||A distance learning
experience for school librarians.
Donatella Lombello, Giulia Visintin
The Paduan methodological proposal - an introduction
The incentive to organize school librarian advanced training courses has been offered for a long time now. The idea has been developed down the years, through monthly meetings and conferences (1993, 1994, 1996, 1999) promoted by the Research group on school libraries3, set up at the Educational Science Department of the University of Padua in 19934.
There has always been a pressing need for providing the largely practiced, but not legally recognized profession of the school librarian with the official character, and for voicing the countless problems related to librarianship, management, methodology, didactics and education which are daily tackled by those lecturers and teachers who are committed to library activities. Moreover, a great effort has also been made to raise the awareness of the relevant bodies (the Ministry of Public Education, IRRSAE - now IRRE - school principals, teaching bodies, school boards...). Therefore, the increasingly urgent need has emerged to define the school librarian's professional profile, and to meet the requirements concerning training, advanced training and refresher courses of those committed to educational activities, who often work without adequate remuneration and outside the school plans, and for whom no kind of structural and organic training has ever been arranged.
The Paduan advanced training course makes a strong theoretical reference to the documents on the educational role played by school librarians and by libraries as school media centers, worked out at world level by IFLA and by the International Association of School Librarianship, along with Unesco5.
The Research group started comparative studies of the different European realities at the 1996 international conference, and its activities led to a close cooperation with two partner universities (Barcelona and Cologne) for the development of the Socrates program in 20006. For all the heterogeneity of models related to libraries and school librarians within the European Union, these studies have given the opportunity to develop action plans, feasibility plans, escamotages, pending the definition of the profession of the documentary teacher in the school legislation. This profession is likely to be granted pedagogical relevance within the framework of the "school of autonomy", marked by a redefinition of knowledge in the basic educational system of the school of 2000, and by a European vision which had already been outlined in the white book Teaching and learning: towards the cognitive society (1996).
Therefore, in 1997-98 the Advanced Training Course for School Librarians (100 hours of lectures and workshops) was introduced at the Department of Science of Education at the University of Padua. The first year offered only a basic training course attended by 23 advanced trainees, who (almost) doubled year after year (40 students enrolled for the academic year 1998-99, 78 for 1999-2000, 148 for 2000-2001). Meanwhile, the course was also diversified: the basic one was further developed with a correspondence training course (1998-99), and with the experimental correspondence training course in 1999-2000, then offered also for the academic year 2000-2001.
At the IFLA Conference in Bangkok
(August 1999), the Course director was further convinced of the goodness
of correspondence training courses, which had been experimentally planned
and already approved by the Senate of the University of Padua in July 1999,
after meeting Dianne Oberg, from the School of Library and Information
Studies at the University of Alberta (Canada), who prompted her sending
any information about Italian initiatives in this field. Other significant
meetings were those with Blanche Woolls, from the Library and Information
Science of the State University of San José (California), who was
the then president of IASL, a body which had always been a reference point
in the debate on school libraries, and with Paulette Bernhard, from the
University of Montreal, to whom the Veneto Group had already made constant
reference for a long period.
The Paduan methodological proposal - course objectives and structure
The objective of the course is "providing the basic and advanced theoretical, methodological, and practical guidelines necessary to enable the professional figure of the school librarian to meet the necessary competency requirements, also in the light of international guidelines.
The advanced trainees shall acquire:
The course is at present divided into modules7, each consisting of five didactic units (with the only exception of the first one), marked by an increasing degree of difficulty. Each module ends with two different types of assessment tests. The first type is related to each unit, and consists of a questionnaire with 15 multiple-choice and close-answer questions, whose keys for the students' self-correction are supplied at the end of each module, along with explanations related to the incorrect answers. The second type consists of final assessment tests on the most significant features of the whole module, whose answers shall be send by mail to the course secretariat. The last set of questions shall be the tool, by means of which the students enrolled can assess the module itself, and express their judgment on features such as clarity of exposition, ability to raise interest, advanced training level, and the like.
Beside the aforementioned commitment, the students enrolled are required to write a short dissertation (5-7 typewritten pages) on a subject decided upon by each student with the help of a tutor assigned them, and to engage in at least 30-hour library training activities, within the framework of agreements concluded between the University of Padua and various schools (or public libraries). Students shall take part
in these library training activities both in Italy and abroad. In May 2001,
following an announcement of competitive examination at the University
of Padua concerning the European Master for School Librarians, ten 1-million-worth mobility grants shall be assigned to those advanced trainees who will submit the best training projects.
Correspondence training course
Consistently with its objective of experimenting this new didactic activity, the correspondence course 1999-20008 did not involve any meeting of lecturers and students9.
Therefore, different tools for didactic
communication and interaction, on which the second part of this speech
shall focus, were made available for the students enrolled, namely a proper
web site with reserved access10, created within the framework
of activities carried out by the Educational technology group of the University
(and relying upon a technical coordination staff); the use of e-mail to
communicate with the lecturers, the technical secretariat and the tutor
for the dissertation; the telephone and the ordinary mail service, which
have matched (and sometimes replaced) the use of information technology.
Interaction with students
Therefore, every relationship, ranging from the basically informative ones concerning the arrangement of the course, the meeting of deadlines, the fulfillment of obligations, to the most strictly didactic ones, was developed through correspondence by letter and the delivery of sets of university lectures to the students enrolled.
The students enrolled were not asked to compulsorily avail themselves of an Internet access and an e-mail address. As a consequence of this decision, the tests and the documents were home-delivered as printed material11. Simultaneously, the following material was made available on the web site reserved to the course for school librarians:
The students enrolled were required, among other things, to submit an examination paper with ten exercises aimed at assessing their attainments with regard to the content of the two sets of university lectures on cataloguing. The exercises were included in the printed volume with the sets of lectures (also available on the course web page), and consisted of 10 questions. The answers were sent to Giulia Visintin, one of the two lecturers dealing with cataloguing, who personally and directly provided answers to each student through the same (traditional or electronic) mail channels used by each of them.
The somehow experimental dimension
of the course (which, as previously explained, was the first correspondence
course ever taken) implied a high degree of tolerance with regard to the
deadlines to be met by the students. In fact, the handing-out of the exercises,
which was at first scheduled by a certain date in May 2000, was then officially
postponed to the summer. Nevertheless, that time proved to be still insufficient:
the last student who handed out his completed exercises sent them on 30th
Interaction by traditional mail
The written exercises were sent by traditional mail by ten students, two of whom simultaneously used also e-mail. Seven out those ten students sent a computer-written and printed paper, one paper was typewritten, and two female students wrote their answers by hand. Interestingly, a student sent her examination paper without signing it and in an anonymous envelop (the attribution of the paper was possible, since only one of the students enrolled resided in the city corresponding to the postmark).
Therefore, the interaction by traditional
mail between the students and the professor entrusted with assessing the
papers occurred with an almost limited exchange. Each correction and assessment
letter was written each time, providing the correct answers and the personal
observations related to the specific paper. However, there was no subsequent
contact for further clarifications, with the only exception of the female
student who had forgotten to sign the paper, who sent an apologizing note
(always by traditional mail). It is possible that this type of interaction
was further compounded by the slowness of the Italian mail service. It
is also possible that the traditional means was considered as hardly suitable
to guarantee a rapid exchange of experiences and ideas, despite its supplying
personalized assessment answers. This hypothesis was confirmed by the fact
that only two students accompanied their examination paper with a presentation
letter, and further 6 students added a simple, short accompanying message.
Notably, three of the students who sent their papers by traditional mail
then made (occasional) use of the e-mail to carry on dialogue.
Interaction by e-mail
Ten people used e-mail to send their examination papers, and two of them simultaneously used also traditional mail. In these cases the rapidity of this means favored many contacts, almost resembling the occurrence of verbal contacts. Three of these students did their exercises in successive stages, sent them divided into separate sections, each time adding the comments obtained by the lecturer.
Almost all those students who used the e-mail, however, took advantage from the opportunity of exchanging information:
The lack of personal relations and
the distance between students and lecturers had, however, repercussions
on their interaction, even in those cases marked by frequent contacts,
and the expressive modes were, therefore, marked by the formal style typical
of the correspondence by letter, also when they communicated by e-mail.
However, this formal style also showed up in a positive way with regard
to e-mail. Indeed, almost all students cared to attach a short presentation
note - with their place of origin and professional information - to their
Interaction through the Web
As it is easily understandable, the use of the web site with reserved access suffered the consequences of an only partial availability of an Internet access among the students enrolled.
The discussion forum only registered 39 messages, divided among 20 different subjects over the period stretching from 18th April 2000 to 4th January 2001 (date of the last message). Out of these 39 messages:
As the following table shows, the
concentration of messages in the forum occurred during the conclusive months
of the academic years, when most of the students enrolled were studying
for the conclusive stages of the course.
A = student; D = professor; S = technical staff
Moreover, only few of the messages sent to the forum caused something like a debate, whereas most of them were simple messages that obtained no reply (provided that they were read). Only three of the messages followed by an answer received more than one answer. In general, the discussion forum was mainly used as a means to supply further information concerning the didactic documentation previously distributed (additional information, reference to an available informative source), rather than as a discussion area, though a very limited one. On the other hand, most of the time the students limited the discussion to some practical difficulties12 - such as their difficulties in retrieving specific information - and in no case did the discussion take the form of a targeted conversation on the issues dealt with during the course.
The messages sent to the forum were
divided according to their content, as shown in the following table.
A = student; D = professor; S = technical staff
All messages supplying information, to which no reply was required, simple notes of participation, short additional notes to the already delivered documentation, or reference to available interesting informative sources were grouped under communication. The non-pertinent communications, instead, include those messages erroneously sent, such as a message sent twice or an empty message. Given the incidence of delivery mistake due to the e-mail (a key can be inadvertently pressed, thus sending a "white" letter), the non-irrelevant quantity of messages of this kind sent to the forum reveals a familiarity with the means, which is far from achieving real mastery. They also reveal a slight awkwardness in participating in a forum which is open to many other people (even though the forum is granted reserved access, the communication occurring in it is far from being private), and also has an official character (it is one of the course sessions made available by the University of Padua).
Those messages which were more closely
linked to teaching aspects were grouped under didactics. They include
questions made by the students and answers provided by the lecturers, or
suggestions for practical activities. As the table shows, this initiative
was taken by a lecturer alone, and was answered by only one student. The
small quantity of messages of this kind (15 out of 39), along with the
limited participation of students, determined a prevalence of information
The correspondence training course held in the academic year 1999-2000 was surely marked by relevant novelties. From an organizational point of view, after a three-session experience of the course for school librarians at the University of Padua, the need was strongly felt to experiment a substantially similar program with a rather different shape, and without any personal meetings among the students enrolled for the course. The resources made available to the students had a still experimental character, also as far as the supplied documents and the opportunities to grant interaction were concerned. Therefore, the printed sets of the university courses were home-delivered to the students.
A few elements undoubtedly influenced interaction from the students' point of view: for instance, the novelty of the correspondence training course, with all the formal features of that occasion, and the impossibility of relying upon many human, non verbal, informal factors typical of the traditional didactics in presentia; the difficulties caused by the use of communication tools not available to all students, and sometimes not yet uninhibitedly commanded. As previously shown, the traditional correspondence by letter did not occur without obstacles, and however, it was not exploited as a means to exchange information, but rather as a simple performance of a duty by the students enrolled.
The use of e-mail to send the cataloguing papers involved almost half of the students enrolled, and gave rise to a greater number of exchanges, which were enriched in almost all cases by a series of information, questions and personal comments. Against this background, the correction of the papers proved to be the stage of major and better interaction between lecturers and students during the development of the course (namely, before the final stage of preparation and discussion of the dissertation). Unfortunately, it was limited to those who were able to constantly use the e-mail.
Somehow contradictorily, a dozen students, who used to directly - and rather often - communicate with their lecturer about their cataloguing exercises, did not participate in the discussion forum. The forum itself mostly played an informative role, rather than being exploited as a place to exchange one's ideas.
Therefore, the explicitly experimental
character of the first session of the correspondence training course -
including the limited number of students enrolled - played an essential
role in the partial exploitation of the opportunities provided by the available
communication tools. Notably, however, thanks to the experience gathered
in the academic year 1999-2000, the present session of the correspondence
training course has been able to organize both the documentation which
has been distributed, and the available tools in a more targeted way. Thanks
to an increase by over 400% of the students enrolled (who largely exceed
100 in the year 2000-2001), and the spreading of the Internet technologies
- also among the lecturers during the year 2000- the opportunities of communication,
exchange and, more generally, interaction among participants (lecturers
and students) have largely increased, and prove to be more frequent and
The program of the correspondence
Academic year 1999-2000
the WIN-IRIDE program
Module 1: The school library: general guidelines and problematic features concerning the educational activity
2 - International guidelines for school libraries
3 - A comparative analysis of the SL organization in some European countries
4 - Organization of spaces in the MSL
5 - Narrative paths
6 - The copyright in the library
7 - Documenting in the school: the role of the school library
8 - Legislative appendix
3-4 - Cataloguing with WinIride
5 - The derived cataloguing
2 - Abstracting
3 - The thesauri
4 - The school documentation
5 - Opac, data banks, web resources
4 - Didactic innovation and new technologies
5 - The research methodology in the MSL abroad
1. Unesco School Library Manifesto,