Monthly Archives: February 2009

Life with Technology

Whether we enjoy it or not, all of us academic librarians work with technology every day — assisting patrons, providing new services, and completing the myriad tech chores that are part of working in libraryland. I’ve starting noticing some technology patterns at my workplace and have summarized them below. Please share other insights and examples.

#1 Technology functions best when it doesn’t feel like a lumbering intermediary between you and a task to be accomplished. Technology is the means of doing something, not the ends. Often when technology really works, it is due to the design. You can have the smartest underlying program in the world and it won’t matter if the user interface is terrible.

Twitter, the Flip camcorder, and google search are examples of technologies that are so intuitively easy to use that you barely feel their presence. For some people it’s a Blackberry, kindle, or ipod. A certain operating system comes to mind when I try and think of examples of technologies that seem to interfere rather than assist, but I won’t name names.

#2 There is a sweet spot of technology-related frustration people will endure before they give up. If a technology seems complicated, if it doesn’t work, fails too often, creates messes etc., people won’t believe in it, and so they won’t buy into it or start depending on it in their everyday lives.

Accessing the library online for course readings can be a real headache, for example, which is why I’m so intent on putting the library in the online classroom more seamlessly, and why I’m taking a class on instructional design right now. As I take this class, I’m noticing that if I can get away with not doing a reading because it involves an aggravating process of tracking down the full text, my impulse is to abandon it rather than raise my blood pressure.

Of course, the amount of frustration a person is willing to endure depends on the individual. There are some people who will stick with a technology just because they’re in love with a gadget or want to look cool. And then there are people who will give up with the slightest provocation, claiming they’re too old, don’t have time, are not good with computers, etc.

The other day I helped a student who was trying to print a document due for a class. It turned out that the network cable was broken on the machine she was using. She did not have a way to save the document. The first floppy disk we tried failed, at which point she stormed out of the library. I tried to catch her when the second floppy worked, but she was gone.

#3 People will persist with a technology even when it’s not working if forced, or if the fact that it’s superior is considered common knowledge. They will also persist if the technology allows them to accomplish the task faster: Speed trumps everything.

I’ve also helped students who have been wrangling with their online course management system for hours. Heck, typing a paper on a computer, printing it, and turning it in is an ordeal for many of the students I see, but they persist because they are required to for their classes.

Another example of this is cell phones: for all their patchy service & fees, nothing beats the convenience of having a phone (and that’s a low-end application of a cell phone) on you at all times.

#4 If you’ve wondered whether there’s a technology out there like the one you’re imagining, there probably is.

If I can think of an application I want, google is often two steps ahead of me. This is both comforting and a little scary. If not google, some smart tech-savvy person generally knows of a solution. At least, I never feel I am alone in my wrangling with technology — Thank goodness for online communities.

This is just a basic round-up of my thinking. Further thoughts are very welcome!

Planning For Transformational Times

Did you know that the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is currently in the process of renewing its strategic plan? I didn’t and despite regularly monitoring what’s happening at ARL this somehow evaded tracking on my radar screen. Since my own library is also currently engaged in a new planning process, I was pleased to discover an environmental scanning document produced by ARL. “Transformational Times: An Environmental Scan Prepared for the ARL Strategic Plan Review Task Force” examines themes, threats and general challenges and opportunities in three specific strategic arenas in which ARL operates. I think the limited number of arenas helps to focus this environmental scan yet still provides a good number of issue areas to which academic librarians, at all size institutions, should be paying attention.

The three strategic arenas are: (1) scholarly communication; (2) public policy that impacts research libraries; and (3) the library’s role in research, teaching and learning. The first two are no surprise here. Taking an advocacy role and helping research libraries to organize in dealing with scholarly communication and public policy are ARL’s meat and potatoes activity. I’m glad to see that ARL recognizes that the research library has a vital role to play in engaging faculty and students in learning spaces. ARL acknowledges that research libraries need to increasingly deploy services and resources into virtual and physical learning spaces. For example, the scan warns that:

Failure to respond with comprehensive, relevant, evolving, and appealing virtual domains runs the risk of alienating consumers.

How interesting that ARL describes our students, specifically undergrads, as consumers. To me that signals that ARL recognizes the importance of paying attention to consumer trends and user expectations. I find repeated references in the document to building relationships and establishing partnerships with our academic colleagues, be they faculty, instructional technologists or researchers. This is an important societal trend that needs recognition in the scan. The value of libraries could increasingly be less measured by collections and content as more emphasis is placed on the importance of establishing relationships that provide meaning. ARL picks up on a variety of ways these changes can emerge. Personally I’m interested to see that ARL predicts a more “blended” approach for academic librarians when it comes to information literacy. They believe we’ll spend less time in classrooms doing instruction and more time spent behind the scenes creating learning objects for instructors.

If you expect an ARL environmental scan to emphasize important developments in new models for scholarly publishing, shifting relationships with publishers, collaborations with internet content providers, technology innovation, copyright and intellectual property, the preservation of special collections and other research library concerns this report will satisfy your needs. But what about the challenges? There are some good ideas here, but what could foul up the works? In a word, us. ARL sees some great opportunities but believes that “as uncertainty about the future persists, library staff may tend to cling to the familiar, resisting new approaches to the way they work.” Resist change? Surely not us academic librarians? When it comes to transformational times, we want to be there.

Getting Students To Ask For Help Is A Higher Education Challenge

When we hear about or read research or surveys that gives us bad news about library services we may assume that we’re doing something wrong. It may be that we are. Or it may be that the academic library is but one service unit in a much larger higher education enterprise that suffers from a systemic problem. If there is a problem that causes our services to suffer we need to fix it no matter why it’s happening, but I think getting a better understanding of the larger issues that generate the problem across the institution – and then working with colleagues on a systemic solution – may be a better way to approach a challenge.

Back in December 2008 Ricklibrarian wrote a post about an article in the journal Reference & User Services Quarterly that had some research to which librarians should pay attention. What caused Ricklibrarian’s consternation was a finding that when college students had unsuccessful subject searches using library resources they had some counter strategies such as “use google” or “browse for books”, but not a single student indicated he or she would ask for help from a librarian. What librarian wouldn’t be alarmed by that finding?

But is there something unique about the library or librarians that causes students to avoid asking for help? We should ask ourselves why students would not even consider the possibility that there is someone designated to provide help. Another higher education survey I came across suggests that the problem isn’t the library or even librarians. Rather, it may be the students who exhibit a general reluctance to seek out help in academic environments. More significantly, the reason why students may not ask for help can point to larger problems in higher education organizations that may have nothing to do with the library.

A recent survey of online learners discovered that many dropout without finishing even a single course. But of greater interest is the study’s finding that despite the availability of a support network, the majority of these students quit without ever asking anyone for help – not financial help, not personal help from a faculty member, not help from campus health providers, not help from librarians. Now admittedly there are some differences between a remote learner and an on-campus student with respect to access to a help/support system, but the findings suggest that despite the abundant availability of help in higher education organizations students have a tendency to try to go it alone. Or, given the popularity of social networks, it may be they solely seek out help in these networks. Librarians have shared evidence of students using facebook and twitter to send out a “who knows how to research this assignment” message to their network. But one piece of data suggests a potential strategy for doing better. The study found that:

“53 percent craved more online student services and Web-based academic advising. Self-help, time management, and organizational advice also ranked as coveted offerings among students who dropped out (46 percent)”.

If we want students to ask for help we need to establish a more personal level of relationship that creates the bridge to interaction. We need to do more than just stand behind desks waiting for students to walk up and ask for help. The desk, with its anonymous and impersonal structure for providing help, appears out of touch with today’s students and their desire for personalized, network-style connections. These research studies and surveys are telling us we’ll miss huge numbers of students if that’s all we do. To be approachable, a librarian has to gain credibility as a member of a student’s network. Ask any librarian who gets out to classes and speaks to students, who goes to their school events, who does a good job of outreach, and he or she will tell you more students are coming directly to their office – bypassing the reference desk – to get help.

The next time we hear about students completely ignoring the library as a source of research help, perhaps we need to take a step back and think about the questions we need to ask, of ourselves and our campus colleagues, to learn more about our students and their help networks – and how we best get linked in. I suspect that the answer – and possible solution – will have something to do with meeting that craving for personalized, relationship-based help.

The Paperless Dorm Room

It’s always good to start the day with a good laugh.

Joseph Storch has an idea (behind the Chronicle’s pay wall) to deal with textbook piracy – have all publishers put their books on a common electronic platform and let the colleges negotiate a subscription on behalf of students and dole out royalties to publishers based on use. Students will be fine with it because online is where students are at, and if a few students insist on printing content, well, even so “the system could save considerable paper.” And publishers might even start creating some digital content to supplement textbooks. What a concept!

Evidently Mr. Storch, an assistant counsel in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel, knows something about intellectual property law, but hasn’t paid much attention to the textbook industry and the masses of expensive online content they bundle with books, or to how students prefer to read. I don’t know about your students, but at our college most students print any online content that they want to read with care. Like most of us, they hate reading long texts on screen and even those suffering from ecological guilt prefer reading, marking up, and (if they’re on the ball) bringing their materials to class so they can refer to it. Professors want students to refer to texts under discussion, but are not universally delighted to face a classroom full of students with their noses buried in laptops. Not all students have laptops. Not all classrooms have wireless access to handle all those laptops at once. (I won’t even touch on the silliness of an ecological argument that landfills full of printed textbooks are a bigger problem than landfills overflowing with electronic junk, heavy metals and all.)

I applaud any attempt to improve the situation for students who have to spend so much on textbooks, but solutions should be proffered with some rudimentary research done beforehand. Libraries have subscribed to bundled electronic content on behalf of students for a long time, and while it means more content is accessible, it doesn’t make it cheaper – nor does it mean students will use more content. And so far, having all content through one platform may be the dream of some of our ambitious vendors, but it’s not likely to happen – or save anybody money.

I also had to laugh that he mentions Harvard Business Review – the outfit smart enough (or should I say greedy enough?) to have licenses with their content bundled into library databases spell out that it cannot be used for courses. For that, you pay more.

[Whoops - as Steven points out in the comments, I read that wrong. It's Harvard Law Review. I did notice something else, though, that I hadn't before - the copyright statements on full-text articles in Academic Search Premier vary from publication to publication, and a lot of them specify articles can be downloaded "for personal use." It makes me wonder if that's to wriggle out of use of these articles in courses, with links in syllabi or e-reserves systems. But that's a paranoia for another day . . .]

A cheaper solution? Nice thought, but I doubt it.