Reflection Post, Week 7

This week, I learned that the depiction of complex systems in a systemigram is a deeply analytical and methodical process, requiring a micro-level of detail. It is not unlike instructional design, which also requires a micro-analysis of incremental learning processes. However, in instructional design, one works backward from the overarching learning goal(s). In systemigrams, it seems that one would work forward from the funding source instead. Forward design of the systemigram would be necessary when the outcome is unknown, or to be predicted. Backward design from the outcome would be feasible in situations like the analysis of Enron because it is a past event, and the outcome is known. Regardless, the process of depicting a systemigram requires detailed knowledge (aka research) of the situation at hand. For example, the post-analytic systemigram of Enron required an immense amount of note-taking from the documentary; though in reality, to create a full-scale systemigram about Enron would take multiple viewings of the documentary in addition to research to fill in the gaps of knowledge that the documentary left out (a good example from class that needed additional research for understanding was the inadequate description of mark-to-market accounting).

I found the Enron documentary to be a handy template for thinking about my system of interest (libraries) from an economic or funding perspective. It makes sense that funding serves as the lifeline of almost any system. Without it, the system cannot be sustained. I think libraries are unique in that their funding is typically reliant on the system they serve. This is true for school and academic libraries, though not necessarily for public libraries. I used to work at a public library that was funded as a line item on the local community’s property taxes. In other words, it was treated as an independently funded system, making it easier to predict the budget from one year to the next. Many public libraries are not so lucky and are reliant on the goodwill of their local municipality for steady funding. Academic and school libraries are always dependent on their district’s or institution’s budget, which can make for an unreliable stream of funding. The UNT library system is an example of that because UNT libraries are funded almost exclusively by student fees, and enrollment may vary from year to year. For a Tier 1 research university, this is not a sustainable source of funding because of the increased costs of supporting the information needs of high-level faculty research.

A comparison of the materials expenditures of the UNT library system to a comparable Tier 1 institution (in terms of student enrollment), University of Oklahoma, illustrates this inadequacy. For FY 2015, total library materials expenditures at UNT were $6,121,280. In comparison, University of Oklahoma libraries spent $14,435,222 on materials in the same fiscal year. It should be noted that Oklahoma is ranked 50 out of 114 in the ARL Library Investment Index, which is not exactly stellar. That speaks volumes for the inadequacy of UNT library funding, and I suspect that if that inadequacy is not addressed, UNT’s Tier 1 status is arguably at risk. Consequently, in depicting the UNT library system in a systemigram, I would focus on funding because it is the system’s biggest threat to sustainability, and it affects decision making at all levels (e.g., materials selection, staffing levels, services).

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Reflection Post, Week 5

This week’s discussion topics helped me place my system of interest, libraries, in the bigger picture of systems of systems. Discussion topic three asked us to think about how the interconnections between systems impact stakeholders’ behavior in a system example. I looked at the systemic failure of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for the exercise. Delving into the news and research related to the problems with CPS made me realize just how connected that system is to the larger Illinois state government system. Decisions made at the state level that negatively impact the state’s own budget ended up trickling down to all the systems within the state that depend on state funding. CPS relies heavily on state funding in addition to local funding (e.g., city funding, earmarked taxes). CPS is such a behemoth of a school system that it has suffered greatly under the near bankruptcy of the state of Illinois. All school systems (K-12, higher education) have been affected by Illinois’ financial fiasco to some extent. However, CPS has fared worse because it is the largest school system in the state and because it is dealing with additional strains, such as high rates of poverty, that have negative impacts on student learning. Those additional strains led to decisions, such as a push for charter schools, that further strained the financial problems facing CPS. The fixes that were offered to manage the CPS system have failed across the board. Charter schools have failed to bridge gaps in achievement. Closing schools with low enrollment has created additional burdens for the schools that have taken in those students. Cutting budgets has led to impasses in contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, leading to low teacher morale and staffing cuts. Increased school board oversight has led to a high turnover with principals, who cite reasons for leaving as low autonomy and too much paperwork.

This brings me to the libraries in CPS. What has happened to them amidst the battle to fix the system? Some have been shuttered, and school librarians at CPS are now few and far between, despite the fact that school libraries are significantly strongly correlated with higher reading scores, even when controlling for student income levels. What the exercise with CPS shows me is that libraries as a system are at risk of extinction when the health of the systems they support are in jeopardy. There is documenting support of this phenomenon on a global level. Why? I believe that the answer lies in the invention of the Internet. If classrooms are stocked with books and schools have access to the Internet, who needs a school librarian? Of course, this makes no sense from a systems thinking perspective because the cost of purchasing the same books for multiple classrooms far exceeds the cost of purchasing books as shared resources. Furthermore, in the age of “fake news,” students need an expert to guide them through the information ecosystem. Classroom teachers are not qualified to fill this role, as many of them lack strong information literacy skills. In the long term, school library systems are necessary to the health of the K-12 systems like CPS. Though the fate of libraries (and librarians) may seem like something that must be accepted as a result of the trickle down effect of dysfunction from the systems that support it, this is not necessarily true. What if librarians lobbied harder to save their libraries (and themselves)? What if librarian educators collaborated with teacher educators to create a culture of support for libraries so that future education leaders better understood their value? In the health of a vulnerable system like libraries, human capital is the greatest resource.