What to Expect From a ‘Full-Stack’ Librarian

Opinion | Higher Education

What to Expect From a ‘Full-Stack’ Librarian

By Steven Bell     Dec 16, 2015

What to Expect From a ‘Full-Stack’ Librarian

So here’s a radical thought: College and university libraries are instructional technologies. The people who work there, the resources offered and the educational mission, in combination, form a unique educational technology. The academic library is “edtech.”

But when conversations about learning and technology occur at institutions of higher education, academic librarians are often missing from the conversation. Why?

To many faculty, information technologists, instructional designers, learning specialists and academic administrators, the college library is primarily about content. Books. Scholarly journals. Media. Few on campus are likely to consider the academic library as one of its best instructional technologies. Not even the librarians. And that’s part of the problem.

If librarians want to change the perception within the academic community that libraries are about more than books and content, then they need to focus more on how the library supports student learning and academic success. It will require more than incremental change. Something needs to happen first. We need to change ourselves.

Behind on the Curve

I was a little surprised by the specific “state-of-the-art” technologies shared by some of my colleagues at a conference session on educational technologies. The tools discussed for applications such as screen capture, video conferencing and online student collaboration were years out of date. There was little discussion of experimentation with newer educational technologies.

For the majority of academic librarians, educational technology is considered peripheral to their work as educators. In their defense, they are often overwhelmed with a multitude of responsibilities beyond instruction, such as collection building or one-on-one consultations. The time needed to identify new and potentially valuable educational technologies, and to then experiment with them, may be difficult to find.

So what would help more academic librarians get engaged with educational technology in a way that leads to discovery, experimentation and thoughtful adoption and application for learning?

Get Up to Speed

The good news is that the resources for getting more engaged with education technology are readily available. The bad news is that there more tools than ever with which to keep up.

My own experience is that regularly scanning the environment for new edtech activates a curiosity for finding a technology that offers real potential for solving an instructional design challenge—or that simply improves my capacity as an educator. As the co-leader of a community for academic librarians who consider instructional design and technology an integral part of their work, I know many colleagues of colleagues who work to leverage these skills to advance the library’s integration into teaching and learning at their institutions.

The results may differ when the technology fails to live up to expectations, but it’s always a worthwhile learning experience. Take my own experimentation with Remind. Having followed some of the great results educators were getting with it by having the ability to easily text their students, I wanted to give this a try with students participating in a library instruction session. It seemed to offer a great way to connect with students beyond our too few one-shot sessions, reminding them about techniques and resources. Despite my efforts I was unable to interest many students in following through and registering for my reminders. But I was able to introduce the tool to faculty I met, and several gave it a try. That showed those instructors another side of what academic librarians have to offer as educators and savvy technologists.

Go Beyond the Library

It also helps to put oneself in places and situations to gain exposure to the latest in edtech. That typically means getting outside the library and connecting with non-librarian educators and technologists. For example, get involved with faculty and academic support professionals through non-library committee work. Among the best opportunities I’ve had is participating on my institution’s Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable. Composed of representatives from across the institution, I’ve met faculty, instructional designers, information technologists and others who shared their educational technology stories, desires, successes and failures. That’s where I first heard about VoiceThread, which I have used to create tutorials on using library databases for research.

There are other ways to engage with non-library educators. Consider attending at least one teaching and learning conference each year. Better yet, submit a proposal to present. The faculty who organize and attend these conferences are, in my experience, open to and quite interested in hearing from their librarian colleagues. It all begins with getting up to speed on new and emerging educational technology, and then looking for ways to share that knowledge with both library and non-librarian colleagues.

Unraveling the Mystery

One of my favorite TED Talks is J.J. Abrams’ talk about mystery boxes. In his talk, Abrams shares the story of the mystery box that, as a youth, he purchased at a magic store. The mystery box contained a treasure trove of undisclosed magic tricks. Abrams never opened it. He held on to it as a symbol of the power of mystery. “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination,” he says, and “maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge.”

These words speak volumes, because it is the drive to unravel the mystery of how to best leverage technology to enhance learning that should drive us, as academic librarians, to explore, experiment and discover all that the what edtech industry has to offer.

Finding the right education technology tools can be essential as a bridge to building relationships with faculty colleagues who have even less time than we do for exploring good educational technology tools. We can, along with our educational technology colleagues, introduce faculty to tools that will help them save time, improve student learning, introduce new instructional approaches, and reach whatever goals they’ve established.

Doing so will ultimately benefit our faculty colleagues and their students and change the perceptions of those who still think that the library and the people who work there are all about books. Many academic librarians are building skills in areas such as coding, geographic information services, text analysis and other areas where faculty and graduate students are seeking support for new types of digital research. We can do the same in establishing our capacity for learning and applying educational technology in support of student learning.

Our community excels at getting the information and using it to create change. We need to grasp it and then run with it—and share what we learn. Let’s just push ourselves a little harder.

Steven Bell is the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University and is a co-founder of the Blended Librarian’s Online Learning Community on the Learning Times Network.

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