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Competencies for Professional Success: Continuum of Learning

Health information professionals function in ways shaped by a number of significant factors:

  • changing elements and structure of medical knowledge
  • rapid introduction of new technologies and techniques for information processing and dissemination
  • altered patterns of institutional organization, management, and governance
  • the drive to maintain excellence

Education in this area is uniquely challenging both because the gap it attempts to bridge is inherently unstable and defies efforts to span its expanse and because it cannot be limited to any one phase of a professional's life. Furthermore, responsibility for its effective application in practice belongs to the individual rather than to any institutional provider of educational programs and services.

Because education cannot be limited to any one phase of an individual's career, a larger frame of reference—a continuum of learning—is needed to influence professional performance in the twenty-first century. Structured education becomes only one of the many options open to the professional. It must be combined with continuing education and continuing learning as conditions of professional practice. In graduate and continuing education, professionals are guided by others toward explicit sets of closely related learning goals.

Lifelong learning, however, does not rely on the structured interventions that convey, refresh, and update baseline knowledge or provide new knowledge, skills, and techniques. In continuing learning, professionals assume greater responsibility for directing themselves, usually informally, and often pursue several unrelated learning strategies simultaneously to increase competence and improve professional performance. Such learning often takes place through an active network of individuals mentoring one another in the context of their work and often through the very activity of that work.

In the continuum of learning, the single most important variable is the individual professional: his or her motivation, prior experience, sense of what is required by changing circumstances or conditions of employment, and quality of judgment in choosing learning experiences. The continuum moves from the didactic to the self-directed, from a narrow band of specialized knowledge and skill to a broader environment of cognitive and social complexity. Learning moves along a continuum from stable and consistent conditions to those that confront learners with problems that change and are less structured but are important and are close to actual work situations.

All who hold a stake in the professional performance of health sciences librarians play significant roles in the continuum of learning. As providers of educational programs and services use the continuum as a model for professional learning, new streams of programs may emerge, combining more complex, self-directed strategies with ongoing updating and refresher activities. Answers to questions of quality, accessibility, and significance are tailored to individuals and groups with shared needs, goals, and arenas of practice. The roles of graduate schools, professional societies, commercial vendors of programs, and others are clarified.

For employers, discovering, advancing, and tending learning relationships within and outside the organization are key tasks. For professionals, learning plotted on the continuum should become intentional, undertaken with personal, professional, and institutional outcomes in view and mixing self-managed learning experiences with provider- or employer-directed programs.

Ongoing collaboration in developing a common learning and development agenda is incumbent upon universities, graduate colleges of library and information studies, MLA and other professional societies, commercial vendors and publishers, employers, and consumer-professionals. Competence assessment, professional mentoring, and recognition of excellence in performance can serve the profession best through a combined effort. Through its comprehensive approach to education and learning in health sciences librarianship, MLA endorses fundamental career planning, knowledge and skills development, and collaboration.

Continuum of Learning

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