Nine Student Needs Academic Librarians Need to Know | From the Bell Tower

Undergraduates are not the only user group of concern to academic librarians, but they consume significant amounts of our time and energy. Knowing these nine emerging needs of future students could better inform our service planning and design.
Steven BellUndergraduates are not the only user group of concern to academic librarians, but they consume significant amounts of our time and energy. Knowing these nine emerging needs of future students could better inform our service planning and design. If asked what skills the typical college student needs to succeed academically as as well as after graduation, most academic librarians would likely focus their response on information- or research-related competencies. Given our areas of expertise, that makes sense. No doubt we would point to other emerging areas of interest too, such as privacy and data literacy, critical thinking, a growth mindset, or social justice awareness, where we could contribute to the development of a well-rounded skill set. To what extent would our list of students’ needs match up with those our colleagues in other academic units might highlight? A project called Student Needs 2025+ yields some insight into what future student needs will be beyond our library and information perspective. The short-term, possibly disruptive, future in which student lives will evolve is expected to create significant challenges for higher education.

Some Background

Student Needs 2025+ seeks to provide a unique perspective on the future of higher education by using the World Café format to bring together current and prospective students, faculty, alumni, and other stakeholders to respond to the question, “What will college students need in 2025?” Participants were asked to consider the needs of traditional, first generation, and adult learners. They were also given, in advance, future scenarios for areas such as living, learning, working, playing, connecting, and participating. The result was a list of over 300 needs. These were then distilled down to a group of nine, non-ranked emerging needs of undergraduates. The final document makes no mention of the participation of academic librarians, so it’s unlikely their perspectives are reflected.

Nine Needs

The team tasked to come up with the core needs list was careful to focus on specifying each need and consider potential services or offerings to meet it. Here’s what the team identified as the top nine, along with my commentary on how academic librarians can contribute to filling them.
  • Re-skilling: Students need to know what skills they will need and how to master them. What we can do: The report identifies 26 specific skills, from bartering to hacking. Several are relevant to the work of academic librarians, such as critical thinking, technological literacy, and problem solving.
  • Mentoring: Students need personalized guidance on what to do next and on other life lessons. What we can do: The report describes a mentor as “life coach,” helping students acquire skills for college and workplace success. While life coach may be a bit more than academic librarians would offer, there is strong evidence that academic library staff mentor student workers, and that could possibly extend to other students. We can certainly contribute to an institutional effort to meet this need.
  • Continuous and real-time feedback: Students need to know how they are doing so they can continuously improve in order to “keep up” and move forward. What we can do: The report draws a connection between student success and timely feedback in and beyond the classroom. In order to improve and stay directed, students need regular updates on where they stand. Assessment is a strength academic librarians have established over the years, and they can adapt their expertise to provide feedback to students. In real time? It will help to adopt the analytics and reporting technologies recommended in the report. Then again, we may offer better, non-technological ways to meet this need.
  • Frameworks (for navigating new uncertainties): Students need to know what to do in various situations, particularly novel ones. What we can do: Not exactly the framework academic librarians are discussing these days, but the report does speak to giving students guidelines for structures for operating in ambiguous situations. While academic librarians may not be qualified to advise students on living and working with others, they can help them acquire strategies for learning. Most of these are navigable through the acquisition of information, and academic librarians can contribute to an institutional strategy for developing these frameworks.
  • Credentials: Students need to document knowledge, skills, and experiences acquired. What we can do: The report describes a future society in which our students always need to report and share how they obtain new skills. Academic librarians are already exploring how to work with students to enable them to gather credentials when they acquire library-based skills—a component of the research skills needed for life-long learning. Although much of this information will be captured in transcript-type documents or e-portfolios, our expertise with content curation may be of value as well.
  • Experiences: Students need contact with people and the world for hands-on learning. What we can do: Put simply, what tomorrow’s students experience outside the classroom is just as—if not more—important than what they learn in it. We can certainly contribute to students’ learning outside the classroom, but we need to do a better job of giving them an authentic learning experience. That means less herding students into library instruction spaces and more research- and problem-based learning that explores real-life challenges.
  • Personalized instruction: Students need the means to acquire relevant knowledge and skills customized to their individual style. What we can do: Since most academic library education is geared to teaching classes, not individuals, this one presents a greater challenge. The report forecasts a world of learning tools allowing individualized interaction. Academic librarians tend to lag when it comes to adopting cutting-edge learning technology, and many of us tend to be cynical about those that employ big data and analytics. While we may be less well prepared to adapt to students’ need for personalized instruction, it’s something to which we can begin paying more attention.
  • Spaces, tools, and templates: Students need physical and virtual supportive environments and tools for pursuing and acquiring knowledge and skills. What we can do: If students will do more learning outside the classroom and it’s of a more personalized nature, then higher education will need to create the physical and virtual spaces that facilitate these new types of learning. Academic librarians have met student needs in virtual spaces for years, so they are well adapted for it. Physical spaces provide greater challenges. Many academic libraries are stuck, physically, in the 20th century. Changing learning styles will only accelerate clashes over whether physical libraries are still of value.
  • Differentiation: Students need to find and communicate their personal value proposition that distinguishes “who they are.” What we can do: Since this relates to how students will develop their personal brand and distinguish who they are, there may be less opportunity for the academic library to meet this need. If the library continues to evolve as a place of personal discovery and making, there may be more possibilities for it to support student efforts to differentiate themselves from their classmates.

Need to Know

Given the steady stream of reports generated by higher education associations, think tanks, and research institutes, it’s hard to determine which demand our attention and which may be ignored. While Student Needs 2025+ was written for audiences other than academic librarians, we should take a closer look at the report to get a better sense of what to expect from future students. We can use it for environmental scans, strategic mission development, and planning for a new generation of students. Perhaps, like me, they will strike you as needs that academic librarians are already working to meet, or are at least capable of meeting, as well as a few we may actively question. I’m not quite sure what to expect in 2025, but if we prepare now, no matter what direction learning and research is headed, academic librarians can actively engage in contributing to the success of college students today and tomorrow.

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