A Bit on Learning Environments

As is so often the case, a blog languishes when a lot is going on. Over the past year and a half a lot has been going on: a new job, family stuff, and most recently some new focuses at work.

It’s an exciting time to be at Tech. We’re aligning more closely with our strategic plan, we’re restructuring in ways that will enable better communication and collaboration, and generally it’s exciting to be positioning ourselves to meet our new mission, vision, and aspirational identity. Some of us are finding ourselves in new roles as a result of this focus, and on July 1, I’ll begin the role of Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech.

Today I had the opportunity to begin speaking publicly about what that means at an NLI workshop: Transforming research, teaching, and learning through the new University Libraries.  I suspect this is the first of many chances to hone the message around what “Learning Environments” are, but to briefly describe it, we’re framing Learning Environments as the environments in which learning takes place, as well as the services and partnerships that are situated in those environments.  In our thinking, this includes online learning environments, circulation, reference, point-of-need (roving assistance), spaces, and academic programming. Putting these units and services under one umbrella will allow for some really strong partnerships and collaborations within the library, as well as providing a context from which we can offer consistent learner experience and messages that reinforce one another.

The larger Learning Division also includes Learning Services, where a lot of traditional instruction falls. Learning Environments and Services will be close partners as we are both stakeholders in a number of overlapping areas (such as classrooms, online learning, etc).

If you’re interested in our first stabs at outlining this work, we posted a LibGuide for the workshop and I’ve posted my slides here. (I’m hoping by the third or fourth time I talk on this topic I can move the slides to something more typical of my presentation style. :) )

The Importance of Phrasing: Librarians as (Virtual) Community Builders

So my boss wrote a blog post. And I’m totally down with it.

In it he talks about “personalized virtual communities for teaching and research” and says:

I think we’re seeing a shift occur. In the past it was “how to use a blog in your course” and now it’s “how to build an online social learning environment for your specific needs.” These conversations are the result of faculty becoming more comfortable and sophisticated using the social web. I’m finding many who are eager to expand their platforms and try new things.

And I was struck by how useful the framing was. For years I worked on this type of project. I (along with collaborators) partnered with faculty to design rich online learning environments, but we didn’t think of them that way. We thought of it more from an instructional design perspective: What goals does the faculty member have? What tools might enable them to reach those goals? How can we design the information environment to utilize appropriate tools and help them meet their goals? But really, all of this was basically creating the “personalized virtual communities for teaching” that Brian describes.
Discussion at the table - Meeting over coffee

What does it look like, you might ask. (People often do.) It’s a lot of discussion, listening, and brainstorming with the faculty member about what they hope to do with their class. A few examples of things that came out of this process:

  • A wiki platform to create a dynamic, course created encyclopedia for a sociology class that could be built on semester after semester.
  • A highly customized blog theme to allow a french class to publish a journal for french readers (particularly high school french students).
  • An easy to use process for making videos and podcasts that we frequently introduced classes to (including accounting and education classes!).
  • A google doc systems for collaborative paper writing in LIB100.
  • A google site that surpassed what the available CMS could do for online learning.

It was good work to do.

And, in fact, I wonder if the “personalized virtual communities” framing will help libraries see this as a realm that makes sense to explore. In my old way of thinking of this work, it blurred the line with what a lot of Teaching and Learning Centers do. That was the lens we used when we decided to transition this type of work to the TLC in my previous experience. However, I have always seen it as an “information environment” issue that makes sense in libraries. Even more so when I think of the “personalized virtual communities” that not only require some instructional design skill, but also information architecture, usability, and other domains that are frequently part of library work. So now, it looks like I’m back to exploring that issue (which, in many ways, has its roots in Blended Librarianship).

The Library’s Role

A topic I was batting around with a friend the other day was kind of related to this. In his organization, the library provides blogs, but not much support beyond that. (This is related to the categories of support Brian outlined.) We were wondering where the line is. Should libraries leave blogs to IT? Automate the creation of whatever web system the class is using and accounts? Offer customizations to platforms? Partner with faculty to develop a system together?

We easily agreed that the power is in the partnering. It’s not scalable, but it can create a powerful experience. And it makes use of the information expertise we bring to the table. At my library we’re framing it as more of a “boutique” experience. That is where the most value add is.

My friend and I were talking about writing something on this. I’m feeling an even stronger pull to do it now. (Watch out, friend.)

Assessing the Work

As Brian pointed out, it’s a challenge to think about how to frame this for reporting, since it’s not in any of the standard information gathering forms we deal with, and isn’t something that’s necessarily quantifiable. You can say how many virtual environments you built, but not the depth of relationships that came from the experience or the difference it made in students’ perceptions of the course or materials. That’s apparent more in stories, and shifts of attitudes about the library in the long term.


Anyway, I’m very excited about the potential in building personalized virtual learning communities, and, if you add a software engineer to the mix, the possibilities become even more compelling. And today, in 2013, with Google Glass, new online platforms, and an increasingly rich world of digital materials to work with, it’s even more exciting. Here’s to a fun (and productive!) semester!