By Kathy Yanchus, Review Staff
Dramatic changes are occurring in school libraries across the province as they are transformed into 21st century learning spaces.
It may not be conspicuously evident when you walk in, as there are still book-lined shelves. Upon closer inspection, however, you may notice a big screen TV hooked up to a computer in one corner, and a giant, computer-powered, interactive SMART board in another. Some furniture may sport wheels to customize space. Teachers and students may speak in seemingly foreign tongues, using expressions like prezi, popplet and bitstrips.
Simply put, there is a lot more going on in libraries these days than lending books and storytime.
It’s not so much the physical space that is evolving; the most subtle, yet drastic change, is in the facilitation of learning within those walls.
Twenty-first century students have access to information from a myriad of sources, not just conventional ones like books and magazines; the vast scope of a worldwide web is a reality that the education system couldn’t ignore. Guiding young minds through this virtual world and the onslaught of instantly available information to discern what is relevant and appropriate, is a priority for educators.
For the past two and a half years, libraries within the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Board have been slowly and purposefully evolving into Learning Commons.
A university and college term translated into a school context, Learning Commons refers to the actual learning facilitated in both the physical and virtual space, explained Phillip Jeffrey, HWCDSB manager, library and information services.
Learning Commons began evolving three years ago as a practical, essential and inevitable response by the Ontario School Library Association to the issue of integrating rapidly-changing technology and learning.
“It’s a holistic approach in that it’s not just students, but teachers, principals, as well as teacher librarians, are on board,” said Jeffrey.
Digital citizenship is about teaching students how to use technological tools in a safe, discerning manner in their heavily visual and electronic world, he said.
“Students need to understand we all have a digital footprint and that is something which does have its dangers if you’re not conscious of it,” said Jeffrey.
Books haven’t been thrown out the window, but kids are different learners than they were even 15 years ago, said Guardian Angels teacher librarian, Karen Potvin. “We’re preparing them to be 21st century learners.”
Staff use an inquiry model which takes students through a process of discovery, encouraging them to analyze, evaluate, organize and present in a variety of creative ways. Pencil and paper don’t necessarily factor in; instead, students may use software to develop a 3-D cube, each side filled with data on a particular issue gleaned from a website. Forgoing chart paper, students can use educational software to develop digital information webs, a project far more fun than copying notes by hand into a notebook.
“If I could summarize it in two words, it would be collaborative learning,” said Potvin. “The emphasis is on collaborative learning and also on technology. We have to move to where the kids are and a lot of them are technologically savvy; it makes sense to go where they are because then the learning will happen.”
The board’s recent Bruce Trail Expedition school program was an example of an innovative inquiry approach to meet curriculum expectations, which garnered extensive media coverage. An interactive web tool was created to link students and four philanthropic adventurers hiking the trail over 30 days.
Students were able to mix conventional and virtual research with experiential learning by actually hiking the trail, speaking to experts, communicating with other schools, offering them a wonderful interconnected experience, said Jeffrey.
“I think it’s a richer experience now,” he said.
Resources today are available to students 24/7; not just during regular school hours. Dynamic and visual web tools give teachers and students choices when it comes to methods of learning and abilities.
There’s no way educators can ignore the world of technology and even personal devices such as cellphones and iPads are being welcomed, said Jeffrey. Collaborative stations exist in high school libraries where students can upload information from their own personal devices to one screen, then edit for group presentations.
“It’s more like a computer lab combined with a library, so there’s a lot of experimentation going on, a lot of creating going on, a lot of use of tools that average students may not be able to access. We do a lot of sharing of information.”
With exponential changes in knowledge, relying solely on books for research today, wouldn’t work, he said.
“A lot of our purpose was to provide opportunities to understand that information is available from many different sources and you have to be discerning,” said Jeffrey. “Availability isn’t necessarily about appropriateness, availability is not necessarily about reliability and accuracy.”
“It’s exciting because we’re beginning to see students engaged in ways that they were not before with some of their projects.
It can only grow,” said Jeffrey who also sees school libraries as great equalizers in the future, having the capacity to loan students technological devices they don’t have or can’t afford, to level the playing field.
“I don’t see the day when there wouldn’t be a physical book, especially children’s books, picture books. There’s a whole experience there that can’t be replicated.”
But libraries have evolved beyond simply being a source of books.
“It’s a place where you inquire about things, work together to solve problems. You’re learning about media and using digital technology and all those things come together and that’s what we call the Learning Commons.”
The Learning Commons is not just a physical entity, it’s a philosophy, he said.
“Knowledge and the structure of knowledge is changing so we have to somehow bring everybody onboard, not just the person responsible for the library, everybody has to be onboard. It’s a whole school philosophy and the students benefit.”
“We’re learning with the kids. It’s an adventure for sure,” said Potvin.