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The future of academic libraries: An interview with Steven J Bell

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Steven J. Bell, the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction at Temple University, and current Vice President and President Elect of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Steven received his Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Steven’s most recent book, coauthored with John Shank, Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques lays out a new vision for designing the future of academic libraries enabling librarians to become indispensable partners in the college teaching endeavor by integrating themselves into the instructional process.

“What can we do as academic librarians to better prepare ourselves for what is certainly an uncertain future? We just have to think more entrepreneurially and look for these opportunities.”

I first met Steven a few years ago when I contacted him after reading his excellent Inside Higher Ed article on design thinking and higher education leadership.  Steven is a thoughtful leader who constantly experiments with new ways to improve Temple’s Libraries and the profession of academic librarianship.  Our conversation focused on the future and emerging roles of academic libraries, specifically: Blended Librarians, collections, user experience, Massive Open Online Courses, the ARL 2030 Scenarios Report, and change leadership.  Below I’ve summarized some of the projects and articles Steven mentioned during our interview.

Unbundling of Higher Education

Steven thinks new learning initiatives like MITx and Udacity’s massive open online courses are an opportunity for academic libraries to serve non-traditional, potentially unaffiliated students, who he refers to as higher education’s new majority learners. In a recent article from his From the Bell Tower Library Journal column he suggested two possible scenarios for academic libraries within this emerging unbundled higher education landscape.

Scenario 1: “It seems likely that the providers of unbundled degrees, whether primarily OER like MITx or profit-driven like StraighterLine, would have little need for physical libraries. For one thing, no library means significant cost saving which helps keep tuition low or non-existent. These organizations have no research agendas nor do they seek grants, so there would be no faculty needing huge book and journal collections. Just as the case is now with some online higher education providers, library services, if available, are marginal. They can always purchase access to a set of resources that would adequately qualify for whatever passes as accreditation. They might even go to the trouble to pay a librarian to look after all of it for them.”

Scenario 2: “Another scenario might involve unbundled academic libraries that would offer different types of resources and services. A student might connect with one library for help with a question on ancient Rome, but contact another depending on the subject matter or the service needed. This might involve some extended version of resource sharing where academic libraries would serve more than their own local community. We do that now, but think of it on a much larger scale and for much more than just content sharing. Who pays for it? Perhaps the students, who might pay a fee to access the services and content on a per-use basis, or they might get “library credits” from the institution providing their unbundled course that could be used to obtain service at a participating library. An unbundled system of higher education might require academic librarians to think more entrepreneurially about how they operate.”

Some in the press have suggested these initiatives will topple the ivory tower, knock down campus walls, crumble higher education’s monopoly, and start an Arab Spring of free online learning.

Steven has a more nuanced prediction:

Am I painting a scenario in which traditional higher education and their academic libraries have no future? If it reads that way that’s certainly not the intent. I believe many traditional colleges and universities will continue to thrive and provide the type of experience that many students still want, although the number of families who can afford the tuition is likely to decline. Just anticipate fewer traditional institutions,  and fewer academic libraries supporting them.

Rising costs are a major factor forcing change in academic libraries.  Steven is working to address these issues directly through a new textbook project at Temple University.

Alt-Textbook Project

College students are spending on average $1,100 a year on books and supplies. Temple’s new Alt-Textbook Project is trying to change that. The initiative provides faculty members with a $1,000 grant to create new original digital learning materials with the goal of creating free, timely, high-quality resources for students. Steven recently spoke to Temple’s student radio WHIP about the project. Steven discusses the Alt-Textbook project as part of a larger Alt-Higher Education movement.

Blended Librarians

Steven, with his colleague John D. Shank, developed the concept of the Blended Librarian, a new form of academic librarianship that integrates instructional design and technology skills into the traditional librarian skill set. The goal is to better serve faculty and students through deeper engagement in teaching and learning.

Idea Book

The “Capture an Idea” project encouraged Temple University Library staff to record their ideas to improve the library’s user experience.  Photo Credit: Steven J. Bell 

User Experience

Steven’s recent work has focused on improving the user experience at the Temple University Libraries through researching the needs of students, and by gathering ideas from Library staff. Using the Study of Great Retail Shopping Experiences in North America Steven surveyed students on their expectations to “gain insight into what would comprise a “WOW” experience for student members of the academic library’s user community, and better understand in what ways and which areas academic librarians are succeeding or failing to provide the WOW experience”. In 2011, Steven presented his findings at ACRL’s national conference in this recorded presentation, “Delivering a WOW User Experience: Do Academic Libraries Measure Up?”.

Steven also launched a staff initiative called Capture an Idea and gave every staff member a notebook to carry with them suggesting they record community member’s user behavior, things that are broken, complaints and compliments, and general ideas about the library. The notebook’s cover read “Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements”. After several months of collecting ideas the staff discussed them at a retreat and implemented a few their suggestions including a Fix-It Team to address broken things quickly.

Academic Library Roles

In a previous post I discussed ARL’s 2030 Scenarios Project and ACRL’s “Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025″ report. Drawing on those projects, and my conversation with Steven Bell, I created this chart to summarize my current thoughts on the historical, emerging, and future roles of academic libraries across several topics. I’d appreciate your feedback in the comments section below. View a larger version of the image.

The Roles of Academic Libraries

For more information on Steven’s work please see his From the Bell Tower column, Designing Better Libraries blog, and Learning Times Blended Librarian Community.  You can also find him on Twitter.

Classroom of the future? A response

This article from the New York Times on the use of technology in classrooms and test scores merited a response:

Dear Mr. Richtel–

I enjoyed your article “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores” — but I have a key concern.

The entire “debate” around the use of technology in classrooms is focused around using new technologies to teach the same, old stuff. You cite a few studies, and there have been more globally (i.e., OECD) that agree with the finding that simply injecting technologies into the classroom will not make any difference. The *purposive* element (the “so what”) of what they’re being used for is not adequately addressed.

Instead of using these tools to teach centuries-old subject matter, perhaps we should instead use them to help us develop meaningful skills and personal knowledge — and to enhance our capacities to imagine, create, and innovate.

Any furtherance of using such devices for “teaching” ancient information hinders the potentials these technologies provide, and puts our children at risk by excluding them from the co-creation of opportunities in the 21st century. We need to create, not repeat.


John W. Moravec, Ph.D.

Will it blend? Social media and education

This morning, MPR’s Midmorning aired a forum on the role of social media and education. From the program’s description:

How can social media and technology influence the way students learn and the way teachers teach? Kerri Miller hosted a live forum discussion with a Minnesota-based entrepreneur who is pioneering a social teaching project called Sophia, an internet (sic) platform that aims to enhance student learning both in and out of the classroom.

I also give my two cents at 30:41 into the program:

Sophia is featured in the broadcast. To request a beta invitation, click here.

Invisible Learning to be published in early 2011

About a year ago, Cristóbal Cobo and I announced a research project called Invisible Learning. After many months of work, collecting experiences, researching literature, interviews, and exchanges with experts (and –above all– many hours of writing), we can announce that in 2011 the Invisible Learning book will be a reality (in print and digital formats).

Details about the upcoming book, Invisible Learning: Toward a new ecology of education, are available at — and, because we will first publish in Spanish, the website is (for now) in Spanish. We will roll out an English edition of the website and book later in 2011.

The project has exceeded all of our expectations. Not only in terms of interest (over 15,000 references in Google, 7,500 TEDx video playbacks in Spanish and many as well in English), but in the scope of contributions from universities and researchers in the United States, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Finland. We view this as a global commitment (Western, at least) to take a transnational perspective on education at all levels.

The ingredients from these sources are combined in this work to build a large map of ideas, proposals, experiences, tools, methodologies, and research frameworks that seek to make visible those invisible components that lie behind learning. This text seeks out new questions about learning for the upcoming decades.

Although the text has a critical perspective, resulting from the analysis of the shortcomings of educational systems, it also seeks to highlight innovative and transformative initiative that are launching in various corners of the globe.

We do not offer magical fixes for the problems identified, but we assemble the pieces of a conceptual puzzle, constructed from: Society 3.0; lifelong learning; the use of technologies outside of the classroom; soft skills; methodologies for building education futures; serendipic discovery; the hybridization between formal and informal learning; skills for innovation; edupunk and edupop; expanded education; digital maturity; Knowmads and knowledge agents; plus many new literacies relevant to the times in which we live.

We believe that the vested interest and the support provided by dozens of collaborators and institutions such as the Laboratori de Mitjans Interactus (LMI) at the University of Barcelona (publisher) are a living demonstration of the deep interest that exists for building a better education for tomorrow. Hugo Pardo, editor and the publisher’s tireless engine of this book provides some insight on his blog. We will write more about this project and its “added values” as it approaches publication. Stay tuned!

Invisible Learning preview

As Cristóbal Cobo and I are working on wrapping up the Invisible Learning book, promotion for the volume is already starting to appear. Although we anticipate its release in February, 2011, we’ve been giving a few talks on the topic, and thought I’d share some of the slides I’ve been using as a teaser:

This book is the product of the Invisible Learning project, which since its inception, we have called for the identification of areas of learning that have been neglected or otherwise not visible, and incorporate them into a broader meta-theory –or, a proto-paradigm— which we call Invisible Learning. Throughout this new book, we review research studies by thought leaders and the World Bank, OECD, and other institutions. In particular, we look into the invisibility of technologies and the formation of digital skills within the perspective of educational policy and practice. We tie this into the Society 1.0 – Society 3.0 framework, and also introduce some tools (i.e., normative forecasting) that can help build education that’s relevant for the future.

Finally, we discuss Invisible Learning from the perspectives of other authors and contributors to the project. Our approach is to generate a “source code” for an open dialogue between formal learning and learning that knows no time and space limitations. More than anything, Invisible Learning is an invitation, and we look forward to broadening the conversation in the upcoming months.

Stay tuned!

Fab Lab: Build 'almost anything'

“The Fab Lab program has strong connections with the technical outreach activities of a number of partner organizations, around the emerging possibility for ordinary people to not just learn about science and engineering but actually design machines and make measurements that are relevant to improving the quality of their lives.” [MIT Center for Bits and Atoms] Moreover, each Fab Lab is connected with others around the world, sharing ideas and experiences. Every Fab Lab user is required to document how they created products so that their inventions may be replicated anywhere around the world.

Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Fab Lab at Century College in Minnesota. A Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop with an array of computer controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, and is the brainchild of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld. The facility, faculty and institutional support for the initiative is amazing. Loaded with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other rapid prototyping and small-scale fabrication tools, allows uses to make “almost anything.”

My take on Fab Labs is that they provide school students and other members of the community with valuable expertise and resources to transform their creative ideas into tangible products … and, hopefully, meaningful outcomes and innovations. Since the Fab Labs blend social and fabrication technologies, I feel that school systems should consider either investing in the concept for every school, or collaborate actively with an institution that already has a Fab Lab.

Last November, I also had the privilege of visiting the Fab Lab hosted by the Waag Society in Amsterdam (the video in this link is worth watching). A couple of the key differences is that this Fab Lab is open to the public (at a cost), but is also integrated with the other services provided by the Waag Society (i.e., Creative Learning Lab, incubators) and its use is eligible for subsidization by the Dutch government through innovation grants.

An observation from my whirlwind tours of both facilities is that is the Minnesota-based Fab Lab seems to produce things that already exist, whereas the Dutch Fab Lab produces many new creations — things that have not existed yet. The question on my mind is, why is there a creativity gap? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Or, is it structural:

  • Is it because our education system is no longer producing many creatives (focusing instead on creating functionaries)?
  • Is it because the Dutch have access to a broader support system that draws creatives to the Fab Lab?

Or, is something else happening?

Share the love: Embedding the Education Futures timeline

Did you know the Education Futures timeline of education is Creative Commons licensed? You’re invited to share the love!

Simply cut-and-paste this text into your blog or website (assumes a column width of 500px):

<div align="center"><iframe src="" width="500" height="310" scrolling="no" frameborder="0"></iframe><p>Source: <a href="">Education Futures</a></p></div>

…and, it should create this:

Settlers of the Shift

New World Order 2.0

I like conceptual maps –tools for illustrating the relationships among ideas– and, Tero Heiskanen created an interesting one. It’s huge. Without any further commentary:

Settlers of the shift is an open map of experts, organizations and ideas that are scattered around the globe. It’s for people whose work is shifting us towards a better tomorrow – a New World Order 2.0. This map aims to encourage people to connect across sectors and enable you to tie partnerships with like-minded individuals.


Six values are suggested as a common backbone for the partnerships:

  • Justice: fair and honest treatment of everyone involved
  • Co-creation: synergistic dialogue and collaboration
  • Meaningfulness: solutions to problems worth solving
  • Generosity: giving time and resources for the sake of giving
  • Dignity: acting in a respectful and ethical manner
  • Abundance: denying artificial scarcity and limitations

(Thanks to Pekka Ihanainen for sharing this find!)

Going global and purposive

Knowledge powers the 21st century

Dan Wallace (@ideafood) forwarded a link to this short essay by TED curator, Ted Anderson. Networking technologies are transforming the potential of teachers:

There are many scary things about today’s world. But one that is truly thrilling is that the means of spreading both knowledge and inspiration have never been greater. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students. There are already numerous examples of powerful talks that have spread virally to massive Internet audiences.

Indeed, the Chinese are figuring this out, and are packaging recordings of instruction by their top teachers in mobile devices. Moreover, free tools like Skype, YouTube and Twitter that operate on inexpensive hardware provide new opportunities not only for connecting teachers with a broader audience of students, but also for connecting students to the world. Likewise, both teachers and students can learn from …and co-create new knowledge with… their peers, globally.

In the comments, Michael Rossney makes another point:

When potential students are selecting a traditional school, or course or teacher the deciding factors are likely to be: Proximity, Cost, Availability of time/course places. These just aren’t such an issue online.

This concept is very real for me: Last week I attended an information evening from a prominent college here in Dublin on a business MBA. I wanted not just to learn strategies but to rub shoulders with result focused businesspeople, social entrepreneurs etc. As I left I couldn’t help thinking that I could get more value studying certain TED speakers or similar if I could just harness that information and use it.

So, there we go. The question isn’t access to technologies, but how we make the most of the technologies and knowledge resources available. Rather than blindly advocating for technological adoption, is it now time to focus on the purposive use of technologies for human capital development?

Infoxication 2.0

On her blog, Elena Benito-Ruiz shares a draft chapter on “‘Infoxication 2.0’ as one of the main downsides to Web 2.0 and its educational application.”  Infoxication is a state of intoxication of the mind, caused by an overload of information. Although centered around technology, this is thought to contribute to a decline in intellectual performance. The problem is increased in Web 2.0 environments as such environments require both a push and pull of ideas.

Currently, she suggests, RSS readers (when used properly) provide a remedy for teachers and students. That’s a good way of compiling and simplifying information, but what can be done about new knowledge generation in the Web 2.0 world? Perhaps something beyond RSS tools are needed?

Read her text here…