An Online Instruction manifesto: technological challenges and people-driven solutions

Recently, I’ve joined a small project at my place of work that is considering our online instructional goals and our ability to meet them. The project isn’t large or groundbreaking: it’s an inward-looking analysis of our library’s use of online learning projects and the manner in which they meet the needs of our users, and it’s the sort of analysis that many of us have taken part in over the years. And while the project could more appropriately be considered a “task force” since we’re only a small group and our considerations (I hesitate to call them recommendations) will be written to stimulate debate instead of making transformational change, we’re still taking on the task knowing that our efforts today might facilitate new decisions and perspectives tomorrow.

At issue for me are three things in general: the nature of online instruction, our recent goals in this area, and governance. Our readings and discussion have helped us realize that for too long now, tech-savvy librarians (at libraries in the developed world, generally) have focused too much on the development of online instructional tools at the expense of figuring out how these tools can best work alongside “regular” instructional programming. And perhaps more important, we don’t give enough thought to where online instruction sits within our internal governance structures. In short, for the most part, we’ve built our own online instruction silo.

The academic literature and the blogs show this loud and clear: too much of our scholarships and too many of our conversations are based on “how to” make the greatest tutorial, “how to” use X, Y, or Z software, or “how to” attract our students’ attention by using a particular social tool. There is literature that moves beyond these topics, of course, but I’m not sure if there has been enough. I’d like us to think and debate more about the nature of online instruction and its tools, what it actually means for our users, and what online instruction’s long-term implications (positive and negative) are for libraries. (A good example of what I think we ought to be discussing can be found in this text, which Dean Giustini recent contributed to and mentioned in his blog.)

In the mean time, I’m putting forward 3 contentions about online instruction in academic libraries. They aren’t profound, but they are assertions, nonetheless. Answer them in response to this post or on your own blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Plus streams.  Let’s get a discussion going.

Steeleworthy’s Online Instruction Contentions for 2012:

1. There is no Online Instruction.  There is only Instruction.

  • Online instruction’s tools, aims and media differ drastically from “traditional” instructional methods, but it is instruction nonetheless, and it should be afforded as much importance as all other kinds. It is fair to consider the differences between online instruction and classroom one-shots or integrated term-long coursework, but the time came long ago to normalize it and make it an equal partner in our information literacy programmes. No more adjectives and qualifiers: online instruction is instruction, plain and simple. It can’t only be a special project that is taken on by our adventurous colleagues or offered to our interns and junior librarians to explore. Instead, we must find efficient ways to reduce its learning curve, help train our colleauges, and make it a core part of our IL programming.

2. There can only one instructional group or committee.  

  • This group develops instructional programmes and policies at the library, whether they are online or in print, in the classroom or in a virtual chat room.  Let there be task forces devoted to online or classroom initiatives, but keep them part of the same governance structure. Let’s keep our focus on the means we have at our disposal to improve information literacy levels and critical thinking skills on campus by fully integrating online instruction into our existing instructional framework.

3. There must be an online instruction coordinator.

  • I may have just declared an end to adjectives and qualifiers in Contention No. 1, but on this point, I stand firm: an online instruction coordinator is needed in order for libraries stay ahead of the technological curve.  So much about online work requires specific, technical knowledge and skill sets. Each library should have a coordinator who manages instructional content on the website, promotes web-based instructional tools, liases with university online learning services, and leads training programmes for new technology-based instructional tools. Let this person sit on instructional committees and web committees, and let this person work in concert with the web publisher to seamlessly integrate instructional content with the website’s directional and informational content.

Above all else, online instruction can no longer be the purview of only a few individuals in academic libraries. I speak these words to like-minded librarians who are already tech-savvy and willing to try new projects and ideas: it’s time that we shift our focus from integrating online instructional tools into our individual practice to blending them into the library ethos. We can do this by concentrating not on programmes and apps but on the people we work with and the people we serve. We must find the means to make online instruction accessible not only to our users, but to our fellow librarians and content producers.  What is a technological challenge must have a people-driven solution.


Days in the Librarian’s life

Any librarian or proto-librarian who has followed the Library Day in the Life series can see that *a lot* of our work day is spent in meetings, conversations, dialogues, and more meetings.  This is partly the work of collaboration, of management, of professionalism.  We’re responsible for getting things done, but since we want to make sure we do things, we try to get by with a little help from our friends (excuse the Beatles pun) to ensure everything is up to par.

I’m constantly astonished by the amount of time we spent in dialogue, though, since it eats up so much of our day.  Although I’m happily salaried, I work as if I’m on the clock – partly because for most of my life I’ve been on an hourly wage, and partly because I’m more efficient at work when I have a sense of how much time has passed in my day.  It is sometimes a struggle to make sure I’m moving ahead on my projects and tackling deadlines, though, when I want to include people and involve them in what I do.  This isn’t a new problem or unique issue, of course – it’s something that affects all of us – but since I’m still very Green to the profession, I’m experiencing it first-hand.  I haven’t been Green to anything for six or seven years, so trying to find the balance between discussion and practice, as well as trying to find a balance between working hard and working too much has sometimes required more care for me than it would for the veteran colleagues in the office that I lean on for advice.

How do I get the work done, then?  I follow a couple guidelines:

  1. Start on time and end on time. I get to work at 830 in the morning, and I try my hardest to leave at 4:30.  Unless the next day already has a Major Fire To Put Out, I try to leave by 5.  This doesn’t happen every day, but it helps me keep work in perspective, and it helps me complete my work ahead of deadlines.
  2. Take a lunch, always. I pencil in an hour for lunch, but I’m willing to cut it short to a half-hour if the day’s work demands it.  Regardless, I force myself to leave the office, even if only for a short time.  I work in a library, dammit, so at the very least I should go read a magazine or newspaper or go find a comfortable chair to sit in for a bit.  Give yourself a break so that the afternoon is as fresh as the morning was.
  3. Turn off the e-mail after lunch. I do this if I can since some days require more communication that others.  But I do try to keep the e-mail turned off between 1 and 2-2:30.  I use this time to go into overdrive and see how far ahead I can get in my work.
  4. Chat with you colleagues. Don’t just talk shop with your co-workers. Get to know them.  If you don’t, work will feel like a prison when we’d rather like it to feel like a playdate.
  5. Chat with people who aren’t your colleagues. When I’m on the RefDesk, I talk to students and ask them how their days are.  When I’m in the hallways, I talk to support staff, academic staff, and teaching staff.  This gives us perspective to recall why we’re working in the library and why the library exists on campus – to serve the information and scholarly needs of others.

“Librarian” is not a dirty word

When I first got into librarianship, I wasn’t too bothered that some people wanted to call the profession “information science” while others demanded to hold fast to the “librarianship” moniker. I thought both sides were being petty: I figured that people who wanted to be “librarians” felt that “knowledge managers” should enroll in a different graduate programme, and that those who wanted to be in knowledge management felt that the people who were focused on libraries were outdated luddites who ought to get with the times. Although I was uninformed of the politics at play within the profession, I figured this was all a question of staking ground through semantics and nothing more.

Maybe it is still a question of semantics, but nowadays I’ve taken a stand and have grown tired of the demand to rebrand this profession as “information science.” I’ve wondered what has changed so much that a new term had to be created, or if the profession has moved so far or altered its course so much that it has completely outgrown the words “librarian” and “librarianship”. But I don’t think we’ve moved so far away to require such a rebranding. In spite of my own biases (I’m a librarian, and I work in libraries), I’m willing to contend that even though our tools and methods have changed dramatically, the profession’s mission remains remarkably similar today to what it was fifty or a hundred years ago (i.e., well before the time of the venerable Ranganathan). Librarians organize information, locate it for themselves and for others, store and preserve it for the community, and therein help nurture the creation of knowledge in society. This much has remained present in the profession, before and after MARC, before and after the Internet, and before and after the emergence of our Network(ed) Society.

The fact that we use OPACs and something as close to a union catalogue that has yet been created instead of a card catalogues doesn’t change the fact that librarians have always used novel means to store, organize, and retrieve information. The fact that today’s MLIS graduate should have a smattering of IT courses on her transcript doesn’t remove her too far the old days when the tools were limited to punch cards and MARC records.  Our analysis and influence on government policy and its effects on wider society is no different from calling for better literacy rates in the early twentieth century. Our defense of basic civic rights such as security and privacy of the person, and of a right to speak, think, and read freely, is not removed from our profession’s vital defence of similar basic rights throughout the twentieth century. History shows us that librarianship has always focused on information science and information studies even though we didn’t always call it by those terms.

I’m not against changing the name of our profession. If the wise sages amoung us have decided that perhaps a new moniker is necessary to better promote our professional ideals and standards, then to a certain degree I’m willing to give them a certain benefit of the doubt (note well the double-qualifier in that sentence). However, I still question what our profession would lose by effacing itself of the historic and symbolic value inherent in the terms, “librarian” and “librarianship.” Yes, there will always be unacceptable stereotypes for us to constantly battle, like the bee-hived and bespectacled “shushing” grandmother-librarian, or the equally unacceptable and misogynistic “sexy librarian” trope, but these are merely paltry issues that linger within terms that carry an incredible gravitas in the profession and within western culture. To deny ourselves of the use of “librarian” is to rob ourselves of our culture’s understanding and respect for the role we play in society. Libraries and Librarians are often the lynchpins of communities and the storehouses of a local culture’s social history. Removing Librar* from our profession in favor of the clinical “information science” is to destroy the link that we have to the people we serve. Let us not forget that.

Call it “information science” if you will. But keep “librarianship” close at hand. I simply ask you to think about what you say you do for a living or to which profession you belong when you meet some one new.  Rarely do we say, “I work in information science,” or “I am an information scientist”. No, we tell people we’re librarians, and that we work in libraries, archives, and museums. “Librarian” is not a dirty word, and neither is “Librarianship.” Embrace what you are, and proudly tell people what you do for a living and for society as a whole – they’ll respect for you it. I promise.