Librarians Have Key Roles in Blended and Online Learning

Online teaching and learning are now critical skill sets for 21st-century information professionals, says Pivot Points columnist Mark Ray.

In January, I joined teacher librarians Steve Coker and Sarah Applegate from the North Thurston (WA) School District to teach a graduate library course at the University of Washington. This wholly online course made me think about the roles that librarians might play as online and blended learning expands in our schools.

The points: online and blended learning

Many other teacher librarians instruct at the university level in online or blended-learning scenarios. I suspect that more teach or collaborate in K–12 online courses. When you add those who took virtual classes as students, it’s clear that online teaching and learning are now key skill sets for 21st-century information professionals. Recognizing this, the American Association of School Librarians will host “School Librarians in the Anytime Anywhere Learning Landscape” during its Fall Forum.

Online learning can be defined in a number of ways. Put simply, it takes place fully or in part via the web and ranges from courseware that can replace both teacher and classroom to blended learning that’s a hybrid of online and traditional instruction. Traditional instruction generally requires teacher and learner to be in the same physical space at the same time. By contrast, virtual instruction provides structure, tools, and resources so that learning can occur either synchronously, with teacher and learner in one place simultaneously, or asynchronously, where activities are independent of time and space. The Clayton Christensen Institute has identified four distinct models of blended learning, allowing learners “some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”

Learning management systems (LMS) can support online learning by providing open-ended structures for the virtual classroom. An LMS offers tools that facilitate sharing and exchange of documents, communication, collaboration, calendaring, and course organization. The evolving LMS marketplace includes products ranging from Edmodo to more complex enterprise tools, such as Canvas and Blackboard.

The pivots

Just as online learning disrupts the classroom and traditional instruction, it disrupts library and information services. In an online course, traditional textbooks and analog library materials can be superfluous. Several of my colleagues take undergraduate and graduate courses using only digital resources. While blended learning might afford access to a library or class collections of materials, the ease of digital resources makes non-digital resources less compelling. Our online graduate course used no textbook, relying instead on research articles, blog posts, discussions, and video lectures.

We can support online learning by developing high-quality digital resource collections for students’ instructional needs. In Vancouver (WA) Public Schools, librarians have long championed online resources such as ABC-CLIO and the Gale Virtual Reference Library as materials and aligned instructional resources. They built a digital resource “binder” supporting World Studies and promoted Canvas LMS for a course on world problems and civics.

At the 2012 SLJ Summit, I suggested that teacher librarians become online learning engineers and blended learning baristas. They can lend their systems knowledge and organizational acumen in helping districts choose and implement learning management systems. Few teachers or administrators understand or manage information systems. Yet virtually every one has expertise, thanks to library and textbook automation tools. They can be district LMS implementation and management consultants.

At the building level, teacher librarians can curate digital resources, collaboratively design courses, and assist teachers implementing blended learning in classrooms. And as teachers, they can guide students in areas from digital citizenship to effective online collaboration.

Regardless of the blend, online learning will be part of students’ learning. And teacher librarians have important roles in the new anytime, anywhere learning landscape.

Ray-Mark_Contrib_WebMark Ray ( is the manager of instructional technology and library services at the Vancouver (WA) Public Schools.

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