by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries
How much time each day do you spend delving into the higher education news? Do you have a regular current awareness regimen for keeping up-to-date with the latest trends in higher ed? While I hope the answer is “at least an hour” for the former questions and “I sure do” for the latter, my guess is that just trying to stay current with library developments and literature is enough to keep most academic librarians busy. Who among us wants to be out of the loop on the latest library debates and controversies?
Keeping current with the world of higher ed is a bit of an obsession for me. I may spend up to two hours some days scanning multiple sources whose total number I long ago lost count. Some are everyday go-to sources such as the Chronicle, Higher Ed Dive and IHE, but then there are many others that show up in my mailbox at regular intervals. Higher ed news can also come from non-higher education publications in fields such as business, design or national news magazines.
One value of keeping up with the news and the latest cultural trends is that we are able to stay on top of the latest buzzwords, fads, trends and concepts. Whether its “quiet quitting”, “job boomeranging” or another trend of the day, we want to be in the loop. Higher education is no exception. There is a fairly regular stream of new ideas, trends and concepts that generate buzz.
In this post I’ll share two new concepts that I encountered just recently. It got me thinking about how they might apply to academic library work. They might do the same for you.
One of the occasional newsletters I receive is NEXT, authored by Jeff Selingo. You may recall that Selingo was a Chronicle editor for many years before establishing his own consultancy. NEXT tends to focus on current and future trends in enrollment, but can cover just about any higher ed issue – though I have yet to see any mention of academic libraries.
In writing about the challenges higher ed faces as the pandemic continues and what institutions have learned from it, Selingo points to the increased flexibility around academic calendars and modes of delivery unthinkable before the pandemic. He refers to this change as “optionality”. In a higher ed shaped by optionality, new variations on traditional semesters are available to students, along with multiple options for in-person, online and hybrid courses. Students have more options for how they receive basic academic resources and services. Rather they forcing students and instructors to conform to limited choice, institutions are driven to broaden choice that meets their need for educational flexibility.
Selingo puts it bluntly when he says, “Higher education can’t return to its old way of dong business and expect to survive… A focus on the student experience [and] making it flexible, seamless and relevant is critical in the coming years.” How does that apply to our libraries? What new and different ways are we exploring the impact of optionality on our operations.
Anne Khademian, executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove, a regional higher education center of the University System of Maryland, applies new terminology to a recent trend in student enrollment behavior. Khademian points to the world of sports, which is experiencing the “fluid fan” phenomenon. A fluid fan is a departure from the fan of the past who devoted themselves to a single team and followed that team exclusively on a single medium. Fluid fans follow individual athletes as much as they do teams, and they do their following across multiple platforms, including social media.
Khademian observes that higher education is experiencing a similar phenomenon – “student fluidity”. Fluid students tend to be non-traditional in age, experience and other demographic factors. They move more readily between institutions and are less concerned about loyalty to a single college or university. Their education is a mix of formal accredited course work and learning activities provided by bootcamps and other non-traditional providers that lead to certifications or mini-degrees. They want personalization, time-shifted learning that works on their schedule and employment-focused experiences. Fluid students are radically different from those library professionals more typically support, though the pandemic has provided new experience in delivering our services and resources to a far broader set of learners and modalities.
If your college or university somehow escaped a serious enrollment drop this fall, it is in the minority – for now. For those institutions whose enrollment projections were seriously missed, there is a reckoning now underway. Whether it’s downsizing, rightsizing or straight up retrenchment, there is new pressure on institutions of all types to determine the ideal mix of academic and social programming that restores enrollment. Then again, the enrollments we’ve come to expect may be a thing of the past – forever. Institutions that previously paid no attention to it as a strategy, are sure to look more closely at optionality as a way to capture this new wave of fluid students. What is the next move for academic librarians?
First and foremost, get connected to the campus conversation about the current challenges facing higher education and how it is likely to impact your institution. That discussion might cover declining enrollment, changing student demographics, competition from for-profits educators, diversifying into new types of non-traditional degrees and certifications, supporting student wellness and for public institutions, the consequences of state-level political interference. Second, with your colleagues and academic support collaborators, think strategically about how your operations can prepare now for the ways in which observed trends such as optionality or student fluidity will create change. Where are the opportunities for the library to take the lead with new programs that support student and faculty academic success.
Let’s take just one example of a deeply embedded library service – information literacy – that might be ready for big change of a disruptive nature. How would it fit into an institution adapting for optionality and student fluidity? We know that students and faculty in most disciplines are partially or wholly uninformed about what information literacy is or why it matters. We also know that many faculty, employers and even some students, are deeply concerned about college students needing to develop solid critical thinking skills for evaluating information and detecting mis- and disinformation. Rather than frame it as a way to develop better research, writing and critical thinking skills, it may be time to rebrand it as a career skill – and admittedly career success can depend on having good research, writing and critical thinking skills. This is a rebranding for the higher education that Selingo and Khandemian envision.
Can we be bold enough to imagine replacing our information literacy terminology with a new labels such as “workplace literacy” or “lifelong career literacy?” Labels are less important than the need to rethink these traditional practices for organizations and people who are on quite different learning and career paths than our traditional 18-22 year old students. College students of the near-term future, if Selingo and Khademian are on the right track, will expect a diversity of learning options, will expect it to conform to their fluid lifestyles and will expect it to prepare them for the workplace of the future.
Whether these trends and changes come to pass is perhaps less critical than our ability to be at the forefront of change at our institutions. We should want our libraries to be seen as proactive leaders in our organizations, demonstrating that we are prepared to adapt to whatever new external forces shape our institutions. This isn’t a case of everything needs to change nor is it a case of change just for the sake of change. Rather, we need to be thoughtful and strategic in how and what we change – and why we do it. That’s no easy task, but the first step is to move beyond a keeping up regimen made up solely of library literature. If you have yet to do so, I encourage you to invest more time in paying attention to what’s happening in higher education and what’s happening in other fields that will impact our institutions for better or worse. That’s the best way to shape our libraries for our preferred future, rather than the one that we would always want to avoid.
About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib