By Ellie Edwards
A group of middle schoolers are doing something strange in the library. One blindfolded student is attempting to stack cups on a table, but only by exactly following the directions of a partner – “move your hand one cup-length to the left… – no wait, to the right” – who has instructions on how exactly the stacking should happen. The goal is to make a picture by giving instructions to someone who cannot see the end goal themselves.
It may look like these students are participating in what is simply a communication or team-building exercise – and they are indeed strengthening those skills. However, they are also practicing one of the fundamental skills of computer programming – breaking a problem down into specific, sequential steps that can be communicated. Programmers must tell computers through a programming language what it wants done and the order they want it to happen in, and web designers need to tell browsers where it should display text on a page and what to do if someone clicks a button. One type of technology instruction – called “unplugged coding” or “computerless coding”- lets students learn important skills that are applicable to almost all programming languages outside of the confines of a computer lab (Song & Lee, 2015). As an added bonus, the instructor does not need to know any programming languages in order to teach students through this method.
As we will discuss in this chapter, technology instruction in public libraries can give youth a way to bridge the gap between what they are being taught in school and what they need to know to innovate in a digital world, provide students the opportunity to explore their technical interests, and allow for exposure to cutting edge equipment that they could not obtain otherwise.
What is Technology?
A dictionary definition of technology is usually something akin to “the practical application of knowledge” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). Technology is, then, just about anything, from the phones we carry in our pockets to the buildings we live and work in. This makes the technology part of STEAM instruction often particularly difficult to pull apart from the other parts of STEAM education. However, for the purposes of discussing this element on its own, we can pull apart a somewhat distinct understanding of technology. Based on popular STEAM activities that libraries are currently offering, we will classify technology instruction into the following three categories: coding and software creation, technology exposure and use, and learning how technology works (Koester, 2013; Lopez et al, 2019; YALSA, 2019; Shtivelband et al, 2017).
Instruction designed to teach coding skills could be classes or programs that explicitly teach a programming language, such as code camps held at a library over the summer, or they could be activities that teach coding skills. These activities could be computer free, like the cup-stacking exercise above, or they could involve simple computer instructions, such as building paths for easy-to-use programmable robots.
The second category is workshops that aim to expose youth to new types of technology that they may not otherwise be exposed to due to the expense of the equipment or a lack of adult expertise in other aspects of their life. This could include Virtual Reality (VR) technology, high-tech video or photo equipment, 3D printers, or robotics. Sometimes, these technologies are grouped into a specialized makerspace, but not always. They could also include software technology, such as Photoshop software or web design. The goal here is often to either get children and youth thinking about what they could be doing generally with the technology that is out there, or to help these populations learn how to use the technology for new goals.
The third category involves learning how technology physically works. This type of technology instruction includes programs such as hosting a robotics team that builds robots of competition, either from scratch or from kits such as those made by Lego robots. Other less formal approaches include basic circuitry workshops and take-apart events, where children and youth take apart old electronics (with safety equipment) from computers to toy pianos to explore how they work (and also often use the parts to make art.)
This three-part definition is not meant to limit public librarians in teaching technology to children and youth, but rather to serve as a framework for how this chapter will approach technology instruction. Librarians should not hesitate to combine tech instruction with other parts of STEAM or to find innovative ways to show learners that technology is all around them. In addition, these categories of technology instruction activities do not need to be mutually exclusive. For example, a robotics team will likely be building technology, learning basic coding skills, and potentially exposing users to new types of technology.
Technology in the Traditional Classroom
It is important for public librarians to keep in mind what is already being done in traditional classrooms with regards to technology instruction in order to determine the gaps that the public library can fill. Students are exposed to technology in the modern classroom in a variety of ways. One-to-one computer programs that aim to provide all students with a tech device such as a laptop have become more common in the last decade. With students having greater access to technology both in school and at home, many school teachers are asking students to complete multimedia projects for classes. In addition, many schools provide students with extracurricular technology opportunities, such as robotics clubs. However, these initiatives are rarely applied uniformly and often leave out those who need access the most.
One-to-one Computer Initiatives
One to one computer initiatives are those where everyone in the classroom setting has access to their own computing device. These initiatives are implemented around the country and can start at a variety of grade levels. The most common type of technology used in these initiatives is laptop computers. When adopted effectively by teachers, one-to-one technology can allow students to gain twenty-first century computing skills and think creatively about technology use. However, they can present initial adoption challenges, especially at the elementary school level, where students must also learn computer basics, such as remembering usernames, to complete assignments (Varier et al, 2017). In addition, public librarians should not assume that one-to-one initiatives equate to equal access; some students may not have internet access at home or may be limited by parental concerns about technology use. This can serve to widen the access gap between students. In areas with one-to-one computer initiatives in schools, public libraries can supplement the school curriculum by providing students with reliable wireless internet access as a service, and instruction can focus on preparing learners with basic computer skills so that they are prepared once they begin using computers in class and by creating programming that allows students to use technology in ways that are exploratory rather than to complete a given assignment, as they often are tasked in the classroom setting (Varier et al, 2017).
In many areas, instructors are increasingly assigning students multimedia projects, or multimedia options for projects, such as video production or website creation. While this allows students to practice using innovative technology skills, it increases divides for students who do not have access to equipment at home. Libraries can help by providing internet access and technologies like video cameras to children and young adults, but they can also help by providing instruction that exposes students to technologies that they might not otherwise get to explore. This instruction should be user-interest focused and let children and youth explore the technology and base learning on their personal goals, as classroom projects do not always give students the option to be as creative or explorative as they might wish (Connors & Sullivan, 2012).
Extracurricular School Programs
Other school-based activities may include extracurricular clubs or teams such as robotics programs or other STEAM competitions, such as robotics clubs or some Science Olympiad events. These programs are ideally student-led as much as possible, allowing students to gain valuable team-working and problem-solving skills in addition to experience with the technologies they are utilizing. As these teams are usually voluntary, they allow students to pursue their technological interests more closely than many in-school assignments. They also often touch on a variety of aspects of technology, including coding, building technology, and exposure to new technology. However, these programs are dependent on many factors. Generally, students must have a teacher willing to sponsor after school events. The school or the students must also have access to materials and knowledge base to complete the projects. In addition, students must be able to stay after school, which can be difficult for families that rely on bus transportation to get students to and from school. Some of these clubs may also charge fees or require travel to events or competitions, and these cost combined with transportation difficulty can prevent many students from low-income families from participating.
While libraries may not want to duplicate extracurricular technology initiatives that are already offered by local schools, they may consider hosting robotics teams or similar clubs if local schools do not or cannot offer them, or if offering them at the library would make these initiatives more equitable. This could happen in the library at a time convenient for families or it could involve librarians travelling to locations that are convenient for students, such as after-school programs, community centers, or even the school itself (Stephen & Locke, 2018).
While technological initiatives in public schools can help prepare students for the future, they are often unevenly available, and often it is the areas that could use more technology instruction the most that are left out, particularly rural and inner-city areas. Teachers in these areas face a lack of funding for technology, and since teachers in these schools tend to be less experienced and less highly qualified than teachers in wealthier suburban schools, they may also lack the knowledge necessary to teach technology with confidence (Garcia & Weiss, 2019; Lynch, 2018). Students in these areas are also less likely to have access to necessary technology at home. In order to keep these students from falling behind, public librarians have the opportunity to expand students’ exposure to technology. This could come from technology-based instruction, both inside the library and in partnership with the schools, after-school clubs, and other places youth and children are likely to be. Librarians may also help youth and children by educating teachers on grant-writing opportunities and offering professional development classes (Johnston, 2018; Lopez et al, 2019).
Technology Instruction and the Library “Curriculum”
Why should public libraries be the place to teach technology to children and young adults at all? As discussed in the introduction to this book, technology instruction intersects with YALSA learning outcome guidelines, ALSC competencies for children’s library staff, and general information literacy standards.
YALSA Basic Learning Outcomes
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has developed a set of Basic Learning Outcomes (http://bit.ly/2mg1x9U) that are designed to help those working in libraries set learning goals for teen programs. These outcomes focus on putting teens themselves first. Technology instruction can help achieve YALSA goals in a variety of ways. One focus of the guidelines in community and leadership. Students build relationships with their peers and instructors with collaborative technology programs, such as robotics teams or even one-off events where young adults create something together. Some technology programs allow youth to teach one another or younger children technology skills, which allow them to give back to the community and display leadership. The YALSA guidelines also emphasize creativity, learning, and multiple literacies; technology instruction allows youth to find new ways of engaging in person expression and opportunities to experiment and think flexibly, as well as create new content and remix old materials. Understanding and experiencing coding and technology in general allows youth to better “think critically about digital tools and their use,” another YALSA guideline (YALSA, n.d.). See the Spotlight box below for one example of a public library program that exemplified many of these YALSA guidelines.
Spotlight: Teens Teach Tech in Birmingham, Alabama
In 2018, North Shelby Library in Birmingham, Alabama received a grant from YALSA and dollar general that allowed them to host teen summer interns to help with their STEAM events for tweens aged 8-12. With help from their friends of the library group, North Shelby was able to host eight paid teen interns. Teens who applied had to express interest in pursuing a STEAM career.
Teens helped with weekly tech exploration events, such as helping tween make 3D models with TinkerCAD, but they also had the opportunity to create and host their own technology workshop for tweens. They worked as a team to develop and create a program based on a budget set by the library and time specifications. They ended up using Sphero robots owned by the library to create a maze event.
In the teen-hosted program, the tweens first spent time designing and building a maze created with cardboard. Then, the interns helped the tweens learn how to control the Sphero robots to navigate the maze. Afterwards, teens were given time to evaluate how the program went.
Kate Etheredge, the Young Adult Services Coordinator at North Shelby, said, “The goal of the program is for the teens to learn job skills such as working with others and working on a budget.” This teen internship program is a great example of a library supporting teen leadership in technology and exposing children to new technological opportunities to explore.
The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) issues core competencies for librarians who serve children in public libraries. In particular, they emphasize instilling curiosity and removing access barriers. Teaching technology is a great way to begin to get children curious about how things work, and also begins to remove barriers access such as those caused by economic divides. It also helps to even out disparities caused by differences in school quality. The public library is a great place to teach STEAM and technology in particular to children because the world of technology is one in which diversity in gender, race, and disabilities have particularly been lacking. The public library can help to correct imbalances with technology by inspiring children in an environment that (hopefully) learners have not already begun to associate with biases that they may already associate with schools. In short, the public library has the opportunity to expose children to technology instruction that instills curiosity in children in a welcoming, exploratory environment (ALSC Education Committee, 2015).
Libraries are tasked with ensuring that their patrons of all ages, and therefore children and youth, have information literacy. One definition of information literacy states that it “empowers people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use, and create information to achieve their personal, social, occupational, and educational goals. It is a basic human right in a digital world and promotes social inclusion in all nations” (2005). Teaching youth and children technology helps to foster a goal of public libraries to make access to both finding, using, and creating in our current digital era. Libraries let young people explore technology they might not otherwise have had access to, which opens doors to completing personal goals both in the present and later in the life of the children and youth. Public libraries are ideal for this as they allow children and youth to explore these technologies in a way that is authentic to themselves, rather than driven by grades and assignment specifications. In a digital world, technology is a huge part of how we communicate with one another and accomplish daily task, and so understanding these technologies is essential for seeking, evaluating, and using information in a modern era (Lofton, 2017).
The How of Teaching Technology
Teaching technology to youth and children in a public library setting is undeniably important. In this section, we will discuss frameworks to get started and look at what libraries are already doing.
Inquiry-based learning is a natural framework choice for teaching technology in a public library setting. Inquiry-based learning focuses on learning through exploration, with some guidance from the instructor to get students started and small group discussions to solidify findings (Kuhlthau, 2010). There are three main reasons that this framework works well for tech instruction. The first is that, because technology changes frequently, giving exact steps to complete an exercise rarely will give students lasting knowledge. Instead, letting students explore will let them develop a deeper understanding of how technology works in general that they will be able to apply to new technologies later. Secondly, a large part of the impetus for technology instruction in public libraries is the focus on exploration with new technology that they may not get in a school setting. Inquiry-based learning prioritizes this. Finally, technology has historically been taught with bias towards specific genders and races. Letting learning be student-driven helps to combat some of these biases. It also makes adding on-the-fly differentiation possible when necessary during the exploratory phase, which can be particularly important in public libraries, where it often not known if attendees will have particular needs or background knowledge before the workshop begins.
What Libraries are Doing
At the beginning of this chapter, we discussed three types of technology instruction in public libraries. In this section, we will look at what public libraries are doing in these areas (Koester, 2013; Lopez et al, 2019; YALSA, 2019; Shtivelband et al, 2017).
Coding and Software Creation
Coding and software creation can take many forms in the public library setting. Computerless coding activities, that often involve breaking apart a large task into smaller chunks and then communicating those chunks in order as a directions, can serve as a type of “filler” activity in other programs or as their own event (in chunks of no more than three different activities), and require no programming knowledge on the part of the instructor. Coding “sandboxes,” such as Scratch, allow for coding exploration on a computer without too much prior knowledge required from the learners or the instructors. Small programmable robots, such as Sphero robots, allow for basic coding exploration while also being able to be used with a remote control instead, which makes them easily adaptable to a wide variety of workshops. Finally, primarily for young adult learners, actual coding language instruction in library settings often takes the form of coding camps, which are great opportunities to collaborate with others in the community if your librarians need some assistance learning languages themselves.
Technology Exposure and Use
This type of instruction can be extremely varied. The main goal is to get children and young adults exposed to new types of technology and thinking about the ways that they can be utilized. Some instruction on how to create content for the technology may also come in to play as well. This is an area where, if your library has one, a makerspace may come in to play, but it does not have to. For example, learners could use a 3D printer to make an object based off of specifications in an open source library, or they could learn to make designs themselves. Other instruction may involve media equipment, such as cameras, or even virtual reality technology. Teaching students editing software may come in to play here, as could learning to create and customize a blog to post content. Personal devices are great to add, but do not assume that every student will have a phone; if working with applications, have tablets or iPods on hand for learners to use and plan to work in groups. Technology can be expensive and should be chosen with care; try to pick items, like programmable robots, that can be used in a wide variety of programs. As long as students are able to think about novel ways technology can be used, anything is fair game.
Building Tech and Learning How it Works
These workshops, often student led, encourage students to think about how technology works and how it may be modified. For example, some workshops called take-apart parties involve disassembling old electronics and toys to try to discover how they might work. The independent parts can then be used to create art or something new. On the building side of things, robotics clubs, often student-driven, allow students to create something entirely new. Simpler robotics-building kits from companies like Lego can also be utilized as a simpler in-point to robotics than building them from scratch.
What About Costs?
One potential barrier to teaching with and about technology in the public library is its cost. Individual tech items can easily cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, and libraries must also consider maintenance and repair costs associated with the frequent use of these tools as well as the ongoing cost of any consumables (for example, plastic filament for 3D printers). These costs may be prohibitive for some libraries, and even well-funded libraries need to carefully weigh the benefits and long-term costs of tech purchases to determine their value to the community.
Luckily, not all tech instruction requires expensive equipment. Consider the technology-free coding program described at the start of this chapter, which could be implemented at little to no cost for the library. Some libraries host “tech take apart” events where older children and teens are invited to use basic tools to take apart broken or nonfunctional technology including computers, VCRs, modems, and more. You may have items like this at your library already, or you could work with other community organizations to have it donated. In some cases, participants at the take-apart events use components from the tech to create something new (a piece of art, for example). You could also coordinate with your locality’s e-waste recycling program to make sure that you keep both the participants and the environment safe while offering this program. Additional ideas for free and/or “no-tech” technology programs are linked below.
Free or “No-Tech” Technology Program Ideas
- 5 Hands-On Activities that Teach Coding Without a Computer from ExtendEd Notes: http://bit.ly/2kT3Lf3
- 5 Super-Cool Offline Coding Activities from Think Fun: http://bit.ly/2kSVVSC
- CS Fundamentals Unplugged from code.org: http://bit.ly/2klZRes
- 13 Fun and Free Coding Activities for Hour of Code Week from Teach Your Kids Code: http://bit.ly/2kGWi2S
- Recycled Tech for Teens by Cat Mullen for YALSA’s Teen Programming HQ: http://bit.ly/2m0lq4Y
Conclusion: Keep Exploring and Exposing!
Public libraries are uniquely positioned to allow children and youth exposure to technology and technology building that they may not get in other areas of their lives. Moving forward, this allows students to find new ways to express themselves and give back to the community. Technology is all about remixing existing knowledge to make new tools, so, as you think about technology in public libraries, continue to consider new things that youth and children can explore and learn.
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