New Librarianship MOOC: Learning and Community Engagement

Members of library staff (and many others involved in training-teaching-learning) need to facilitate conversations and engage in them as well as part of our efforts to nurture and be part of the communities we serve, we are reminded through R. David Lankes’s “Community: The Pressure for Participation” lecture posted online in his “New Librarianship Master Class”—a massive open online course (MOOC) under the auspices of the University of Syracuse School of Information Studies— and in his book The Atlas of New Librarianship.

New_Librarianship_Master_Class_Logo“Participation in a system, however minimal, exerts pressure on that system,” he explains, and that thought reminds us that whether we’re facilitating learning in physical and virtual library settings or in any other environment, we must be actively engaged with our learners if we want to understand and effectively meet their needs.

I suspect that many of us connected with learning efforts in or through libraries understand, viscerally, the importance and the rewards of being integrally involved in our communities; if we’ve read the Urban Library Council’s Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development (2007) report or been following Maureen Sullivan’s American Library Association (ALA) presidential initiative “Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities,” we have very strong reminders of how important involvement and activism within a community is. I am not, on the other hand, at all convinced that trainer-teacher-learners across the board have that same sense of how far-reaching our efforts are within the communities we serve; responding to employers’/clients’ needs with our (in the best of situations) finely honed learner-centric endeavors, we don’t often enough take into consideration the importance of evaluating the results of those endeavors where they most matter: among the customers and clients who ultimately benefit from how learners apply what they have absorbed—or suffer from those learners’ inability to successfully apply what has been offered.

Lankes, obviously focusing on the world of librarianship and libraries, continues throughout his course and book to offer guidance, inspiration, and provocative ideas not only for that target audience of library staff, but to anyone involved in training-teaching-learning. He encourages us to think about how we can open up our systems to those who are ultimately affected by our resources, our offerings, and our actions. He reminds us that “people will go where they can have an influence. People will go to where their voice is respected or listened to”—a confirmation that if we want to be effective in facilitating learning, we need to act in ways that demonstrate our willingness to partner with our learners, listen to what they say, and respect what we are hearing from them.

He takes us even further in his discussions of community through his online lecture “Communities: Environments” and sections of The Atlas (pp. 97-101) where he documents efforts by staff at the Free Library of Philadelphia to renovate and expand the main library in ways that serve the community rather than in ways that solely reflect library staff’s perceptions of community needs. Discussions with community members led staff to focus on proposals for an Entrepreneurium that would support community entrepreneurs at their greatest moment of need; a writing center that would provide writers with the salon opportunities and publication opportunities that were most important to them and their community; and a music center that would meet musicians’ needs for performance spaces and newly-written compositions that have been performed. Having that level of exchanges with our learners and those affected by the ways those learners apply what we provide could have magnificent impacts on how we dream about, design, deliver, and evaluate the learning opportunities we offer face to face and online. And the payoff for the communities we serve could be incredible.

In the third of his three lectures on community—“Communities: Assessment”—there is a concluding line that ought to be pasted on our learning walls: the reminder that we are stronger if we avoid fragmentation and seek inclusiveness in our efforts. Rather than think of ourselves in terms of “public librarians” or “academic librarians” or any other sub-category of the larger field of librarianship, he encourages course participants to simply think of ourselves as “librarians.” And the same, I believe, can be said of learning facilitators regardless of the venue(s) in which we work: we should be far less concerned with whether we refer to ourselves as “teachers” or “instructors” or “trainers,” or whether we work primarily in face-to-face or online or synchronous or asynchronous learning situations, and much more concerned with the fact that we are involved in learning—as facilitators and as learners, regardless of whether we work in libraries or in schools or colleges or universities or in other workplace learning and performance (staff training) settings.

The foundation that keeps us productive and essential members of our communities is a dedication to learning—and that’s where we need to maintain the focus that comes from one of Lankes’s final questions in his presentations and writing on community: “What are people talking about? What do they want to learn?”

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of posts inspired by the New Librarianship MOOC.

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