Digital Libraries | November 2013 Digital Edition

Will This Website Save Your Library (and Your Librarians)?

The virtual learning commons could be the secret power that turns your school website into a participatory digital space that serves learning 24/7.

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's November 2013 digital edition.

The position of the school librarian is under siege by budget-pressed school districts. Utah's Ogden School District laid off 20 in April, to be replaced by "staff assistants." Pennsylvania's Harrisburg School District laid its librarians off, with the expectation of replacing them with volunteers. The New York City Department of Education asked the state to waive requirements mandating that schools employ librarians, as The Wall Street Journal reported in August.

What makes some administrators believe that librarians--many of them with a teaching certificate alongside a master's degree in library science--are so expendable?

David Loertscher, who is a faculty member of San Jose State University's School of Library & Information Science, blames lingering librarian stereotypes--the ones that say librarians are "bookish" people who charge fines and focus on getting their books back. "Some are," he acknowledges. "The stereotype wouldn't exist unless there were people who were like that." That breed of librarian has a reason to be worried. "People have figured out, why do we need a master's degree person tending the warehouse? And they're quite right. Librarians have got to change. If they've been out of library school very long, they have to rethink everything they were taught."

A Template for the Future
For five years, Loertscher and education consultant Carol Koechlin have been promoting a formula that is placing librarians front and center to help maximize the learning impact of changes taking place in their schools. A virtual learning commons (or VLC, as it's called) turns the traditional library page on a school website from a one-way stream of stale information into a lively and participatory digital space for students and teachers. Best of all, it serves learning 24/7. The librarian doesn't disappear; she or he moves into the background.

Loertscher says that he has specific reason for using the word "commons": It's a concept pulled straight out of American history and the forging of the country. "The Boston Commons was a place everybody owned, where everybody talked, where everybody worked. That's where democracy was really born." Renaming the library "the commons" emphasizes that, while the library may still have books and materials, it has become a "very flexible, active learning space." When you walk in (or click in), "it looks like a learning space, rather than a storage space," he says.

The VLC has five essential characteristics, according to Loertscher. The VLC:
• Is flexible;
• Is "owned" by the student and teacher;
• Becomes central to teaching and learning;
• Extends the classroom; and
• Is always available anywhere with an internet connection.

In other words, grab all the tools and artifacts for digital learning that must take place on a school campus--assignments and projects that could be shared among teachers, samples of excellent work, and resources and reference matter--and place them online. While you're at it, mix in social media and community aspects--book reviews, photos, school updates, and the like--to keep parents and kids coming back for more.

To make the ideas behind VLC concrete, Loertscher and his graduate students employed wiki and web page creation tool Google Sites to develop a template that could be adopted and revised by librarians to help them in building a VLC for their schools. Loertscher explains that the template includes five major rooms, each one a different web page or area on the library site.

The template lays out a tidy site in which everything appears to have its place. In the real world, however, the best VLCs--the ones actually being used by their school communities--are a messy lot, and they define "flexible." Most have multiple colors, fonts, boxes, graphics, and anything else that can be squeezed into the format of a web page. That doesn't surprise Loertscher. "It's not a one-person show," he says. "You've got different people posting in various rooms and taking responsibility. It's an all-volunteer thing."

Student Drivers
At Springfield Township High School Library in Glenside, PA, the portal does seem to have run amok. Librarian Joyce Valenza taps students to upload photos of Springfield life, including coverage of sports and school clubs events to the library's Flickr page and Pinterest board--the latter of which is tagged, "A collage of school culture." Student artwork is also archived on the library site, because, says Valenza, "The library curates student life and the students helped do it." Students set up Skype sessions with authors and poets through their virtual book club; they lead discussions during town-wide community reading events; they organize poetry slams; they post their school projects to the library's website in a Student Project Guide.

Valenza has an ulterior motive in getting students to place their work and activities online: to bolster their digital presences in positive ways. "Because of COPPA and CIPA and so many things that protect kids, we've eliminated access to the good work our kids are doing, and all you see is the stuff that they post that may show them with a beer can in their hand or a red Solo cup," she says. "When people look these kids up, I want their reputations as scholars and artists and poets and video/film producers to start being visible."

The use of students to drive the VLC takes a more formal structure at the Pine Grove Middle School Library in East Syracuse, NY. Librarian Sue Kowalski has enlisted dozens of students into a workforce she calls her iStaff. Students come in for their shift and know what they're supposed to do. That self-direction is important, she says, because she doesn't have time to manage a group of kids who aren't focused. Nor does she want to give them busywork. "I do like to give the kids higher level jobs rather than lower level. I want them to rise to it, not lower themselves."

Because Kowalski says she can already tell which ones are heading to "engineering school," she's happy to hand off the management of some parts of the VLC to students. For example, a teacher came to her wanting to put together a list of alternatives to PowerPoint. Kowalski turned to one of her iStaff members and asked him to create a Symbaloo, a kind of home page that allows a user to pull together a Windows 8-like spread of icons with links to favorite sites or apps. "He did it in probably 10 minutes," she notes.

The "biggest, richest role" that the iStaff plays is when its student volunteers get trained on something, and a teacher says, "Can you send two kids down second period to do a demonstration for my class and then walk around the room?" In those situations, notes Kowalski, "The teacher gets the support they want. I'm still able to continue with what I'm doing. And the kid has a rich experience of being a teacher-leader. That's the perfect world for iStaff."

Teachers' Helpers
Kowalski has put a lot of effort into distributing the services offered by the library and making it as self-service as possible, especially for teachers looking to learn new things. "I wouldn't call myself a control freak--I'm not organized enough--so what is the best way that all of the things that come through the library are at everybody's fingertips? If I'm there to guide, assist, or teach, that's wonderful. But if I'm not, they can be pretty self-sufficient."

That's where applications such as Symbaloo come in. However, Kowalski is also trying out LibGuides, which are like a Microsoft SharePoint for libraries in that users can set up multiple mini websites for specific purposes. "I am trying to transition all my current links into the LibGuides interface and make it a more seamless this-is-where-I-go-for-the-information kind of thing." She compares the transition to LibGuides to another of her projects: distributing her books on carts in classrooms, the cafeteria, and hallways. "Not everything needs to be in the library. Not everything needs to be guided by me. If it is, things are used inefficiently."

Next up for Kowalski is to add videos and audio tutorials to the VLC to explain the steps for using resources. Then, she says, "Whether I'm in a meeting or in a class or a teacher doesn't like me, they can still get to all that stuff, and nobody is being cheated."

It isn't just the method of communicating with teachers that's changing. As the Common Core has infiltrated instruction, connecting with teachers at all has become complicated for librarians. "Teachers go to this whole new standard, and it becomes, 'I don't really have time for library stuff, because I gotta do Common Core,'" explains Kowalski. To lend a hand, she has been helping teachers pair nonfiction books and articles (an emphasis in CCSS) from library databases with the subjects they're teaching. Her efforts have met with some success but now, she says, librarians need to work harder to get across the message that "we can help you infuse all the things into your teaching that the Common Core is expecting."

The Librarian in the Background
There are plenty of reasons why a VLC is a smart idea, not the least of which is that as library staffs are downsized, librarians may find themselves serving multiple schools. A VLC enables all of those schools to get to the resources they need for their work whether the librarian is physically present or not. As Loertscher says, if a librarian moves from one school to another during the course of the day, a VLC allows "you to stay in contact virtually with interested teachers across schools." And if it works in two schools, he adds, "then the VLC also works across many schools."

That's what Pine Grove Middle School will shortly experience, if only temporarily. In June 2014, the school will be emptied out for renovations, with each grade heading to other schools for 18 or 24 months.

"There's going to be six schools that are all going to need resources and tools and strategies," says Kowalski. "But there's not going to be 'the place' for the library. That's why I'm so committed this year to really cementing a healthy virtual presence--so that when my sixth-grade teacher I work with all the time is in this school, and I'm in another school that day, she's not on hold. Or the kids aren't on hold. My role would be curating the resources they need, as opposed to just showing them how to do everything."

Valenza sees no difference between the VLC and what libraries have always done. "It's merely a translation. We're all about learning. The [American Association of School Librarians] tells us that the four big words that we need to think about are 'think,' 'create,' 'share,' and 'grow.' There's a million different ways to interpret this, but in a world where kids can have an audience and make a difference, we ought to be engaging these kids actively in both cultural and social participation."

Loertscher would probably agree. "Instead of a top-down approach, which most websites are, suddenly, you create this flat network. Who are the people in the network? Well, it's you and me and everybody else who's interested, no matter where we live or language we speak. A kid who's a square peg in a round hole interested in frogs that live in Florida can connect in through the VLC to other people of like minds. If the librarian captures this, then they've built this formal and informal education system. I think it's pretty exciting."


The Structure of a VLC

According to the model created by San Jose State's David Loertscher and education consultant Carol Koechlin, there are five basic "rooms" in a virtual learning commons.

  • The main page and information center is closest in personality to the "old library website." This is where the databases are kept, Loertscher says, along with staff photos and contact details and a calendar of events; it also might draw students in by featuring a slideshow or student-made videos.
  • The school culture is a "living school yearbook," Loertscher declares. "This is where the band performances, the choirs, the football team, anybody who won an award get featured. This is what really draws the kids in. And then you can grab them for these other things like learning and literacy."
  • Next, he says, comes literacy or reading culture, the page that serves as the center for "celebrating literacy and content creation in all their forms." This includes book and movie reviews by students, teachers, and librarians; reading list "likes"; writing contests; poetry readings; and book club outreach.
  • Fourth is the knowledge building center, where people come together to collaborate and co-teach on learning projects. If a teacher has assigned a unit on the Civil War, for example, the librarian and teacher can work together to pull together the resources that learners (and their parents) will need to access for that project.
  • The last area is the experimental learning center, where "school improvement" lives, Loertscher says. "It's the place to try things out--and it's okay to fail there before it's adopted schoolwide." Potential items might include a "virtual teacher's lounge" with projects, opportunities, and announcements. There might be links to standards, professional development resources, or major documents. This area will probably offer schoolwide updates, a place where administration and teachers can post calendars, workrooms, progress reports, plans, and action items.


5 Tips for Creating a Robust Virtual Learning Commons

1. Get a grasp on VLC best practices. The American Association of School Librarians issues an annual "School Library Program of the Year" award, which Sue Kowalski and Pine Grove Middle School won in 2011. The year before, Kowalski scrutinized the award rubric to understand where the gaps in her VLC were. "I used it as a guide for the next year to say, 'All right, if I were judging me, this is a weak area.'" She spent the next year aligning her program with criteria that she considered best practices.

2. The work is never done. Both Kowalski and Joyce Valenza at Springfield Township High School Library consider their VLCs a work in progress. "I don't think it's ever a done thing," Kowalski says. "You're always looking for better ways." Valenza echoes that. "We're never really at the ideal. There's no textbook on how to do this, right? We're kind of recalculating, recalibrating, reinventing, re-envisioning. Each community has different needs. We're responding to what folks want here."

3. Become part of curriculum planning. "I don't care how I get to the table," Kowalski says. She just thinks it makes more sense to be part of the planning on the ground level "as opposed to 12 teachers coming my way needing the resources, or the curriculum director saying, 'Can you send us a list of all the resources you have that match these topics?'"

4. Focus on teaching users "to fish," not on being the fish market. As requests for more nonfiction come in, for example, Kowalski would prefer helping her teachers instruct students on how to find current coverage of the topics they're studying rather than compiling a list that never gets updated. "Sudan today is going to be different than Sudan in four months," she says.

5. Don't think you have to do this alone. Valenza says that, just before the start of the school year, she was pondering what to do for orientation. Instead of dusting off the same scavenger hunt she has used in years past, she put a message out on Twitter and a listserv she participates in. "I was able to aggregate the best ideas of the crowd. When I did that, it busted open my notion of what an orientation could be. I could see how many different ways people were doing it," she says. "So you don't have to start from scratch…. It's all about remixing today. It's all about standing on the shoulders of giants and getting even taller."

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