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Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis: Librarian-Scholar Collaboration in Learning Communities

Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis Librarian-Scholar Collaboration in Learning Communities


Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) serves a student population of 27,000 from its location on the west side of downtown Indianapolis. The university provides more than 180 academic programs, from associate degrees to doctoral and professional degrees. Courses offered reflect the diversity that joint governance of Indiana University and Purdue University brings. IUPUI is home to the only dental and medical schools in the state of Indiana, as well as the largest law and nursing programs. It sees itself as an urban university having much in common with institutions such as Wayne State University in Detroit and Temple University in Philadelphia. A distinct feature of IUPUI is its relatively decentralized organizational structure, which gives schools a great deal of financial and curricular autonomy. According to the summary of the 1997 IUPUI Performance Report, the university views student learning as its highest priority and is committed to creating a learning-centered environment.

The library has a history of significant in-house technical capability. Because the university is only 25 years old, the library did not yet have the print collections of many comparable institutions. The former university librarian was willing to invest heavily in electronic information and to address numerous local and remote-access issues to compensate for the lack of strong print collections. The library administration has its own programming staff who are well paid and dedicated, and who appreciate the opportunities provided by working with the library. A total of 21 full-time employees work in the library’s technology group. These employees have a working relationship with the University Information Technology Services (UITS).

Learning Communities

More than 75 percent of IUPUI students are undergraduates, many of whom are first-generation college attendees. The one-year retention rate for full-time undergraduates is about 60 percent and the six-year graduation rate, though it has risen somewhat in recent years, is only 27 percent. The challenge to help undergraduates assimilate and embark on a college career is daunting. A year ago, the university organized a new unit, University College, that provides a common gateway to the academic programs available to entering students. Located in the old library building, University College sponsors a number of programs and services, including student tutoring, academic advising, IUPUI’s honors program, a forum for general education and, most significantly, the learning communities program.

Established in the fall of 1995, the learning communities program is intended to help students learn to work and study collaboratively, develop essential skills of thought and evaluation, and familiarize themselves with the infrastructure necessary to navigate the university environment successfully. The program offers an introductory class geared to the needs of first-year students, as well as other classes that familiarize students with specific disciplines. Currently, learning communities courses are being offered in the schools of Business, Education, Engineering and Technology, Liberal Arts, Nursing, Physical Education, Public and Environmental Affairs, Science, and Social Work, and in the University College. Starting with just over 20 courses in the first semester, the program grew to close to 80 courses by the fall of 1998, with projections of well over 100 courses by fall 1999. Each learning communities course has an instruction team consisting of a teaching faculty member, a librarian, an advisor from the University College, and a student mentor.

According to Associate Dean Gayle Williams, 84 percent of incoming students admitted to IUPUI do not qualify to pursue courses in one of the disciplines represented by the degree-granting schools. The learning communities courses provide the only opportunity to link to the schools early in a student’s academic career. In the 1997-98 academic year, there was a four percent increase in the retention rate of students participating in learning communities courses, compared with those students who did not participate.

The strength of the learning communities may be in their diversity. Expectations for the courses vary among the participating schools. The learning communities course “Windows in Science” serves as the freshman introductory course, according to Joe Kuckowski, learning communities advisor and professor in the School of Science. Piloted in 1996, “Windows in Science” is now required of all science majors. The course speaks to college life and adjustment issues as well as general skills development, it also introduces the student to the culture of science. Students are taught in this course to assess the credibility of sources by posing basic questions about the nature of science.

Kathryn Wilson, a professor of cell biology, stressed that the university is concerned with students’ development of skills in critical thinking, communication, group work, sharing, decision making, and setting priorities. The new approaches being used in the learning communities program have influenced how she plans her course. She had been looking for ways to make her teaching more interactive and increase her students’ engagement in the classroom. She added small group discussions and frequently started discussions of new topics by asking students what they already knew about the subject. This enabled her to adapt the material to the students’ level and make the course more interesting. Wilson, over many years of teaching, had moved away from written assignments but has reincorporated them into the course, making them shorter. She stressed that her own satisfaction with her course has increased immeasurably since she introduced these changes.


The learning communities program originated outside the library, but its success is partly due to the innovative spirit and dedication that have characterized the IUPUI library in recent years. In the library’s commitment to developing its own technical expertise, the introduction of team-based management, and creation of the Center for Teaching and Learning, one can see that it has brought a rich infrastructure of resources, expertise, and experience to this endeavor.

The Librarian’s Role

Before the introduction of the learning communities courses, the library had a liaison system that was dependent on the librarian’s effort and the needs expressed by the departments. Members of the instruction team characterized this effort as “hit or miss.” Participation was limited to a small number of library staff. The learning communities program, however, requires involvement beyond the old reference department, an involvement many librarians seem to relish.

Librarians have been part of the instructional team for the learning communities program from its start, and their role now is to ensure that students understand the broader context of information. The librarians who serve on the instructional team reflect a range of library skills and experience, from cataloging and acquisitions to reference. Each learning communities course starts by defining its objectives and all members share the responsibility for ensuring that they are met. Instruction team members are encouraged to attend every class, since classroom observation and participation are so important.

Several years ago, University Librarian Philip Tompkins hired Jay Fern, a musicologist with a background in instructional technology and pedagogy, who had a joint appointment at the School of Music. Fern was brought on as a consultant to the library faculty, where he provides expertise in pedagogy to the librarians who teach in the learning communities. He is their resource for instruction design and teaching improvements. He has supported the incorporation of technology into the communities because it made teaching more effective. The instructional teams needed this help to bridge initial gaps with librarians and to gain additional skills. The effort was organized around workshops-one-on-one sessions geared to facilitating an individual’s integration into teams. According to Bill Orme, leader of the instructional team and the interim co-director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, this work helped to identify the skill sets. When participants were recruited into the instructional teams, they were mindful of the teaching experience needed for a particular subject or group of students. At the time, only three or four librarians were involved with the learning communities, yet the library administration was willing to pay for the expertise the group would need to be effective.

The librarians play an essential part in developing course content and devising examples for problem-solving and decision-making situations. Librarian team members also help form partnerships with other librarians. For example, the medical librarian and the university librarian have cooperated in support of the needs of the nursing program in the learning community. According to Joe Kuckowski, the librarians are the stable element in the instructional teams, since they are often involved in several courses having various faculty, advisors, and student mentors. Thus, it is often the librarian who is in the best position to identify how to solve problems that the team confronts.

Advisors and Student Mentors

Another key group in the learning communities program consists of professional advisors from University College. They help students with time management, suggest resources for other problems that students may encounter, and provide access to faculty. They also help the faculty develop course syllabuses and in some courses even serve as the instructors, as in the case of the X150 reading course, a refresher class in reading skills.

Student mentors are also an important component of the team. The mentors listen to the students as peers. They bring student perspectives to the instructional group and help close gaps related to age and culture. Student mentors recommend courses to their peers, help them find information, and serve as ombudsmen for the students. Discussions of how to attract more students to the mentoring program have considered increased pay in order to compete with the private sector in Indianapolis and on some form of certification that will be of long-term benefit to students. Another option is to let mentors earn academic credit. They receive four days of training per semester, one day of which is devoted to technology training. During the semester students keep a journal that provides them with a reflective learning opportunity.

Technical Expertise

The library technology group is indirectly involved in the learning communities because it ensures access to information resources. Comprising members of the library’s client support, operations, and digital libraries teams, the group’s primary aim is to ensure a standard software configuration for library workstations that is compatible with computer lab resources across campus.

Besides addressing hardware and software compatibility problems, the technology teams handle licensing issues and resource delivery needs beyond the physical boundaries of the library. They provide library-specific tools that are made available through interfaces such as OnCourse, a communications software similar to WebCT. They also do feasibility studies of new instructional technology components. They have shared their expertise with other colleges that want to make resources more available. Classrooms set up for training have been standardized with the learning labs to increase student familiarity with information technology.

Within the library, members of the technology teams have not been the only ones to offer technical assistance. Librarians have helped to negotiate, as well as deploy and support, a statewide partnership providing access to EBSCO products. The UITS staff believe this will help students become familiar with electronic resource interfaces, a foundation for working with other electronic resources when they arrive at IUPUI.

The close collaboration of librarians and teaching faculty has led to several new teaching approaches in learning communities. In a history course exploring Athens as the early model for modern day cities, the professor used a Web site that shows a 360-degree view of Athens from the Parthenon. This illustrated in a much livelier fashion many of the elements necessary for development of a city. In another case, a political science professor posted a dynamic syllabus allowing for changes in the legislative and judicial areas as they occur. For political elections, printed materials were inadequate, so the professor relied upon nonprint collections. Both of these courses increased students’ understanding by going beyond the use of static images for teaching. At the same time, such courses push the library to think more strategically about collection development needs.

Library Team Structure

When Philip Tompkins became the university librarian, he introduced a new team-based organization into the library. He wanted to take advantage of the recent technological innovation and new library building to introduce a variety of new services and programs. Tompkins believes that, with the teams in place, the staff can accomplish a larger number of sophisticated tasks more flexibly and more easily. Cataloging, acquisitions, resource development, operations, and external relations are but a few of the teams that were established. Tompkins has relied on a strong group of middle managers to evolve into team leaders. All library faculty are assigned to at least two different teams.

Team involvement in the library has given librarians experience with the team process and skills for collaboration. When the library administration started with the teams, the emphasis was on organizational process. Establishing trust within teams was important. Tompkins spent his first three or four months interviewing library staff. Shortly thereafter he established the team structure and assignments. According to Deputy University Librarian Lewis, “We spent a lot of time talking about what a team is and how it is different from a committee.”

One way in which commitment to the team structure is reinforced is by giving people the time and training they need to maintain and develop the teams. The library administration supports three weeks per year of organizational development, during which workshops address organizational process, leadership, staff development, and planning. During these periods, full- or almost-full-time employees, librarians, professionals, and staff are required to attend the workshops and are able to devote their full attention to strategic and developmental issues. Under the direction of an outside consultant, the library staff has been using the Birkman Assessment Tool to understand individual working styles. When the workshops end, the consultant continues to provide feedback to the team leaders as needed. Two library staff members have also been trained in the Birkman assessment method. Through the use of the Birkman assessment, staff have gained knowledge of how to work together, allowing them to keep personality differences from interfering with work.

Overall, the library staff seem to view the team structure as a key element in achieving far better horizontal communication within the organization.

Faculty Development: Center for Teaching and Learning

The Center for Teaching and Learning gives faculty members the support they need to become more effective teachers. Led by Associate Dean Erwin Boschmann, the center is a cooperation between the Office of Faculty Development, librarians, and the University Information Technology Services. It is housed in the library and high-level library staff hold key administrative positions. The center has two major programs. First, it offers one-on-one consultations for faculty members to assess their teaching. This observation is followed up with appropriate research information to supplement the teaching assessment.

Staff from the Center for Teaching and Learning also provide varied technological expertise for enhancing teaching through the use of multimedia. Faculty members come into the offices in the library to use computer and multimedia equipment reserved for their use. The assistance is also consultative and increasingly includes information about teaching aids. The approach has been to look at needs from the perspective of student learning.

Ann Kratz, the center’s assistant co-director, said that the center provides faculty the opportunity to succeed, or to fail at no cost. They can try out new approaches using new technology or teaching techniques, or both, in an effort to change or enhance their teaching. The center encourages the faculty to help each other and also provides an opportunity for center staff to promote and inform the faculty about the learning communities. Since the other assistant co-director of the center, Bill Orme, also leads the library’s instructional teams, the center staff is able to provide guidance on setting up a learning communities course. The center also serves as a clearinghouse for copies of successful grant applications, tenure and promotion packets, and other documentation for faculty use.

The center also has helped introduce new technological platforms. It has promoted the OnCourse template, which offers faculty members bulletin board, chat room, e-mail, syllabus, and electronic reserves services, as well as access to administrative databases such as registration. More than 400 courses, enrolling some 9,000 students, currently use some form of the OnCourse template, which was developed in 1997. The staff that leads the center is well-versed in the current research literature on teaching, demonstrating that doing something is the best way to learn it. They view technology as a means of delivery (television, video) and as a means of engagement that requires the student to interact at frequent intervals, thus ensuring better learning. Each course using the OnCourse template has a section of tools that are helpful for the specific course. This method of learning encourages moving from concrete to abstract thinking. It also fits the student’s penchant for convenience, providing the opportunity to use it for teaching. The course template has strong central administration support within the university and promotes an interactive pedagogy.


One measure of the success of the learning communities is the size of the operation and the steadily increasing number of courses each semester. No one seemed to view increased demand as an insurmountable problem or as more work simply piled on existing duties. (It is hard to imagine many situations where library staff would face an increase of 40-50 sections of bibliographic instruction in a single year.)

The IUPUI library’s involvement with the learning communities is a remarkable endeavor. Librarians have teamed with faculty as full partners to develop and teach courses that are deemed crucial to the strategic interests of the university. The effort is at the cutting edge of contemporary thinking about technology and pedagogy in higher education. Further, this activity is taking place on a scale rarely seen at comparable institutions.

Conditions of Success

This success has been possible because of a confluence of developments. First, the library has had farsighted leadership. The commitment to technology and a new building were unusual. Under Philip Tompkins, these advantages have been fully exploited. The building provided the opportunity to include elements, such as the Center for Teaching and Learning, that have allowed the library to support many projects. Tompkins has also identified himself closely with institutional priorities. His interest in learning styles theory and its application in libraries fits well with the strategic vision for the University College. Tompkins also saw that the commitment to technology needed to reach across the whole library. He has implemented team-based management, and the associated professional training activities have made technological change less threatening to library staff. Consequently, trust has developed in all quarters.

Second, the corporate culture of the IUPUI library is one not found in many other libraries. There is a belief that the investment in professional development is tied to the success of the enterprise, as evidenced in the commitment to the three annual one-week planning and staff development meetings. This link between the library’s culture and its impact on personal development may best be illustrated when things go wrong. At the IUPUI library, failure does not carry a negative penalty. One can learn from it. Deputy University Librarian David Lewis recounted an early experience with the library’s interface. Earlier versions of the Web browser Mosaic often crashed. Reference librarians learned not to blame the technicians but to try to resolve the problem with a system reboot, an attitude that continues to characterize their work with new software and hardware.

Third, there is adequate funding for most projects and activities. In these times, it is rare to find a university that would put a team of four trained instructors in a classroom for beginning students. The learning communities program, with its courses led by a faculty member, a librarian, a professional advisor and a student mentor, is an example of financial commitment. Another example is the willingness to hire a musicologist-instructional technologist as a consultant to the library faculty.

Next Steps

The library administration and the instructional team leader have focused on how to continue increasing the operation to meet the extraordinary demand for classes. Gayle Williams, University College assistant dean, indicated there is a campus-wide committee looking at the first-year study proposal. Committee members will provide oversight and assessment of the program, as well as suggesting less costly alternatives. Many of the participants acknowledged concerns related to scaling-up of this program and to questions from deans about program coverage.

The future of the learning communities is, therefore, still being defined. There have been discussions of reducing the delivery time frame of the basic skills to a period of 8 weeks instead of 15, to intensify the focus and to help address the disparity of skills among students. More work is needed to understand the relationship of the program’s structure to its impact. There must also be better understanding of which skills are important for the students’ success and of new ways to make effective practices more widely available. The library administration also plans to increase staffing to support the learning communities.

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