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Libraries as Hubs for 21st-Century Learning

Crystle Martin, board secretary, Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), and postdoctoral research fellow, Digital Media and Learning Hub, University of California, Irvine, explores how libraries are now connected learning environments for teens.

By guest blogger Crystle Martin

Libraries as Community Learning Centers
Traditionally, libraries have been viewed as repositories of resources. Today however, they are centers for 21st century learning. Libraries have evolved into places that support the entire community and the lifelong learning of individuals. Libraries are central parts of the community and function as a community hub. They can connect communities—whether rural, urban, or suburban—to a global community.

teen_at_computer.jpgMany barriers still exist for youth from low-income backgrounds, a major one being access to technology and the internet. Nine out of 10 low-income families have Internet access at home. However, one-quarter of those earning below the median income and one-third of those living below the poverty line access the Internet only through their mobile devices. This presents issues like quickly hitting data usage limits; having software limited to mobile platforms; and sharing devices within households. A major issue with mobile-only access at home is that it can be difficult for youth to do necessary things like submit their homework online, which is now the method preferred by teachers. Plus, it is difficult for youth to get enough time online to develop digital literacies via participation in online communities. This leads to a persistent and expanding gap with youth who have more open and continuous access to online resources. Libraries help many youth close the gap through access to high speed internet and computers they can use themselves. Because of their position as a place of openness, community, and support, libraries are well-suited to support youth in developing global competence, particularly through connected learning and workforce development activities.

What is connected learning?
Connected learning is a framework that focuses on youth learning from an ecological perspective. This educational approach combines youth interests, peer-to-peer interactions, and academic learning. For many youth, these three components are unconnected: the learning they do with peers or related to their interests are wholly unconnected to their academic learning and career preparation. Connected learning happens when these components come together. For example, a school could demonstrate that youth interests pursued outside of school are valued via formal recognition, such as school credit for interest-based assignments.

Libraries have the opportunity to function as connected learning environments. Places like the YOUMedia Lab in Chicago specifically work to create experiences for youth to connect their interests to real life experience. For example, one librarian supports youth who have an interest in video games with creating and publishing a podcast that reviews video games. However, connected learning is not about the technology you have access to in your space; instead, it is about using connected learning as a framework for program design. A librarian from rural Washington had teens with an interest in art, science, and math create low-tech programming for younger youth. Through this process the librarian discussed career options related to the youth's interests in these fields and created activities so youth could develop academically relevant skills connected to their interests.

Tips for doing connected learning with teens in a public library:

  • When creating a program, think about having youth investigate real world questions that reach beyond their own community. For example, if you are thinking about how to get more youth to the library for a program, have them consider what types of barriers may be in the way of getting to the library (e.g. lack of transportation, assumptions about the library environment) and what the solutions might be. Or create opportunities to have students work on global issues with local ramifications, like climate change, by collecting data as citizen scientists.
  • Encourage them to consider the perspectives of others when solving problems. For example, when having teens help design a space for themselves in libraries have them think about how other patrons will feel about their new space and potential challenges that might arise.
  • Help youth connect an interest to a larger context. For example, someone with an interest in fanfiction around young adult fantasy literature could be connected to the Harry Potter Alliance, a group of young social activists who take on big issues inspired by the Harry Potter series.

Workforce Development
There is a gap for young people in what skills they have and what skills they need to be part of a globally competitive workforce. A majority of youth feel like they are unprepared for college and careers. Employers agree that students do not have the necessary skills to go directly into the workforce. And basic skills like reading and writing are not enough to prepare youth for the workforce. Libraries are working to fill this gap by supporting workforce development training. Young people need a host of skills to be successful in an increasingly global and competitive economy. These skills include:

  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural skills
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility

As part of their support of youth workforce development, libraries serve as connectors between youth and other community agencies. The San Diego Public Library IDEA Lab is a teen-centric space for digital media creation. The librarian for the space hires teen interns to work in the space, and she does so with a workforce development mindset. She has her teen interns design and develop workshops on technology and digital media. The interns then lead the workshops for other teens who come to the space. The teens are responsible for content creation as well as implementation which gives them a great opportunity to develop the workplace skills listed above. 

Tips for doing workforce development with teens in a public library:

  • Offer opportunities for youth to be exposed to careers through programming and presentations by those working in a variety of fields.
  • Make connections with local community organizations and businesses so you can connect youth with internships and visits that match their interests. For example, the Seattle Public Library started a partnership in 2014 with the Seattle Youth Employment Program. Together, they have designed curriculum to build digital and information literacy skills.
  • Support youth in organizing community events so that they can create 21st century and globally necessary work skills like communication, organization, and leadership. For example, the librarian at a branch of the San Diego Public Library supported the Spectrum LGBTQ+ Club with putting together a book booth at the San Diego Trans Pride where they offered books of interest to the community. The partnership was created and managed by the teens in the club which created opportunities for the teens to develop communication, organization, and leadership skills.

Supporting youth to develop global competency may seem like a huge task that could be difficult for libraries to take on in addition to the work they already do to support youth learning. Global knowledge and skills can, and need, to be incorporated into existing learning supports for youth. It is something that educators should always keep in mind while developing new programs, so that we can help prepare youth for an ever-changing future.

Follow Crystle, YALSA, and the Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Image courtesy of GraphicStock.

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