With Digital Technologies, Can School Libraries Help Transform Learning?

Educators in the Pittsburgh suburb of Elizabeth say yes. Modeled after YOUmedia, and informed by new research about how kids learn today, an innovative digital space for teens opens at Elizabeth Forward High School.

This isn’t your mom’s high school library.

At the Elizabeth Forward High School library in Elizabeth, PA, beanbag chairs have replaced study carrels, computers are everywhere, and instead of a cranky librarian telling kids to be quiet, there’s a new music studio. Welcome to the new EF Media Center.

The effort is part of a growing movement in Pittsburgh and around the country by educators to use digital technologies to create more opportunities for experiential, hands-on learning, based on new research about how young people learn today. The goal is to harness the power of interest-driven learning coupled with digital media and create an environment that offers mentors and guidance to help students make connections between what they’re tinkering around with and what they learn in the classroom.

“Libraries aren’t a place to be silent anymore,” says Mary Beth Wiseman, Director of Technology for Elizabeth Forward School District. “They’re a place to get together and share ideas.”

In addition to the many books available to high school students at the new EF Media Center, students can grab a coffee or snack at the new café, discuss a project with friends, check out laptops or digital video cameras, or spend time editing an original video project or new music piece using state-of-the-art video and audio editing equipment.

The new library was inspired by YOUmedia, a digital space for teens that started at the Chicago Public Library and is now expanding with the help of the MacArthur Foundation and the Institute for Museum and Library Services to museums, libraries, and schools around the country. The EF Media Center is the first such space to be housed in a public school.

Elizabeth Forward is one of several schools in Pittsburgh that are on the cutting edge of using technologies to encourage innovations in learning and teaching and to help students thrive in the global, digital workplace of the future.

Kids learn best when they’re following their passions, collaborating with others, and creating—instead of passively consuming—media products, according to research studies such as one by University of California­–Irvine cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito. Her study of 700 young people identified the progressive stages of informal learning as “hanging out,” “messing around,” and “geeking out”—ideas that are informing the design of the new library spaces. In Chicago, for example, the library offers teens the chance to just hang out and socialize, but also a section stocked with computers, games, and digital tools where they can mess around and dip their toe in. Once their interest is piqued, they can “geek out” in workshops led by artists and other professionals serving as mentors.

At Elizabeth Forward, students will be able to use these new technologies on their own or with friends to explore interests, create, and connect what they doing on their own back to what’s happening in the classroom.  The school’s faculty will also spend class time in the library, so students can use the new video and audio studio for class projects. The school plans to offer a new music production program in partnership with Hip Hop on L.O.C.K, a mentoring and arts education program in the greater Pittsburgh region that teaches students how to record and produce their own music, and there is talk of collaborating with a local radio station.

Elizabeth Forward also hosts a Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, known as SMALLab Learning, a mixed-reality platform developed at the University of Arizona. With Wii-like technology, SMALLLab uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment to teach academic concepts. Students can physically move molecules together to watch their reaction or map a graph by pacing out the points on a mat. SMALLLab brings sometimes abstract concepts to life. The school has also partnered with the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University and the online learning platform Zulama to teach game design with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math.

Stay tuned for more on this ongoing work at Elizabeth Forward and other schools in the region in the coming months.

Published January 17, 2013