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Turn a threat into an opportunity
The tendency for teachers to see themselves as being responsible for student information literacy has the potential to further undermine the role of the teacher librarian. By having a clear purpose for their libraries and their own role, teacher librarians can turn potential threats such as this into opportunities.
Technological developments such as use of the Internet in schools and homes, the development of school intranets and the growth in the use of instructional web sites challenge the traditional role of the teacher librarian. Perceived weaknesses and potential obsolescence threaten to undermine how many teacher librarians are viewed by teachers and students in schools. At the same time, these developments provide potential opportunities, especially where there is a clear identification of a future role for the teacher librarian that embraces technological change.
The Internet as a threat
School children are being encouraged to use the Internet at an increasingly early age. When students are taught to use the web in school as part of a general IT course, separated from the main curriculum, they view the technology as no different from packages such as Microsoft Word® or Microsoft Excel®. Technology teachers focus on teaching students how to use the technology as opposed to how to use the information.
The consequences of such instruction, well known to teacher librarians, are students who:
- rarely plan search strategies
- become overwhelmed by the amount of hits they find
- focus on the first hit(s) they find
- copy content mindlessly, without questioning or analysing.
The dangers are that students underestimate or ignore the need for information literacy skills and are unlikely to view the teacher librarian as a possible source of help with their searching. Also, students view the Web as the total research process, rather than as part of the research process. Other resources such as books, CD-ROMs or the school library’s online journal subscriptions are ignored. Students operate on the premise that ‘everything is on the Web’. If this is so and access is available from home or from any wireless classroom or computer lab in the school, why visit the school library centre?
A further threat to teacher librarians could be the use of the Internet by teachers. In the UK, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) argues that teachers who exploit the Web for teaching:
- drew on the skills and qualities associated with good teaching in general, such as setting high expectations, intervening purposefully, involving all pupils and creating a stimulating classroom climate
- used ICT to genuinely enhance teaching and learning
- used a range of ICT applications for teaching a range of topics
- embedded ICT into the schemes of work, using and adapting national frameworks to suit individual needs
- used ICT to manage teaching, learning and assessment of the curriculum subject
- built on and extended the whole-school approach to ICT
- used ICT to create or adapt highly imaginative resources.
Thus teachers’ use of the Internet appears as a very useful development in education, but separated from the teacher librarian. What if teachers search for information from the classroom or from home? What if a teacher prepares for a lesson with a quick check on Google the day before the lesson takes place and then directs students to the first two websites found? If teachers use the web on their own and do not recognise any weakness in this approach, why should they take the time to consult with the teacher librarian?
The Internet as an opportunity
Of course some students and some teachers will use the Web effectively; likely they have learned from a variety of sources, including the teacher librarian. Yet most teachers and students are not information literate. A school-wide information literacy program is essential. However, enlisting the school’s senior management in such an initiative may be difficult. Approaching information literacy at the micro level, with individual teachers or groups of teachers, is often a less threatening and more effective approach.
Several factors favour this approach. Firstly, teachers are under pressure to show that they are incorporating the Web into their teaching, but many have limited training in how to do this. As a resource specialist, the teacher librarian can identify websites and web tools that fit a particular teacher’s goals or curriculum. Providing students with teacher-selected websites (a webliography or pathfinder on the library’s web page, for example) will not only focus student learning but will avoid the aimless use of search engines, about which teachers constantly complain. Before students use search engines, they should be taught the requisite search skills – preferably in front of the subject teacher who will learn them at the same time.
So the roles of the teacher librarian in relation to the Internet can be seen as:
- expert advisor on the use of search engines and subject gateways
- information gatekeeper and website mediator
- information literacy leader and teacher-of-teachers
- current awareness provider on subject-related content in print and online
- resource coordinator linking web content with print materials, CD-ROMs and other online material.
By performing these roles in the school, the teacher librarian can ensure that both the library and the librarian are regarded as key elements in both teaching and learning in the school.
The intranet as a threat
Many schools are developing intranets that contain information for staff, students and even parents. An intranet is accessed using a browser such as Internet Explorer. The main difference between using an intranet and the Internet in school is that a user will have to log in to the intranet via a user name and password.
I have identified that key areas covered by school intranets are:
- learning and teaching materials such as lesson plans, instructional websites, resource guides
- online access to the school library catalogue
- student information such as timetables, school events, school sports
- staff information such as timetables, school notices, curriculum syllabi, school events
- administrative information for staff such as student files, exam results, confidential school reports, committee minutes.
The potential threat to the teacher librarian from the development of a school intranet is that school managers, teachers and students will see the intranet as a ‘one-stop shop’ for all school information. If the school library catalogue, websites and other learning resources can be accessed through the intranet, what impetus do students have to go to the library? If individual teachers develop and post web pages for their classes on the intranet, will they include links to library materials? Finally, if the intranet is an outgrowth of the school’s technology, as opposed to the school’s information system, will it be designed and developed by computer teachers, influenced by the school managers’ emphasis on the importance of administrative rather than curricular information. If so, the teacher librarian is in danger of being bypassed as a key player in the development of an intranet.
The Intranet as an opportunity
The development of a school intranet presents the teacher librarian with a new opportunity to be a key curriculum player in the school. A school intranet should be collaboratively developed by school managers, teachers and the teacher librarian. As an information professional, the teacher librarian can advise the team on how the intranet’s information structure should be organised.
In her article The Connecting School and the Intranet Librarian, Maureen Carter demonstrates that the teacher librarian can take on new roles to influence the design and development of an intranet and ensure that the emphasis remains on information and curriculum, rather than technology and administrative information. In the role of intranet builder, the teacher librarian can play a key leadership role in designing and implementing the intranet. As intranet mediator, the teacher librarian can gather online and print materials to support intranet content on, for example, homework pages. Further, the library section of the intranet should include resources such as information literacy guidelines and tutorials to assist students and teachers with the elements of research. In short, Carter’s research in Scottish schools emphasises that school librarians must take a proactive approach to involvement.
The key roles of the teacher librarian in relation to a school intranet include:
- intranet promoter, who demonstrates the advantages of a school intranet
- intranet team member, who contributes to the design of the intranet and particularly its information structure
- intranet content creator, who provides links to a wide range of print and electronic resources to support parts of the intranet such as subject area pages, instructional websites, links to other schools and careers information
- intranet information literacy coordinator, who ensures that intranet content for students is linked to information skills guidelines.
In undertaking such roles, the teacher librarian can help to ensure that potential threats do not undermine the value of their role and that the status of the teacher librarian in the school is enhanced because of the contributions made to the intranet.
Instructional websites as a threat
Instructional websites are becoming increasingly common as student experience with online learning expands. Many support face-to-face teaching and access to aspects of the curriculum, assessment guidelines and links to resources.
I define instructional websites as those:
- designed by individuals or groups of school staff
- related to the curriculum
- containing information from which students can learn
- engaging students in critical thinking by posing questions
- containing links to print and electronic resources for students to use
- encouraging students to use information skills
- including the use of multimedia such as graphics, photographs, sound and video.
Most instructional websites are designed by teachers who want to design a site to increase or support their students’ interest in a curricular topic or subject. The potential threat is that students will assume that using an instructional website means that they do not have to use the school library and there is no need to consult the teacher librarian. Poorly designed instructional web pages can limit the students’ intellectual horizons and their learning.
Instructional websites as an opportunity
Well-designed instructional websites are focused learning instruments. In the UK, teachers are under pressure to produce them as part of their teaching portfolio. In some schools, there is competition between departments as to who can produce the website with the most multimedia. The teacher librarian has an opportunity to help teachers develop websites that maximise both content and information literacy objectives.
I conducted a case study of a UK school in which the collaboration between the school librarian and the teachers began with an instructional website, jointly designed with one history teacher, and resulted in a template for other teachers to use. I looked particularly at the collaborative work between the geography teacher and the librarian to create an Earth Forces website. The site contains an outline of the curriculum relating to earthquakes and volcanoes, an outline of the assessment which students complete, links to useful resources both online and in the school library, and information skills advice about planning the assignment. The teacher asserts that this site leads to better student understanding, use of a wider range of resources by students and an improvement in the quality of student work.
The case study identified a range of opportunities for teacher librarians to exploit. Firstly, the teacher librarian may develop knowledge of software such as Adobe® Dreamweaver® or Microsoft Front Page® and can become a source of advice and guidance to teachers. Secondly, the teacher librarian can provide teachers with examples of instructional websites from other schools, using such resources as the Blue Web’n gateway – an online library of outstanding Internet-based education sites. Thirdly, the teacher librarian can provide teachers with assignment-related links to both print and electronic resources and can ensure that any project outlines given to students make reference to these links. Finally, the teacher librarian can ensure that teachers either include information skills guidelines within the specific content-area web pages or reference the school library information literacy pages.
Collaboration with teachers ensures that the teacher librarian’s roles in relation to instructional websites include:
- instructional website design tutor and advisor
- instructional website content creator/gatherer
- instructional website standards coordinator and quality-control evaluator (ensuring that all contain information skills guidelines).
By taking a proactive stance, the teacher librarian will ensure a central role in this key area of development.
If the purpose of the teacher librarian is clearly promoted in the school as making a key contribution to student learning by embracing and exploiting new technologies, the place of the teacher librarian in the history of education will be a positive one.
James E Herring
Lecturer in Teacher Librarianship
Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga
The full version of this article was published under the title ‘The end of the Teacher Librarian’, in Teacher Librarian, October 2005. This adapted version printed with permission of the author and Teacher Librarian.
BECTA 2002, Designing Effective Websites, British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, London. Accessed 5 February 2008. http://www.becta.org.uk
Carter, Maureen 2002, ‘The connecting school and the intranet librarian’, School Libraries Worldwide, vol 8, no 2, pp 51–64.
Herring, James 2003, The Internet and Information Skills: A Guide for Teachers and School Librarians, Facet Publishing, London.
Thompson, James 1983, The End of Libraries, Library Association Publishing, London.
Website design tools
Dreamweaver – http://www.macromedia.com/software/dreamweaver
FrontPage – http://www.microsoft.com/frontpage/
Blue Web’n – http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/bluewebn