Respected iSchool lecturer Dr. Michelle Holschuh Simmons is trading a six-second commute to her home office for a six-minute walk to Monmouth College, where she’ll be returning to a lifelong passion for learning instruction as an assistant professor in the Education Studies department. It’s difficult to say who is more upset about the move: Simmons, who has been with the iSchool since 2007, when the program was still a campus-online hybrid; the iSchool faculty who have had the pleasure of working alongside this dedicated, information-forward professional; or students who’ve taken classes with Simmons, many of whom call her friend and mentor.
“I’ve loved teaching at SJSU!” Simmons says. “I have all of my rosters still in my email and can look back at every class from 2007 on and look at names and think fondly of people. I have very clear memories from every class over the years. I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know people. I feel so fortunate to be part of the iSchool. ”
It’s not every online instructor who serves as a personal networking matchmaker, deftly making career, school and personal connections for students from New Zealand to Turkey. Who loves Blackboard IM, the iSchool’s online instant messaging system, because it allows her to hold true office hours, where anyone can see that she’s online and drop in just to chat. When she posted that she was moving to another position, Simmons’ Facebook page nearly broke the internet with words of congratulations. Current and previous students thank her “for all of your help and support,” adding that she is an inspiring mentor who “had such an impact on my direction within the profession.” For her part, Simmons is humbled by the feedback. “It’s so gratifying to find out the work we’re doing in class actually does make a difference and students are making use of the work we’re doing.”
For Simmons and SJSU, it’s been a labor of love. After a previous life as a high school English and college composition teacher, with a passion for teaching as well as intellectual freedom, SJSU was Simmons’ first online experience. Teaching reference and information literacy courses, things just clicked from day one. “I love the online environment! I’d never taught that way before, and I thought it was really interesting,” she recalls. “The way I have formatted my lectures and discussions, how I think about classes, is how I would be doing this if I were in a face-to-face environment.” And it’s been one of the things students appreciate most about classes with Simmons.
Simmons credits Director of Online Learning Debbie Faires with helping her become part of the culture at SJSU when she was first hired. Faires, in turn, says, “She is so personable, and she establishes and nurtures connections with others regardless of whether the interactions are online or face-to-face. Michelle is an outstanding colleague [who] has made very significant contributions to the school during her years with SJSU.”
Keeping Up With the Technology
Simmons eagerly tackled new technologies for use in the virtual classroom. The 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 Web-based Information Science Education (WISE) award winner for Excellence in Online Teaching notes that “in our field, things move so fast, I think that we’re all together in trying to always learn, figure out what’s going on, and what new technologies we should try out.” WISE, a consortium of international LIS schools, allows iSchool students to take courses at other ALA-accredited universities. Students from other universities can also take iSchool courses, broadening the learning scope that much more. “It’s a really wonderful experience,” Simmons says, “not just for me as an instructor, but for everyone in class. We all learn about each other’s institutions. The iSchool has a great program, fabulous technology. We can see what it’s like other places, and realize that at the iSchool we’re really very spoiled.”
And as the iSchool Curriculum co-chair working alongside Dr. Linda Main, faculty, and student representatives, Simmons led initiatives in defining student learning outcomes, revising core competencies, and developing rubrics. “I am going to miss Michelle terribly,” Main acknowledges. “She is a wonderfully organized, wonderfully inspiring online teacher. She is very smart, an innovative user of technology, a woman of great common sense, someone you can absolutely rely on, and above all, great fun.”
From One Information Professional to Another
In a world that's changing so fast, what makes a good information professional? Simmons sees three major characteristics: technical savvy, personal skills and teaching skills.
“An aptitude and flexibility with technology is a big one,” Simmons elaborates, “Understanding how information is structured, understanding databases—how to get information out of an information system.
“Being able to communicate clearly in writing and orally, being diplomatic, being able to work with other people.
“And teaching skills: being able to see things from a learner/user’s perspective. That might be building a website and thinking from a user perspective, writing a proposal and thinking from a reader’s perspective—being able to break things down in a way that's understandable to a learner, and being able to instruct.
“All three are really important for an information professional who is going to be very successful.”
In one of her Libr 210 (Reference & Information Services) lectures on serving diverse populations, Simmons adds a personal note to the lesson. “We are human, and we all relate to our patrons as human beings with biases. However, let’s try to make kindness and inclusivity the common thread among all of our interactions with patrons.” It’s that kind of real-world advice that has allowed Simmons to reach so many students over the years. To leave everyone feeling just a bit more inclined to be thoughtful information professionals as they head out into their own careers.
“What we're learning during our degree program is not necessarily going to be useful 30 years from now,” Simmons notes of the changing times. “We really need to know how to learn, to have that capability and thirst for knowledge, and be able to make our own meaning from the information that’s coming to us. I really think that’s one of my passions: helping people to learn in a way that they’re going to be able to continue to learn, long after they’re gone from the program.”