teaching technology/ies.

I’ve been on a bit of a self-imposed break from blogging after my fingers fell off at Computers in Libraries, but this morning I read an interesting older post by Steven Bell on ACRLog that I thought merited a (long) response. In it, he critiques the growing wave of Library 2.0-esque technology classes in LIS education – specifically, those that require their students to create blogs, wikis, and such for an entire semester. Bell questions the merits of devoting so much time to learning “trend technologies” already on the road to obsolescence, likening these to the CD-rom demise of yesteryear. He instead advocates for a better integration of instructional design/technology methodology into LIS education, in order to teach library students the skills to apply and evaluate both current and future technologies.

I dance on both sides of this divide – I finished my (wholly 2.0-free) MLIS back in 2005, and am currently in the home stretch of completing a M.Ed in Instructional Technology. From this vantage point, I strongly support Bell’s call for integration of instructional design and technology (ID/T) methodology into the LIS curriculum. I’ll add a greater focus on pedagogy and learning theory to this mix – both are LIS-neglected elements featured in instructional design that merit mentioning due to their incipient value to our profession. Librarians are natural educators almost entirely devoted to the direct or oblique teaching of applied information skills, which often occurs in small chunks and/or at the user’s point of need. ID/T as disciplines exist solely to make this type of real-world education more effective, and in practice eliminate much of the “error” in the trial and error-based process of teaching and creating content for public consumption. Tight budgets and schedules are endemic to librarianship, and are as such natural motivators for us to adopt techniques that streamline our work and improve the learning experience of our patrons.

That said, I disagree with Bell’s assessment of social/2.0/etc. classes. My feeling is that rather than being pop-tech overkill, these are an important step towards integrating a broader design ethic into the LIS curriculum. They signal a experiential, hands-on focus that I wish had been available to me as a MLIS student – one that gives students the ability create and evaluate projects over time that mirror those being developed by libraries… our own version of real-world skills. What the curriculum doesn’t offer enough of is a simulation of the working environment of most libraries, which at its best includes trying out and modifying existing products to our advantage, thus creating inexpensive services from commonly accessible technological platforms.

In my opinion, both ID/T theory and protracted experimentation with social tools (or whatever the next wave will be) are equally important to learning the methodology behind sound, effective design and technology integration. [Side note – another issue is LIS education and its deficiencies in teaching hard technology skills, as in how to fix something if it breaks. Meredith Farkas ruminated recently on LIS education’s persistence in “graduating public service librarians who are prepared for librarianship of the 1970s,” and argued for public service staff with more technical know-how – the discussion that follows the post is excellent.] The catch is that all of the above must be done well to be effective.

Bell writes:

…right now these technologies are all the rage, and you could take the perspective that the courses are focusing on teaching students to be risk takers who can experiment, take chances, exploit new technology, etc. All good lessons indeed. But does that require a semester long course?

I believe so, because such a course is likely supported by a model that considers the appropriate application of different types of technologies – in other words, the closest thing the current crop of library students will get to instructional design and technology training over the course of their careers. ID/T on a shoestring – admittedly not ideal, but a good start. Glancing over new technologies for a week in a design-specific course would stop similarly short of equipping librarians with better design and tech evaluation skills. I believe that both approaches are necessary to make practitioners of LIS students, and I think we would be best served by asking students to create projects using trend technologies while simultaneously learning systematic, critical approaches to design. True, many of the tools they use will become outdated, but in my experience learning ID/T theory without getting your hands dirty with current applications can feel like something of an exercise.

In terms of the rate at which 2.0 technologies are outdating, I don’t think tools such as blogs and/or wikis will be going anywhere soon. Morphing, perhaps, but not cratering. Moreover, new applications will undoubtedly be built on the shoulders of those that preceded them, meaning that given the a foundation in current social apps LIS students will have the ability to anticipate what upcoming approaches might look like, and the basic skills to modify and adapt these as needed. Library school doesn’t tend to train us to be programmers, so gaining practical experience with lo-fi user-generated tools instills students with what I consider to be an extremely practical introduction to what they’ll be doing on the job – namely, evaluating technologies for their best purposes. LIS graduates need to know how to practically integrate into libraries that, more often than not, use some instance of every 2.0 technology under the sun to varying degrees of effectiveness. They should above all have enough experience to know when these tools aren’t working and how to go about fixing them – important aspects of both creative, experimental librarianship and ID/T pedagogy.

I’m currently in the middle of Bell and Shank’s recent book, Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques – it’s proving to be a much-needed and intelligent foray into the process of joining ID/T with academic librarianship. Those interested in applying design thinking to their work as university librarians would be well served by reading it.

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