The right virtual library design can boost student engagement.

Though still a relatively new concept, flipped learning is making an impact in classrooms across the country–and now, forward-thinking librarians are examining whether flipped learning and emerging technologies can transform traditional school libraries into participatory centers of collaboration.

Virtual libraries that offer engaging portals and opportunities for students to interact with one another and to communicate with teachers and library media specialists, might be a step in the right direction.

“My vision–I’ll tell you what it’s NOT, and that’s a normal library website,” said David Loertscher, a professor in San Jose State’s School of Library and Information Science during a recent edWeb.com webinar on virtual libraries and emerging technologies.

“The basic question is how do we construct a participatory space rather than a static space?” he asked. Loertscher is working with a team of graduate students to build and hone the Virtual Learning Commons (VLC), a downloadable template that creates an interactive and engaging space for school library media specialists, administrators, teachers, and students to interact, conduct research, and exchange information.

(Next page: What’s in the VLC?)

The VLC is separated into five distinct “rooms”:

  • The Information Center acts as a portal to functional research databases, school information and a school calendar, and other necessary and reference-based tools.
  • The Reading Culture page includes information about reading activities, writing, speaking, and listening.
  • The Knowledge Building Center contains all the units of instruction that the teacher-librarian is involved in. This is where students come to click on certain units they’re learning, such as a Civil War unit. Students are “in the room,” along with the teacher, and the teacher-librarian is there as well.
  • The Experimental Learning Center is where students and teachers experiment with Common Core techniques, where teachers participate in professional development activities, where students test software, and, most importantly, where it is OK to “fail” when it comes to instruction.
  • The School Culture page is the “living school yearbook,” Loertscher said. Student performances, sporting events, club meetings and activities, competitions and awards, and school news are all posted in this section.

Collaborative intelligence is an essential part of building a successful and effective participatory virtual library space, he said, because when students are truly engaged and active in the different “rooms” of the virtual library, it functions as it should.

“These kids are going to go out in the world and suddenly they’re going to go into participatory learning cultures where they’re on teams. If they’re just doing cooperative group work, they’re fitting their piece into something larger and it works–that’s cooperative group working. But collaborative intelligence, where you put a team together and your job is to develop the iPad, but you don’t know what the iPad looks like when you begin–that’s a totally different environment. We need to build those skills as early as we can.”

“We definitely have to think outside the box with how to make our libraries and our services virtual,” said webinar leader Michelle Luhtala, head librarian at Connecticut’s New Canaan High School. “Education really no longer requires physical contact…it’s really important for us to find ways to teach that are not physical.”

Educators can lead students to virtual spaces, but they can’t force interaction and participation, and this is a key hurdle in making virtual libraries successful. Teacher-librarians could experiment with different social networking tools or combinations of different social tools to see what best gets their students talking, providing feedback, and interacting with peers and educators.

During the webinar, Luhtala played a recorded video conference from Shannon Miller, district teacher librarian and technology specialist at Van Meter Community School in Van Meter, Iowa, and Miller’s students. Those students are doing their own flipped instruction as they create videos to teach peers and younger students how to use certain technology applications and tools.

The students ran into some significant technical issues, but resolved them by working together and tackling the problems one step at a time.

Students exhibited “engaged learning…[and] collaborated to resolve technical issues–that is 21st century learning at its best,” Luhtala said. “One teacher, a pile of kids hanging out in a room, making it happen. When we get our kids to do that, that’s when they’ll start participating in the conversations.”