The Pixelated Campus

Fortunately for us, class is always in session

March 9, 2010

"There is no frigate like a book,” Emily Dickinson wrote long ago, “to take us lands away.” Only the foolhardy would quibble with her eloquent, 19th-century paean to the written word, and librarians aplenty support reading as a vehicle for escape and learning alike. Yet in the current century, more and more librarians themselves opt for neither codex nor car to connect with distant ideas. Instead, librarians make use of the online information opportunities that abound in ever-greater numbers for their continuing education.

Individuals, academic units, and associations are now in the business of offering an array of online learning opportunities. These sessions refresh old concepts and air new ideas for practitioners who cannot leave their libraries to commune with researchers and other experts. A few people who create web-based learning activities shared their perceptions of online continuing education with me. They point to enrollment figures and the effort involved in producing high-quality information as key elements of this increasingly popular option.

Among those creators is Syracuse University School of Information Studies faculty member Scott Nicholson. His interest in how libraries use both video and board games to engage younger users prompted him to produce an online course that is available as a series of 30 YouTube segments. Nicholson said that 427 individuals have watched all of the videos so far, and some episodes have attracted far more people. Interestingly, not every viewer was a library worker. “I have had several high school students contact me throughout and after the course and ask how they can become a librarian,” he said.

The Association for Library Service to Children is one of many divisions of the American Library Association that provides online continuing education opportunities, offering sessions for almost three years now. According to ALSC Deputy Executive Director Kirby Simmering, the division organizes online courses for professionals during three mini-semesters. “Technology has allowed us to do this in a relatively affordable way,” he said.

These courses typically run for four to six weeks, supporting librarians’ increased understanding of contemporary issues. “Children with Disabilities in the Library” and “Introduction to Graphic Novels for Children” will be among the offerings for Summer 2010, which begins in July, Kirby said. The classes, which use the Moodle platform, are typically limited to enrollments of 25–30 librarians. Kirby said that most ALSC courses are regularly filled to capacity or even waitlisted.

Additionally, there are special offerings for library school students, Kirby indicated. These free, one-hour programs are typically available every other month, and “have been fairly popular,” he said.

Learning on the job

At WebJunction, the OCLC learning site developed with funding from the Gates Foundation and the support of other library partners, there are three main types of information resources, explained WebJunction Communications Director Michael Porter: free webinars, for-fee online courses, and areas on which library professionals can share their questions and best practices. More than 700 librarians attended one recent online conference, Porter said. “Eighty percent were on the clock, they were being paid,” he observed, noting that use of such online activities is increasing.

WebJunction structures its learning sessions around competencies, such as technology skills and public services, to meet librarians’ needs regardless of the venue in which they work or the age of the patrons they serve, Porter said. There are also web pages dedicated to service in school settings, as well as to children and young adults and teens.

Dale Musselman, also of WebJunction, cautioned that while it might seem logical to assume that the economic downturn has been a factor in popularizing travel-free learning, the story behind the rise in participants is far more complex. He pointed to library partnerships with organizations that sponsor online activities, the proliferation of information outlets, and people’s increasing comfort with the technologies involved as conditions that increase participant numbers. “Even in good times, we know people can’t always attend conferences,” Porter said. “We know it serves our profession well.”

Even when these online information sessions aren’t free, there are hints that librarians may find them as frugal as Dickinson’s chariots. For those who prefer the longstanding mode of transport advocated by the poet, Nicholson is writing a book about game-based programming. Everyone Plays at the Library (Information Today) is tentatively scheduled for release in summer 2010.

Jennifer Burek Pierce is assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Contact her at jennifer-burek-pierce[at]


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