When as association like the American Library Association (ALA) sets out to empower its members by fostering collaboration, magic happens, as a few of us saw again yesterday while attending an open discussion about online learning in libraries at the ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting here in Chicago.
Arriving early for a 90-minute session, seven of us who had not previously met engaged in brief, informal conversation for several minutes while waiting for the session facilitator to arrive. And when it became clear that the facilitator was not going to arrive, we quickly decided we weren’t going to take the typical tact of assuming we should leave because the session had been cancelled. ALA, after all, does many things very, very well—including creating opportunities where members interact informally, help shape the conversations we want to join, and extend conversations across onsite and online platforms to be sure no interested member is left behind.
Because most of the members in that room are involved in training-teaching-learning endeavors in university libraries, we’re familiar with how to design and facilitate effective learning opportunities, so we quickly agreed to start by introducing ourselves and the work we do. We then agreed that we wanted a couple of clear-cut learning objectives: an exchange of ideas about the current state of online learning in libraries, and the possibility of initiating a conversation that would continue long after that initial 90-minute session came to an end. So we exchanged business cards, took a few minutes to describe what we hoped to learn from each other during our time together, and even, thanks to one participant’s action, created an online document to capture highlights from the conversation in the hope that the document would quickly evolve into an ongoing “learning space” where we could continue to learn with and from each other.
One of the most striking elements of this entire meeting created on the fly was how it reflected so much of what is happening in training-teaching-learning today: a recognition that learners gain by shaping their own learning experiences—as we did during those 90 minutes of conversation. And that collaborative or connected learning is most effective when there is no one dominant voice in a learning situation. If everyone contributes, everyone gains—which is what ALA so effectively nurtures by bringing colleagues together in ways that combine formal and informal learning while connecting onsite and offsite colleagues in engaging ways.
As we created our own meeting/discussion within the overall Midwinter Meeting context, we found immediate payoffs. In sharing observations about what is happening among undergraduates engaged in online learning, we learned that the University of Arizona University Libraries has an open source program called Guide on the Side and that is has been successful enough to be adopted by others. We explored the challenge so many of us face in trying to define and support digital literacy and shared links to resources including Doug Belshaw’s online Ph.D. thesis on digital literacy: What Is Digital Literacy? A Pragmatic Investigation. We briefly explored the challenges of working with learners in online environments when those learners have been inadequately prepared to thrive in online learning environments, and heard a bit about the first-rate report Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas, by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, published through the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, at Columbia University.
Moving on to the topic of Open Educational Resources (OERs) in learning, we heard a colleague summarize what she had learned earlier in the day while attending an Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) OER session here at the Midwinter Meeting. OERs, she noted, are offering great benefits for international distance learners—including access to OERs in a timely fashion instead of making those learners wait weeks for standard printed textbooks to arrive via mail. We learned that Rice University is doing great work with OER textbooks through its OpenStax College and that more libraries are beginning to work in this area—actually appointing “OER librarians.” We heard about colleagues who are first-rate resources for us on the topic of OERs, e.g., Nicole Allen, Director of Open Education for SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition); David Wiley, Associate Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University; and Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian Temple University, through his work on open textbooks.
We heard numerous examples of how colleagues are engaging learners by creating and embedding personal videos in online courses, facilitating online forums that include audio feedback to learners, and using Twitter, Facebook, and Google Hangouts for online office hours and other learning opportunities that are showing online learning can be every bit as personal and engaging as face-to-face learning can be.
A frequently-used tagline used by ALA to describe its conferences and large-scale meetings is “the conversation begins here.” Conversations certainly began in that small conference room yesterday afternoon, and may well continue through extended interactions in virtual “learning spaces” including live tweet chats, development of that shared online document, and even blog articles along the lines of this one. They key is that we are responsible for fostering our own learning, creating our own meetings, and taking full advantage of the learning opportunities that continue to come our way through the simple act of association.