Created by Dan Tinaburri, section 65B, 2014
The Virtual Learning Commons or VLC is the online counterpart to a physical Learning Commons. They share common pedagogical beliefs such as the idea that learning occurs socially and in collaboration with others. More than just a library website, the Virtual Learning Commons is focused on participation from the school community and provides teachers, students, and parents the opportunity to connect, communicate, and collaborate.
What is a Virtual Learning Commons?
The shift from library to Learning Commons can be characterized by a reinterpretation and extension of the traditional library. The Learning Commons philosophy seeks to transform the library from a physical space where books are stored on shelves and bespectacled librarians maintain order and silence to a space that blends the physical with the virtual and emphasizes exploration, discovery, collaboration, and creativity. The Learning Commons seeks to become the hub and heart of the school "where learners and teachers gravitate to… work on projects" (Koechlin, 2009, p. 20). According to Koechlin (2009), the work of the Learning Commons is to address "the needs of 21st century learners" (p. 21) with a focus on guided inquiry, problem-based learning, critical and creative thinking, and the authentic use of technology to communicate and collaborate with others.
Mirroring the shift from library to Learning Commons is the shift from library website to Virtual Learning Commons. The traditional library website has as its purpose the one way transmission of information from librarian to library user. On a library website you will find links to research, book reviews, news around the library, hours of operation, and the online catalogue. While these are vitally important, what is missing is a sense of community. Connection and collaboration are absent. In order to make the shift from library website to Virtual Learning Commons, a sense of community needs to be fostered and developed among all stakeholders. With the advent of new technologies that allow for the real-time participation and collaboration of users in an online community, the opportunity presents itself for the VLC to become the 'infrastructure' of the school (Loertscher & Koechlin, 2012), to transform itself from informational website to participative community.
In order for this transformation to occur, it is important to understand the purpose and function of a Virtual Learning Commons. According to Loertscher and Koechlin (2012), their are five main components to a Virtual Learning Commons.
The Information Centre
This part of the Virtual Learning Commons most resembles the traditional library website. It is the homepage or portal to the rest of the VLC and serves as an introduction. Many of the goings-on in the Learning Commons can be highlighted here.
The Literacy Centre
The focus of this VLC component is as the name implies: literacy. The emphasis here is on reading, writing, speaking, and listening, as well as the creation and consumption of all things literary: book clubs, book reviews, and book trailers to name a few.
The Knowledge-Building Centre
This is where you will find the teacher-librarian collaborating with classroom teachers to design guided inquiry and experiential learning opportunities for students. The best of their work and student learning can be showcased and archived here.
The Experimental Learning Centre
This space provides for action research to occur. It is characterized by a focus on projects concerned with school improvement and is often frequented by leadership teams within the school.
While the first four components are largely teacher-owned spaces, this section highlights the school's culture and focuses on the students themselves. Everything from student-created videos to school activities, clubs, and intramural sports to name a few can be found here.
Critique of Loertscher and Koechlin's Ideas
Loertscher and Koechlin have certainly championed the idea of the Virtual Learning Commons and have defined many of its guiding principles. The power behind their vision of the VLC is the transformation of the school library website. However, I believe their vision has not gone far enough. They have not placed enough of an emphasis on student community and collaboration. Without a greater emphasis on student voice and student-owned spaces, their vision, at best, can only become a teacher-driven 'library website 2.0'.
In defining their components of a VLC, it is not entirely practical to define online spaces solely by their specific purpose. To define a space as a 'Literacy Center' is to limit the use of that space. Such limitations require that additional spaces be created to encompass all the potentialities of a Virtual Learning Commons. For example, in order to accommodate the math department, a 'Math Centre' will need to be created. Then the science department will also want their own centre. This can quickly spiral out of control. (A clearcut solution here is to use folksonomy or 'tagging' to differentiate content.) Instead, it is far more preferable to define the parameters of the space and its potential function by defining the type of learning that can occur within that space and then choosing the tool(s) that best support that type of learning. For this, we need to look at the work of Jane Hart (2014).
Social Learning Spaces
Much like the physical Learning Commons that is designed to be a flexible space that can be reconfigured to accommodate the learning needs of a variety of group sizes, so too should a Virtual Learning Commons be able to accommodate the creative and collaborative needs of students ranging in size from individuals to small groups to whole classes. Online tools that can support these spaces should be chosen and highlighted on the VLC.
According to Jane Hart (2014), there are five different categories of social learning. They are as follows:
Formal Structured Learning Spaces
These spaces allow for whole classes to learn together. They are often teacher-created and directed via a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle, Desire2Learn, or Blackboard. In this space, the learner is often dependent on the teacher for learning objectives and facilitation. Other online tools that can accommodate this type of learning space include wikis, Edmodo, and social networks such as Ning.
Group Directed Learning Spaces
These spaces allow groups of individuals to collaborate with each other. Group Directed Learning Spaces are often self-directed by members of the group. Typical uses of this space can include group projects, study groups, and communities of practice. Examples of tools that can accommodate a user’s needs in this space include Google Drive, blogs, and wikis.
Personal Directed Learning Spaces
In this space, the individual is able to use social media tools to direct their own personal learning through connecting and sharing with other like-minded people. This space is often referred to as a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) or a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Tools most often associated with this type of learning space include microblogging tools such as Twitter, social bookmarking tools such as Delicious or Pinterest, RSS readers such as Flipboard or Feedbin, social networks, and blogs.
Intra-Organizational Learning Spaces
This space is often characterized by a group blog allowing everyone within a school to share ideas, information, and resources with each other. This is where the heart of the VLC community resides within a school. Intra-Organizational Learning Spaces often shape and are shaped by the culture of the school. Student-created work, videos, and presentations are often showcased in this space. An example of a student-created video from a VLC can be seen here. This video demonstrates how to search for books using the school's online catalogue.
Accidental & Serendipitous Learning
This is where individuals learn without often realizing it. This space is characterized by random learning through surfing the Internet or following links of interest. While this type of learning can and does occur in the other four learning spaces, it is important to intentionally allow for this to occur.
The single differentiating characteristic of a Virtual Learning Commons as compared to a library website is community. Without a community of learners taking ownership of the VLC, it can never rise above being a simple website. In order for the VLC to "represent the culture of the entire school" (Loertscher & Koechlin, 2012, p. 21), encouraging and leveraging student voice is a necessity. As such, the starting point for any VLC should be the development of an Intra-Organizational Learning Space as characterized by a blog featuring both teacher and student contributors. Contributions can take many forms, including student-created videos, book reviews, websites of interest, and news around the school from a student perspective to name a few. A student-driven and owned VLC is the only way to ensure that students don't bypass the Virtual Learning Commons altogether and just Google what they want. For without students (and community), the VLC is just another ignored website.
The following are a few examples of Virtual Learning Commons. This list is by no means exhaustive, nor are the examples definitive, but instead they reflect their own unique context. A few are still works-in-progress.
- Area 3 Learning Commons - This is a group blog collaboration between a number of schools highlighting the work of each of their Learning Commons.
- Keeler Commons - Keeler School, Calgary, Alberta
- Chris Akkerman Learning Commons - Chris Akkerman School, Calgary, Alberta
- The Librarian's Locker @ The JHSS Learning Commons - Johnston Heights Secondary, Surrey, British Columbia
- Mission High School - Mission High School, San Francisco, California
- Uncommon Learning Commons - Links and resources to get you started.
- The School Learning Commons Knowledge Building Center - Loertscher & Koechlin's LC & VLC website.
- C4LPT - Jane Hart's webpage on social spaces and social media for learning.
Hart, J. (2014). 3: Examples of use of social media for learning. Retrieved from http://c4lpt.co.uk/social-learning-handbook/examples-of-social-media-for-learning/
Loertscher, D. V. & Koechlin, C. (2011). The virtual learning commons. Retrieved from http://www.schoollearningcommons.info/the-virtual-learning-commons
Loertscher, D. V. & Koechlin, C. (2012). The virtual learning commons and school improvement. Teacher Librarian, 39(6), 20-24. Retrieved from http://lgdata.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/docs/561/618934/The_Virtual_Learning_Commons_and_School_Improvement.pdf
Koechlin, C. (2009). Leading the way in the learning commons. The Teaching Librarian, 17(2), 20-23. Retrieved from http://www.accessola2.com/images/infocentral/tl_17_2.pdf
Western Canada High School. (2013, December 3). WCHS e-library tutorial (video file). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p219FyojYWg&feature=youtu.be