Sunday, March 2, 2008

Virtual(ly) Learning

As a distance education student, the virtual library is near and dear to my heart. As much as I enjoy the tactile experience to holding a journal or book, unless I know what I need well in advance, it doesn't happen up here, so having virtual access to learning resources is invaluable. The University of Alberta's Libraries page is one of my most visited websites. Sure, it is a place to start looking for journal articles and books I might order, but it is much more than that: I appreciate all of the extras that are there! While I've never used the service, knowing that I can contact a real, living, breathing librarian by phone, email, or chat is reassuring. I know I can go there to figure out how to cite my sources rather than googling APA format (don't even bother. It's a disaster.). By focusing on the library's Education page, I have access to all kinds of helpful resources in one place, specifically designed for my needs as an educator.

I love Google. I love being able to put in some simple search terms at the top of my web browser and get back some reasonable results. But lets face it: Google has some pretty significant limits, as anyone doing any kind of research past "peanut butter cookie recipes" will know. So where can a searcher go to find relevant information? Virtual Libraries. Joyce Valenza, in her article The Virtual Library in the December 2005 edition of Educational Leadership, defines these as "multipage online resources devoted to the needs of their specific learning communities." Later on in the same article, she praises one virtual library for providing "a clear launching pad for research, media use, and leisure reading." Valenza later comments that students themselves recognize the advantages of the databases over commercial search engines.

Hmmm. A launching pad. I like that metaphor to describe libraries, particularly school libraries. It applies particularly well to the school libraries of today, where students will very likely use resources for their learning that is not physically in the library.

Audrey Church states in her Nov/Dec 2006 article Your library goes virtual: Promoting reading and supporting research in Library Media Connection that our kids today "prefer the Internet to traditional libraries because they consider the Internet to be easier to use, more convenient, open 24/7 and full of more up-to-date material." If this is the case, she argues, don't we have a responsibility as librarians to provide them with the resources they need online? I certainly agree. While we might hope that students will visit our physical libraries and ask questions directed at actual people, schools need to help students learn however they can. I think that with an effective, efficient virtual presence, librarians can actually encourage students to come into the real library!

Church lists a wide variety of suggested ways to promote reading and support research in her article, such as book blogs, links to reading lists, subscription databases, and information literacy skill help. I visited several virtual school libraries, and saw these and other practices in action.

Over at Valenza's virtual school library, the home page made me giggle, but also feel quite comfortable. It's nice to look at, but more importantly, easy to navigate and decidedly un-intimidating. After all, if students want to use the Internet because it's easier to use, shouldn't we make sure our virtual library offerings fit that ideal?

The Latimer Road virtual library was another site I really liked. While less visual that Valenza's site, the layout is easy to follow, and the sidebar is full of great information about research. The Latimer Road library recognizes that our students will be doing a lot of their work from home and need not just access to information, but ongoing help understanding, organizing, and using that information. The online help provided by virtual libraries in this regard could go a long way in helping students produce quality work at home, far from a teacher or librarian to show them a better way to organize their notes.

The SAS virtual libraries, divided according to grade level, provided access to plenty of good links and databases, some had book blogs and all had access to the library catalogue. I am quite curious to see what is in the library handbook, and I hope it has research guidelines, because information to that end is missing on these virtual library sites.

The M.E. LaZerte virtual library, while visually sparse, is chock full of great resources for students. The extensive lists of resources available for specific assignments is fantastic, and truly a launch pad for student work. This would definitely be my first stop as a student completing an assignment.

As our world becomes increasingly digitized, I suspect our students will be less and less inclined to use print resources for the completion of assignments. While teacher librarians are working hard to change how students, parents, and teachers view libraries, I think most still see them as places full of bookshelves... and little else. I think creating a virtual mirror of our libraries therefore serves two purposes: providing helpful, relevant, and appropriate resources to students, and frankly, changing our image. As communities begin to see the library's presence online, they may be more likely to come on in and see all that we have to offer.

While some might argue that by making all these resources available online, students will be even less likely to use the physical library, and by extension the expertise of a librarian, I think the digital environment provides us with a unique opportunity to reach out to students and the community at large. As Church puts it, a virtual library "provides you a space and an opportunity to inform, guide and instruct. It can be an advocacy tool, a visibility tool, and a public relations tool." In a way, these web presences are a way of saying 'hey, look at all the great stuff we can do for you! Come on in!'

As I was looking at various virtual school libraries, I was thinking "gee, these are great, but I don't think I could ever make one!" However, the Valenza article I mentioned earlier contains a wealth of information on how to create a virtual library, as well as a sizable list of resources for doing just that. Along with the suggestions from the Church article, the whole process seems, well, at least a bit less daunting! While I'm confident now that I could set something like this up, I have to admit that I'm still glad I don't have to this week!


Katie said...

Hi Jessica,
I never made the connection between what we are doing (distance learning) and the VSL. It never occurred to me to make the comparison and write from an actual student perspective. Now I have something to think about!

Jennifer said...

Great link to articles. It is a bit daunting to create a website but, for me, even more daunting to keep it up-to-date and functioning. For that we need whole school buy-in and support from kids, teachers and parents.

A group of grade 5/6 kids would love to be web content updaters and link checkers and info finders. And what a great club to run out of the library.