Where Librarians, Educators, and Media Mentors Go Online to Learn

May 02, 2016
By Natalie Orenstein

At the YOUmedia Community of Practice site, Learning Labs practitioners from around the country share resources and expertise, and work toward improving their own practice.

At libraries and museums around the country, there are dedicated spaces for teenagers to plunge into digital learning projects as varied as audio recording and robotics.

When the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation made funding available for 30 of these Learning Labs, beginning in 2011, the goal was twofold: to create accessible spaces for hands-on, interest-driven youth learning; and to nurture a network of practitioners who could support one another’s professional growth.

Today, along with 29 active Learning Labs, there is a YOUmedia Community of Practice online platform where nearly 300 educators who work in these and similar spaces share resources and advice. YOUmedia labs were some of the earliest locations, but the Community of Practice is open to the broader group.

“Communities of practice are low-cost ways of connecting people who have an interest in a certain professional area,” said Korie Twiggs, manager of professional development at the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), which manages the platform for YOUmedia. “It helps them build skills and resources and level up their own practices.” With support from the National Writing Project (NWP) and funding from IMLS, the Community of Practice platform includes curriculum development tools, job postings, and discussion threads.

Educators craft at a YOUmedia retreat. Photos/K-Fai Steele

Educators craft at a YOUmedia retreat. Photos/ K-Fai Steele

On the Community of Practice platform, the discussion forum is the most popular feature, peppered with daily posts soliciting recommendations for digital comic book platforms, comparing marketing plans, or requesting resources on talking privacy with teens.

“It’s where I go if I’m like, ‘Hey, is anyone else messing around with this?’ ” said Corey Wittig from the Learning Lab at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. “A lot of us have focused on overlapping things but different sites have their specialties, and you can lean on those people.” When Wittig started thinking about expanding programming to adults and children in addition to teenagers, he took to the forum to see if any of his colleagues had made a similar transition. He immediately received helpful responses.

The YOUmedia Community of Practice benefits from participants’ early and extraordinary investment in the community, Twiggs said. The community had momentum when the platform launched in the summer of 2014 because the Learning Labs initiative had brought together practitioners at conferences and retreats. The discussions on the platform can turn nascent relationships into fruitful collaborations.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to see the other challenges sites are having, gain insights to help my program run more effectively, and share my experiences and expertise with a community of peers that I truly respect and care about,” said Niq Tognoni of the Learning Lab at the Nashville Public Library.

When protests erupted in late 2014 in response to police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, Community of Practice participants used the forum to share resources for talking to teenagers about the news.

“I wrote out the prosecutor’s announcement on our [classroom] white board wall,” one educator wrote in a post. In the same post the educator shared links to a series of graphics that could inspire discussion about law enforcement and violence.

The same thread doubled as a sounding board for the educators’ own thoughts about the events, and a back-and-forth about appropriate roles for mentors. One educator who self-identifies as “white” recounted her personal trajectory from feeling uncomfortable assuming an authoritative role to figuring out how to best support her students.

“I didn’t always feel prepared myself to have big conversations about race with my students, who have often been majority black and brown children,” she wrote. She offered to share readings she had found helpful and encouraged her peers to talk to their supervisors about how to help students feel safe in discussions about race, power, and privilege.

“One of my big takeaways from all these terrible moments of violence is that no matter what we ‘teach’—be it art, tech, literacy, science—we need to create spaces for our young people to process their feelings, learn about history and context, and find their voice,” she wrote.

In its second year, the Community of Practice has begun recruiting participants from outside the immediate Learning Lab network, and it is growing rapidly. Both veteran and emerging practitioners find value in the community.

“There’s hundreds of other people on there I’ve never met,” said Eric Reyes from YOUmedia Chicago, an early Learning Lab. “It’s great to be able to share what we’ve learned because we’ve been doing it longest and have run into the same challenges as everybody. But we also run into new challenges that others can help with.”

For many participants the Community of Practice serves as a reminder to look outward as they develop their own programming. Tognoni encourages his staff to create a curriculum that is shareable, clearly written, and accessible to a wide audience.

“The work we do does not exist within a bubble,” Tognoni said. “We are all part of an innovative and exciting new paradigm in library and museum services.”

While facilitated by ASTC and NWP, Community of Practice participants hold the reins and steer the discussions in the directions they find most useful.

Of course, it’s not all flashy 3D-printing projects or deep conversations about current events.

One popular post was a plea from a new Ohio YOUmedia lab: How the heck do you deal with the scarf and coat clutter during blustery winter months?

The YOUmedia Community of Practice is open for any educator to join in conversations, download and share resources, and ask questions to colleagues nationally. Join today at community.youmedia.org.