Monthly Archives: December 2010

Incorporating Failure Into Library Instruction

Failure is what’s getting a fair amount of attention right now, especially when the conversation turns to learning. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a growing consensus, but I’m hearing and reading more about the importance of allowing students to learn through authentic practice, what some call experiential learning, that puts them into situations where they can succeed or fail – and learn by doing so themselves or from the experiences of their fellow students. Educators have known for many years that students have better learning experiences when there is a hands-on component which enables them to learn through their own mistakes and by coming to their own conclusions; what then need is less lecturing and demonstration. Think back to the days when the vast majority of trades were learned through apprenticeships. It was all about having authentic practice, and learning from one’s own mistakes.

One good example that promotes the value of failure for learning is a TED Talk by Diana Laufenberg on the topic of “How to Learn? From Mistakes.” In this talk Laufenberg, who is a teacher at a progressive school in Philadelphia, describes how she creates projects that promote constructivism in the classroom. Traditional education, as she describes it, is focused entirely on getting things right – and never being wrong. How do you get an A grade? You always give the right answers on tests. The problem associated with test taking is that it rarely results in real learning (a permanent change in behavior/thinking). I really like the point that the traditional methods are based on a world of information scarcity when you had to sit in a classroom to have an expert pour it into your head. In a world of information abundance, the answers and possibilities are all around contemporary students. They know how to find it. What they need are learning activities that enable them to hone their thinking skills to enable them to sort, synthesize, evaluate and create from the information they find (sounds familiar, right). What Laufenberg discovered through her learning projects was how much more effectively students learned when there were no hard and fast rules, and they learned through experience and the making of mistakes.

And when you move outside the world of education into business there is growing evidence of a “there’s value in failure” movement. Again, nothing particularly new when you consider that in the 1991 Deep Dive video the IDEO group emphasizes the important of trying lots of different ways to accomplish tasks knowing that many will fail, but that out of the failure will come learning and eventual success. More recently I came across this column titled “The Role of Failure in Learning” – you can’t get much more direct than that – that provides a corporate perspective. The author writes:

society tends to reward performers, rather than learners. All through school and life, it is not the person who learned the most who is rewarded but rather the person who came in first — the person who scored the highest. High performance is what is valued, not high learning. The downside to this is that high performers, without balancing high learning, will ultimately quit trying when they aren’t successful. They may leave avenues with an obstacle to success unexplored. Learners see the obstacle for what it is — a momentary blip to be dealt with. Failure is never failure; for the learner, it is simply an opportunity to learn.

I could point to other examples, but you get the message. It’s better perhaps to remind ourselves that there are different levels of failure, some are good for learning while others are just…bad failure. What do I mean? You don’t want the engineer who designs your car’s steering system or the factory worker who installs the parts to fail. They might learn something from the catastrophic failure, but at what cost? In this post about innovation, Michael Schrage makes the point that the best kind of failure for learning and innovation is some sort of partial failure – where you fail enough to have things go wrong but not so destructively that there’s nothing to learn from at all – the type of failure likely to result in quitting. I think what he’s saying is that we need the type of failure that takes us from version one to version two. Our libraries already have enough examples of systems that are so poorly designed that they lead to the type of failure that makes the students and faculty just want to give up on them. We don’t need more of that.

With so much discussion about the importance of failure for learning and innovation, how are academic library educators incorporating these lessons into research instruction? Are we still spending more time on making sure that students get things right, rather than on designing an experiential learning situation that allows them to make mistakes and learn from them? Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve in one course session. Laufenberg’s examples are week or month long projects that allow students to learn through experience at a more reasonable pace, as is often the case in the real world. The literature of information literacy contains good examples of problem-based learning where students are put into more realistic situations that require them to locate and use information to help solve a problem. That does get more to the point of experiential learning, but I’m not sure how the making of mistakes is capitalized upon to develop a more intense learning experience. My quick and dirty search of the library literature finds a few articles on the importance of learning from failure, but these are mostly geared to the profession – encouraging risk taking. What I don’t find are articles providing good examples of instruction designed with some intentional failure component that is there to ultimately aid students in learning how to think for themselves when they are dealing with information overload. If it appears that employers may be looking for the type of people who are comfortable with failure as long as they learn from it, and we’re about lifelong learning, perhaps that’s a skill we need to help our students develop.

In our rush to develop new “learning from failure” methods, let’s remember to recognize that as great as all this constructivist learning from mistakes sounds, there are times when a good old behaviorist approach might be better suited to the learning task at hand. If I have a room full of students who need to learn how to use the MediaMark (MRI) Plus database for a marketing assignment, I need to get them to learn the 15 steps they’ll need to get to the right data for their project. It would be pointless to get them to the first screen and then tell them to “experience” the interface and expect them to learn from the many, many mistakes they would no doubt make. This is a case where the reward for getting it done right is a successfully completed assignment.

In 2011 I will hope to see better examples of risk taking in the classroom, and models of library learning where there is an intentional element of “learning through failing” designed into the instruction. Despite my limited instruction opportunities, I’ll be giving more thought to this myself. Speaking of 2011, this may very well be the last ACRLog post of the year. If so, allow me to say thanks for your continued readership of ACRLog. It is greatly appreciated. On behalf of the blogging team, I hope you’ve found ACRLog worthwhile and have enjoyed the presence of new bloggers and guest bloggers throughout the year. As always, ACRLog is always open to ideas for guest posts. If you have something to share about academic librarianship, get in touch with us in 2011.

A Day for Design

Last week I attended the ACRL/NY Symposium here in New York City. It was the first time I’d been to my local chapter’s annual program and a fun day: great speakers and posters and a nice opportunity to catch up with colleagues from libraries in the NYC metro area. The theme of this year’s program was Innovation by Design: Re-Visioning the Library which, as the day’s first speaker reminded us, could not be more timely. Bill Mayer, University Librarian at American University in DC, started us off with his talk “Redesigning Relevance: Creating New Traditions in Library Design.” He noted that in this economic climate renovation is often the new new construction: many of our institutions won’t have the budget for new buildings, so it’s important to make the most of what we have.

Mayer reminded us that the recent Ithaka report reveals that faculty use of our physical spaces is declining. He encouraged us to think about how we can make the library best for students, our primary users. He sees library-as-warehouse as an outdated model, and recommends reducing the collections and materials kept onsite as well as increasing reliance on consortial collections to free up more space for students to use.

Mayer shared some of the ways that this kind of redesign has been implemented at American University. After moving many volumes to offsite storage, they discovered that the additional space available for the books that remained made it easier for students to find books. Students wanted more computer workstations and access to wireless, so they added more space for student work too. Mayer cautioned that of course local conditions matter — there’s no one size fits all approach. He suggests making our process inclusive and asking faculty, students, and administrators for input during the process.

The next speaker was Lauren Pressley, Instructional Design Librarian at Wake Forest University, who presented “Re-Visioning Teaching: Adapting to a Changing Educational Environment.” She began by acknowledging that libraries are changing, as is higher education: there’s more information and technology, and higher expectations and costs. How can academic libraries adapt to these changes? Pressley suggests that instructional design can help. Systematic design can provide structure for our library instruction and produce data we can assess, which is becoming increasingly important for demonstrating the value of our libraries.

Pressley assured us that we are already engaging in instructional design in our libraries, we just might not be aware of the vocabulary that can be used to discuss it. She described the ADDIE model: analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation. Most of us probably follow these steps when creating library and research instruction, whether for in-person one-shots or multiple sessions, or for other forms of student research support like tutorials or research guides. Pressley encouraged us to find the best instructional solutions for our students and situations.

Aaron Schmidt, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the DC Public Library and one half of the consulting team Influx Library User Experience, was up after lunch, with “Librarians as Designers: Making Deliberate Decisions.” He wants librarians to be proud of what we offer, and provide our users with better experiences. Schmidt began by showing us examples of poorly-designed signs and experiences. He emphasized that everything is designed, even if by neglect; design is arranging things for a purpose, and we can choose to have good design in our libraries.

Schmidt thinks that libraries are spread thin trying to be lots of things to lots of people — we could make 50% of people ecstatic about our services rather than 100% lukewarm. He recommends that we practice design and look at the actions of our users more than their motivations. What are people doing in our libraries, and how can that knowledge guide our design? One interesting suggestion is to implement a “work like a student” day in which we use only the resources that students have access to, for example, public workstations and study areas. Schmidt reminds us that ultimately libraries are about solving problems for people, and well-designed experiences can help.

The day’s final speaker was Leah Buley, Experience Designer (with an MLIS) at design firm Adaptive Path, who spoke about “User Research in the Library: How to Understand and Design for Patrons’ Needs.” She noted that user research can help us understand how people really experience information and how we can help them use the tools that are available in our libraries. Buley began by mentioning a few exemplary user studies, for example, the University of Washington’s website redesign revealed confusion over what is available on a library website, which suggests that users may be confused about what is available in the library. In a study at Cal Poly, students led the research to evaluate a federated search product, which helped students broaden their views about library services.

Buley reminded us to “Know Thy User,” and detailed a variety of user research methods we may want to implement. We can examine log files to find out what search terms are being used, which can help us learn what users are looking for. Ethnographic methods like observation, timelines, and diary studies can give us a window into user needs and experience. Paper can be put to good use to prototype design ideas, or we can invite our users to codesign by drawing their ideas. Buley suggests that we ask what we need to know about our users — the answers will guide us in choosing our research methods.

The Symposium gave me lots of library design possibilities to think about and I’ll definitely need some time to digest it all. The program organizers will be adding notes and slides from the speakers to the Symposium website soon, so head over there for more information. And if you’re interested in reading more about design thinking for libraries, our own Steven Bell blogs regularly at Designing Better Libraries. Thanks to everyone involved for a great day!

Academic Library Data For Prospective Students

One area in which higher education has underperformed is in providing prospective students with fair, balanced and objective information about colleges and universities that could help in the college choice decision-making process. Most students and their parents end up gravitating to U.S. News and World Report rankings for this information, and we know that content is hardly objective and that institutions can – and willingly do – game the system to achieve higher rankings.

Renewed attention on this problem is being prompted by a soon-to-be-released report titled “Grading Higher Education: Giving Consumers the Information They Need.” One of the report’s findings is “that more-organized and better-targeted information will help prospective students and their families make wiser choices — especially if this information is oriented to their needs and concerns.” In a post about the report, its author is quoted as stating “Giving students and their families better information would enable them to avoid unworthy college investments that would leave them with substantial debt and little in the form of skills.”

If the federal government or some other organization, perhaps some coalition of higher education institutions, were to develop a college data source that aided selection – something along the lines of what the report recommends – I doubt there’d be information available about the academic library. This would be unfortunate because, to some extent, we know that the academic library does play a larger-than-believed role in the decision-making process.

What would we want prospective students and their parents to know about our libraries that would help their decision process? Do we even compile the type of data that would help in making a choice? Some of these would be easy to provide, others we’d have to start thinking about how we’d collect them. Here’s what comes to mind:

Number of volumes: While we can certainly provide the data I don’t see how this helps the decision process unless your primary criteria is based on bigger is better. What might be much better is some indicator of collection concentration by subject. If I want to be an architect it might be helpful to rank institutions by how much material they have on architecture. Again, it might only tell me who is bigger, but it might also say something about that institution’s commitment to supporting its researchers and students in that area – and it might also let me know I’ll probably be doing less borrowing from other libraries.

Number of study spaces: Students typically look to the library as a quiet study space. Having the ability to compare libraries based on study spaces could be relevant. If it’s just a number of total spaces that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. How many of those spaces are in quiet study rooms? How many are in collaborative work areas? How many are in spots where there’s a computer? Compiling this data isn’t impossible, but it would be more challenging to indicate what type of seating and where it is.

Number of Questions Answered: Most of us already collect this one, and could provide breakdowns on the type of question asked (e.g., reference vs. directional). Could be helpful in letting prospective students have an indicator of demand for assistance. Best perhaps to present it as a ratio, questions per student, so large schools have no distinct advantage over small ones. Of course, providing the number of questions doesn’t tell prospective students anything about the impact of the answers on student success.

Number of librarians: Could be helpful as an indicator of the administration’s commitment to the library. Again, best perhaps as a ratio, as in number of librarians per student. It could be helpful to offer a breakdown of sorts, by total staff, total librarians, total paraprofessional staff. By no means perfect, but let’s give them some numbers they can use for comparisons.

Number of Instruction Sessions: While I like this one in particular, I’m uncertain of how well it would be understood by prospective students and their parents. The terminology could benefit from tweaking. Done correctly, those considering the institution could get a sense of how active the librarians are in contributing to students’ education process.

Librarian-Student Contact Hours: For me this would be a meaningful indicator of the degree to which a prospective student could expect some personalized consultation time with a librarian. I can’t say to what extent prospective students would appreciate knowing this.

Those are just a few possibilities that come to mind. Perhaps there are better, more imaginative indicators that I’m missing (e.g., number of tweets about the library per semester; average time required to find and checkout a book; daily cups of coffee served at the cafe) . I’m getting the sense that there’s a direct relationship between library data indicators and data indicators that prospective students and their parents would truly value: the more valuable the indicator the harder it is to gather, compile and present that data. What indicators, no matter how difficult they might be to create, do you think would be important for academic libraries to serve as a good recruiting tool?

While no such prospective student-oriented library rankings truly exist today (a motivated student could potentially find some comparative data online – such as ACRL or ARL statistical sources – although those could hardly be described as “consumer-friendly”), we should be forward thinking. Knowing there is a likelihood that in the not-too-far future such college choice data will exist, academic librarians should be planning today for compiling the type of data that would make the most sense for prospective students and their families.

How Much Is Enough?

I’ve been hearing more and more, recently, about people dropping out of service and professional development opportunities because they cannot secure funding from their institutions to attend. A member of a statewide committee I am on said this fall her continued membership would be contingent on her institution’s ability to pay for her travel to the meetings (since this is Ohio, that only ever involves driving, and her institution is only 25 miles away from where meetings are held). My ALA committee recently accepted a proposal for a panelist at a Midwinter discussion forum, but the panelist just e mailed me to say her institution would not provide her with funding to go, and were there any funding opportunities for her? I asked a coworker just this morning if she was going to Midwinter or not and she said no, and that the reason she wasn’t was because of funding. “Our travel stipend only pays for most of a trip to Chicago,” she said.

Well, she’s right about that: my official faculty stipend is $500 a year (though after you add in the extras it can be as much as $1500). And professional travel is not cheap. Someone planning to go to Midwinter next month can expect to spend well over $1,000: $165 for registration, $129/night (plus 12.5% tax) for the cheapest hotel on the official list, $71 per diem for meals (according to the U.S. General Services Administration). My flight from Ohio cost $405, airport transportation via the Super Shuttle in San Diego is $16 round trip, and airport parking back home is $10/day.

I find conferences energizing. At them I get great ideas, stay on top of what’s going on in the field and always meet interesting people. I learn lots, sleep little, and talk talk talk. But what are our institutions’ obligations to pay for this kind of professional development? What’s the payoff to them when we attend? A tight-fisted fiscal officer would point out that service can be done locally and research can be presented through publications rather than presentations. To learn new things, people can take webinars from the comfort of their own offices. And, while librarians who do national service and presentation may see it come back to them in the form of slight pay increases, it’s not enough to offset the cost of the travel itself. I don’t attend national conferences merely for my own benefit (do I?). Are we really supposed to do this just for the love of it? While no administrator has ever come out and asked me to quantify the institutional benefits of my professional development, is it really only a matter of time?

I asked if ALA had any funds to tap into for my committee’s speaker, and the answer was that “there is a long-standing ALA policy against providing stipends to librarians.” I’m sure the reasoning is that librarians should support the work of the organization and the development of our professional colleagues, but, facing financial pressures and funding shortfalls, it seems like many librarians are opting out.

According to my calculations, I spent over $1800 of my own money attending conferences and meetings this calendar year after all my reimbursements (which were well over $1500 due to a generous conference scholarship and part of the pot of travel money not used by my tenured colleagues). For me, it’s money well spent, but it’s also a lot of money, and I know it’s a lot more than many can afford. I don’t think our institutions are trying to send the message that professional development is not important, but I wonder if more and more of the rising cost of conference attendance has been shifting to the individual over the last decade and, with the economy being what it is, we’ve reached a kind of breaking point. Is conference attendance going down? I looked at the attendance for several conferences over the past few years, and it’s inconclusive: NASIG attendance has gone down, but ALA attendance has fluctuated and ER&L conference attendance is up. But I know ALA sections are worried about declining participation in committees and have been promoting virtual participation. Is this the answer?

It seems like the strategy of self-funding conference attendance, on top of membership and section fees, is not viable for the long term, though I’m not sure what the answer is – giving more breaks to presenters and other participants, upping virtual opportunities, or consolidating our opportunities so we get the most bang for our conference dollars.

Like many, my take-home pay is going down on January 1. But my rent isn’t going down, and neither is my student loan payment or the price of gas or any number of other essentials, so I am going to have to find other places in my personal budget to cut back. I’m not sitting out San Diego, but I wonder how many of my ALA committee members will make it.

The Distributed Library: Our Two-Year Experiment

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Erin Dorney, Outreach Librarian at Millersville University, Pennsylvania. She also blogs at Library Scenester.

Last week, a small fire* forced all faculty, staff, and library users out of our nine-floor building for about an hour. As I stood the requisite 50 feet away and watched four trucks full of firefighters lug fans, ladders and various pointed objects inside, my colleague posed an interesting question:

“Wow…where are all these students going to go during the renovation?”

As I looked around us at hundreds of students standing in the lawn – laptops unplugged but open in hand, juggling cups of coffee, fingers flying over cell phones and cameras snapping shots of the flashing red lights – I shivered with excitement. It was great to see a visual reminder of who my colleagues and I work to serve: the users. Okay, maybe excitement laced with fear as well, but the good kind of fear – the stuff that drives you forward.

I am about to embark on my first journey into a daunting academic library renovation project. When I interviewed for my position as Outreach Librarian at Millersville University during the spring of 2008 (straight out of graduate school from Syracuse University), the search committee asked me how I would design a marketing campaign to provide awareness to students and faculty before and during a renovation. Little did I know that those interview scenarios were true!

I tried to catch your attention with the fire opening (no one likes the idea of books burning, right?), but if that didn’t do the trick maybe this will: During our upcoming renovation, the majority of our 350,000 physical items will be going into storage. Offsite. With no retrieval. For a period of two years.

Are you listening now?

With a building that is over 40 years old, the Millersville University Library will be gutted and completely renovated starting in the fall of 2011. Everyone currently working in the building will be relocated to other spaces on campus (and we’ll be testing out embedding librarians in different academic buildings). As the role of academic libraries has changed significantly, our facilities are in dire need of a makeover. The new building will provide students with the staples of the academic library space: natural lighting, flexible furniture, secure spaces, programming areas, exhibit space, physical accessibility, ubiquitous technology, 24-hour public areas, a café and more. Thus far, no one has complained about what the new library will look like. Instead, I spend most of my time calming fears about the transition period – the two years when our current building will be under construction, with most of the print books boxed up and out of sight.

There are so many questions, and I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all of the answers about how this will play out. I can assure you that we are committed to meeting the research needs of current and future Millersville students. Over the past few years we have been building our electronic book collection and focusing on article databases that will make scholarship available to students no matter where they (or we) are located. Our mutual dependencies with other libraries for things like ILL will become more important. However, the services that we currently offer will continue to be offered during the construction period.

We are also committed to being as transparent as possible about our decision making process and have been inviting student feedback through our renovation website and the creation of a library student advisory board. My goal is no surprises… or, rather, only pleasant ones.

Beyond the impact on students, this renovation project has major implications for other institutions of higher education. What happens when the physical library goes away for a little while? Or, what happens when the library’s resources are distributed around the campus, or move towards electronic access more quickly than anyone anticipated? People have asked me if I’m afraid that this is the end of the academic library, wondering if we will become irrelevant during the two years we’re out of the building. My response? I guess it’s possible, but only if I sit on my hands for the next two years. Instead, I’ll be out integrating the library into campus, infiltrating academic buildings, increasing thought-provoking programming, and providing top-notch service to the campus community so that when we do come back into the new library, we bring everyone along with us. In my world, you can probably have a library without printed books. You can’t really have a library without people.

This is an opportunity for us to put libraries out there, to challenge ideas of what a library can and should be. If you are interested in learning more about the project, I invite you to visit our Renovation Website, where the most up-to-date information is posted. I welcome any comments and questions – have you dealt with a major library renovation? How is communication handled within your library? Tips or lessons learned?

* in a heating vent, no worries!