"Shouldn't All Learning Be Engaged?": Engaged Learning and Academic Libraries

librarians and students work on scanner design

U-M librarians work with students on a design for a low-cost linear book scanner.

In higher education over the last several years, interest in and momentum around engaged learning has grown substantially, although engaged learning is by no means a new approach to skill and knowledge development. As a pedagogical approach, engaged learning foregrounds lived experience and emphasizes practice in authentic settings—often bridging curricular and co-curricular, classroom and clinic, local and global—to enable learners to develop effective habits of thought and action that will prepare them to address contemporary societal problems in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex.

At Michigan, engaged learning is gaining a lot of traction:  it is one of the three priorities in the current Victors For Michigan campaign; centers and offices around the topic are opening or expanding, including the Center for Engaged Academic Learning in LSA, the Office of Global and Engaged Education in the Provost’s Office, and the Edward Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning in Student Life; and it is the focus of numerous lucrative grants available to faculty and staff through the Third Century Initiative.

Our library became involved with this growing campus movement early on with the formation of an Engaged Learning Task Force, chaired by Amanda Peters since 2013. As the task force took shape, we found ourselves asking, “shouldn’t all learning be engaged?” because initially we latched onto the student ownership piece of this pedagogical approach—framing engaged as analogous to active—though we came to understand that it is really the emphasis on real-world problems, practice, parameters, and impact that make engaged learning distinct and especially relevant to today’s learners. To this end, our task force has been working to develop greater understanding of and interest in engaged learning throughout the library and across campus, including hosting numerous events, building partnerships, and developing programs and resources. 

Academic libraries are well-placed and well-prepared to play a key role in this cultural shift toward engagement—especially ours, thanks to our expertise in learning, teaching, technology, and research; our comprehensive collections; our flexible and innovative spaces; our student-focused services and programs; and our broad campus network and strong partnerships with faculty, staff, student organizations, and community groups.
How has the library been involved in supporting and developing engaged learning opportunities on campus? Examples include but are certainly not limited to:

Building a Low-Cost Linear Book Scanner

Over the last several years, a team of librarians have worked closely with faculty and students from Mechanical Engineering 450 to develop ongoing improvements for a low-cost linear book scanner. The goal of the project is to develop a workable scanner that costs less than $1,000 to build and enables libraries of all sizes around the world to digitally preserve their books. The library team attends nearly every design review session throughout the term to see their progress, and ask and answer questions. Allowing for the design to be available as open-source ensures that libraries can access the information from anywhere in the world, build their own scanner, and try to improve the design to fit their needs.

Conducting Research on/with Communities

Librarians often help students conduct research on and with the communities they engage through service, research, and/or work—both locally and globally. From exploring census data in the Data Driven Detroit database to conducting research on specific countries and regions, librarians help students focus on identifying collections and materials of interest, gathering required documents and permissions for access, and making contacts with local experts and institutions to make sure they are amply prepared for and during their engaged learning experiences.

MPortfolio: Reflection and Integration in International Programs

In addition to helping students on the front-end of their engaged learning opportunities, the library also helps students reflect on these experiences to better understand their meaning and impact. For example, library staff partner with two groups from the International Center to help students reflect upon and better understand their global and intercultural experiences, including developing reflective prompts and activities; facilitating integrative and reflective learning processes; designing eportfolio templates; and providing technical support. Students in the Michigan International Internship and Service Program (MIISP) begin developing an eportfolio before they go abroad for work or service opportunities and do substantial reflection upon their return to better understand the intercultural, interpersonal, and professional skills they gained while abroad. Students on the International Center Student Council (ICSC) are international students who are studying here at Michigan, and the eportfolio provides an opportunity for them to make meaning of and connections between their academic, personal, and professional experiences here and in their home countries.

Visit the library’s website for more examples of library partnerships around engaged learning.