Librarian Leaders in New Learning Communities
American Library Association Annual Meeting
New York City — July 5, 1996
Technology, Collaboration and Democratic Practice
Roberta S Matthews, Vice President for Academic Affairs
Marymount College/ Tarrytown, New York
I am delighted to be here for very personal reasons. In 1970, I was teaching English at the American High School in Caracas, Venezuela while my husband researched his dissertation on 19th century Venezuelan rural banditry. At that point, I was an ABD in English Literature with one year of full time college teaching, several years of graduate teaching assistantships and a couple of summers working in programs like the Youth Corps. Not very much experience, from my vantage point today, but at that point I know I considered myself a seasoned professional.
When my students were scheduled for their library orientation, I trotted along with them (where else was I going to go?) and, as the librarian walked them through the collection, chimed in with my own observations about the value of libraries and what they could offer a student. After all, I was spending time in both the National and rural libraries of Venezuela, and passed most evenings helping my husband develop microfilms of documents he had shot during the day. I was, also, albeit long distance, involved in researching and writing my own dissertation. Libraries loomed large in my life. At the end of the session the librarian sought me out, shook my hand and informed me I was a wonderful teacher and a superior human being. She informed me that most teachers took the library orientation as a free period, dumped their classes in her lap and walked out. I had stayed, supported her and communicated my own enthusiasm to my students, hence my elevated status. I subsequently learned that Ruth, a retired American librarian after a long career as a librarian in a college in Ohio was working in the American high school in Caracas because she had recently married a Venezuelan. She judged the entire world by how they treated libraries and librarians.
We became close friends and neighbors (she offered us the opportunity to live across from her and her husband) because I had proven myself in her library, I had passed the test. Our friendship, however, did not prevent her from telling me at one point that I was reading the borrowed Newsweek “too hard” and returning it the library in a less-than-pristine condition. Since I got first dibs when it arrived (again, an indication of my privileged status at the library), she wanted it back looking better.
Some encounters transform one’s life, or at least one’s attitudes. What I absorbed from Ruth was the firm conviction that the library was the center of the academic universe and that everybody in the academic community was to be judged by how they related to the library.
Subsequently, having spent 22 years at LaGuardia Community College with a chief librarian (also a good friend) who was the bane of administrators because she always demanded more and because she has functioned as a gentle thorn in the side of chairpeople and program directors because her motto has always been “remember the library,” I am accustomed to pro-active librarians. In my mind, librarians are always leading the way, or actively stepping on the heels of those who are.
Fast-forward to 1996. Microfilming is a quaint activity, indeed, from some points of view, microfilming is an endangered activity. Librarians must not only be guardians of the past, but pathfinders to an electronic future that is dust-free, digitized, fiber-optic, ever-changing and global. As librarians you are, by definition, at the center of various controversies flourishing around complex issues of authenticity, citation and attribution. Pretty scary. To make matters even worse, the clamor from the frontier is for new ways of teaching and learning, and for boundary-crossings of various kinds designed to humanize and ground the new technology in the social capital that is and always has been the glue of civilization.
The Coalition for Networked Information understands this and for the past couple of years has been actively supporting the combination of collaborative learning and learning communities with information technology as one way to ensure that the library of the future functions as the social glue while it simultaneously pushes the envelope of information resources. I stand here in awe of the foresight, energy and organizational skill of the founders of this Coalition. They have welcomed technological advances and embraced its potential. My role is to support the social and (assuming that one thinks of democracy as a political system), the political goals as well of the Coalition. I propose to support the work of CNI by exploring pedagogies and curricular structures that, when linked with information technologies will support and advance the cooperative spirit so essential to the central and essential role of libraries but also so essential our future as a democratic society.
In “Bowling Alone” Robert Putnam documents the loss in our society of our social capital — the declining number of people who not only bowl alone, as opposed to bowling in a league (from whence the title of his article), but the declining number of people who do not join in other organizational activities as well. We do not attend neighborhood functions, we do not attend PTA meetings, we do not participate in civic initiatives, we do not vote, in nearly as large numbers as we did in the past. Although we can all point to laudable exceptions to this downward trend, this tendency is a cause for concern among those who believe in participatory democracy — or put another way, those who believe that a democracy depends on the active and informed participation of its citizens. Looked at in this context, information technology may go either way–serving the needs of isolated and alienated hackers who spend ever-increasing amounts of time getting lost alone in Cyberspace or information technology as shrinking of the universe and facilitating increased, faster, and easier communication among us and world-wide as well..
Personally, in a small way, I have experienced increased, faster, and easier communication, with gratitude. For the past decade, I have been involved in a Sino-American conference that brings together educators from Shanxi province in the People’s Republic of China and the City University of New York. The conferences occur ever two years, in either China or the US. When I first became involved, organizing the content of the conference and putting the details in place over a thirteen or fourteen thousand mile gap was a tedious process. Air mail took over two weeks to arrive and we spent most of our time (on both sides) waiting for answers to specific questions that had often become moot by the time the replies arrived. The fax machine and the Internet have changed all that. Once we pointed out to our Chinese colleagues, five years ago, that turning off the fax machine at night to save electricity meant that we could not get through because their night was our day, it has been smooth sailing. We fax each other all the time. Our one colleague on email responds immediately. Technology has made a tremendous difference in the kind, quantity and quality of our communication.
But so has the human impact of working together for a decade. We are friends. We have personal relationships. We have met each other’s children. We know each other well enough so that now we can say to colleagues who speak passable English or Chinese but for whom writing in that language is incredibly time-consuming, “not to worry, send us your correspondence in whatever language is faster for you.” We can say this because we have translators at both ends, who are also our colleagues in their own right and who can be trusted to quickly and efficiently facilitate communication. Our common goal is better communication, not ego trips. Technology without that human touch would have meant nothing. And that human touch now includes periodic visits by Chinese or American scholars with their counterparts in the other country and a much livelier exchange of air mail letters themselves. Communication worldwide has been so streamlined that we all sense the world is smaller and what happens in one place indeed has an impact on what happens in other places. Information technology can only work in conjunction with the human.
My remarks will focus on the pedagogy of collaborative learning and curricular structures called learning communities precisely because they are educational approaches that support and move forward the democratic agenda. In 1916, John Dewey asserted that “a society which makes provisions for participation…of all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life is … democratic. Such a society must have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social relationships and controls, and the habits of mind which secure social changes without introducing disorder.” By providing a context for “different forms of associated life,” learning communities and collaborative learning help us forge community out of difference. They allow us to acknowledge diversity while seeking commonalties. They help students (and faculty as well) develop those essential “habits of mind” and “participation on equal terms” that libraries have always worked to assure. For this reason, they are indispensable to the future of information technology.
Collaborative learning occurs when students and faculty work together to create knowledge. It is grounded in the belief that knowledge is socially constructed. The kind of shared inquiry that occurs suggests that knowledge is “continuously evolving…through dialogues with the self and others…”(MacGregor, 1990). A class engaged in collaborative learning looks and feels different from a traditional classroom. It is more student-centered, more active and more task-oriented. Issues of authority and boundaries are less clearly defined. But at its best, the collaborative classroom, to quote Ken Bruffee, “provides a social context in which students can experience and practice the kinds of conversation valued by college teachers” Collaboration asserts that learning is a mutual endeavor undertaken by students and faculty; the process welcomes students into the academic community.
In a collaborative context, the teacher welcomes the student into the knowledge community she represents. To quote Bruffee again, “Students are outsiders. They enter their classes ignorant of the community constituting language that the teacher speaks.” The practice of collaborative learning facilitates the educational process by “helping students converse with increasing facility in the language of the communities they want to join.”
Bruffee draws upon the work of Rorty, Kuhn, Geertz, Vygotksy, LaTour and others to claim that social interaction and conversation constitute the learning process. Conversations of all kinds, internal and external, create and shape knowledge. Scholars, professionals and scientists are continuously constructing and reconstructing their knowledge in interdependent communities of “knowledgeable peers.”
According to Bruffee the collaborative classroom and curriculum “understand communities of all kinds, academic and nonacademic, as similar in their constitution and goals. ” The conversations of collaborative learning create a bridge between communities. Collaborative groups provide students with a transition experience that helps them renegotiate their relationships in the communities to which they already belong and create new relationships in academic and disciplinary contexts. The process welcomes students into the academic community and functions as a context for the considered and reflective interchange of ideas.
Collaborative learning invites conversation: about how we were acculturated in college to think about knowledge and the authority of our own teachers; about what, in our disciplines, we understand knowledge and learning to be; about how we invite students to join us in the conversation and build their own understandings. If we agree on the value of collaborative learning and the importance of student conversation in our classes, then the critical questions for this group are: ” how does information technology help facilitate and enrich these conversations?” And, “What is the role of the librarian in helping to bring this about?”
Collaborative learning, then, focuses us on how we teach, and how we bring the various learners and voices into the conversations of the academy. Some of the most exciting work in this regard is going on in learning communities organized around inter- and cross- disciplinary questions, where teachers, working at the boundaries of their own knowledge, are learning from each other while engaging students in these same questions.
Learning communities are conscious curricular structures that link two or more disciplines around the exploration of a common theme. They occur as paired courses, as clusters of three or more courses that constitute the entire course load for students or as “coordinated studies” that serve as the entire educational experience during a given semester for both the students and the faculty involved. Learning communities facilitate increased communication around shared interests among faculty and students. In learning communities, students and faculty members might examine, for example, technology and human values, war and peace, the Renaissance or American pluralism. In all, however, students and teachers experience courses and disciplines as a complementary, connected whole, not as arbitrary or isolated offerings.
Because learning communities intentionally rearrange time and space, they provide an extended, focused opportunity for teachers and students to learn together. Savvy librarians have always worked with faculty as resources in course creation and in the creation of learning communities. They have always made invaluable contributions to the discovery of new print and media materials. The explosion of information resources therefore increases the challenge for librarians. Now you must be in the forefront of helping students and faculty locate, evaluate and incorporate the new sources of knowledge at their fingertips. You might also be in the forefront of creating new models of learning communities that depend, from the very beginning, on the incorporation of information technology into the very fabric of the teaching/learning experience.
A growing literature suggests that for undergraduate students, powerful educational settings result from factors beyond the form and content of the curriculum. Rich, rigorous learning environments, active participation on the part of students and faculty, and a sense of community make a positive, often profound difference in fostering student success. (Astin, 1993, Kuh et al., 1991, Light, 1990, 1991, Tinto). The challenge revolves around how we create rich educational environments; how we build a sense of community on commuter campuses where many students and a large proportion of the faculty are part-time; how we provide students with a coherent educational experience in the face of increasing fragmentation and specialization in the curriculum. Not only must we learn how to actively engage our students in increasingly large classes, we now must address all of the above in the context of distance learning as well.
Learning communities (which currently exist at over two hundred colleges and universities with new ones being planned almost on a daily basis) serve a variety of purposes and student populations precisely because they help us implement our deeply held values about educational effectiveness. Learning communities have targeted mainstream students, honors students, and the under-prepared. They may be launched to address a particular issue on campus, for example, retention of first-year students, general education, the teaching of writing, student success in gateway courses, developmental or basic skills courses, honors programs, or coherence in the major or minor. The best programs are incorporated into the curricular mission of an institution or program. Learning communities, then, are delivery systems designed to achieve a variety of clearly stated educational goals –and they do achieve them.
Many institutions are turning to various types of technology to help them address the challenges of accommodating an increasingly diverse student body, an increasingly diffuse and far-flung student body, and an increasing in the number of part-time faculty combined with declining fiscal resources. The too frequently uncritical embrace of information technology as a panacea to all of the above has the potential to be disastrous. Or, as CNI understands, it has the potential to become an array of rich, ground-breaking and exciting new approaches that use technology to further our larger goals as educational institutions. Those goals include better teaching and learning in the service of creating better citizens. The success of learning communities demonstrates that we can create educational reform initiatives that rely more upon the development of communities of people than upon the massive infusion of new resources. Where they have had most impact, the learning community efforts are comprehensive reform efforts, not simply isolated or ephemeral innovations in teaching and learning. At this point in time, comprehensive reform efforts include information technology.
Let me share with you (from our 1991 book on learning communities) reactions of faculty who have participated in learning communities and then reactions of students who have participated in learning communities. Together, I hope they will convince you that librarians deserve to participate in these efforts and have a role to play in the development of learning communities in the future.
First, a personal statement of the impact on a faculty member of participating in a learning community: My wife kept saying “You’ve got to teach this way again; you’re a different person this quarter.” Subjective and private though this perception is, can one overestimate its significance for a forty-six year old teacher approaching his 20th year teaching in the same college at the same level? I am exactly the kind of teacher that college administrators shudder at the thought of getting stuck with for another twenty years. I don’t blame them. I shudder at the thought of getting stuck with myself!”
Second, a comment about the faculty enrichment that occurs through participation in a learning community: “I’m coming to understand these strengths and perspectives that are unique to each discipline…We are all realizing the strengths we bring to our teaching, but we are also introduced to new ways to deal with the same content.”
Finally, a comment about the impact of the learning community experience, as observed by a faculty participant, upon the students involved: “One of the most striking characteristics was the way the group formed a close-knit community based on care and concern. Many said this was their first experience of such a community and they relished it. From my own perspective as their teacher, I saw students bloom into the kind of environment in which they could be their best possible selves. Certainly one of the strongest arguments for learning communities is that they correct so much of what is not working in education.”
Now to the students. Patrick Hill, who pioneered learning communities at SUNY Stony Brook in the 1970’s, explains why he proposed restructuring the curriculum by telling this story about an undergraduate:” she was taking a course in behaviorism from 10:00 to 1:00 and a course in existentialism from 1:00 to 4:00…In the behaviorism course –this was pure Skinner — she was learning about the .67 predictability of human behavior and the illusory character of consciousness and intentions and certainly of their insignificance in explaining human behavior. In the philosophy course, which was focused on early Sartre, she was learning that we are ultimately free, even to the point of being able to define the meaning of our past experiences. I asked her which course was right. She said ,”What do you mean?” I said, “If you had to choose between the two courses, which one would you choose?” She said, “I like the psychology teacher better” I said, “That’s not what I am asking. Which one is correct? Which one is correct about the nature of our human being ?” And she said, “I’m getting a A in both courses.”
Contrast this unfortunately familiar response to comments made by students who had studied in learning communities: “At first I thought we were studying English, economics, environmental science and math in a balanced approach. I have come to realize that we have been using English and math to study the dynamics of economics and ecology. In other words, we have been attempting to use two languages to understand the interaction between a social and a biological science.” Not a bad revelation for a first year student…Here’s a more experienced student at the end of his career: In the context of the learning community model, I began to learn new ways of thinking, rather than simply collecting quanta of information as I had (quite successfully) done at the universities I had previously attended. This is the first place where I got any education at all: where I had the opportunity to integrate bits and chunks of information I was collecting and to synthesize them into a new understanding of the world I live in, of myself and of my role as a member of society. It’s like the difference between collecting a pile of bricks and building a house.”
Is there a librarian in the house who does not want to believe that libraries and librarians have been at the center of these efforts? These students have experienced what I will call “traditional” learning communities, pre-information technology learning communities. Is there a librarian in the house who does not believe that libraries and librarians must be at the center of the learning communities that are developing and will develop in the post- information technology age? Learning communities arose to address the isolation and fragmentation inherent in the way we traditionally deliver courses to our students. They have flourished because higher education has been paying more attention (stimulated partly by data pointing to pretty dreadful retention, persistence and graduation rates) to the quality of the college and university above and beyond the credentials of faculty and including how students experience their own education. Let me share with you one piece of research before I suggest how information technology both complicates and enriches this situation.
According to the NCTLA study undertaken by Vincent Tinto, in his study “Building Learning Communities for New College Students: A Summary of Research Findings of the Collaborative Learning Project” learning communities offered during the first year assist new students to make the transition into both the academic and social life of the college. Learning communities, are particularly important for commuter students because they constitute both the academic and social life of students who are older and frequently juggling their academic lives with their work and family lives For these students, learning communities are a blessedly efficient form of learning that allows them to apply learning from one course to another instead of careening from one isolated and disconnected learning experience to another. At residential institutions, where the demands of social membership sometimes take precedence over the demands of academic work, learning communities help students balance the social and the academic by linking them. Powerful learning experiences help students put the social and the academic in perspective, and increase first-year learning and persistence into the second year. Two of Tinto’s conclusions reflect the change in climate in higher education and are even more relevant to our purpose here today because distance learning will add another dimension to the experience of students and the WWW and Internet will add yet another dimension to the knowledge they will be expected to accumulate, integrate and, one fervently hopes, think about and use productively: Here are Tinto’s conclusions:
- institutions should assist faculty collaboration and their utilization of teaching strategies that actively involve students in classroom learning;
- in considering the direction of educational reform, institutions should focus less on student behaviors and…obligations, and more on the character of their own obligations to construct the sorts of educational settings and provide the types of educational pedagogies in which all students, not just some, will want to become involved.
During this conference, you will be introduced to a number of information technology learning community models that do precisely that: assist faculty to collaborate with their colleagues across the institution in constructing the sorts of educational settings and pedagogies that involve all students and contribute to their success in college. Your challenge when your return home, will be to help create the teams that will enable information technology learning community models to become a reality on your campus. For personal reasons, for professional reasons, for institutional reasons and for reasons that extend beyond the confines of academe, you should take advantage of this conference and learn how to further the use of information technology so that it supports the cooperation and collaboration at the center of teaching and learning. Let me leave you with some questions you might want to consider as you embark on this new adventure.
The authors of Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (Beacon Press, 1996) explore the lives of exemplary citizens and isolate those characteristics that prompt people to choose a life of service. Based on their findings, they conclude that the environment for citizenship in the 21st century “must foster a constructive dialogue that imparts at least three sets of skills”: the development of critical and systemic thinking that allows for the complex exploration of issues and the surfacing of underlying assumptions; the ability to engage in perspective-taking and withholding judgment, searching for common values while honoring the truly different; and the commitment to creating a safe, civil and inclusive space — not only treating each other decently but reaching out as well to those who were previously marginalized. The authors note that “the act of setting norms, tone and boundaries that can hold conflicted discourse creates a shared culture with a teaching power of its own.” All of these will occur, or fail to occur, in a technology-rich environment that will either support or prevent the development of these skills. And you will be there, out front, in your wired-to-the-world libraries.
Good luck May your learning curve be both steep and pleasant, and may this conference be the beginning of a grand and glorious adventure for you and your colleagues and the students you share.