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Teaching the Librarians of the Future Without Online Instruction

By Anthony Cocciolo / March 2010

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I teach at the only School of Information and Library Science (SILS) on the east coast of the United States that does not offer a single online course—not a program or a blended option either. (I discovered this through a search of the American Library Association accredited programs, which maintains a list of LIS programs with online course options.)

Are were a bunch of luddites, teaching our students the way of the past, when libraries were the primary sources of high-quality information, and librarians were the gatekeepers to that world of knowledge? Certainly not.

Despite having no online classes, Pratt SILS in New York City has a reputation for being a high-tech program. How do we maintain this reputation? We do it by maximizing our face-to-face time, keeping class sizes small, and challenging our students to push the limits of their creativity and digital know-how to become the librarians of the future.

How do we accomplish this? I will not speak for all my colleagues on the faculty, but rather from some of the strategies I use in my own classes.

Digital Curricula
I currently teach four classes that rely heavily on digital technology:

  • Digital Libraries
  • Digital Archives
  • Social Media
  • Teaching and Instruction Methods for Librarians.
(Syllabi for these courses are available on my web page.)

In each of these classes, I attempt to get students to understand that we are currently amidst a wave of socio-technical change. We read the works of Yochai Benkler, Manuel Castells, Henry Jenkins, David Weinberger, Walter Ong, danah boyd, among others, and watch videos such as Frontline's Digital Nation.

By unseating students from "how things are supposed to be" and encouraging them to see that many things are "up for grabs," subject to individual efforts, they come to believe that they can have agency in shaping the future of information environments.

Having a sense of agency is essential. Because librarians face extremely challenging funding issues, they need to be able to design future information environments and be advocates of their work. Being passive and modeling cultural stereotypes of librarians is simply not an option.

The Method
Once students come to realize that the future is up for grabs and subject to individual efforts, I introduce them to the collaborative process they will use to design innovative programs, services, or tools—whatever it is that they really want. The process I use relies heavily on the one popularized by the design firm IDEO and used extensively in design schools, such as Stanford's D-School. Working in small groups, the students are asked to focus on their shared interests and spend the majority of their time coming up with a strong project idea. Next, they write down their project idea and create a paper prototype. At the end of the semester, they submit a design document that clearly articulates the project visually and conceptually, and they deliver a project pitch.

I let my students know that they have done well on the project not by the grade or feedback they receive from me, but by suggesting that if they want to keep working on the project and make it a reality after the class ends, they should.

The Projects
Through this process, a fascinating variety of projects have been developed that reflect student interest and willingness to design future information environments. For example, one group of students in my Digital Libraries class found that they were all interested in dance and mobile technologies, and so they designed an iPhone application that combined the New York Public Library's Performing Arts Collection with a participatory function that connected users to dance classes in New York City. See the demo of the application on YouTube.

In addition to designing cutting-edge information environments, students also develop digital projects that meet current library needs. For example, in the Digital Archives course, we have partnered with the Dalton School's library in Manhattan to create a digital archive around a collection of oral histories about the school history and culture. The class of 15 evaluate the different digital archiving options available, decide how to proceed, and then enact those decisions. Students evaluate different digital archiving packages that are available (such as Omeka, DSpace), and figure out how to make these packages work best for the specific project. At the end of the course, they will have delivered a digital archive from scratch. The aim of this project is to not only teach students about digital archiving, but also give them the confidence and skills they need to create a digital archive.

After finishing this ambitious project, my students should feel like experts in their ability to create an oral history digital archive.

The class on Social Media that I'm teaching emphasizes creative thinking. Students are asked to use what we are beginning to know about social media to come up with new programs, tools, or services that could have positive social impact. It's both both exciting and challenging because many students have not thought beyond using social media as a marketing device to promote services or events via Facebook, Twitter, Youtube. But the primary goal of the class is to move students from the question, "Should my library have a Twitter account?" to, "How might information organizations and professionals leverage the networked information environment to advance longstanding professional values, such as a commitment to democracy, community building, and individual efficacy and fulfillment?" Answering that question requires a view from a thousand feet up because students must first understand the social and economic changes our world is undergoing, and be able to see in great detail the specific affordances within these technologies (such as ambient presence, approaches to control and authority, uses of language and image, among other design decisions).

I look to create the librarians of the future by providing them the skills to do today's job, as well get them into the habit of using their creativity to create innovative information environments. I have colleagues who similarly push the boundary of what librarians can and should be doing, such as David Walczyk, who teaches Information Architecture and Interaction Design, Usability Leadership, and People-Centered Methods and Design. Through the concentrated efforts of our faculty, we will have created the future librarians that will breathe life into libraries for decades to come, even though we're doing it in a traditional classroom.

About the Author
Anthony Cocciolo, EdD, is an assistant professor at Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science in New York City. His research interests are the emerging uses of information and communications technologies to enhance libraries and education. He received his degree from the Communication, Computing, Technology and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.


  • Thu, 29 Oct 2009
    Post by Brian Wilson

    The more we learn about neuroplasticity, the more I question how hard-coded are any attributes of the mind. I've read about or witnessed many cases where an individual's behavior has changed so significantly as to suggest that a fundamental change in the "wiring" of personality is possible. On the other hand, the idea that e-learning alone can create such an impact as to change behavior (much less to rewire personality) seems absurd. I agree with your approach, and I create real-world learning environments whenever I can convince customers that's what they want.

    The article was thought-provoking. Thanks, Roger.

  • Wed, 14 Oct 2009
    Post by Luke

    Hi! Fantastic articles, I very much enjoy reading through them. Just one comment on this one though:

    "Most people would agree that personality cannot be changed. Children are born with distinct personalities. Mothers often compare their children by saying, "They even behaved differently in the womb!" One child is aggressive while the other is contemplative. One is constantly talking while the other hardly says a word."

    A child will inherit a genetic blueprint from the parents, which may determine what kind of temperament a child will have, what inclinations, gifts, predispositions. But character depends crucially upon what a person is offered soon after his birth and over the first years of life. Children learn by imitation and have nothing else to go on but their own experiences.

    For example: The well-known American pediatrician Dr. Brazelton once filmed a group of mothers holding and feeding their babies, each in her own particular way. More than 20 years later he repeated the experiment with the women those babies had grown into and who now had babies themselves. Astoundingly, they all held their babies in exactly the same way as they had been held by their mothers, although of course they had no conscious memories from those early years. One of the things Braselton proved with this experiment was that we are influenced in our behavior by our unconscious memories. And those memories can be life affirming and affectionate, or traumatic and destructive.

  • Thu, 08 Oct 2009
    Post by steve hammill

    ...certainly an accurate lament, however, the reason corporations pay to teach the unteachable has more to do with being "a responsible corporate entity" and maintaining a risk adverse legal stance than an expectation of success.

  • Sun, 20 Sep 2009
    Post by Jason Allen

    Roger, I couldn't agree more. As a sales trainer, I am constantly put in the position of attempting to teach quiet, introverted detail oriented people to excel in a sales environment, and it is incredibly frustrating. Usually, about halfway through the training session I end up taking them aside and having 'the talk'. I think it has been made even more difficult in this economic climate, where people have been willing to supress notions of "I could never do THAT for a living" if it meant they might earn their first paycheque in over a year. It comes back to the old notion that there are two reasons you shouldn't try and teach a pig to dance: 1. It can't be done. 2. It annoys the pig.

  • Thu, 03 Sep 2009
    Post by Joan Vinall-Cox

    From the other side of the picture - creating jobs to fit the people's skills. From "Many people with autistic spectrum conditions struggle to succeed in the workplace, even if they are intelligent and skilled. The difficulties with social interaction that are common in autism and Aspergers Syndrome can make working in a typical group environment highly stressful for an autistic person, and their social awkwardness or unusual mannerisms often mean that they are negatively prejudged by potential employers before they can prove themselves.

    On the other hand, it has often been pointed out by a number of autism researchers and experts, such as Simon Baron-Cohen and Tony Attwood, that people on the autistic spectrum often have enhanced abilities in areas such as logic, maintaining intense focus and concentration, understanding the rules and behavior of systems, visual memory, and attention to small details. It is traits like these that Sonne seeks to tap into."

  • Sun, 26 Jul 2009
    Post by Ken Allan

    Kia ora e Roger!

    While I agree in part with your post statement, I believe it is not the whole story. Personality is not the only reason why some things are difficult to teach. As well, my feeling is that personality is not the most important factor when it comes to learning difficulties either. There are many more reasons for such difficulties and it would be inappropriate to attribute all or even most problems associated with this to personality.

    While morality and ethics appear to be cornerstones for behaviour, it's the interpretation of those qualities in the context of the environment of those who uphold them that has the most bearing. Within what may be regarded as a 'criminal organisation', despite the apparent lack of morality or ethics it is often found that these do exist within the organisation and are adhered to - sometimes on pain of death.

  • Tue, 21 Jul 2009
    Post by Peter J. Fadde

    Great commentary on "training the un-trainable". But I think we can expand our idea of what is trainable -- in particular aspects of expert performance that appear to be intuitive but are actually highly developed and automated cognitive processes. In baseball, research shows that expert batters pick up cues in the pitcher's motion and early ball flight that allow them to identify the type of pitch and predict it's location. The expert batters typically cannot articulate their pitch recognition process, but it is measurable and also trainable. Indeed, it's possible to train the pitch recognition skills that differentiate expert batters in an eLearning environment, separate from psychomotor skill execution [see research on my website:]. I wonder if similar approaches can be used to train "intuition" in something like ethical behavior. We may not be able to change people's basic honesty, but if we determine that recognizing ethical dilemmas(as opposed to knowing the right answer in a presented dilemma) differentiates highly ethical performers, then that is perhaps a cognitive skill that we can train.