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"Triangle of Competences" as one of the basic characteristics of the university library learning environment

 Palmira Juceviciene & Gintare Tautkeviciene Gintare
Kaunas University of Technology

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Lisbon, 11-14 September 2002

Contemporary higher education undergoes great changes, which are influenced by changing academic, information, and technological environment as well as market economics. With respect to learning paradigm (J.Bowden, F. Marton, 1998) as well as the conception of life-long learning (Longworth, N. 1999) in the university one seeks to create flexible learning environments. Referring to this standpoint, an academic library becomes a partner and active participant of study process (B.G. Wilson, 1996). Constantly changing academic and information environment raises new requirements for the competence of academic community members. This problem is broad and calls for a deeper study. First of all, the very concept of "learning environment" requires some precise definition as though recently it is often applied in library studies it still remains more declarative than scientifically based concept. Learning environment, interpreting it in the context of learning paradigm, acquires its complex structure and exerts its enabling influence. At the same time learning environment calls for a new consideration of the competences of its participants - librarians, students, teachers/researchers - that are necessary for the activity based on their interaction in the learning environment of university library.

The purpose of this article is to base the "triangle of competences" in general concept of learning environment of university library.

The following objectives are defined:

1. To specify the concept of learning environment in the context of the learning occurring in the university.
2. To reveal the concept of university library learning environment and its characteristics.
3. To base the structure of the "triangle of competences" while discussing the necessary competences of students, librarians, teachers/researchers.
4. To reveal the problems of the functioning of the triangle of competences in the practice of university library work.

The methods employed are literature studies and meta analysis.

1. The concept of learning environment in the context of the learning that takes part in the university.

A big number of educational researchers have recently applied a new approach towards learning in their analysis of learning process. They emphasize a constructive nature of learning, which is being analysed as cognitive and environment based phenomenon. Two main complementary approaches are defined:

Socio - cultural approach. Learning takes place through the process of social interaction (Vygotsky, 1978, Lave & Wenger, 1991, Marton & Bowden, 1998). It always takes place in a particular context with its emotional, organizational, physical and cultural characteristics (Novak, 1998). Students gain new knowledge through the social interaction. The main characteristic of learning is that it creates "zone of proximal development", i.e. learning involves different inner processes of development that can be developed with peer collaboration or communication with advanced learners (Vygotsky, 1978). Lave & Wenger (1991) analyse learning as everyday activity that normally occurs in an educational institution, at home or workplace. Situated learning is a process when learner participates in a community of practice and learns form more experienced colleagues (Wenger, 1998). Knowledge needs to be presented in an authentic context, i.e., settings and applications that would normally involve that knowledge. Learning requires social interaction and collaboration.

Constructivist approach. Learning is an active and constructive process. Instead of being passive recipients of information, learners are actively involved in a process of knowledge and skills construction. They employ their already existing formal and informal knowledge and interact with the environment. "Learning occurs through a process of assimilating concepts into the cognitive structures by either subsuming concepts under each other, by progressively differentiating concepts from each other or by reconciling the similarities between concepts" (Novak, 1998). Learners actively invent knowledge by building relations and applying their experience. Constructivist approach to learning is based on the idea that meaning making involves the analysis and synthesis of experience in a certain way that creates a new understanding. Learning should foster the integration of thinking, emotions and activity. While learner is constructing a new meaning, learning activity should involve experience, knowledge, opinions, thoughts, emotions and actions.

On of the aims of constructivist learning is to build a "shared meaning among learning process facilitators and learners or in a group of learners. Learners together with their teachers explore the relationship between incoming new information and existing experience and in that way they reach a common understanding.

Reflection and meta cognitive skills are the essential aspects of knowledge and meaning making. The constructivist approach urges for the development of learning to learn competence. The reflective and meta cognitive learning strategies play the main role in creating the learning environments.

According to constructivist approach, a learning environment is student-centered. The representatives of constructivism theory (Wilson, 1996) argue that "at minimum, a learning environment contains: the learner and "setting" or "space" wherein the learner acts, using tools and devices, collecting and interpreting information, interacting perhaps with others". Learning environment involves the participants (students, teachers, etc.), data, information, knowledge and different channels of its transmission to learners (Bowden & Marton, 1998). Learning environments can be natural or intentionally organized.

Valuable learning environment is characterized by the main features: it has to have positive developmental impact on individual, i.e. the ability based on educational value and expressed by means to help a person to get prepared for solving his/her life and activity problems. The organization of learning environments requires the understanding that different individuals perceive a concrete learning environment differently: the same environment could foster or inhibit the learning of different persons. This is because each individual does not accept a learning environment as it is or as we create it. Instead, he/she accepts a learning environment according to his/her own perception based on the existing experience. A student- centered learning environment is based on the notion that learners have different learning goals, different knowledge and different attitudes, different learning styles. So, the development of flexible and student-centered learning environments calls for the evaluation of learners' individual differences: core competence, approach to learning, learning needs, motivation and individual learning style.

A rich learning environment should employ as many components as to ensure a possibility to reach different learning goals and to use different learning styles. The learners personally decide what is significant for them, because such efforts encourage for better results and stimulates a learning activity.

An empowering learning environment should be organized in such a way that an individual feels himself/herself capable and powerful for personal development that is implemented through learning efforts. The empowering learning environments are characterised by diversity, choice, and adequacy to learner's needs. The possibility to choose the place and time for learning is considered to be also important for building the empowering learning environment.

So, a learning environment could be defined as a space or location where a learner interacts with information sources (with more experienced individuals as well) and acquires knowledge, skills and values by means of constructive, strong-willed, deliberate activity that is based on purposiveness and reflection.

Having evaluated the above statements and referring to Jonassen, Land (2000) who submitted the characteristics of empowering learning environment, the essential features of empowering learning environment should be as follows:

- Knowledge needs to be presented in an authentic context, i.e., settings and applications that would normally apply that knowledge.
- Learning requires social interaction and collaboration.
- Learning involves thinking, emotions and activity, that is why a learning environment embraces the diverse environmental factors: physical, emotional and cultural.
- Learning requires learner's interactivity with a learning environment, i.e. not only environment has to make a developmental impact on an individual, the individual has to be engaged into the constant rethinking of his/her interaction with this learning environment.
- Each learner because of his/her competence, experience and learning goals perceives a learning environment individually.

Among these features two aspects should be defined as extremely problematic:

1. Learning goal (-s), i.e. bearing in mind that a learner has a certain set of goals. How should a learner identify a single goal or several goals that serve best to use a learning environment available for him/her within the given time? If an individual is extremely concentrated on one particular activity, most probably his/her receptivity for the diversity of learning environment factors weakens. It seems better that he/she could proactively use as much the learning environment possibilities as they exist in the time and space. So, a fixed and narrow learning goal, that is desirable in common educational situations, could perform a restrictive role in case of a learning environment. More specifically, this narrow learning goal could reduce the possibilities of learning environment to make an impact on an individual and, despite the factor-rich environment, extract that factor(s) which only matches the stressed learning goal leaving aside a lot of other possibilities.

On the other hand, the question arises if the tolerance of several essential learning goals simultaneously does not burden learning process and distract learner's attention. In that case one should consider the learner's relationship with his/her learning goals and information embedded in a learning environment. These issues are related to learner's information competence and its constant development.

2. Interactivity or, more specifically, the problem of its identification: how to define the impact of learning environment on learning process? The interactivity has a double significance. It is significant for the learner in enabling him/her to realize self-directed, deliberate learning and to use in the best way his/her learning environment. The impact is significant for the educator, because he/she creates this learning environment and takes care about it's development, therefore he/she needs a feedback. The constant development of learner and educator's special competence of learning environment development and management as well as meta learning competence are important in this aspect.

The above discussed issues bring to the surface another more fundamental problem: Are the educators, who care about the provision of learning environments for the learners in any event, able to create such a diversity of learning environments? Isn't it necessary for educators to build an educational environment open for learning which has a multidimensional potential for self-transformation into the actual learning environments for the particular persons. This educational environment open for learning has to embrace a great number of rich and empowering learning environments that are being identified by the particular persons. And the organization of educational environment should enable an individual to easily identify and interact with the learning environment relevant to his/her learning goal (-s).

2. The concept of university library learning environment and its characteristics.

In these latter years an academic library has undergone the huge and never ending changes that take place both in information and academic environments. The library becomes one of the potential university learning environment characterised by the richness of information. Then the question arises: is every space of the library considered to be a learning environment? The richness of information on its own does not ensure the creation of a learning environment. In a library space an individual who knows his/her learning goal or goals, has to identify an environment that helps to implement these goals. That is why an educational environment open to learning has to be created in the library. An educational environment is a space where the pursuit of educational goals is implemented by developing the competence, material, administrative, psychological and studying conditions. The educational environment would meet the needs of implemented study programmes and incorporate the goals for lifelong development of its participants' information and meta learning competencies. Therefore, it has to have the multidimensional potential of learning environments.

The academic curriculum goals and content have penetrated into the educational environment of university library. So the latter is influenced by the content of study programmes. This educational environment should have a well-defined context of a learning environment. The educational environment of the university library is characterised by the following academic specificity:

- It is an integral part of university educational system;
- It has to interact with all educational environments of university study programmes;
- Its regular clients - students, teachers, scientists, administration staff - communicate with each other;
- Its selectivity depends on the client group.

The development of information and communication means influences the uprise of new information production, storage, processing and submitting ways and the continuous development in the library (Dowler, 1997). Modern technical and technological facilities change the library status from being solely a traditional learning environment to a virtual learning environment. Such a possibility to be a virtual learning environment increases the flexibility of a learning environment enabling to choose the location and time for studying. The richness of information sources, the provision of technical and technological means create more conditions for building the educational environment in the library as well as its learning environments.

So, the university library learning environment is an individualised learning space established from the library's educational environment; it is a physical and/or virtual space of the library which is recognized according to learner's experience, competence and learning goals. It has an influence on a learner and involves the information, that meets the individual's learning goal (-s), its receiving and assimilating methods and tools. Other participants (peers, librarians etc.) also may be an important part of the learning environment.

Two features are emphasized in this learning environment: content (which reflects valuable learning information) and context (a library forms its educational environment perceived by a learner as a totality which influences his/her learning process).

Meeting the changes and satisfying the emergent continuous learning needs, an academic library has to undergo constant transformation and foresee the perspectives of further development including the regular renewal and improvement of an educational environment (learning environments as well). It betokens that organizational learning is crucial, so a library has to be a learning organization. One of the main characteristics of learning organization is the transformation of hierarchical organizational structure into the network organization.

University library as learning environment is the network of librarians', students', teachers'/researchers' learning in partnership where the necessary information for the development and improvement of every individual and their organizations is circulating. All members of learning in partnership have to be competent in order to receive and exchange information in the network of learning in partnership, which is being implemented through university library learning/educational environment. If the librarians, students, teachers and researchers are the main members of such an organization, then their competence should be analysed as the triangle of competencies.

3. The structure of the triangle of competences while discussing the necessary competences of students, librarians, teachers/researchers.

If the library strives to become a learning environment, all actors (students, teachers, librarians) within the library learning/educational environment should be able to identify themselves in this environment and to be competent to conduct a learning activity. If the competences of the above mentioned actors are perceived as crucial condition for the successful development and functioning of library learning environment, the main attention should be devoted to the continuous learning of these participants and competence development at the levels of individual, group/team and organization. The learning of all types takes place together. An individual learns by reading information, carrying out the activity, exchanging information or discussing with colleagues. Team learning occurs when two or more individuals act and learn from experience. Learning in teams forms organizational memory, because individual's knowledge gained through discussions became a shared organizational asset. System learning fosters systemic processes: to acquire, to use and communicate the organizational knowledge.

 1 picture. The triangle of competences for university library learning environment 

The triangle of competences is made from the individual competences of library learning environment participants (placed in the angles of the triangle) and the competence of library organizational learning that fills in the space of the triangle. The latter competence is the main competence of library as learning organization, i.e. the ability of library as organization to accumulate and develop the information and understanding that are necessary for the development of organization as a social system (Probst&Buchel, 1997). Within the university library context this means the collaboration of librarians, teachers and students in creating the library educational environment meaningful for study programmes.

Alongside the competence mentioned above, each participant in library learning environment needs the individual skills that are based on certain knowledge. The skills and knowledge together with personal attitudes and values are characterised by the following competences: information, communication, meta learning, group or team working.

Information competence. In library learning environment a significant position among the transferable competences is occupied by information competence, often named as the information literacy (Bruce, & Candy 2000). Information literacy is one of the most important condition of competence which enables learner's effective learning in library learning environment (Abbott, 2001). The abilities of information competence are described in The Standards of Information Literacy Competence for Higher Education presented by 2000 ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries): determinate the extent of the information need; assess needed information effectively and efficiently; evaluate information and its sources critically and incorporate selected information into knowledge base and value system; use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose; understand economic, legal and social issues surrounding use of information and access use information ethically and legally.

Communication competence embodies knowledge, abilities and attitudes to effectively exchange written and oral information in a verbal and non verbal way, as well as knowledge about communicating, abilities and personal traits that help a person to be accepted by others and to understand other people. The competence also incorporates the ability to act in a group or partnership networks.

Meta learning competence is made of individuals' ability: to set learning needs and learning goals; to define their relations with educational goals; to develop a learning contract and follow it in a responsible way; to form a personal learning plan; to reflect (applying single-loop, double loop and triple-loop (or process) learning); to build a meaning; to learn in a group; to know one's learning style and apply it in diverse learning environments; to identify prior (particularly experiential); to explicate them and base on facts; to prepare a competence portfolio, to have an attitude for lifelong learning.

The competence of team work consists of the abilities to cooperate, to exchange information, express positive expectations, solicit inputs, empower others, build team, resolve conflicts (Spencer&Spencer, 1993). This kind of competence is necessary for learning in a group, working on joint projects and research.

All the competences has to be based on critical thinking that is defined as an ability to analyse and evaluate a situation and thoughts from different perspectives and to choose the most rational and grounded position which is open to improvement and suggestions from other persons. The critical thinking is the keystone of reflective thinking that allows to evaluate what was learnt, seen and experienced.

Alongside the competences that are common to all participants of library learning environment, every group of participants require their specific group competence.

The specific competence of librarians. The changes in academic and information environment cause the emergence of librarians' new and unusual roles: information manager, consultant, educator, network navigator, electronic publisher, multimedia designer, etc. Thus, the library requires employees who have to be not only the experts of library stocks, but the professionals in creation and development of educational environment open to learning, working in and with learning environments, working together with teachers on the curriculum development (Kirby et al., 1998). The successful functioning of the library often calls for the joint efforts of several professionals (librarians, informatics specialists, educationalists, managers). The librarians more often show efforts to gain the multi professional competence by themselves. The idea that the term "librarian" does not completely describe the functions attributed to the present employees of the library becomes rational more and more often. So, the new terms such as "information professionals" (Ungern-Sternberg, S., 2000 ), "infomediares" (Biddiscombe, 2001), "cybrarians" (Morgan, 1996) are offered as a result of these discussions. If the librarians are to develop the contemporary competence, all of them have to engage in lifelong learning, the development and renewal of their competence.

The specific competence of teacher embodies disciplinary, pedagogical, psychological, managerial knowledge and abilities, values and attitudes, i.e. everything that makes a teacher competent to ensure the student's self-realization in study process, to develop and realize educational environments aiming to transform them into learning environments. A teacher has to employ multicultural skills, knowledge of foreign languages, the abilities of multicultural education and working skills with traditional and non traditional students (Jucevicienė, 2001). According to learning paradigm, teachers give priority to building the student's learning possibilities instead of teaching activity. A teacher should be able to evaluate students' activity and learn from his/her own experience (Ramsden, 1998). Reflection is an important opportunity for teacher development encouraging them to formulate principles and rules, to develop their own theories as a framework for organizing learning process. More elaborated form of reflection is research, so the competence for action research becomes crucial.

The specific competence of students. Next to the core competence based on transferable skills students need a particular special competence. It consists of basic (initial) understanding the curriculum subjects and skills for applying that knowledge. Moreover, some pedagogical knowledge and skills are appreciated for several purposes: for the students participation in the development and improvement of curriculum, the creative selection of the most relevant learning environment in library educational environment, the activity in this learning environment aims to achieve a learning goal (-s).

The competences of all participants of library learning environment (librarians, teachers and students) are interrelated and complement one another. The partnership among the participants of learning environment (Simons et al., 2000; Rader, 1998) expands their individual competences and creates the conditions for their learning from each other. In that way the organizational learning is achieved: learning in partnership networks creates a synergy effect of participants' competences, i.e. that effect is bigger than the sum of participants' individual competences.

4. The problems of the implementation of the triangle of competences in the practice of university library work

The display of university library educational environment and its learning environments could be different in different countries and universities. It largely depends on the general standard of country's development in economics, techniques and technologies, the culture and traditions of particular university, etc. Nevertheless, there are some general requirements, especially concerning the triangle of competences. While developing the library educational/learning environments, the situation analysis and assessment of the concrete university have to be carried out. The assessment should consider the material, psychological and competence conditions at university with the special emphasis on the level of triangle of competences and that required minimum.

The competence of students and teachers' information literacy as an integral part of core competences is significant for the successful learning activity. Is information literacy as a basic condition considered to be a problem in the university practice? The research data submitted by different authors claim that this problem really exists. It will be considered by the analysis of several examples.

Our research on 200 first year students at Kaunas University of Technology (Lithuania) revealed that the level of student information literacy is not sufficient and most often does not match the level of information and communication technologies development (Tautkevičienė, 1999). The students use and know little about the services of interlibrary loan (4 %), a big number of students do not even know about this information service (23 %). A small number of students are able to search in computer catalogues of other libraries (15 %), to use electronic information sources in Internet (25 %) and CD-ROM (16 %), only few students are able to apply received information and their information skills in the other subjects. Though, the library employees at this university show the efforts in improving the competence of students and teachers information literacy (they provide the individual consultations, organize presentations and short time courses, prepared the information literacy training courses ( as the activity of DEDICATE project both in national and English languages in Internet). Unfortunately, librarians' efforts to integrate the programmes of information literacy and academic studies do not always receive a proper attention and support from teachers and university administration.

The research on organizational culture at Kaunas University of Technology (Poskienė, Juceviciene, 1998) revealed that parity relationship between teachers and students is being partly implemented as well. The university lacks active collaboration and communication environment, psychological and material conditions. There is some shortfall of critical thinking traditions at university: the features of critical thinking are obvious in study process, but they are not explicit in the relationship between the university and external environment.

In 2001 the experiment was conducted in Lithuania at universities, namely in social, humanities, fundamental and technical fields of study. The research aimed to create the educational environment that empowers students to study (Juceviciene, Lipinskiene, 2001). Alongside the positive results received, the research highlighted some problems. One of them: students perceive differently the needs of information competence and the identification of information sources, moreover, these needs are insufficiently revealed.

The development of educational and respectively learning environments emphasizes the significance of both information literacy and the ability and attitude to act in partnership networks. The researchers of Lund University (Sweden) carried out a pilot project "Students - librarians - teachers" (Torhell, Andersson& Sjoo, 2001). This project was a trial to develop the partnership networks among the participants of learning process, aiming to ensure the effective learning environment and to foster students' abilities to use information sources in different formats. The results indicated that teachers and librarians have not been the equal partners in organizing a learning process yet.

So, the review of several examples allows to assume that the members of academic community, especially teachers, librarians and researchers, are expected to make a long and difficult journey in searching the proper level of the triangle of competences and developing library educational and learning environments.


In the most common sense a learning environment is the learning supporting qualities of the space which surrounds an individual and an organization.

Learning environment has to be valuable, empowering and rich.

The essence of contemporary educational environments developed in educational institutions is the receptivity for learning, i.e. during the selection process the most suitable empowering learning environment for each student is being adjusted from a variety of such educational environments, in compliance with student's learning goals, competence and experience.

University library learning environment is an individualised learning space established from the library's educational environment which is a part of university educational environment; the learning environment is a physical and/or virtual space of the library which is recognized according to learner's experience, competence and learning aims/goals. It influences a learner and involves the information that meets the individual's learning goal (-s), its receiving and assimilating methods, participants (peers, librarians, etc.) and tools.

Because of speedy qualitative growth of knowledge and the change in university programmes, the university library, which strives to develop and maintain the effective educational and respectively learning environments, has to be involved in the continuously improvement of its organizational understanding. The competence of library organizational learning is the top unifying the competences of three main participants (students, librarians, teachers/researchers) into the holistic quality, so called the triangle of competences, necessary for the creation and constant development of library educational environment as well as the recognition of personally significant learning environments and working with them.

All the main groups of participants - students, librarians, teachers/researchers - should be characterized by these core competences: information, communication, meta learning, teamwork. Each of these groups also has its own specific competence.

The holistic triangle of competences is an essential precondition for the development of library educational and, accordingly, learning environments. Striving to develop these environments, the minimal competence conditions have to inevitably be ensured: all participants (librarians, teachers, students) must have the information literacy and partnership competence. This is still a problem in the real university practice.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 November 2002