The Role of the Library Media Specialist in Personalized Learning Environments

An increasing number of schools and teachers are moving away from the traditional “sage on the stage” classroom model toward embracing the principles of personalized learning. In the personalized learning educational model, students are the drivers of their learning, engaging in challenges that correspond with their interests, skills, and learning needs. As schoolwide specialists in information resources, curriculum, and technology integration, the school’s library media specialist / teacher-librarian / innovation specialist (LMS) is positioned for taking on a central role in the process of leading and supporting this transition.

With so many similar 21st-century educational terms being added to our educational nomenclature, it is a challenge for educators to keep up with their definitions. Blended learning, individualized learning, student-centered learning, and competency-based learning are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms. In fact, all of these are incorporated, to some degree, into personalized learning. For definitions, Students at the Center has created this nice glossary of terms. This article provides an overview of personalized learning and the role of the LMS in a personalized learning environment.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is an educational model in which students are the drivers of their learning, engaging in challenges that are meaningful to them and designing ways to demonstrate their proficiency in a given area. Teachers and support staff become co-creators in the process, helping students understand how they learn while teaching how to find content and connect to the resources pertinent to topics of student interest. In this model, assessment is typically based on rubrics created by the student specifically to meet their project goals.

Physical Learning Environments

Optimally, students have access to learning environments that match their learning needs, choosing the place of their learning accordingly. Oftentimes, this means that multiple spaces are needed to allow for the flexibility necessary to capacitate these needs. A group of students engaging in the creation of a hurdy-gurdy will need a different work environment from an individual student listening to recordings to create a video of their family’s story. It is the role of the teacher to help students discover their own learning environment needs—what it sounds like, feels like, looks like—for a given activity.

This need for differentiation of learning environments often leads educators to focus on the furnishings associated with student-centered learning. While it is important to have available the optimal learning environments for any student working on any sort of project, the physical space is secondary to the need for the student to discover how they learn and what sparks their will to learn. In a personalized learning environment, students and teachers co-create a student learner profile to track these things.

Student Learner Profiles

A student learner profile is a regularly edited document that follows a student through their educational journey. It includes self-assessment of the optimal learning environments for different types of activities; the student’s skills and interests; learning strengths and challenges; any modifications that may accompany those challenges; and any other things pertinent to the learning experience for that student.

The Personalized Learning Process 

A student engaged in personalized learning determines the topic, path, and pace of their learning. When a student engages in a new project, they choose a topic that correlates with their interests and is based on the standards and skills required by the curriculum. Whenever possible, projects should be culturally relevant and relevant to the student’s career aspirations. After a topic-narrowing process, students create a rubric that lays out what they need to do to demonstrate proficiency or mastery of the topic as well as a timeline for its completion. Students are empowered to set their own pace, path, and place for the learning. The process is the focus of the teacher. Especially when students are at the early stages of understanding their own learning needs and creating goals, teachers need to be there to help refine them.

Once the project is underway, the teacher rotates through the students checking in on their projects, giving feedback, offering suggestions and resources, helping them find cultural and personal relevance, redirecting, and aiding with assessment. Oftentimes, students pick topics that are too broad, such as basketball, when a much more specific topic is needed, such as instant playbacks in basketball. Depending on the course standards for the unit, this topic can be examined in terms of technology, history, language, culture, math, or science. Cross-curricular projects are more effective when tied in with student interests and skills. Once they have studied an aspect of instant playbacks, in this case, and have demonstrated their mastery of the concepts, then instant playbacks become a part of their knowledge base that can be included in their student learner profile, and if it is exemplary work, added to their portfolio that also travels with them. If they’ve studied the science of instant playbacks for their science class, they are likely to be better prepared to study the history of this topic for their history class.

Ultimately, students are no longer working on a project to get a grade or to please an adult, but because they are learning about things that are important to them, and they have taken control of their own learning. They increasingly know how they learn and the environments they need for learning. They build a base of learning that correlates with their passions and skills, and builds on their previous knowledge. Ultimately, students will be college and career ready as they learn more about their own interests, skills, and learning needs in the course of pursuing topics that interest them in increasing depth.

The Role of the School Library Media Specialist

The school library media specialist can play an important role in this process. Their role may include leading building-wide curriculum modifications to better support personalized learning; providing physical spaces to capacitate the learning needs of students; developing and monitoring systems for tracking students who are working outside of a teacher’s classroom; curating a collection of technology resources; curating culturally relevant digital and print collections to support anytime and anywhere learning; ensuring equitable access to resources; creating and updating universal templates for personalization; instructing teachers and students in the integration of technologies to support learning, digital literacy (including training in discerning the reliability of information sources), digital citizenship, the development of personal scholastic learning networks, presentation platforms, and research skills; modeling personalized instruction; coaching teachers in the process of personalization; helping to ascertain and facilitate cross-curricular connections for student projects; maintaining a professional network to support the needs of researchers so they may connect with subject matter specialists in the larger community; developing and maintaining connections with culturally distinct learning communities for peer feedback and perspectives; cultivating relationships with diverse groups which may serve as authentic audiences for student presentations; providing formative feedback on student projects; and supporting individual students in the research process. LMSs may also play a role in cultivating strong and trusting student-adult relationships, which is necessary when modifying assignments and instructional strategies which correlate best with their individual needs.

Many of these roles are already included in the job of the library media specialist. The most significant differences require the study of personalized learning and the provision of leadership in the actualization of the philosophy. LMSs must proactively acquire or create and then provide universal templates for personalization. Tuning into the needs of individual students may require a more flexible and immediate approach to collection development and learning environments. Their role also includes supporting teachers by helping them transition from the traditional teacher-centered classroom to a student-driven approach. Developing a trusting relationship with teachers is important to one’s ability to provide support. Students should see the LMS as their learning advocate and as a resource for the design and implementation of their research process. As a school matures into a more personalized environment and systems are put in place for personalized learning, the LMS is able to spend increasing amounts of time on the most important and least urgent needs, following a design process that iterates through cycles of empathizing with individual student needs; gathering resources and brainstorming ideas to mitigate issues; curating and categorizing ideas; prototyping learning activities and receiving feedback about them; and reviewing/reflecting on the learning.

As you may have gleaned by now, to fully embrace personalized learning, schools and teachers must entirely redesign the ways in which students are grouped and taught. The role of the library media specialist also needs to morph to support this new student-driven educational model.

If you are interested in delving deeper into this topic, the ASCD has curated this list of resources about personalized learning. For a deep dive into personalized learning, Learn Next has teamed up with 2Revolutions to create free self-paced courses on personalized learning and related topics.