Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The ILC iceberg: Insights from the crew

The ILC iceberg: Insights from the crew

Janet Olearski

(Presentation on Wednesday 9th April 2008)

Unusually, Janet’s talk began with a 1-minute test:

You’re a student – what’s your favourite movie?
You work in an ILC – what’s your busiest month?
If the ILC is an iceberg, what s above the surface and what’s below the surface?

See if you can answer the test by the end of this entry!

Janet started by giving us the context of her situation and explaining how she began the process of setting up the Independent Learning Centres at the Petroleum Institute in the United Arab Emirates. The Institute now boasts two ILCs: one for women and one for men. The women’s ILC opened in 2007, and shares space with the library. Students are aged 18+ and study for petroleum-industry related degrees. Work that students do in the ILC is attached to the foundational English course, which all students must pass in order to progress in their studies. The students are highly motivated with no discipline problems, which Janet attributed to the fact that the students have ownership of the centre.

Her baseline study involved visiting other ILCs in the region, and she commented on how helpful it had been to see these other centres, and also to have Dr Barbara Sinclair visit in a consultancy role.

In this baseline study, Janet often noticed that other ILCs were empty and, not only were frequently operated from within a library but were also overseen by the library. Commonly, they were staffed by teachers with release time from classes, or by library personnel with no teaching background. Janet also became aware that there were lots of unused materials or inappropriate materials in others centres, that were simply not student-friendly.

As a consequence of this baseline study, Janet developed four quick-fix guidelines:

1. Find a way to keep the ILC busy
2. Make sure the materials are relevant
3. Stay independent from the library
4. Recruit committed teaching staff

Unfortunately, Janet was unable to recruit teachers to work in the centre full-time, and had to make do with administrative assistants.
She decided that a staff development programme was needed, in order to help her achieve the quick fix guidelines, and to ensure smooth liaisons with other departments. Typically, Janet felt, several presuppositions were made about the ILC by staff in other departments. For example, often the ILC is regarded as a library. However, in an ILC there is a pleasant buzz as learners engage in communicative activities, whereas in a library students are “shooshed”. Other common presuppositions include the misunderstanding that anyone can work in an ILC (Janet commented on how she gets CVs from all kinds of applicants pushed under her door), and that working in an ILC is a touchy-feely kind of job. As Janet pointed out, the reality is that ILC assistants direct learners towards specific materials, whereas library staff may often direct students towards more general, less useful materials. Overall, Janet was often left with the feeling that faculty frequently have misconceptions about the ILC, and that the ILC was seen as a poor cousin of the main library, so she decided that she needed to do something to make ILCs valued more.

Janet helped us to visualise the undervaluing of the roles of the ILC staff by using the analogy of an iceberg. On the surface of the ILC iceberg, the main tasks of ILC staff are helping students, counselling students, and motivating students. However, all we have to do is look under the surface, to realise that we must add to these preparing the budget, choosing materials, ordering furniture, ordering books, monitoring spending, paying for materials, cataloguing, security tagging, chasing lost materials, maintaining the software, maintaining the hardware, communicating with the students, maintaining order, tidying, organising, anticipating student’s needs, understanding how materials work, knowing what motivates students, and understanding how students learn best. And this is by no means an exhaustive list!

In order to help the ILC staff develop the skills needed to fulfil these roles, and to achieve her goal of making the ILC more valued, Janet set up the ILC Staff Development Programme. This consisted of

1. Attending weekly staff meetings
2. Carrying out classroom observations
3. Attending faculty professional development sessions
4. Trialling of student materials
5. Compiling a staff development portfolio
6. Carrying out staff development tasks

Janet elaborated on how the staff carried out each of these tasks. For example, with the trialling of student materials (4), the staff try the materials which are provided for students, which gives them an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of these materials from the students’ perspective. The staff development portfolio (5) included notes and reflections from materials trials and classroom observations, as well as a daily log of how they used their time in the ILC and how their time was divided between administrative work and working with students. Janet also explained that the staff are encouraged to include innovative ideas for the development of the ILC in the portfolio.

One of the most interesting aspects of the staff development programme was the staff development tasks (6). An example of this was for staff to look at the list of DVDs available in the ILC at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, work out which of these were available in the ILC in their Institute, and to decide which DVDs on the list from the Chinese U would not be permitted in the Petroleum Institute ILC, and why. The first follow up task was for staff to give recommendations and reasons for new DVDs to have in the centre. The second follow-up task was for ILC staff to survey students about what their favourite movies are and why. Janet expressed a certain amount of surprise at the discovery. Favourite movies included:

James Bond
The Godfather Trilogy
Lord of the Rings
Fast and furious

Janet pointed out that ILCs are not video stores, and not only should DVDs be appropriate to the context, but the ILC staff should also provide some guidance to learner watching the movie not in their native language.

The final example of a staff development task outlined in the presentation was that of statistics. Janet explained that statistics are required to justify the existence of the ILC with the management of the Institute. Staff were required to research the patron counter statistics for two semesters and to compare them with those for the library attendance. The results fluctuated: some months the library was more popular, some months the ILC was (but overall July was the busiest month for the ILC). Nevertheless, for Janet, this underscored to her the need to pro-actively encourage students to use the ILC. The physical result of this was that more project rooms for group work and flexible working were opened within the centre.

In summary, the main tenets of the staff development programme were noticing, evaluation, and the application or implementation of new ideas and changes. The main insights from Captain Janet and her crew were that:

The results of surveys and questionnaires given to students are not always reliable, therefore ILC personnel need to notice what is happening inside their ILC.
The organisation of the Petroleum Institute ILC changes on a daily basis.
Training in autonomous learning should be happening in the classroom as well as in the ILC.

Most of what Janet spoke about resonated strongly with me, and the experiences that I had whilst working in the SALC at Kanda University of International Studies. Marina Mozzon-McPherson has developed the training course for language learning advisors at the University of Hull, together with the accompanying academic text, but no such training course or text exists for administrators within SACs or ILCs, and Library Studies courses have a limited applicability. After attending Janet’s presentation, I couldn’t help but feel that such a course, text, or handbook would be worthwhile.

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