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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The Flexible Learning Environments (FLE) Project

Ulla Karila,
Hämeenlinna City Library


Kaisa Rissanen,
The Association of Finnish Local Authorities


The Flexible Learning Environments (FLE) project was a joint venture of three Finnish public libraries. Their goal was to find new forms of cooperation between libraries and schools. In Hämeenlinna a public library aimed to create a learning environment for comprehensive school pupils. In Lahti the public library supported the development of media centers in two secondary schools. In Tampere the emphasis was on creating multi-sided cooperation networks between the public library and vocational institutes. The project included the training of teachers and librarians to adopt a new understanding of the learning process and the use of libraries as a part of this process. In the FLE study the experiments were evaluated from the view point of instruction given in information seeking and use.



During the past five years the Finnish educational scene has gone through profound changes. The old ideas of learning and teaching have given way to new ones.Teaching is no longer based on the practise in which the teacher speaks and some 30 students listen. The traditional textbook is also losing its monopoly as the sole source of information. Teaching facts, that will be out-of-date in a year or two, is not the goal of modern education.

The students of today need skills for tomorrow. It is important for the students of all ages to learn how to seek information from various sources. In the age of rapid information flow, learning is ever more a lifelong enterprise and information skills are an invaluable help in that process.

The changing educational culture gives libraries and librarians an opportunity to support learning in a way they never have before. There is hardly any other institution that could offer such a variety of information sources for students' use. The librarian's role is to teach students to navigate through masses of information to relevant information.

In many countries school libraries and school librarians give their assistance to teachers and students. In Finland this task is left to the public libraries, because school libraries are so few in number and poor in quality. Although the Finnish public library network is one of the best in the world, the changes in teaching and learning styles have taken it by surprise. Never before have so many students come to the public libraries and sought for information.


The Flexible Learning Environments project was an effort to find new ways of cooperation between the public libraries and schools. This cooperation aimed to help students, teachers and librarians to meet challenges of the information age and lifelong learning. There were three city libraries involved in the project: Hämeenlinna, Lahti and Tampere. Each library worked with a different level of education:

Together the libraries defined the objectives for the project as follows:

  1. to develop schools and libraries into flexible and cooperative learning environments

  2. to create and test new models to improve students' information seeking skills and to support learning.

To achieve these objectives, cooperation between the public libraries and schools was approached from different angles. It was decided that the FLE project would work in three fields: training, practical experiments and research.

The FLE project was not a learning process only to the students but also to the teachers and librarians. It gave them a chance for professional development and built bridges between these two professions. Important issues covered by training for both the teachers and librarians have been the following:

The teachers have been supported in their use of the new information seeking technologies. Librarians have, for example, taught efficient CD-ROM usage in information seeking. Special attention has also been given to the librarians' instructional role. The training for the librarians has given ideas how to teach students of different ages and how to extend library instruction towards the ideals of information skills instruction.

The progress of the FLE project was evaluated in a study funded by The Association of Finnish Local Authorities. The main question in the study was how the development of information skills is supported during the project. Empirical data was collected by observations, interviews and diaries. The results of the study will be published by the end of 1997. The emphasis of the report will be on practical applications. 3. THE FLEXIBLE LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS PROJECT IN ACTION The FLE project started officially in 1995. The Finnish Ministry of Education granted funds with which each library carried out a survey. The surveys dealt with the developmental needs of the school libraries and the schools' willingness to cooperate with public libraries. Based on the results of these surveys, the libraries selected their project partners. Each library planned the cooperation regarding their local needs and chose cooperation methods that suited them best. Practical work started in the beginning of 1996 and went on for a year till spring 1997.

3.1. Comprehensive schools and the public library

The emphasis of the cooperation with comprehensive schools in Hämeenlinna was on the development of an open learning environment. The public library offered pupils intensified instruction in information seeking. The aim was to support the development of problem solving and critical thinking skills. For the closer cooperation the City Library chose three adopted classes among the 4th, 6th and 8th graders.

The 4th graders were the youngest pupils of the FLE project. Thus, it was of special interest how to offer instruction in information seeking to the pupils of this age group. A librarian visited the school a number of times and prepared the pupils for learning in the library. Instruction started from the basic level: pupils were introduced to the library and the way information is organized there, they were given booktalks and the opportunity to get acquainted with computer-based catalogues and CD-ROMs. In the exercises they used different library resources independently.

With the 6th graders the library tested the idea of campschool. The pupils spent four days and one evening in the library, working intensively with various information resources. A class of 31 pupils was divided into four groups. In the library there were four workshops in which each group spent one day. Librarians and the teacher, on their part, instructed and supported the work of the pupils.

  1. The information seeking workshop:
    Pupils gathered information from the library collection in pairs about their field of interest and made a poster of their findings.

  2. The Internet workshop:
    Pupils were taught the basic information seeking strategies.

  3. The CD-ROM workshop:
    Pupils were taught how CD-ROMs operate and what possibilities they offer for information seeking and leisure.

  4. The newspapers, periodicals and guided tour in the library workshop:
    Pupils were given an overall picture of the different library departments and the collection.In addition, they did some exercises using the article database and periodicals.

The campschool evening was a library adventure. It started after the official opening hours with pizza and softdrinks. Pupils orientated by a map of the library to eight control points where they had to answer playful questions requiring information seeking. The answers were collected to four huge cardboard trees in the garden of knowledge.

The project of the 8th graders was a cooperative effort of three different school subjects (History, Finnish and Data Processing) and the public library. Pupils worked in pairs and sought information about their hometown. Information was gathered mainly from the local collection of the library and processed to the form of a newspaper article.

3.2. Building media centres into secondary schools

In Lahti the interest of the FLE project was in building learning environments into secondary schools. The form of the learning environment was a modern school library or preferably a media centre. The work under the FLE project concentrated on two suburban schools. Both schools had existing school libraries even before the project but the support they offered to learning and teaching was inadequate.

In the beginning of the cooperation it was extremely important that the headmasters and teachers understood the value of the media centre to independent learning. Their attitudes towards school libraries had to be changed, as most of them only had experience of these kind of libraries as nothing more than dusty collections of old books.

The development of the media centres was started by employing library assistants to both schools. This made it possible to keep the media centres open during school hours and to give instruction to students seeking information. Librarians from the public library played the role of consultants, helping the library assistants in development work. Together they improved the collection so it could better answer the needs of the students and teachers.

The goal was to build media centres with a compact and updated collection and the possibility to seek information in electronic form. Both media centres have network connections to the City Library's computer-based catalogue and the Internet. These media centres are also equipped with CD-ROM devises. The CD-ROMs available cover many subject areas and enable information seeking from an article database.

3.3. The networks of vocational institutes and the public library

In Tampere many vocational institutes expressed their willingness to take part in the FLE project. Besides the public library there were altogether 15 vocational institutes working in the subprojects. These institutes built four groups concentrating on different themes. In every group there were students, teachers and librarians from one or more institutes. There was also a librarian from the public library in each group to support information seeking and group work.

In Tampere the emphasis was on building networks between the vocational institutes and libraries, and cooperation between different fields. In the subprojects the teachers and librarians had a tutorial role. Special interest was shown in the librarian's instructional role.

The subprojects of the FLE project in Tampere:

In ILO ('joy' in English) a group of students from three vocational institutes (health care, social work and home economics) gathered information about "joy in everyday life - what is happiness?". Information in both scientific and artistic form was included. Students studying multimedia technics built a multimedia presentation based on the processed information.

The aim of JOPO was to create information seeking and information skills services inside the network (a hypermedia program) to support flexible learning.

In JOYHOI a health care college tried to break down the traditional way of learning. An open learning environment with network connections enabled the use of optional learning methods.

In JOYSTICK an information center of household appliances was built into one vocational school. Material for the information center was gathered by students. They used different information sources as they sought information from different angles about household appliances: security, and the economical and ecological aspects.


The FLE project has provided a chance to test how to deepen the cooperation between public libraries and schools. It has shown how rewarding but also demanding this cooperation can be. One clear result of the project is that in the support of information skills and lifelong learning, public libraries are invaluable partners for schools. Even though the FLE project is at its final stage, it is evident that the cooperation will continue and find new forms in the future.