A pair of library science researchers are working to integrate inexpensive, child-friendly computer coding tools into school and public libraries.
Crystle Martin, a post-doctoral student at the University of California-Irvine, is in the midst of a three-year study on bringing “connected learning” to South Los Angeles libraries. Her team has been developing instructional materials and guides to help local librarians—who are decidedly not expert coders—implement a curriculum based around Scratch, a kid-friendly computer programming language developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
And Eric Meyers is a professor in the school of library, archival, and informational studies at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. His work centers around helping local libraries to get kids programming on the Raspberry Pi, an affordable, credit-card-sized circuit board and processor that functions as a computer.
Both presented their work here Friday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Martin and Meyers talked afterwards with Education Week. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Education Week: Why do you think libraries are good spaces for teaching coding and computer science?
Meyers: Libraries are hubs for connecting people and ideas and information and technology. That has always been what they do. Maker spaces [and coding programs] are a great example of the ways they’re bringing people in to experience new and different things.
Martin: Librarians often work as a bridge between what youth are interested in and what they’re learning. That can be a harder thing for teachers to do; they have constraints that librarians don’t.
Meyers: Librarians are fantastic at helping people overcome uncertainty. Computer scientists forget sometimes that computers are not an end unto themselves. Writing code is not where the process completes; it’s actually in the use of your program by other human beings. This idea of people being essential to the equation is where information science and libraries are a really nice complement to computer science. Libraries are the bridge between the tools people make and their ultimate uses.
What does it look like when these tools and skills are being taught well in libraries?
Martin: We had a student who was ultra-shy, but really liked the coding program. After about eight weeks of being in the same room with the same people, the librarians finally coaxed him into sharing what he made. And it was this amazingly complicated and very beautiful game. Getting positive feedback in a safe environment was a major moment for him in developing self-confidence around this thing that he happened to be very good at.
Meyers: We saw students going beyond our teaching bringing their own interests to activities and taking them in new directions. We gave students a simple song to program. They programmed that song. And the next week, they brought in sheet music, and we talked about how that language is a different kind of code, and they programmed “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” When you can make those bridges between students’ everyday experiences and concepts from computer science, and you see those little light bulbs going off, it’s marvelous.
What does it take to support librarians in implementing this kind of programming?
Martin: We first did a series of trainings in person, and then we wrote up paper training materials. Now, we’re switching to a mix of tutorial videos with [opportunities for] trial and error to go with it. The idea is for them to have some learning and failure in a safe environment before they go live in front of a group of kids. It seems to be working well so far.
Meyers: Most librarians are not trained to develop their own curriculum. The idea that they would create their own scope and sequence, about something they only know a little bit about, is very scary. But once you can model it for them, they realize, “Oh, wow, this is not so hard.” But it does take some trial and error, and librarians have to become comfortable with some level of uncertainty, and with not being an expert.
You both believe this work is much easier in public libraries than school libraries, mostly because of bureaucratic obstacles school librarians face. What can districts do to help support this kind of work in school libraries?
Meyers: School librarians need the physical space and the time to innovate. Right now, so many school librarians are locked into taking care of day-to-day tasks that are mostly just maintenance of the facility and making sure that stuff goes in and out. There is nothing built into their day that facilitates taking a break from that and playing with a new tool or new piece of software.
Martin: Schools are very high-stakes places. But innovation often does not work on the first couple of iterations. Giving a school librarian a little space to run a program that might not be ultra-successful and meet all your curricular goals the first time will allow that person to develop a program that actually can meet those goals the next time.
Meyers: The other part of it is a sense of community. Most of the librarians I work with feel alone and isolated. There is no one to bounce ideas off of or share successes and failures with. The only way people have the opportunity to innovate is when they have a chance to share and communicate with other people who are doing similar types of things.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.