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Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about service-learning. A variety of things from all different directions have merged in my brain to force me in this direction, and that’s handy, because I’m presenting about this in about a month at WILU. The presentation there is called “Making Coursework Matter”, and had more to do with two or three specific projects and had no particular theoretical underpinning that I was aware of. I had an idea about rescuing student work from the shedder and putting out into the world, and I wanted librarianship to a leadership role in implementing that kind of project. What I was planning to present was, in essence, a call to action. I still want that, but I’ve realized lately that what I intending to propose has far deeper implications and wider-reaching possibilities, and was already rooted in some established ideas.

The basic gist of my presentation (I’m totally scooping myself here) is this: at my institution, and at most others, students have a wealth of resources available to them, and then time and requirement to process them into something new. In other parts of the world (not to mention other parts of the country), this is not the case, and rather than encourage and support assignments that work out to busywork for students, why don’t we create spaces for students to contribute their work, so that students in other places can benefit from it? When you’re creating a document to help someone else form an idea or use a theory, that citation being properly constructed matters a lot more. I have two personal experiences this year with watching student engagement rise to unbelievable levels as soon as their work matters to someone other than their instructors; I have a few ideas for how to form these kinds of assignments, and that’s what I wanted to talk about. I know others will surely have ideas of their own to share, and I’d really like to talk about the role of librarianship is archiving this kind of information and making it globally available. That’s our expertise, right?

So I already had that idea in my head (and I feel it pressing against me with a certain amount of urgency). At the same time, I’ve been doing my research on the ins and outs of Second Life. As I’ve said, I’m spending time with Second Life to get a sense of what it offers (a lot) and how we can best take advantage of it to foster more engaged learning experiences. I’ve got some ideas at the moment, but I’m still new to the space, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions just yet. There’s been way too much jumping to conclusions in Second Life by educators and librarians of all varieties, seeing the fast, immediate use of the thing before really digging in the dirt a bit to see how far it can go. Heck, we’re still in the stage where everyone thinks this kind of space is Brand! New!, which is simply not even close to the case. We’re great at getting excited about things, but there’s far more work to be done. I want to be a little bit slower about this, get to know the natives and see what it is they’re trying to accomplish, see what actually works and what doesn’t, get into the scripting, read up on the theories and the experiences of others, and try to propose something thoughtful; if you look around in there, you’ll find a lot of flashy educational spaces, but I’m not convinced they’re nearly as rich as they could be. And I’m still a newbie. Do we build a space where we provide service to students, or do we provide space for students to provide service themselves, in whatever way makes the most sense within their curriculum?

I’ve heard very (very) often that students are really only interested in grades, so they only truly relevant coursework is anything that provides grades. For librarians, if the work you’re doing with a class results in students getting grades for paying attention, then you’ve succeeded. This argument has never sat well with me, but as a deeply political person, with grand ideas about the human condition and the responsibility of each of us to each other, surely I’m biased. However: students at my school put on a production of The Vagina Monologues on their own, without urging or organization from the administration or the departments, and donated the entirety of their proceeds to a local women’s shelter. There were about 20 students involved, only one of them from the drama program. 20 students dedicated their time and effort to this production, and for no grades at all, because they wanted to draw attention to the relationship between the treatment and perceptions of women’s bodies and the process of war. How can I possibly sit there in the audience, watching these amazing, talented, committed women on the stage, and keep thinking that they only thing that motivates them is grades?

Last week I attended a workshop where fourth year students in an “Information Preparedness” course presented their proposed curriculum for fostering the kind of learning they felt they needed but didn’t recieve. They did a great job, and lots of interesting discussion ensued. The pieces that really stuck with me, and kept coming back at me afterward, were the parts where the talked about how they came to learn the skills we talk about when we talk about Information Literacy; not in class, not in a library instruction session, not in the process of trying to write a paper. They learned things when they were out on co-ops or internships, and where the learning of these skills mattered to someone. If our goal is to equip students with the skills they need for just these situations, should we pay attention to these kinds of results? If the purpose provides some of the engagement required to learn, should we be looking for and providing that kind of purpose?

And then this weekend, while perusing the blog of my (prolific) friend Jeremy Hunsinger, I followed his link to a post about how schools and museums aren’t about learning, they’re about making (and playing). What on earth does learning mean when someone can say something like that? Today I recieved an email from a local teacher Jason Nolan and I have been working with to do some socially-relevant coursework with high school students; he told us that his students are having such a great time with it that he has a hard time pulling them away from the project to work on other things. Everyone presumes the cool part is the technology (that’s certainly part of it). But what about the social action part? What causes and creates engagement? And how can we use that knowledge to encourage real learning?


service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.

I’ve seen service-learning in action before, but it’s only now that I see how it could blend nicely with library instruction, and with my particular role as a collaborator with faculty. Service-learning generally implies a large project, but what I’m thinking now is that it could also be scaled down; why shouldn’t we propose micro serivce-learning projects that have an impact, not necessarily or only on the local community, but on the global community? Creating information sources for others, with the right citations, in order to improve the lives of people who don’t have the same level of access as we do, is a form of service-learning too. Even traditional coursework can become part of a service-learning project. The moment things became digital, we entered a world where our community can span the entire globe; maybe one way we engage students and show them the relevance of information literacy skills is by getting them on side to start making that global community a better place.

MLearn: South Africa and the Problem of $100 Laptops

MLearn: South Africa and the Problem of $100 Laptops

The One Laptop per Child program is creating a lot of conversation and consternation at the MLearn conference. There have been an interesting series of (still hopeful) criticisms of it, particularly from the delegates from South Africa.

The stunning comment that threw me into a whole new mind set was this: “If you give children laptops, you’re making them targets of violence, theft, and possibly death.”

In a place where the economy is so shaky, where items like cell phones and laptops are just as appealing to the black market as they are to students and teachers, how do you concieve of the prospect of using this technology, giving these (valuable) items to children, encouraging them to take them home and carry them around, when we understand that we’re painting targets on their backs? Even for parts those laptops would have value on the black market. The laptops come with a certain amount of security, but how long will it take for the ravenous black markets of the world to disable it? At what point does risk outweigh benefit? Is there any way (shy of full government and social overhaul) to lower the risk of theft and real physical danger and protect these children? Can we give them technology and keep them safe at the same time?

There was a considerable amount of talk about the value of ownership; when the laptop is theirs, there is a different learning outcome. I’ve seen this kind of process play out myself, so it strikes a chord with me. (I’ve spoken before about the difference between posting on a message board “owned” by the instructor and posting on a blog “owned” by the student; you get a different kind of committment, different kind of content, different kind of interaction. I’ve struggled with how to express the value of ownership, but I feel it rearing its head again here. What if the laptops are one per child, but don’t leave the school? I have a feeling the value of them drains right out with that scenario.

It’s a difficult question, and I’m pretty relieved that it’s not me who has to come up with an answer. I wouldn’t know where to start.

MLearn: Don’t forget about Training!

MLearn: Don’t forget about Training!

There’s a bit of a recurring theme to the presentations so far that hovers around teacher training in particular, and training in general. It started with the Keynote (which I blogged about yesterday), its head was raised again in this morning’s keynote (about the “Net Generation”) and crops up here and there in various presentations. It seems there’s a devout belief from on high that training is simply not necessary, particularly not for anyone under the age of 23.

I’ve fought this beast a million times. First: there have been legitimate studies that indicate that access to a computer doesn’t make students any smarter, or get them better grades. I think I’ve already blogged a few of those studies. A computer alone doesn’t solve anything, and even if a student knows how to play WoW (World of Warcraft), it doesn’t mean she is a technogenius. In my experience, undergraduates are not only not “digital natives” in the way that people over 30 like to think of them; they have cell phones, they have IM, but they have no idea how to find information on the internet, are floored by a new web application, aren’t comfortable playing around with something like a wiki to see how it works, and no idea why it’s not a good idea to send email from their account to the registrar’s office or two a potential employer. Technology literacy cannot be judged by a person’s gadgets; I often think these ideas are generated by people who are in awe of the toys available and find them difficult to use. Seeing that their 12 year old daughters aren’t intimidated by these gadgets, they decide that kids just Get It. It’s just natural for them, somehow.

I really wish the people who write these things would stop using their (genius!) 12 year old daughters as models and would instead ask the people who actually work with students on a regular basis. I did. I asked at UTM’s Computing Services what they thought about this idea of younger age == tech virtuosity. Their experience: just because a person is 19 years old doesn’t mean he knows how to set up his wireless, or knows how to do a windows update, or can work out how to configure his email account. Technology is a wide world of its own, and you can be extremely proficient at one part of it and be hopeless with another.

The result of this deep-seated belief that Kids are born with a USB plug in their mouths had a serious impact; my friend Minna Saulio from Finland reported in her research from South Africa that private corps provide money for computers, but no tech support; they have rooms full of computers they can’t use.

In sum: training is important!

MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

MLearn: One Laptop Per Child

I’m blogging from the MLearn conference in Banff, Alberta. Things are moving very fast, so I’m grabbing what time I can to process the sessions and blog about them.

The keynote this morning was by Mary Lou Jepson of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative, nurtured, of course, by the MIT Media Lab. I’ve heard about this project, but I hadn’t really sat down and considered what it truly meant. Mary Lou framed it in terms of a social welfare and social activism more than anything else; education reform is no minor issue worldwide. She noted that, in a country where they experimented with paying parents to send their kids to school rather than the other way around, the kids themselves grew several inches taller than their peers. (This isn’t a crazy notion; height isn’t only about diet, as it turns out. Cuture, social safety nets and education have an impact on us physically as well as mentally.) So this isn’t just about spreading toys around the world, they see a real impact in the countries where they’re starting to rollout these laptops.

The thrust of this project is to provide laptops to every child in the world, and by extension to create a wireless network (using the laptops themselves as connections for those farther way from the access points) to bring resources into parts of the world where there are none. The technical details and design are amazing, and it’s clear that they’ve proceeded with great thoughtfulness and care.

The budget for this project is, essentially, a country’s textbook budget. So, what these laptops are doing is replacing textbooks in classrooms. When I realized this, my stomach kind of dropped. Is this a good thing? I mean, on one hand, if you had to choose between access to the internet and an ancient textbook that’s been kicking around an elementary school classroom for the last 15 years, which would you pick? I can understand that the internet is going to provide more than a single book (that few governments around the world can afford to replace yearly as knowledge changes and develops), but it’s starkness (“it’s the internet or a book”) that threw me. It’s a dramatic statement. But one that reminds me of what we can do to change the world from the comfort of our own classrooms.

It reminds me all the more how important it is for us (students, faculty, librarians) in the west to make sure those public resources (like wikipedia, like public learning object repositories) are as good as they can be. It reminds me that our own work, our own passions and interests, can translate into real life improvement in the lives of millions around the world. These laptops are going to be different than ours; on one hand, they can do some things ours can’t (work without outlets, without lithium exploding, with a level of brightness that allows them to be used in sunlight), we’ll need to think again about the way we design information for the public. We’re back to 1995 in terms of thinking about easy loading, keeping the images smaller and less frequent, thinking about content over flash. Sure, we can create quicktime movies as learning objects, but if we want to create something for the students in Brazil or Botswana, we’ll need to remember that download speeds aren’t the same there as they are here. I find this challenge exciting and inspiring.

The $100 laptop is designed to be not just an internet portal, but also as an e-book reader. Again you see the original intent; to replace textbooks. Another thing we can do from the richer end of the world is produce e-books for those computers. The term “learning object” seems too empty to me; what if your learning object, produced by students, produced by an entire class perhaps, is an e-book to offer to a country where books are scarce? I’m in a session right now about a class in South Africa that built their own textbook on a wiki. So, even before the laptop project gets started, we’re already doing that kind of work. I like the idea that academic work has a social conscience and a social responsibility. As someone who spent the majority of her adult life in graduate school, I understand the joy or pure academic study, but the part that made me leave graduate school was the lack of impact, the inability to leave the ivory tower from time to time and make that knowledge and depth of understanding useful to someone else. This seems like a bright little light to me.

What’s missing from the laptop program so far is the librarian’s perspective. What they’re creating is essentially a library interface, and in place of working with librarians, they’re working with That’s what’s available, right? I think there’s an important role for librarians in this project to make their public resources available and ready for these students, in a format they will be able to make use of.

One of the questions from the audience was about training; who’s going to train the teachers? Who’s going to train the students to use these computers? The answer to this question: Well, kids are good at this stuff. They can pick it up on their own. And then the kids will teach the teachers. My immediate reaction to this was a raised eyebrow. Kids will just pick it up? With no support at all? How will that help the project? If the goal is educational, it seems that providing exactly no support is asking for failure. While I understand their desire not to foist learning theories and curriculum on other cultures, a helping hand would hardly be a bad thing. Some ideas, some pointers, some support. I wondered, as we talked about it, if it might not be the role of both teachers and librarians to provide some training to teachers and librarians in other countries to help them make use of the laptops and the tools. It’s much easier to subvert and be creative with technology if you know first how it works and what it can do. And while the goal of the project is to be technology only, not curriculum or theory, by giving the laptops to the children with the expectation that they will pick it up and teach the teachers, they are bringing that constructivist chaos and reversal of power (the student becomes the teacher) that we so value, but so many feel profoundly uncomfortable with. Are we setting up third world teachers to feel stupid? Are we setting them up to be subverted by their students? It just seems more value-laden than they intend.

But, all in all, I was impressed. Since I’ve been looking for ways to bring courseware out of the classroom and into the real world, this project just adds fuel to my fire.