ALA 2015 Midwinter Meeting: Learning How to Make a Meeting

February 1, 2015

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.

ALAMW15--LogoArriving 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.

Community_College_Research_Center_LogoAs 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.


NMC Horizon Report 2014 (Pt. 3 of 6): Opportunities Among Solvable, Difficult, and Wicked Challenges in Learning and Technology

February 7, 2014

Any of us involved in training-teaching-learning might take comfort in the idea that we’re not alone in the challenges we face—something made abundantly clear in the latest Higher Education Edition of the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project reports on key trends, significant challenges, and developments in educational technology.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverAlthough by definition focused on challenges in academic institutions, the report readily lends itself to serving as first-rate documentation of challenges—and potential solutions to them—far beyond the physical and virtual walls of its intended audience in higher education. Those “significant challenges,” arranged along three distinct time horizons, are grouped into solvable challenges (the low digital fluency of faculty members and the relative lack of rewards for teaching); difficult challenges (competition from new models of education and ways to scale innovations in teaching); and wicked challenges (expanding access to educational opportunities and keeping education relevant) that will take much longer to resolve.   

One consistent theme that connects several of the challenges is the need to help teachers (and, by extension, other learning facilitators) develop better teaching/training skills. It’s an obvious element of addressing the problems of low digital fluency among teacher-trainer-learners, lack of rewards for teaching/facilitating learning, addressing new models of education as well as workplace learning and performance (staff training), and keeping education (and training) relevant.

It’s not as if we’re lacking in options in dealing with some of these issues. The report contains links to a variety of articles documenting creative approaches, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/Davidson College collaboration to “create a comprehensive curicular model of digital studies to support the faculty’s development of digital skills.” With a bit of creativity, we might be able to apply, to other training-teaching-learning settings, what comes out of that collaboration.

Sahlberg--Finnish_LessonsMoving to an even deeper level of engagement, we might find ourselves inspired to seek productive and creative collaborations by the fact that “[e]mployers have reported disappointment in the lack of real world readiness they observe in recent graduates who are prospective or current employees” (p. 21)—something clearly not solely a problem for those in academia. Pasi Sahlberg has already, through his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, provided one potentially fruitful route of exploration for those seeking business-education collaborations. Sources cited within the Horizon Report, including the UK-based JISC, provide other collaborative models through which “schools, public libraries, and community learning bodies” partner to explore information and communications technology in learning (quoting from Wikipedia).

And our own experiences working in and with a variety of learning organizations places us in a great position to tackle a broad and particularly wicked problem: “It is difficult for institutions to stay ahead of workforce needs” (p. 21).

My own involvement in New Media Consortium projects, American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) activities, and a variety of training-teaching-learning endeavors through the American Library Association, has convinced me that collaborations among these three first-rate learning organizations could produce positive results that the organizations and their members cannot accomplish on their own—it’s really no different than the JISC approach to bringing schools, libraries, and community learning bodies together. And I suspect that trainer-teacher-learners with experiences and affiliations far different from my own can readily see equally strong prospective partners capable of addressing the challenge of finding ways to stay ahead of workforce needs.

nmc.logo.cmykThe resources mentioned in passing in the “Significant Challenges” section of this new Horizon Report could (and probably should) keep us busy for several weeks or months. In addition to the references to JISC, we find brief, easy to overlook mentions of the 2013 Report to the European Commission on Improving the Quality of Teaching and Learning in Europe’s Higher Education Institutions; Harvard University’s WIDE World online resource for teachers, professors, teacher trainers, and administrators; and the European Commission’s Opening Up Education and Training initiative in addition to numerous links to shorter articles and videos. There are also abundant reminders that expanding access to learning opportunities relies as much on helping people learn to learn in online environments as it does on technology infrastructure. Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars’ “Adaptability to Online Learning” report through the Community College Research Center at Colombia University is one significant resource that carries us far beyond what can be documented within the pages of the new Horizon Report and is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in helping learners thrive in online learning environments.

Learners themselves seem to understand that we need to be working more diligently to create a vibrant and responsive lifelong learning environment moving beyond traditional silos within our organizations (academic learning opportunities that don’t interact with staff training programs that don’t interact with learning opportunities provided by libraries). There is clearly recognition—at least among Millennials—that lifelong learning has become essential to lifelong success in the contemporary workplace, the 2010 Pew Research Center report Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, documented. Expanded interactions among NMC, ASTD, and ALA members alone could produce positive responses to that perceived need and the challenges noted in the latest Higher Education Edition in the Horizon Report series.

What the report does, then, is highlight the challenges we face so we don’t lose sight of them. It reminds us that we are far from alone in trying to resolve those challenges. And it encourages us to draw upon available resources to better serve those who rely on us to provide effective learning experiences that address their—and our—short- and long-term needs.

NB: This is part of a series of articles exploring the latest Horizon Report. Next: On the One-Year Horizon—Flipped Classrooms and Learning Analytics


Adaptability to Online Education: Replacing Failure with Success

March 8, 2013

Those of us engaged in and stimulated by #etmooc (an online Educational Technology & Media course) and other training-teaching-earning endeavors already have plenty of evidence that the best online learning offerings can produce results at least as good as what comes out of the best face-to-face learning. Our participation in that massive open online course (MOOC), in fact, is providing us with visceral proof that online engaging can be engaging, rewarding, and capable of producing tangible results if the right elements are in place and if we are properly prepared.

etmoocNow, thanks to researchers Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars, we have a thoughtful and thought-provoking research-based study showing what can hinder success among certain groups of online learners.

Focusing on failure rates of online learners drawn from a very large sample (40,000 community and technical college learners throughout Washington state, tracked over a five-year period), Xu and Jaggars have produced a paper that includes insights useful to any of us involved in training-teaching learning. “Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas” (published through the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, at Columbia University), opens with a well-balanced introduction that cites previous research papers comparing face-to-face and online learning; provides observations about why some students may do better than others in online learning environments, e.g., “those with more extensive exposure to technology or those who have been taught skills in terms of time-management and self-directed learning…may adapt more readily to online learning than others” (p. 1); and includes the suggestion that “insufficient time management and self-directed learning skills” could contribute to the online learning failures examined in their paper (p. 4). Reading that section alone gives us a wonderfully concise overview of the challenges we and our learners face, and it serves as a great example of the sort of resources coming out of the open movement—the subject of our latest #etmooc module.

As we move more deeply into Xu and Jaggars’ 32-page paper, we learn more about the writers’ meticulous methodology; the subjects of their study and the types of courses they were attempting to complete; and the possibility that “older students’ superior adaptability to online learning lends them a slight advantage in online courses in comparison with their younger counterparts” (pp. 17-18). They go far beyond the usual basic levels of evaluation and ponder the possibility that peers’ behavior can have positive or negative effects on the learning process: “These descriptive comparisons suggest that a given student is exposed to higher performing peers in some subject areas and lower performing peers in others and that this could affect his or her own adaptability to online courses in each subject area” (p. 21).

Community_College_Research_Center_LogoIn reaching the conclusion that those who struggle with face-to-face learning are even more likely to struggle with and fail at online learning, Xu and Jaggars lead us to an interesting set of conclusions and recommendations that include “screening, scaffolding, early warning, and wholesale [course] improvement” (p. 25).  Acknowledging the difficulties inherent within each of their four suggestions, they leave us with proposals to define online learning “as a privilege rather than a right” and delay learners’ entry into online learning “until they demonstrate that they are likely to adapt well to the online context”; to incorporate “the teaching of online learning skills into online courses…”; to build “early warning systems into online courses in order to identify and intervene with students who are having difficulty adapting”; and “focus on improving the quality of all online courses…to ensure that their learning outcomes are equal to those of face-to face courses” (pp. 25-26).

None of this is revolutionary, nor is it beyond our reach. Preparing learners for new learning experiences before we toss them into the deep end of the learning pool simply makes good sense. Offering them help in developing their online learning skills is something that many of us already routinely do for online learners, and there are plenty of online examples at the community-college level alone for anyone who has not yet traveled this particular learning path. Building early warning systems into the process goes hand-in-hand with the increasing levels of attention we are giving to learning analytics and learning analytics tools; even at a rudimentary level, I’ve been able to increase retention rates in online courses by noting who is falling behind on assignments and sending individual notes to check in occasionally with those learners—the result is that the learners invariably note, in their course evaluations, that they had no idea online learning could be so personal and engaging. And the suggestion that we look for ways to further improve the quality of courses to make them more responsive to learners’ needs is a conclusion that hardly needs response; the wicked problem we face in meeting that challenge is to obtain the resources needed so we—and our learners—will be successful rather than being part of another report on why learners fail.

N.B.: This is the eighteenth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.


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