University of Illinois

Wolske receives 2011 Library Journal Teaching Award

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.

Building relationships

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.

Bringing justice

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