learning community around technology, digital literacy and identity, and student agency? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Straight talk: Inviting students’ perspectives on information literacy teaching and learning

My colleagues and I received a grant from our regional consortium to develop information literacy continuing education opportunities for faculty, librarians, and other stakeholders at our institutions. As part of this initiative, we’re planning a one-day symposium during which participants can share successes and challenges in information literacy teaching and learning and that inspires intercampus dialog about our future teaching practices. We plan to include faculty and librarian presentations, discussions, and workshops. I’m especially excited about our plan to organize a panel of undergraduate students. We want to convene this panel so that we can hear directly from students themselves about information literacy teaching and learning. Some of the most interesting pedagogical conversations I have are with students about their perspectives on their own teaching and learning experiences and development. I’m eager to find more ways to facilitate these conversations.

We’re still in the early planning stages and are just beginning to think about how to invite students to participate in the panel and in what areas we want to focus the discussion. I’m so far thinking about posing questions like the following to the student panelists to help guide the session:

  • What information literacy teaching practices, learning experiences, and assignments have helped you learn and grow best?
  • What have been barriers to your information literacy development and successes?
  • What information literacy-related strategies, concepts, or skills have been most confusing or troublesome? Why? Have you been able to overcome those roadblocks? If so, how?
  • Do you think of yourself as an information consumer, creator, or both? How so?
  • What strategies, habits, or attitudes do you practice that help you plan, monitor, and assess your information consumption and creation?
  • What advice would you offer to other students information consumption and creation? About information literacy learning?

If you were to convene a panel of undergrads (or perhaps you already have), what would you want to ask students about information literacy? What do you want an audience of faculty to hear from students about information literacy? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.