Thursday, September 30, 2010

A school library manager's view of a VLE

RETRO POSTER - In the Library by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Over the last few years I've done a fair amount a lot of training and development in secondary schools across the County. The schools choose who will attend and it's normally a helpful spread of subject teachers, or Heads of Department, or Third in Faculty, or... well, as with all aspects of ICT development in a school, participation is determined by someone senior in the school deciding who will take part & them having a vision to extend and apply it across the school. Occasionally there are non-teaching staff there - library & learning resources staff, network technicians, administrative people - and, to my mind, those are often signs that the school might be thinking in a more creative way about the way to use online learning to support all aspects of school life.
About three years ago a colleague and I did our regular four half-day sessions in Dr Challoner's High School for Girls in Amersham - one of the Grammar schools in Buckinghamshire's selective system. I can remember some of the details of those sessions - working across all schools in the county means they tend to blend together at some point, but among the fact that there was an issue with some PowerPoints not displaying correctly I can vividly remember that the school's Library Manager took part in the sessions - and that this was, amazingly, the first time a school had nominated someone from their library to take part. She was keen to get going and during the sessions was already thinking of applications of the VLE for student use.
Three years on, and that Library Manager has moved on from the school at the end of the 2010 Summer term. Before she left I asked her to write about how she's used the VLE to support her work, and the students' learning. So over to Lauren...
RETRO POSTER - Management by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
As a secondary school library manager, I’ve found that the involvement students have with online communities can be harnessed to further their engagement with reading and writing. When students visit the Learning Resource Centre area of our school VLE they encounter a variety of pathways into literature and research. In one corner, the latest headlines from our library blog promote library events and writing contests as well as new resources and study tips. In the other corner, the covers of our newest fiction books appear as moving graphics that students can click on to read summaries and reviews. There are forums for pupils to request books or discuss authors and novels with classmates. Students can also share their writing or post comments on the stories and poems of others in the creative writing section. Additionally, there are links to recommended research sites, subscription databases, reading lists, and websites that promote books and reading.
When I first began setting up the Learning Resource Centre area of our school’s VLE, I saw it primarily as a place to provide links to resources and websites. I divided the area up by subject, creating separate courses under the Learning Resource Centre umbrella (for example: LRC – Chemistry Resources, LRC – English Resources). Previously, we had given sixth formers enormous paper packets listing recommended web sites, as well as passwords for subscription websites. Unfortunately, these packets were costly to print and were regularly lost or mislaid by students. As soon as the resources were moved to the VLE, students could access them more readily, without having to find the packet, type in the web address or fiddle with different usernames and passwords. Students have a tendency to be overly reliant on Wikipedia and Google for their internet research, so our library induction sessions concentrated on improving and widening their research skills, with particular focus on the resources available on the VLE. For instance, students learned how to access newspapers going back to the 1700s, medical and science journals, essays on literature, and art archives that would not be available through an ordinary Google search. Teaching students how to access primary sources for their research not only prepares them for university, but can also help to kindle their intellectual curiosity. I’ve witnessed many students excitedly looking up famous historical events on the Times Digital Archive, where they absorb newspaper accounts of things that they’ve only previously encountered in history books.
RETRO POSTER - When You Want Facts by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
After creating these subject-specific resource areas, I decided that I needed a more general course where students could engage with the school library and also explore reading for pleasure. I titled it “LRC – General Research, Reading and the Library” and added forums where students could request new books or make suggestions about how to improve the library. In the last year and a half, I’ve responded to over 80 book requests from students on this forum. After letting students know whether I will be able to purchase a copy, I update them as soon as it is available in the library. If I’m unable to obtain the requested book, I suggest other ways for students to get a copy. I find these online exchanges to be enjoyable and informative (I often find out about the next big publishing phenomenon through savvy readers). But most importantly, the forum gives students a chance to be heard and to make a positive impact on our library. In a similar vein, the forum for general suggestions has led to extra library seating, new quizzes and competitions, and additional online resources. The students are happy to see their ideas being taken seriously, and I am pleased when their involvement with the library increases as a result.
A few years ago, I began exploring a website called LibraryThing, which was billed as ‘a cataloguing and social networking site for book lovers’. I was intrigued by the variety of conversations relating to books and reading on the site, and discovered a number of wonderful new books and authors as a result. In October 2009, I attempted to create a school-based forum, similar to the one on LibraryThing, in which students could create and direct discussions relating to their own reading passions. Over the past ten months, students have created 89 new discussions, and on some of these discussions there have been as many as 78 student replies, making this the most popular forum on our school VLE. With topics ranging from “What are your five best books ever” to “The Diamond of Drury Lane (you should totally read it!)” our students have been eager to participate, to share their own ideas, and to discover what their peers are reading. 
RETRO POSTER - Fiction by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
The ‘book discussion’ forum was introduced to Year 7 students in a library lesson, and as a result has been most heavily used by students in Years 7-9. Without prompting, they continue to add to the forum, frequently taking up their classmates’ suggestions when borrowing books from the library. Although I monitor the forum, I have rarely had to delete a comment, so when a student-led creative writing group began to meet in the library over the last school year, it made sense to add a forum where they could share their writing as well.
RETRO POSTER - Stories Of The Sea by Enokson. Used under a Creative Commons license.
The creative writing forum, which is open to all students, is used to share stories, poems, and other fragments of writing. Students can offer suggestions or simply a positive remark. The Year 13 student who started the creative writing group made a point of adding advice and encouragement to students who posted work, and followed up with an invitation to the weekly writing session in the library. Student writers at our school can now quickly join the creative community, and their work will be enjoyed and appreciated throughout the school.
Through the development and promotion of these forums and resources, reading and writing have taken a prominent position within the online social community at our school. When a student participates in these online discussions, sharing her own expertise, she identifies herself as part of a community of readers and writers. By linking the technology of the VLE with the more traditional pleasures of reading and writing, it’s my hope that our students will continue to find new paths into literature and research.
Lauren Howard
As mentioned Lauren is now no longer at the school, which is obviously a loss to the students & their teachers, but I hope what she's written above might stimulate some thought and ideas about what's possible with some creative thinking, creative students and a positive attitude towards using something like a VLE to support a school's library. You can get more inspiration from this old-but-still-relevant Teachers TV video VLE in Action. Skip forward to 9m 34secs to see some of the work done in the library at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, in Cumbria.