Professional development "just for me," "just in time" for the summer

By Christa Williford posted

As summer begins and many of our schedules shift, it's a good time to think again about the place of professional development in our daily working lives. Readers of this blog may remember I first raised this subject in January, asking people to share their own favorite resources and strategies for learning new skills. What first sparked my interest in this topic was a conversation at THATCamp Digital Libraries, in which a group of librarians and scholars discussed the many and varied talents required to work in the digital humanities—it's an intimidating domain, requiring social, technical, and intellectual acumen. Faced with the challenge of improving ourselves on diverse fronts while on the job, where do we begin?

A friend and colleague recently reminded me of the "just in time, just enough, and just for me" mantra of those who promote a lightweight and flexible approach to learning. The smart comments made by readers of my original post resonate well with this notion, in particular the importance of “just for me.” Some of us thrive as learners where a subject is presented more formally and broken down into coherent pieces step-by-step, while others of us prefer to develop new skills in the context of a specific project. Some of us prefer intensely social learning processes, while others of us like to proceed at our own pace. Knowing what works best for us can help us make more effective choices about how to spend the precious time and resources we manage to reserve for professional development.

We’re fortunate to live in a time of great experimentation in online curricula. Finding fee-based courses and workshops or free online course materials to use for self-paced learning isn’t that hard for those who know where to look. Professional organizations such as LITA or SAA (and theirs and other professional conferences), as well as scholarly conferences and events such as DH (the annual conference of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations) and, of course, THATCamp, provide resources suited to the needs and experience of academic librarians. But for developing more general skills, such as basic desktop applications, project management, instruction, or web/graphic design, clicking around on sites such as Coursera, Quora, the Open Courseware Consortium, or (mobile-friendly) OnlineCourses.com can also be worth the effort for those of us who want to see how others have approached and framed these topics. There are many other online directories of this kind: do you have particular favorites?

For learning coding, I've had a couple of reports of positive experience working through the modules of the Codecademy. This recent post from The Digital Shift pulls together this and other similar resources. Our Digital Library Federation staff also suggest the following, which might be of interest to those wishing to learn more about data management/digital curation or linked open data, both of which are domains key to success in the digital humanities:

While structured learning and extensive reading may be the best ways to get started with a new subject, professionals spend far more time learning informally in social situations through interactions with peers and mentors. Making time to attend online lecture or discussion series (or starting your own) can be a good option for those who prefer learning in social contexts and need to make regular time on their schedules for professional development in order to make it happen. Last week, I had a great experience helping lead an online discussion with the Blended Librarians (Facebook community). Are there other groups, discussion boards, webcasts, or podcasts that you find helpful?

To truly master a skill, however, there is no substitute for making use of this skill in the service of something greater, whether it be providing a needed service to others or creating something entirely new. In a comment to my previous post, Alexander Gil Fuentes describes how Barbara Rockenbach and her team at the Columbia University Libraries' Digital Humanities Center are taking this approach. While finding the time to participate in projects outside work is always a challenge, we at CLIR are encouraged to pursue such opportunities. If this strategy has worked for you, I’m curious to hear how you got started working on outside projects, and how you manage balancing this commitment with your other obligations.

I am often guilty of wishing so much that I could learn everything that I give up before I begin; I hear similar stories from the librarians, archivists, and researchers I meet. But we are fortunate to have a range of options to consider—those that suit our constraints and changing needs, as well as learning preferences.

Please continue to share your suggestions of what resources and strategies work for you. If there is interest, we’ll collect them together for a future Re:Thinking post. 

P.S. (June 17, 2013) Christine Fisher has just pointed me to her recent article about professional development resources  specifically for teachers (also linked below). This is an account of current developments in online learning that is much more comprehensive than I could supply in this brief post--a useful introduction for those who want to make effective use of instructional technologies or who advise others who do so. See particularly the sections on "Building Skills that Matter" and "Tools of the Trade."