Once a stalwart member of the holy trinity of public services librarianship, reference and the reference desk have, over the last few years, gradually become to be seen as an anachronistic relic of our past. Declining statistics and the idea that sitting “waiting for business” is inefficient and a waste of the professional librarian’s time seem to be the rationale behind many libraries’ decisions to shutter the desk. Yet, as the rise of the catchily named sites such as Quora, Reddit, ChaCha and Google helpouts demonstrate, the need for help or question and answer services has far from disappeared. In fact, as SALALMista, David Nolen points out in his 2010 article, even the anti reference desk movement doesn’t negate the value of human to human interaction. Accordingly, this column will look at some of these new web 2.0 reference type services to explore what makes these work, and how libraries can learn from their experiments.
Briefly, Quora, Reddit, ChaCha and Google helpouts provide different forms of online help. Quora is more of a standard Q&A service where users can pose text based questions, which are stored for future reference. Reddit is more like a cross between a social bookmarking service and news curation or aggregator where users can vote for the best links on a topic. ChaCha and Google helpouts offer more of a personal connection. Questions posed through ChaCha are answered by a series of guides who are paid for their work. Google Helpouts uses the power of video conference to connect students with teachers, who may charge for their services.
The first common feature of all these new services is that they are online and function through a mix of crowdsourcing and expertise. Quora and Reddit offer a searchable bulletin board format, while ChaCha is based around users texting in their questions. Google Helpouts uses video conferencing to connect teacher and student. While, by and large, libraries moved beyond the traditional reference desk to embrace chat and text reference a long time ago, these have kind of been the limit of our online innovations. Various libraries have dabbled with alternatives such as Skype or LibAnswers, or Library DIY but overall our online approaches to reference are a bit clunky still, focused around the librarian as expert model and inversely proportional to the amount of research that happens online. Perhaps this doesn’t matter. Perhaps we want to focus on building our library as destination, and excellent new programs such as Office Hours or Jesus Alonso Regalado’s Librarian with a Latte are meeting our needs. But, judging by examples of people who are already answering each other’s research questions, for example on Foursquare, and the scalability that will probably be involved in educational initiatives of the future, maybe this is should something to which we should be paying more attention.
Another interesting aspect of these tools is their approach to trust and reliability. Quora makes people sign in with their real names (and has some mildly famous users) but people can vote for the answers that are the most helpful or useful. Reddit operates in a similar way though users can also gain link or comment karma for posting particularly popular links. In this way, these sites are reflecting our move from a paper to a networked society, and consequently bigger changes in how we establish authority in the world of Web 2.0. After all, as David Weinberger points out, why we should “trust what one person – with the best of intentions – insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?” So what has that got to do with librarians, I hear you cry! Surely we’re some of the most trustworthy people on the planet, right? Well yes, but the problem is that fewer and fewer students seem to enter university with a knowledge of what librarians do. In a way, perhaps this is where the biggest disconnect within research services lies. None of these new tools and techniques will help if students don’t trust us as valued members of their research or social networks or if they have no idea that librarians can help them with research questions. In this way, we need to earn the students’ confidence, whether it’s by breaking down barriers, explaining what we do, promoting our services, or wearing blue.
These are just two aspects of the new reference services that stand out to me- and that could affect library reference services. It will be interesting to see if any of these services takes off; ChaCha, especially, was launched to great fanfare, but has been far less visible since then. Most importantly, by highlighting these services I don’t mean to suggest that they form a model we should pursue uncritically. In fact these services may introduce other unknown dynamics, for example, Reddit and other sites which involve voting, have been shown to be far more attractive to male users. More worryingly, if we push to adopt these business models for our educational purposes we run the risk of deprofessionalizing the profession even further. Instead, critical analysis of technologies can help us think constructively about the goals and the future of our services, with no trendy rebrand required.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Content curation has become one of those annoying buzzwords that is always accompanied by excessive exclamation marks and in close proximity to eager business marketing types: “6 Easy Strategies to Add Value To Your Marketing Campaign!” Another sure sign of the commodification of the library and higher education, right? Or is it? Curation- isn’t that what we do? If you strip away all the hype (and punctuation), content curation involves “sorting through the vast amounts of content on the web and presenting it in a meaningful and organized way around a specific theme.” In fact, it suddenly becomes clear that content curation could be defined as One. Massive. LibGuide.- or at the very least, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the work of information professionals.
So what exactly is content curation, and why is it interesting? In a nutshell, tools such as HistoryPin, Scoop it, Storify or Pinterest allow you to gather images or content in one place- kind of like an online scrap board, which can also be shared. HistoryPin, for example, allows you to plot images from your Special Collections or Archives on a Google map- check out these old photos of the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires. Pinterest, on the other hand, allows you to promote historical and newer images, such as new book covers or reading lists, as well as local digital collections. Storify focuses on social media- interested in capturing tweets about your library, or relevant social media posts that accompanied a local demonstration or event? Storify can pull in and present a range of social media comments, particularly useful in the fast paced and ephemeral world of hashtags. Scoop-it will do the same for a variety of media- quickly and easily pull together articles, web pages, blog postings and more on a topic for a class, or to accompany an exhibit. In effect, these tools allow us to promote our content very efficiently- once you upload the files, content becomes far more visible on the web and through search engines. It also becomes far easier for others to share- allowing us to broaden access to our collections among a much wider audience. These tools enable us to extend the library beyond traditional geographic barriers and by repackaging library content in familiar online environments, it may also introduce library services to new groups of people.
So why am I so excited about content curation, after I spent the entire last column berating our profession for creating digital lists of topical content? Well, for a start, I’m slightly worried that you all might start to avoid me at the next SALALM conference, being pointed out as the crazy libguide woman who may corner you, mouth frothing, at the libreros’ reception. ( I won’t, I promise…) Secondly, that’s a very good question, and one that I’m having trouble answering. Maybe I’m dazzled by the shiny technology. But I recognize that these tools can be equally problematic in their own right- there are several steps, for example, to download or archive your content. Ultimately, I think that it boils down to the idea that I’m excited by the possibility to “push” our content into the ether. In traditional marketing of our content, services, librarians, etc, we had to hope that patrons would attend our orientations, pick up our flyers, or generally be interested enough to visit our building or webpage to see what we offer. This could be referred to as “pull”- we provide our sites and facilities, but it was up to the patrons to approach us. Web 2.0, however, has enabled us to “push” resources, services and assistance to our patrons via RSS or social media- allowing us to embed the library and the librarian in the user’s workflow, or as part of collaborative online scholarship networks. In addition, these tools help form an attractive link between our valuable physical resources and our online research prowess that helps to create a more enriching research experience. While again, that’s not seamless (hands up if anyone knows a researcher who does not suffer from information overload) it’s definitely an exciting new way to think about our services and collections- as well as a significant opportunity that we should be exploring further.
University of Colorado, Boulder
Things many librarians love: tea, cats, complaining about patrons, going on vacation to visit libraries, and of course, leftover food from panels… To which we must surely add our love of lists. Shelf lists, weeding lists, list of e-resources, listservs- the list (ahem) is endless. And if we throw in the list’s first cousins- the directory, the index and the register then I think it becomes pretty clear that our profession is probably one of the most unapologetic inventory makers out there. Which is great. But it does bother me when we try and impose our lists on our students. When we equate lists with a crash course on something of Great Significance. When the list is taken to promise instant knowledge. In short, when we make long lists of every potentially useful resource that ever existed on a topic, throw them up on a LibGuide and congratulate ourselves on Job Done. Yep, you guessed it. The time has finally come for me to put my money where my mouth is and explain my growing aversion to pathfinders, subject guides or research companions- and for you to persuade me that they still have value.
When you start to look for hidden pockets of research guide rage, complaints tend to centre around the lack of usability testing: the ugly, cluttered designs, 27 tab monster-guides and a frustrating number of broken links. Others complain about the growing system of parallel research guide websites, using software such as LibGuides to get round a lack of editing privileges on locked down library webpages. However, aesthetic sensibilities notwithstanding, this doesn’t get to what I think is the crux of the problem, which could be summed up as the disconnect between what librarians want to achieve with guides and what students get out of them. (And yes, this could apply to many library interactions, but I only have 600 words, so let’s focus…)
This disconnect is partly design related too. Research that my colleagues and I undertook showed that while most librarians organised guides by format (e.g. articles, books) most students preferred a design focused around help functions (e.g. where is the printer v how do I use the printer) or a specific research need (e.g. research an author). More recently, further research that we undertook on e-resources showed that students expect lists to offer guidance on where to start research. I suspect many current guides are merely alphabetical. These examples demonstrate that on the whole, librarians are designing guides for expert usage rather than the target student audience, which understandably causes certain problems. Aha, shout the subject guide supporters! So your antipathy can be explained by the fact that many librarians (and I include myself) merely use the tool badly? This doesn’t make the guide inherently evil, surely…
Well, no, but I still don’t think that gets at the heart of the matter. To my mind, it all gets back to conversations about the changing role of the librarian. Bear with me… When we started making pathfinders, these guides were shortcuts to the librarian’s brain; here are the key sources in the library on a topic. Inwardly digest and information nirvana will be yours. But nowadays, I find there’s quite a lot that’s awkward about that supposition. Firstly, the idea that we can represent all the sources in a field. We can’t. It’s very similar to the problems involved with our attempts to catalog the web- the lack of stability, the changing formats, the explosion of content mean that it’s just not going to happen. Secondly, the idea that the research guide represents the totality of, well, research. It doesn’t. Research is a process; information practices, for example, rely heavily on physical and social sources as well as textual. We are selling students short when our guides focus exclusively on research as a bunch of stuff to be found. Thirdly, the idea that without these guides, students will never use anything but JSTOR ever again. Well, possibly. But we’re not the content police and there’s only so much we can do with poorly designed research assignments that focus on the end research product while skipping over all the intermediary and more nuanced research process steps. Lastly, the idea that our librarian knowledge can be condensed into bite sized pieces that can then be transferred to a student’s brain. And that is where I think I am most squeamish. By using these guides as lists of resources we’re dumbing down the complexity of research instead of teaching survival strategies for knowledge societies of the future. We’re representing knowledge as fixed and static rather than messy and changeable and open to questioning. And, most importantly, we’re saying that our librarian knowledge can be condensed into everything you need to know, all packaged in a neat five box format. We’re selling ourselves and our expertise short when it is more necessary than ever before.
Ok, Alison. Enough with the histrionics. Just tell me what a thwarted list-lovin’ librarian is to do… Well, I think it depends on what you are going for. If you’re designing a guide for a class, build it round the research process, add context, distinguish between learning and doing. And if you’re still not convinced, I would love to hear your defence of guides. We could even start a list
University of Colorado, Boulder
alison.hicks (at) colorado.edu
Since this column started, I’ve talked about a lot of web 2.0 tools that librarians can use in their everyday work. Recently though, I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. Mendeley, the citation manager, has been sold to Elsevier. Google’s RSS Reader is being pulled in July. Jing screen capture is focusing on a paid model. Bloglines disappeared a long time ago. What does all of this mean? One interpretation could be that I am a terrible web 2.0 columnist, and you should take my recommendations with a pinch of salt. On that basis maybe you can feel less guilty about that LibGuide subscription… Another interpretation, however, could be that we’re reaching some kind of new stage in the evolution of the information landscape or infraestructure, and that these developments could be signposts or indicators of a need for reflection. In this column I will consider this theme further.
So I may be a terrible columnist, but from the very first, I did point out that web 2.0 was not just about the technology. Instead it was the social and philosophical change that was important; by and large, librarians saw that these new tools helped uncover opaque practices (such as informal scholarship habits- who knew Twitter would be so key for academic networking?) or enabled new teaching, learning and outreach opportunities (for example chat reference). As such, we were thrilled to be able to move our librarian mission into online spaces, seeing these tools as a way to expand our reach- for example, by integrating digital literacy into classes or providing access to materials in different formats and locations. We jumped on the web 2.0 bandwagon, and the enthusiasm of the tech startup evangelists perhaps matched the exhilarated relief that we felt at this reinvention of the library. We can connect with people! We’re relevant! We’re not screwed! It was exciting, especially because compared to the early LMS or clunky desktop products that we were used to, these new information tools seemed so open and liberating.
Except these tools actually weren’t that open. Ecosystems designed to lock us into proprietary systems grew faster than you can say interoperability. “Neutral” ranking algorithms perpetuated tired racial, cultural or gender stereotypes. Even worse, the new tools collected data on us. A lot of it. And they kept it for a long time. We moved from the “democratisation” of the information environment to becoming the product within a few short years. And libraries, as preservers of the cultural archive, to say nothing of champions for privacy and equal information access for all were suddenly looking a lot less resilient.
So what does this mean? Were all the nay-sayers actually right? Am I recommending that we hole up away from the digital world? Do we need to take a massive bite of that nasty tasting humble pie? Well, no; d) none of the above. To some extent, I think a lot of these changes are still just aftershocks from the collision between developing and established communication practices. However, I also believe that recent developments are a really loud wake up call to us as librarians. No longer can we sit back, enthralled at how web 2.0 has revitalised one part of our mission. These new information tools form a core part of the information environment. And scary developments like the loss of privacy and access are an unmistakable sign that we need to re-engage with that other aspect of our role as information professionals. That part where we analyze, study and assess the information environment. That part where we critically engage with the bias and costs of traditional or subscription information tools such as databases as well as new tools and practices such as Mendeley or GIS. That part where we ask and teach others to ask the hard questions, especially in relation to our core values of preservation, privacy and equal access. As Hugh Rundle says in his excellent “Technolust- the fifth column of the information counter-revolution” (read it!) “we are being distracted with baubles while we are shepherded away from the real action.” We are being distracted with how we can use Web 2.0 to expand our mission, while neglecting to examine “Who is setting the standards? Who determines the rules for access? Who is deciding how ideas can be shared, and by whom?” That is not to say that the baubles don’t have their benefits. Web 2.0 innovation has trampled all over traditional limited boundaries and has inspired so many positive changes. However, if our role is to manage and curate today’s information environment then we must also be asking important questions about privacy and control and authority in all aspects of new knowledge societies. These are the key questions that we are missing. More importantly, these are the key questions that are not being asked by many other people.
The digital world cannot be uninvented. Neither would I want it to be (What would I do without Twitter!); nor should librarians stop paying attention to how new tools and technologies can improve other aspects of our core mission. However, I would argue that we are failing in our job if we remain passive onlookers while the worlds of information are shaped around us. These are our natural habitats, and, unlike all these great new tools that I keep telling you about, it is clear that our library values are still rock solid.
University of Colorado, Boulder
So what happens when all that ethnographic research you did points out that students have a terrible time navigating your web page? Well if it’s the catalog or the library home page, your student may be out of luck, sadly. But if you have even a tiny bit of control over a web page, whether it’s just the content, or the heading titles, or full administrative access, then the most basic of usability methodologies goes a long way. As Susan Dray said, “If the user can’t use it, it doesn’t work”. And, to my mind, it is essential for anyone who edits a libguide, a web page, a blog or any other online object.
Yet usability needn’t be scary. It’s not just for web professionals, or UX librarians, or techy sorts. The smallest change on a webpage is a design choice- and with a bit of testing this can be a good design choice. Because as Douglas Martin said, “the alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.” So this column aims to persuade you how easy usability is by highlighting a few basic tests below. This also replicates some of the work that the Communications Committee has been doing on the SALALM page. For further reading, try usability.gov for more information and advice about conducting tests.
Are you worried about the organization or vocabulary used on your webpage?
Try a Card Sort. Used when you want to gather ideas for organization or navigation of a page, it can also be really useful to have a visual representation of all the content on a webpage-if it overwhelms you, think what your user may feel… Participants sort cards that represent potential elements on a page into categories that make sense to them. Card sorts can be open, whereupon the participant names the category, or closed where you ask participants to sort into predefined categories. You can also get useful feedback about naming conventions or incomprehensible content or titles, and superfluous materials.
Method: In paper or online using tools like http://uxpunk.com/websort/
Do you have an idea to redesign your page?
Try Prototyping. It’s useful if you want to test at an early stage and before you go to the trouble of building a new page. You can get a general idea whether people understand the structure or design of the page. Participants demonstrate what they would do in a certain situation by pointing to where they would click. You could also ask what they would do in a certain situation, what they might expect to see if they clicked in a certain place, and what they liked and disliked about a model.
Method: Using a word doc, or even just paper and coloured pens.
Do you want to check how well your new or old page works for users?
Try some Usability Testing. This can be used to test how well participants can complete common tasks on your page. You can also see how people interact with the site, eg seeing the paths participants take to achieve key goals of your site. Make sure you know how to judge success or failure in advance- eg is the student successful if they take 5 clicks to get to the answer? Under 1 minute? You can also see if participants are happy or satisfied with the site, or their experience of it.
Method: Using a laptop and counting or timing the participant’s actions by hand; or by installing usability software like Morae: http://www.techsmith.com/morae.html
Three important final usability considerations. Firstly, there are no right answers. Keep reminding people that. Participants often worry you are trying to trick them, or make them look stupid. Secondly, keep reminding people to think out loud as they complete their tasks. There’s often a lot of extra data in people’s verbal reactions. Thirdly, tests only need to recruit 5 people from each category you want to test, eg undergraduates. You are not looking for “definitive” evidence that 98% of participants selected x result, but looking for themes that you can analyze in the results, eg undergraduate students tended to group cards concerning keyword formulation and evaluation help together- could these be combined to create a sort of research process category? Lastly, if you want to be shocked, compare your students’ results to librarian results… There is often a world of difference- proof, if any was needed, that usability testing is essential in libraries today.
University of Colorado, Boulder
alison.hicks @ colorado.edu
What do LibGuides, ethnographic research and 3D printing have in common? To my mind, these are some of the latest crazes to sweep libraryland, and guaranteed to cause eye-rolling or cult-like following, depending on your point of view. Naturally, I have my own opinions about these trends (LibGuides, bleurgh; 3D printing, interesting!) but the one where I admit I am a fully hoodwinked, blinkered, paid up adherent and member of the cause, is ethnographic research. (Wait, come back, eye rollers!) And just as my first column tried to emphasise that Web 2.0 is not about the shiny new technological tools, this column will explore how participatory design fits into web 2.0, and how we as subject specialists can use this in our liaison and outreach work, among other things.
Also known as participatory design, ethnographic research comes from the field of anthropology and sprung onto the library scene after the publication of Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons’ “Studying Students” book in 2007. In a nutshell, ethnographic research aims to study and understand user behaviour and experience in a specific scenario, not only to understand how users interact with a system or situation, but also to try and gain insights into the meaning people may ascribe to that process. By understanding some of these contexts as well as mental models, libraries can try and address common obstacles or troublesome sticking points to create, ultimately, more user-centered services. This fits in perfectly with the Web 2.0 focus of letting go of control to collaborate with patrons and create more user-friendly spaces and processes that will work for your community (wow, alliteration a-go-go too!)
Most ethnographic research has focused on large scale design projects, for example for a learning commons. However, there are other ways that subject specialists can get involved and bring user-centered principles to liaison and outreach work as well.
For quick questions, you can’t beat the humble survey. Whether you want to know when or where to hold office hours, which core journals or magazines are valued most or what workshops students want to see, surveys can give you a quick idea of general feelings. These could obviously be done online using tools such as Survey Monkey or through social media such as Twtpoll or Facebook surveys. However if you have access to the department building, a surprisingly successful way to solicit feedback is to leave your questions on a clipboard or whiteboard for a couple of days and ask students to vote using stickers.
For more complex or detailed questions, a focus group or group interview can provide a tonne of useful and insightful data. The group situation, especially when students are in the same department, can stimulate broad discussion and creative thinking, all of which provides valuable data on student needs and whether the library is meeting these goals. Some of the most useful questions could focus around current usage of the library, to help find out what is memorable or useful, as well as service gaps. Questions could also ask students to talk about current frustrations. This can often throw up interesting insights into the intersection of the library within the departmental or disciplinary culture. Future needs or how students see their information habits or practices changing is also helpful, especially to prioritize needs or understand where students see technology or research in their field going. Collected data can often indicate if there is a need to create more awareness of existing services, or possibilities for additional outreach opportunities, as well as information on how best to achieve this.
These ideas just scratch the surface, and for subject specialists who have their own library, the sky’s the limit! Papers such as Andrew Asher and Susan Miller’s “A Practical Guide to Ethnographic Research in Academic Libraries” can help the planning process. Ethnographic research can be very simple, doesn’t need a great deal of setup and students will often volunteer to improve “their” library without the offer of incentives. In return, you’ll not only gather insightful data but it’ll go a long way to improving community relations, with nary a LibGuide or a 3D printer in sight…
University of Colorado, Boulder
It’s the beginning of December, the traditional time for the ubiquitous and alliterative review article (“Top Ten Tech Trends of 2012!!!”) that always seem to be slightly too enthusiastic for the pale, twitching, shadow of our former selves that we have become by the end of another crazy year. But even Scrooge (topical seasonal joke high five!) would agree that there is some merit in reflecting, especially when it comes to thinking about learning. So, drawing on the idea of contemplating the old to welcome in the new, I thought I’d try and kickstart 2013 by reflecting on this year’s columns; a meta-column if you will (yep, I haven’t got out much recently…)
So the last column of 2012 will be on professional development. Now wait. I’m envisaging half of you rolling your eyes because you now have 6,387 unread items in your Google Reader, and the other half of you laughing wryly about how you couldn’t even come to the SALALM conference last year. For those of you in the first group, I’m going to be pretty blunt. I know that life is crazy, that the instruction requests keep piling in, there is another weeding project and you’ve been appointed to a new taskforce. BUT this is the single most important thing that we can do as librarians. Just 10 minutes a day of reading or sharing, or heck, even skimming headlines or your RSS reader. That’s all it takes, I promise. For the second group, most of the ideas here are going to be free or low-cost, they just involve a bit of DIY savvy. Whichever group you’re in, it’s vital that we take time for our own lifelong learning. As John Naughton said, disruption is a feature, not a bug. That stable state of yesterday is never coming back, and lifelong learning is a way that we can enhance and adapt our personal and professional lives to meet whatever challenges are thrown at us.
In October I wrote about MOOCs and the role of librarians. The good news is that if there are hundreds of courses that you too can take for free. Some start on a specific date, others are more self-directed, but all offer traditional introductions to a broad range of topics. Looking to brush up on your Spanish? Try Spanish MOOC, starting in January. Carnegie Mellon offers French, MIT offers foreign language courses and there may be a Portuguese course too. What about literature and culture? Coursera offers Fiction of Relationship (featuring Borges!) and Listening to World Music, (featuring the Buena Vista Social Club!) among others. There are thousands of technology based courses, from Udacity’s Intro to Statistics, to Udemy’s classes on Facebook, Photoshop or Excel. Don’t forget the education classes too- try E-learning and digital cultures or Fundamentals of Online Education. More Spanish universities are getting involved too, watch out for offerings from Alicante to La Rioja. There are also several courses out there if you want a more library focused professional development. CPD23 is a UK based initiative that aims to introduce librarians to web 2.0 tools. While the course has finished for 2012, you can still complete the modules at your own pace.
In June, I tried to reassure you about information overload, highlighting the need to rely more on friends and colleagues as recommender systems. This is known as your personal learning network (PLN), because we learn through forging connections and building networks between people and ideas. I won’t mention my number 1 tool for doing this, because you all laugh at my obsession with my blue avian friend whose name begins with T, but it’s a great way of meeting new people and encountering new ideas. Another option is Google communities, which brings us back to February’s column on Google Plus. Yes, Google + still lags behind Facebook, but Team Google is stealthily making it even easier to follow interests, experts and more, all of which are super valuable for maintaining your PLN. Other tips? Take your time, use the tools that work for you, don’t just follow people because everyone does, use the same username across different tools, share, comment and engage as well as lurking- and don’t forget to challenge yourself to think outside your field, which can resemble an echo chamber at times.
Lastly, while I believe people are a key part of learning, productivity tools that help you keep track of literature and more keep getting easier to use. August’s column on productivity tools may help you decide which tools to use, as does the CPD23 programme mentioned above. (so much hyperlinked win in this column!) Other tools I really like are Journal TOCS; (they’ve actually gathered hundreds of new journal issue feeds in one place!) and several new mobile apps such as SoundNote (it records audio as well as your notetaking or drawings!) and Zite or Flipboard (create magazines out of your RSS feeds!).
So, professional development. In 2013 it’s all about the people, the free online courses, and the magic 10 minutes a day. I did fail to work April’s column about Impact Factors in. And there were quite a few exclamation marks. Nonetheless, I didn’t try and make some random and arbitrary predictions for 2013, another feature of end of year articles, so count yourself lucky Happy Holidays!
University of Colorado, Boulder
alison.hicks @ colorado.edu
Between all of the heartwarming stories about the demise of Big Bird and imminent southern European bankruptcy, you may have noticed that the word MOOC is quickly becoming the academic mot du jour. Believed to have helped cause the UVA presidential saga, and liberally splashed over even the Chronicle of Higher Education, the humble MOOC, or Massively Online Open Course has been credited with either being the savior or the downfall of higher education. And while the real meaning of MOOCs is probably spelled h.y.p.e., I think there are several important concepts at work here, which could have interesting implications for our role as librarians of the future. This column will therefore attempt to trace some of these changes, albeit in a very exploratory manner that doesn’t come to any hard conclusions…
So, a quick recap. The MOOC is an online course that operates under three major principles. Firstly, it’s massive. This means that the number of students is not capped, but it’s open to anyone who wants to register. Secondly, it’s open, in that it’s free and anyone can register, wherever they are located in the world. Thirdly, and this may change, MOOCs generally don’t offer official credit for taking these courses, though some offer certification. To complicate things further, there are two types of MOOCs; xMoocs, such as those provided by Coursera, which are more traditionally lecture and quiz based and cMOOCS, which are more community driven and focused around building knowledge and learning through the creation of networks.
Within these new structures, there are several implications here which affect librarians. On the one hand, there are purely practical or structural concerns. How does the librarian fit into the structure of a massive course that isn’t tied to an institution? How will traditional academic support work with these new models? How will students unaffiliated with institutions access library and research resources? How will the librarian’s role have to change to meet these (or variations of these) upheavals in the provision of higher education?
On the other hand, and looking in particular at cMOOCs, it could be said that while these practical changes are important, the real potential transformation here is not just in how institutions “deliver” higher education. cMOOCs also imply a change in teaching and learning approaches, where learning is not seen as fixated on content but is instead focused around creating connections and networks between people and knowledge. Just like web 2.0 tools, learning is informal, lifelong and personalized. In other words, it’s working from student needs to teach people how to learn rather than just focusing on transmission of content from teacher to learner. This may sound familiar to librarians- even the ACRL IL Standards highlight how in the information era, librarians need to be teaching lifelong skills. And cMOOCs focus a great deal on information navigation and use, another of our specialties. However, this doesn’t mean that librarians are off the hook. Teaching lifelong skills doesn’t always sit well with our licensed walled garden databases and resources. Non-textual sources, for example, are rarely considered even though workplace information literacy studies show the importance of the social in information literacy. And, we kind of like content. We’ve spent a long time organizing that content and our instruction often focuses on what content we or faculty think students *should* know. Even the idea that librarians are educators is still controversial in many institutions. So while I think we’re in the right place, we’re not quite there yet.
So what am I saying? To be honest, I’m not really sure… I did warn you that there would be a complete lack of answers or concrete steps to take! I think that in truth, I’m trying to make the point that for me, we need to pay attention to more than just the visible structural changes that MOOCS represent. We must also look at what MOOCs represent in terms of a greater focus on holistic, personalized education. And while it seems obvious that librarians have a definite role in the networked information rich future we need to reflect on our potential role in this new context now in order to be ready to advocate for it in the future. Supporting the open access movement, as well as digitization of resources and other changes are steps in the right direction in the open education environment. However we must also reflect on the more subtle changes in the position and purpose of education too. Otherwise, and despite our obvious (to us) role in the information age, it will be easy for education to develop in a way that cuts us out of the picture when we have so much to offer.
University of Colorado, Boulder
alison.hicks at colorado.edu
Go Team, Go Team! Maybe it’s the Olympic spirit that’s getting to me (which also explains the delayed column, sorry!) but I’m increasingly thinking of myself as a coach, or mentor in the research process. Finding, citing, storing and organizing information is such a messy, cyclical, convoluted business nowadays that it’s hard to confine librarian activities to just one of those areas. And I think it’s high time we stopped trying to remove ourselves from the broader social context anyway as we have a lot to offer in the information age. So this column will attempt to highlight some productivity tools that will be useful for trying to tame the research process- as well as maybe helping those of you who are still feeling paralysed by information overload. (I told you that you need to try meditation…)
Are you having trouble organizing documents and emails or finding that great article that you read last month? If so then maybe Evernote is the program for you. This has been around since 2008, and is a multi-purpose note taking and archiving program. Organized around a system of notebooks, it provides a really easy way to organize and take notes, which can be text, voice memos, photos, file attachments and more. And, if you download the web clipper you can “clip” copies of online articles and webpages for reading later on. You can tag and annotate all notes, as well as sharing them with other people. Consisting of a web, desktop and mobile version, you can sync content across all three accounts, meaning you can catch up wherever you are. Free for a basic version with a generous monthly usage limit. Similar to: Diigo, which allows you to bookmark and annotate webpages.
Do you want an easy way to keep track of tasks and deadlines in group projects? Trello is a new program that is fabulous for project management. Established in 2011, it’s got a really cool visual drag and drop interface that allows you to create to do lists and tasks for any project that you are working on. It’s easy to share with other people, as well as setting deadlines, checklists, and sharing content. It would also work well as a personal tool. Like Evernote it can be synced with a smartphone too, giving you even more control. Free. Similar to: Basecamp.
I just need a simple to do list program… Sounds like you need Remember the Milk, an easy to use time management program. It was set up in 2004 by a couple of Australians (don’t let that put you off ), so it’s pretty well established and very easy to use. It’s kind of hard to explain- you make to do lists, and that’s about it… You can set it to send you SMS, text or IM reminders, and it will tell you off if you postpone a task too many times… It syncs easily with Google and Outlook calendars, as well as with a smartphone, but you can also work offline too. Free for a basic version but you need to pay if you want to sync across multiple devices. Similar to: Toodledo.
I want a place to record my lightbulb moments: Try Mindomo, a mindmapping tool. Available since 2007 the free version of this program will allow you up to three maps that you can share or make public. Very easy to create a visual brainstorm, or a to-do list or just a presentation of various ideas. Similar to: Mindmeister or Bubbl.us
University of Colorado, Boulder
Alison.Hicks @ colorado.edu
How many of you have made a New Year’s resolution to “keep up with [insert topic of choice] more”? Anyone feel guilty when they see their Google reader has 1,064 new unread items? Cry inwardly at the thought of drowning in the information tsunami, the fire hose of knowledge, the flood of media, the sea of despair?! (Yep that’s a lot of water metaphors…) According to Miriam Levin, (2000) that’s due to the fact that large bodies of water maintain the aura of “awesome, untamed power and impenetrable mystery” and of course, the implicit dangers of drowning and destruction. That’s a pretty powerful message, and one that we librarians probably worry more about than most people (isn’t my job to be good at managing all this information?!) This column will be all about “information overload” and some tips to start managing this additional stress in our lives.
Firstly, the concept of “information overload” is a tough one. As Clay Shirky and others have explained, people have always complained about information overload. That’s one of the reasons that librarianship was so necessary- our classification systems and collection development specialists, among others, helped people understand the world by filtering, ordering and reducing the knowledge to a beautiful, ordered whole. (Weinberger, 2012) So although there’s always been too much information for any one person to read or digest in their lifetime, humans designed systems that could prevent material being published, or shelved- controls for the printed flow of information.
However, with the explosion of the internet and its low barriers of participation, our traditional systems could not keep up with the torrent of information. Furthermore, as the field of critical information studies has shown us, these systems of strict editorial or library control meant that many ideas were excluded from this process according to political, social or economic rules of the day. So we’re stuck with two conundrums- exabytes of information and a broken system of filtering. No wonder those water metaphors are so descriptive.
So what can you do?! Firstly, stop worrying that you’re falling behind. Several great books have been written recently about how the concept of knowledge is changing around us, and I believe there is much more to be written. We’re in a state of flux, and new technologies are engendering massive social change. As information specialists, we’re never going to go back to having that control over the world of knowledge- so you need to relax and start getting excited about these exciting new possibilities of the information age.
Secondly, practise information meditation. Howard Rheingold (2012) has written extensively on “info-tention” and how we need to be more mindful about our attention and information consumption. He believes a lot of our information overload stress comes from poor attention literacy- getting distracted, forgetting to breathe when you check email, failing to pay attention to the humans in our lives and lack of focus on our goals. He advocates scheduling a specific amount of time for professional development every day (even just 20 minutes) and meditating on our information use (understanding goals, intentions and reflecting on how you deploy your attention)
Lastly, content curation or using the power of your friends as filters can also be a successful strategy. Facebook’s “Like” button is a good example of using your friends to filter out the useful information, as is Amazon’s recommendation system. Programs such as Scoop-it and Diigo allow you to subscribe to curated articles, links and information on a topic- you can see what other people have recommended as useful in your area of interest. For example, I am interested in embedded librarianship, but rather than go crazy trying to scour the web for updates, I subscribe to a couple of curated content streams on this topic through Scoop-it. Technologies such as Google Reader, Twitter, Google Alerts can definitely help manage or streamline information, but human contacts are still your most valuable tool. By focusing on building (and tweaking) your personal learning network of experts, or groups of people, their blogs or their curated content, you’re creating a valuable filter that will help cut through the flotsam and jetsam.
Information “overload” is a feature of our time, but by being mindful of our habits and the changing information landscapes it is possible to feel less overwhelmed. And geeky old me even thinks it’s kind of exciting as we consider the role that information literacy and librarians can play in our networked future. Water may be uncharted and uncontrolled- but it is also a symbol of life, renewal and reflection- inspiring metaphors for the information age.
Alison Hicks: University of Colorado, Boulder | alison.hicks [at] colorado.edu
Great books on the topic
Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn. New York: Viking.
Levin, M. R. (2000). Cultures of control. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.
Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know: Rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.