Perspective on learning

It should not be surprising that as an educator, I believe in the power of education to transform our student’s lives and that I believe in the value of continuous learning throughout your life. Despite the importance of these views for anyone in higher education, it is equally important to recognize that as educators, our primary responsibility to our students is to help them come to understand their own approach to learning and to help them succeed in this endeavor. This success is not limited to immediate classroom goals and not necessarily to professional goals. In doing this, educators need to balance the roles of mentor, collaborator, teacher and researcher with both our students and our colleagues.

Education is central to the work of information and library science (ILS). It is a key element of our service focus and is in fact one of the most rewarding aspects of the profession. As ILS educators we bear the responsibility of sustaining the foundation of our profession by graduating students who are ready to fill needed roles in the academy and marketplace. This responsibility means that we must be tuned to advancements in our field, find ways to connect our research and practice, create opportunities for our students, and prepare our students for a career path.

Educating an information professional means looking beyond the false division of practical skills and theoretical concepts. Our approach to teaching should incorporate theoretical as well as practical learning, should include evaluation of analytical skills as well as subject matter comprehension, and should teach meta-cognitive as well as content-focused topics. To do this well educators must be grounded in both content and pedagogy, must provide direction and structure while creating an environment of exploration, and must empower diverse perspectives while helping the students build a community of practice. In order to do this well, instructors need to be organized and capable of balancing coursework, research and administrative work. As a librarian, doctoral student and instructor I gained experience in managing these roles as I taught both an online course in Indexing and Abstracting and an in-person class on Information Organization, continued my studies, and focused on my regular job responsibilities.

View of instruction
Teaching our students is not a simple process. Professors need to have an awareness of multiple learning styles, understanding of effective assessment techniques, and the ability to manage a classroom. In doing these things the faculty member needs to focus on key ideas such as student empowerment, appreciation of and respect for diversity, and a commitment to have students take ownership of the learning process. My own view of instruction embraces a constructivist worldview. This perspective views the ideal learning environment as one that is grounded in a student’s own learning context and is supported where needed by the faculty member. The constructivist worldview recognizes the role of individual, social, political, and technological influences on student learning and seeks to provide instruction in a way that helps the student create their own knowledge. Likewise, the constructivist worldview recognizes the importance of developing core knowledge, analytical, creative, and meta-cognitive skills during the learning process and seeks innovative ways to encourage this development.

This means that instruction must strike a balance between multiple learning styles and content delivery. In doing so, it cannot ignore the dynamics of student-driven collaboration and community building as part of the learning process. This means that creating authentic learning environments is a key approach to generating commitment on the part of the students and the instructor. As part of this, the constructivist worldview requires that the instructor cede ownership of the learning process to the student and focus on serving the roles of mentor and facilitator as well as content expert.

Innovation and instruction

Creating an effective learning environment for a diverse student population is not easy. It requires a genuine interest in student outcomes and a clearly focused curriculum. It also requires flexibility and adaptability on the part of the instructor. Just as there is no one best way to learn, there is no one best way to create this environment. It is sure, however, that good instructional environments are not accidental. They are created through the deliberate combination of instructional theory, use of technology tools, and student mentorship. When done well, innovative learning environments have the power to extend learning beyond the immediate moment and to help students connect their classroom experience to other areas of their lives.

From within this perspective the appropriate structure of instruction depends on the curriculum. In my own teaching I have employed multiple instructional approaches from adopting a socio-technical perspective and using loosely structured instruction to using POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning) based techniques and highly structured instruction to support learning on the same topics. The key in selecting an instructional method is to consider the implications and possible outcomes of the approach, to structure the content around the method, and to focus getting students to commit to the learning process.

Creating an effective learning environment has always included the appropriate adoption of technology. When grounded in a theoretical perspective, instructional technology takes on important supporting roles and helps both the individual and the class as a whole extend their learning. In some cases, the use of IT involves instructor-defined systems (e.g. course management systems, websites, classroom exercises) while in others it requires student-defined systems (e.g. social networking sites, blogs/wikis, student- selected technology). Further, the use of technology in instruction provides an opportunity to connect theory and practice particularly in information and library science education where students are required to be both technically and analytically proficient. This process works equally well in online, in-person and hybrid instruction environments. My experience teaching in these environments has shown me that effective classrooms are more about striking a balance between technology, pedagogy and content than they are about a single ‘best approach.’ This means that in some cases real-time online instruction is the best method while in other cases in-person instruction provides the most conducive environment.

Technology use in the classroom should be both deliberate as it pertains to classroom structure and spontaneous as it pertains to empowering student learning and creating an innovative and responsive environment. Our primary responsibility as faculty is to not necessarily be the expert in the use of technologies but rather to be experts in identifying how best to use those technologies to leverage the learning experience. This means that we empower students proficient in digital media creation, that we create environments in which students have real ownership of the structure and content, and that we identify external experts where appropriate.

Approach to teaching
It is impossible for an instructor to be completely prepared for a course. Doing so creates an overly rigid and stale learning environment which does not respect diversity, student expertise, or spontaneity. On the contrary, adopting a rapid course development model which respects innovative and spontaneous inclusion of content, current information, and technology helps both the instructor and the classroom take ownership over the learning experience and makes the learning process exciting and more valuable.

The implication of this approach is that the instructor must be willing to adapt to multiple roles. In some cases we get to act as the expert, guiding students through complex content, while in others we cede control of the learning experience either to our students or to outside experts. The value that we get from using this approach is that our students have a better opportunity to learn inside the classroom and to be successful lifelong learners and professionals following graduation. For our part, by focusing on the shifting roles of mentor, expert, and classroom facilitator we create learning environments in which we too can learn new things.

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