Anu Vedantham on Taking Digital Experiments

Anu Vedantham

Anu Vedantham

The blog post below comes from Anu Vedantham, director of the Weigle Information Commons at the University of Pennsylvania. The university library center supports collaborative learning and group activities using the latest technologies. Vedantham’s article is part of the ALA Digital Literacy Task Force’s continuing efforts to highlight library leadership in the digital literacy sphere.

On November 14, 2012, Vedantham will participate in the Digital Literacy Task Force’s virtual forum, “Creating a Culture of Learning: How Librarians Keep up with Digital Media and Technology,” a national conversation about the role of libraries in supporting and deepening digital literacy skills development for students (RSVP now).

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
― Eleanor Roosevelt

This quotation first found me in college and has stayed with me since. During boring times, I find myself putting it up on a wall as a reminder. When a new opportunity comes my way, I often hear it ringing in my ears. Even today, as I struggle to write this blog post!

To me, this quotation encourages taking risks, doing new (and possibly dangerous) things, putting myself out there to fail – not just occasionally but every day. I see such practice as inherent to creating a culture of learning.

Luckily, there are still so many scary activities out there left for me to try – hang-gliding, skiing, cooking – and of course, learning new technology tools. The fast pace of change with new tools guarantees that all of us “start from scratch” regularly. Being an expert in Microsoft Excel, as I like to think of myself, becomes meaningless when Google Fusion Tables arrived on the scene, setting my knowledge back down to zero.

Creating a culture of learning here where I work at the Penn Libraries’ Weigle Information Commons has meant providing a safety net with some cushions, so we and our colleagues – faculty, students, staff – can take a leap of faith and try something new and scary. Two key components for effective learning that I believe in are ‘play’ and ‘flow.’ Time and (mental) space to play with a new technology has huge dividends in the long run in terms of creativity. Flow is that intangible state when I get lost in a new tool, recognizing how beautiful and effective it is for a particular purpose.

Each year, we host the Engaging Students Through Technology symposium where faculty members share good ideas with peers. Invariably, each year, at least one faculty presenter starts with something remarks along the lines of, “I’m really ignorant about technology. If I can do this, anyone can.” And I think this attitude – of accepting if not embracing one’s own ignorance – is often key to successful risk-taking with digital literacy.

When a new gadget – note recently announced items such as Microsoft Surface, iPad mini, Nexus 7 – debuts, we purchase one or two and encourage folks on campus to borrow them and explore them during our Gadget Days. Our ‘better broken than dusty’ philosophy helps us stay calm when our iPads are bounced around a classroom – or around New York City. We provide workshops and personalized assistance, and when things go well with someone’s adventure, we celebrate their work with a success story or in our student showcase.

For the past three years, we have conducted the Hoesley Digital Literacy Fellows program. We accept a cohort of 15 juniors and seniors each year, and our goal is to “demystify technology, provide hands-on training and a website building project, and foster career connections.” In collaboration with academic support partners on campus, we developed a punchlist of digital literacy skills that would help regardless of major or career interest. Each year, we invite participants to write short reflections as blog posts – and without fail, students mention how they have learned how to learn, and gained confidence to take tech tools they have not met yet.

As our students remind us each year, the pace of change is blindingly fast. Our first-year students use technology differently than our graduating seniors. The technology updates itself daily, it seems. We often laugh that when we sit down to update our handouts, we somehow signal the software creators that it is time for a change. Prezi for example, invariably updates its interface the day after we make screenshots for our workshops. Planning and preparation seem a little pointless sometimes.

So, I ask you, why not take on a new (or recently updated) tech tool with the same attitude you might adopt when standing in line for a roller-coaster ride? Expect some scary parts but also some thrills! Also, know for sure that it will be over before you know it.

Jazzy Wright is the Press Officer of the American Library Association's Washington Office. Email her at jwright@alawash.org.

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  1. [...] a bunch of librarians I had never met – from across the country. In preparation, I wrote a blog post for ALA Wash about the value of taking risks and time to [...]

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