Cross-posted from Hypermarc

Preamble

I am about to relaunch our school library after what I hope will be a significantly transformative renovation.  The current space is a fairly traditional space dominated by static book shelves and study carols inhabited by desktop computers.  Given the history of the development of the physical space, even the name of the space indicates that we don’t really have a clue what we are.  Within only a few feet of the entrance, we have three different signs naming the space after two different people and using both the term library and media centre.  While there are many good things about the space – we have a deep collection and are well staffed – we don’t have an outwardly identifiable clear focus or mission.  The physical renovation will give us the opportunity to rebrand and refocus our message to our users.

I was lucky enough to visit a number of local school library/learning commons spaces last year in an effort to better understand how other local schools were defining themselves as they move into a new world for libraries and schools.  The one school that I found to be particularly interesting from the transformation perspective was a school that had, over the summer gone from a library to a learning commons.  While on the surface, this may not seem like much except a name change, the transformation of the use of the space and the way the community thought of it was huge.  The space had gone from a very traditional library space with rigid furniture and policies that include filing cabinets full of newspaper clippings as a prominent fixture to an open, flexible and busy space that the students and staff embraced.  When I visited early in the Fall, there was already a sense of ownership emanating from the students and teachers as they worked in their new space (Crompton, 2013).

What was particularly enlightening to me in this particular instance was how much a “simple” name change could effect a complete 180 degree shift in thinking in the community.  I hope to be able to capitalize on this idea by renaming and re-branding our school library when we relaunch in December.  I anticipate timing the relaunch with an article in our community publications and with a video explaining the thinking behind the new space.  I have purposely put off doing any orientations with new staff and students in order to introduce them to the new space as directly as possible.

I had originally thought of renaming the space a learning commons, but am starting to wonder if there might be a better name for it.  While the concept of a learning commons addresses the many areas that I see the new space being effective in, I’m wondering if a more imaginative name might evoke a message of how we want people to think of the space.  When we first built our current rapid transit system in Vancouver in the ’80s, it was referred to as an Automated Light Rapid Transit System, and that is exactly what it is.  But nobody calls it that.  We take the Skytrain in the same way folks in Chicago ride the ‘L.’  Our new space will likely best fit the definition of a learning commons, but I wonder if there is a better name that we can use.

I like Weinberger’s idea of library as platform (Weinberger, 2012) and hope that we can institute that kind of thinking of the new space.  It should be a space that encourages users to modify to make fit the current needs.  It needs to be hackable and encourage the kind of thinking that Rushkoff promotes in Program or Be Programmed (2011).  The space is a blank slate meant to be made into something useful, not a space that dictates how one needs to interact with it.  It needs to be a space that is a hybrid of the physical and digital where each serves the other and the lines between each mode are blurred (Jones, 2013a).  I don’t know what you call that and maybe it is the community that needs to come up with that name.

Both the new physical space and the new virtual spaces need to share a concept of collaborative inquiry in a “hackable” space.  Capitalizing on the nature of our community to enjoy conversing about just about anything, I have looked to Reddit as a potential model for a library-centred, inquiry driven conversation platform.

Existing Communities

The two biggest existing communities that we serve, both in term of numbers and in terms of those that are of utmost importance in following our mission, are our students and faculty.  One could say that we are really only concerned about our faculty in their ability to serve the students, but that would oversimplify things.  There are also three important but tangential groups that we serve to a lesser degree: the school’s support staff currently use the library to a degree, the parent community could potentially be invited to participate in the library community, and with the coming inclusion of our school archives within our physical space, hundreds of alumni could become more active members of the library community in the future.  For the purposes of gaining traction and keeping things fairly simple, we will focus on the primary user groups of students and faculty.

While there has been no formal survey of the community, observation and discussion tell me that the students tend to use a variety of social media, text and chat to communicate with each other when not communicating face to face.  The faculty communicate with each other primarily via email despite the fact that many have Facebook and Twitter accounts.  The school’s social media policy discourages “friending” between students and faculty in environments where students are prone to share the less “professional” parts of their lives.  The larger school community is fragmented in the way that it communicates digitally despite the fact that it is, in many other ways, a strong and united community.  It seems to me that there is a great opportunity for some sort of social, online learning space that would address the school’s mission and the related communication needs.  An online extension of the existing community would be successful provided that it addresses a need that is not being addressed elsewhere.  Social needs are addressed in a variety of ways with a variety of platforms, but there is no one online whole-community space devoted to learning, the core business of a school.

The two primary aspects of a communal online environment that can support learning are asynchronous communication and documentation.  We are an independent boy’s university preparatory school.  One would think that there would be many things in common that this community would have to discuss.  An online forum could allow these discussions to occur in a space that would potentially bring together students and teachers on an even playing field around topics that are independent of prescribed curriculum.  Discussion topics would reflect the existing topics discussed in the library and hallways of the school and would include anything from extension of curricular topics to hockey to issues of concern specific to the school.  This could be something as simple as a Reddit-like discussion forum, or it could be more complex like a large wiki where folks build pages on whatever topic that they wish.  These conversations or “knowledge maker spaces” could be potentially searchable to form a community created collection of knowledge.

Technical and Social Considerations

There would potentially be a number of platforms that could be used to form the backbone of this online forum.  Twitter is often used for this kind of discussion.  A wiki environment could work if the intent of the community is to “build” knowledge around topics in the form of wikipedia-esque pages or more intricate resources.  A Facebook page could address the need if a simple structure was appropriate.  Whatever tool is chosen needs to be chosen for it’s ability to address the school and library missions and not because it is the tool de jour or for some other reasons related to technolust (Stephens, 2004).

Screen Shot 2013-10-05 at 9.39.12 AMThe tool that comes to mind that offers search-ability, the division of topics into easily navigated forums and the ability of users to take control of their topics of interest in the manner of creating their own forums is Reddit (Reddit Inc., 2013).   The Reddit model is of a simple discussion board with threaded commenting.  Discussions can be started by anyone, comments can be up-voted and down-voted, discussion topics are ranked in a number of ways and communities/topics are moderated by individuals or groups.  If Reddit is used as a model, the technological demands are quite light.  While my investigation of Reddit itself is in it’s early days, there seem to be three basic ways we could go with the platform implementation:

  • Use an existing tool to replicate Reddit in a private environment
  • Use Reddit code to build a separate instance of Reddit on school servers
  • Use Reddit

Screen Shot 2013-10-04 at 2.50.36 PMThe first option is enticing, because it can leverage existing user management systems and can be built in an environment that is already familiar to the community.  We would not be asking our community to be obtaining accounts on another platform and remembering to visit that other site.  The school currently uses a customized install of Sharepoint 2010.  Simple discussion forums could be set up in the existing structures and permissions can be set to allow very specific functions to users without compromising the entire system.  It should be fairly easy to allow all users to establish their own discussions and to create an elevated moderator status that could foster sub-communities and deal with inappropriate and offensive use.  There may be ways of further customizing the space to give it a more intuitive feel and interesting look with the upcoming upgrade to an HTML5 based Sharepoint 2013.  This update will also promises easier use and more responsive functionality across multiple devices.  The disadvantage of using our Sharepoint intranet is that it is not currently particularly user friendly and their is some reticence on behalf of some students and faculty to use the system.  The use of this tool could feel like it is too much of a “school instituted thing” and this might discourage adoption.

The second option is to use Reddit code to build our own Reddit environment.  It seems like the Reddit code is open source.  I would need to investigate terms of use issues, but if it is possible to adapt the existing code for an on-site install, we might be able to house all the functionality of Reddit within the walled environment that I speak of above.  We may be able to establish seamless linkage within our current intranet and leverage the user management system.  The issues here are that we would need staff or students who are proficient in Python to make any adjustments, and it could be messy to establish linkage and then remove this links if it were deemed necessary (decision to discontinue the discussion service, decision to change intranet platforms, or significant upgrades to either part of the system.)

The third option is to simply use Reddit.  The use of Reddit directly would mean that there would be no setup or maintenance of the actual technical side of the service and those familiar with Reddit would already be comfortable using and promoting the service.  The issues with using Reddit would include the fragmentation of the total community across the full Reddit universe and the high level of moderation in the additional task of approving memberships and maintaining membership lists. This high maintenance cost in terms of person hours could be debilitating.  Also, we would have to convince our community that it is worth their while to establish yet another account on a separate system from the school.  It is one thing to ask users to take a look at a new service that they already have access to.  It is another to ask them to go somewhere else and set up a new account.

Benefit Cost Analysis

The school’s and the library’s primary mission is to foster a life-long love of learning.  This kind of community discussion forum certainly speaks to this while also addressing a number of other areas of our school’s mission statement in terms of developing “21st century global skills” while reinforcing the school’s core values through the operation in a free and open online community.  The primary benefit to this, from a library perspective is that it reinforces the concept that the library is a community of inquiry.  It is the centre of learning in the school and responds to curricular, cross-curricular and extra-curricular inquiry.  It potentially fits within the existing library structures in that the library staff are technologically adept and already spend good part of their day interacting with students in discussion around curricular and non-curricular issues.  In some ways, the online discussion forums are a natural extension of that existing interaction.  The service could be library-branded and embedded throughout the school community so that it is obvious that this conversation is extending out from the library and touching all areas of the community as a whole.  Any time the library is involved in engaging students in personal inquiry, we are fulfilling our role in the community.

The costs of this project are not insignificant.  While the technology is either existing or very cheap – there would be little or no software cost and minimal additional hardware if a new server needs to be established – the labour could be extensive.  The IT department would have to do any server setup and potentially software installation.  I or other knowledgeable staff would likely need to do the initial setup of the infrastructure before we could involve the greater community.  Once the initial launch occurred, their would need to be moderators engaged in establishing and promoting discussions in the greater community.  This could be a lengthy process depending on how receptive the community is and how motivated they are to get involved.  Even after significant adoption, there would need to be constant moderation of the overall site and regular work with the moderators to get feedback and ensure some consistency in the overall feel of the service.

Engagement Plan

LibraryBoard2The engagement plan has already begun in that the first step is to determine if the proposed project would garner enough interest within the community to be feasible.  Discussions have begun at a very preliminary level with staff and students to explain and get feedback on the concept.  Some of those discussions have informed the comments above.  Additionally, I have moved a portable whiteboard to a position near the front entrance of the library and pose a new question each day.  These questions have been more around library specific issues such as what would our library look like if it were like a computer platform or “The library would be perfect if…” to “What books do we need?”  The board has received more attention each day by folks just stopping by to have a look and by those contributing.  The next step is to take the photos of these boards and post them on our library blog to see if we can continue the conversation around each topic.

In terms of getting permission to launch this project, the steps are pretty simple.  As long as this community exists within the current intranet, as Head of Library, I can simply launch.  I don’t need to convince others to get the program going.  I would have discussions with the Headmaster and Principal, partly to ensure that they are aware of the activity and to get their blessing.  I suspect that these will be fairly easy conversations given that there is a desire to gain genuine feedback from the students on what is and isn’t working in the school and we are always trying to encourage the boys to speak honestly but respectfully about their thoughts.  This would be an excellent character education project in this sense.

The next step would be to do the actual set-up of the environment and organize a group of student and staff moderators.  Moderators would take on one of the more general topic areas and might take on a second area of particular interest to them.  The general areas would mimic the top level sub-reddits at Reddit and could include things like AMA (ask me about), general school issues, “today I learned,” announcements, and “explain like I’m five.”  These moderators would be charged with getting activity going in their respective topics and would meet regularly to discuss successes, challenges and new ideas.  The digital discussion would be echoed in the physical space in a manner inspired by the Idea Box project at the Oak Park Public Library in Illinois.  At Oak Park, an entire room is devoted to participatory physical communication and knowledge building (Jones, 2013b).  In our environment, a blank window/wall space will be used in a similar way to extend discussions from the online environment.  Topics can be taken from the online area and visitors can engage in these topics with dry erase markers or sticky notes.  These discussions can be photographed and brought back to the online environment to preserve them and foster continued discussion.

Conclusion

While I typically am wary of school instituted social media services in that they often try to reinvent the wheel or have a feel of a “required” top-down ethos, the reddit-styled discussion forum could provide opportunities that are not available elsewhere, would be unique to the school community in a good way and would have enough student involvement that it would have more of a grass-roots feel than other school-based services.  I am encouraged by initial discussion with students who begin by expressing the same concerns as I have but do come around quickly to talk about the enticing aspects of the idea and express a desire to get involved.  It makes sense that something like this would come from the library/learning commons space because it is all about inquiry and these discussions may result in a deeper thirst for knowledge and potential greater use of library resources to satisfy that thirst.

References

Crompton, M. (2013). Much to learn from Vancouver, BC. Teacher Librarian, 40(3), 20-24.

Huffman, S., & Ohanian, A. (n.d.). Reddit [Computer software]. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from reddit.com

Jones, K. (2013, September 9). Module 4: Hyperlinked library communities. Lecture. Retrieved September 12, 2013, from http://hanakoa.sjsu.edu/Panopto/Pages/Viewer/Default.aspx?id=3ccc1cd3-6e26-4800-8c80-9547d994a6ce

Jones, K. (Director). (2013, August 29). Monica Harris, Oak Park Public Library – Guest lecture for the #hyperlibMOOC [Video]. Retrieved September 20, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rjyG3Ved7s

Reddit Inc. (2013, March). Common Public Attribution License Version 1.0. GitHub. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from https://github.com/reddit/reddit/blob/master/LICENSE

Rushkoff, D. (2011). Program or be programmed: Ten commands for a digital age. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.

Stephens, M. (2004). Technoplans vs. technolust. Library Journal129(18), 36-37.

Weinberger, D. (2012, September 4). Library as platform. Library Journal. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2012/09/future-of-libraries/by-david-weinberger/

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