Martin B. Wolske and his students do their learning and teaching with the people who live in marginalized and underserved communities. Wolske, research scientist and adjunct lecturer at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (GSLIS), teaches the Introduction to Networked Information Systems class. Students in the course begin to understand how the use and application of technology reflect our society, and as Wolske puts it “what is encountered when you try to use that technology in communities already dismissed by that society.”
The course has developed in tandem with Wolske’s growing involvement with the University’s Community Informatics Initiative (CII), a program that aims to empower marginalized communities in Illinois through access to networked information, computer technology, and resources.
Rumyana Hristova, in her second year as a student at GSLIS, was chosen by fellow students Anna Coats, Stacey Snyder, Sayer Jackson, and Zachary Matthews, all of whom took the course last spring, to write their group nomination of Wolske for the LJ Teaching Award.
“The work with the community has served as a real-life platform for introducing us to the core values, philosophy and principles of public librarianship and community work: collaboration, equality, intellectual freedom, tolerance, respect for difference, team work, comradeship, leadership, mutual support and dedicated service to the community. Another crucial aspect of this course, which, in fact, underpins the whole work with the community, is the development of the students’ critical thinking skills,” says Hristova.
“That is about what I try to do,” says Wolske, laughing and surprised at the scope of their praise. For that course, his view of the course and the CII, the student reports of what they learned, and the larger “service learning” aspect of the effort Martin Wolske has won the 2011 LJ Teaching Award, sponsored by ProQuest.
Through this “service learning” experience, the students get a unique opportunity to build a computer laboratory as the final outcome of their course project while the community receives a modern computer laboratory as a gift, tailored to their specific needs and for which they are always immensely grateful, Hristova goes on to report.
Such an initiative requires extensive investment in setting up relationships in communities, nurturing them and keeping them strong, creating appropriate projects for the students to undertake, and continually seeking resources. Those resources are mostly donations of funds and computers.
Many different organizations, some foundation funded based and others government funded, donate their old computers when they upgrade. One local hospital upgrades every three years and it buys good computers. The students do much more than just refurbish the computers and get them out. The process gives Wolske a way to help students appreciate the possibilities and limits of the use technology in communities.
“Implementing the technology in these communities is not a simple and easy thing. The best result is when students walk away saying: ‘Wow! This is extraordinarily complex. This is not something that can be answered through the simple exercise of more widely distributing technology. This requires a lot more study and a lot more consideration of the particular place where you are doing it. There isn’t one simple answer for every community,’” says Wolske.
“Dr. Wolske has managed to find an almost a perfect formula for connecting the community and his students, for the maximum benefit of both,” says Hristova.
A mentored mentor
Wolske says he is “extraordinarily fortunate” at GSLIS, where he has always been given the freedom to design his own tasks. “I’ve been trusted,” he says.
He was hired and encouraged by Leigh Estabrook, now dean emeritus, to run servers for Prairienet, a local network created for faculty, staff, and students at GSLIS units of the University to interact with long-term and new community partners. Some resistance to the idea was overcome. “You know the force Estabrook can bring to a table,” says Wolske. He was and is strongly supported by Linda Smith, now associate dean for academics.
Curt Leech, emeritus professor of experimental psychology at Anderson University in Indiana, was a key mentor and is still a close friend of Wolske. Leech was the source of inspiration for the ways Wolske develops strong and enduring relationships with students.
Ann Bishop, associate professor at GSLIS who was named University Scholar in January, and Chip Bruce, professor emeritus at GSLIS, founded the CII. Both mentored Wolske in the insights of service learning and especially inquiry, and both have been integral in the development of a community informatics specialization at GSLIS.
“Bishop’s research exemplifies inquiry in the world. It shows that ideas are not abstractions removed from our lived experience, but instead become tools for learning about the world in a connected way, for acting responsibly in the world, and for transforming the world into a more just and caring place,” says Bruce. Building such communities of inquiry is what has motivated Wolske. They have roots in the work of John Dewey and the practice of Jane Addams of Hull House.
“I found that the way I am able to now work in communities allows me the perfect bridge. I am still very passionate about serving other people and helping other people. The way I now do it allows me to care passionately about all of these different individuals in all the communities, but to keep enough distance so that I remain creative. If the focus, for instance, is on teaching these students how to work with technology, I can do it in a way that is creative with the students and just as creative on behalf of the community,” says Wolske. This stance helps him to understand what it means to bring about justice.
“I have come to appreciate more and more that technology itself is one way to propagate the many injustices in our society because it tends to reflect the society. I work to help students understand this so that as they go out to the communities they are more able to construct technology applications that begin to bring about justice,” Wolske argues. “Technology by itself will never bring about justice, but it can set up a framework in which people can work toward issues of justice. The key is to carefully construct it so it doesn’t reinforce injustice, but actually becomes a platform for building justice.”
A way for libraries
Libraries, Wolske says, can have an expanded purpose if they further embrace this thinking. “I think libraries could develop a role as Jane Addams did at Hull House. They could be a place where people can come together, have technology that is exactly right for their inquiry. Yet the way we often implement technology emphasizes that a library has technology because people don’t have it at home. That leads to the fallacious idea that once everybody has it at home we won’t need to have it in the library. In one discussion several academic libraries reported that their universities required that every student have a laptop, but we haven’t seen any decrease at all in the use of our public computing. We need public computing. Now we build as if computing is something that is done by an individual instead of building for computing as something that is done in communities as a community activity in itself,” Wolske says.
The key question for Wolske is how to do a better job introducing technology into communal spaces. To get an answer, he asserts, we’ll need much more study and reflection and the support and help of many.
Hands on to dig deep
His goal is to be sure all the voices speak and are really heard, so the ideas articulated can become part of teacher thinking that includes the both the student perspective and the community perspective. His course and teaching “gets students under the hood,” so they can understand why information systems crash or what makes them work. In one exercise, they completely take apart and reassemble a computer before lunch.
Students graduate with a much deeper appreciation of what is a big change and what is just a simple variant on what is already there, what is evolutionary or revolutionary. They learn, as Wolske puts it, “that the process of technological innovation is one-third technical and two-thirds social.”
His students express that social intelligence regarding him. “He has taught us, or rather, shown us through his personal example, how to be engaged citizens and how to become more compassionate human beings. For the students he is just Martin always extremely approachable and totally committed to helping students in any possible way. He is a very modest person, yet a master of his field, a rare combination of qualities. He has perfected an optimum balance between theory, practice and research. He stresses that student feedback is extremely important so that he can continue to improve and enrich the course content,” writes Hristova. “This ultimately ensures the continuity and consistency of both the course and the hundreds of successful community projects that are implemented through it. This continuity is guaranteed by the full documentation of the projects, which students’ teams are required to provide in the blog posted on Prairienet (www.prairienet.org).”
Encapsulating what he teaches and why he teaches it, Wolske says, “Librarians come from a tradition of trying to hear from the entire community. Librarians must listen to the whole community not just the privileged.”
Wolske’s work is supported by the GSLIS Community Engagement Fund, which supports service-learning projects in the School. Donations to this fund are used to purchase products and equipment utilized in service learning classes, many of which may be donated to the community organization with whom the students are working.