Monthly Archives: January 2012

Game Up Your Unconference

Last weekend I was delighted to head down to the University of Maryland for THATCamp Games, an instance of the popular humanities and technology unconference devoted specifically to games in education. It’s been a while since I attended an unconference — my last one was LibCampNYC in 2009 — and THATCamp Games reminded me how much I enjoy the unconference format. Capping registration at about 100 people and eschewing formal presentations means lots of opportunities for discussion and conversation among the participants, and lots of opportunities for learning. At this particular THATCamp the attendees were highly diverse, from faculty and staff in higher and secondary education to educational technologists to game industry folks to students. While there weren’t a huge number of librarians there, I wasn’t the only one, and of course the topics we all discussed are relevant to academic libraries as well as other educational organizations.

I’m an avid gamer and have long been interested in games-based learning, though it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve begun to incorporate games and game mechanics into my own teaching. I’d like to use more games in my research and information literacy instruction, especially to leverage the research behaviors that are a built-in to so many digital (and non-digital) games, and I appreciated that the unconference began with a day of workshops called BootCamps which offered hands-on experience with thinking through and creating instructional games. I know of at least one library that’s used the application Inform to create a text-based interactive fiction game (Bioactive at the University of Florida), so I went to a BootCamp on Inform and had the chance to play around with the software, which doesn’t require much programming knowledge.

Two of the BootCamps discussed using ARGs — alternate reality games — in educational settings. I’ve always found the idea of using an ARG for education intriguing: ARGs are immersive experiences that incorporate many beneficial attributes of games, like asking students to take on a new identity, and scaffolding knowledge and skills. But many ARGs are long, detailed, and involved, and I’ve struggled with the practicalities of integrating something so time-intensive into my instruction, which tends to be mostly one-shots. During the two BootCamps we worked on specific activities that I found really helpful in thinking about strategies for my own teaching, one an example of a narrative puzzle, and the other an exercise in which we broke into small groups to brainstorm a subject-specific ARG. The facilitators emphasized that when designing an ARG the game objective and the learning objective must overlap completely, which seems like sound advice for designing any educational game.

I’m also interested in exploring ways that librarians can use games in collaboration with other faculty to strengthen students’ research competencies. During the unconference proper there were several sessions on adding game-like features to classrooms and courses. In a session on “Badges Done Right” we discussed using badges and other game structures like experience points for grading or other forms of recognition within a course. There was also a session about building gaming into the learning management system, with examples of both a commercially-produced and a home-grown LMS. There’s no question that the trend in “gamification” is complex, and we spent much time discussing the benefits of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. However, for faculty using game mechanics like badge or XPs I can think of lots of possibilities for librarians to collaborate. (“Wikipedia fact-checker” badge, anyone?)

Like any good conference there were lots of interesting-sounding choices at every timeslot (and a phenomenal number of tweets), so I’m grateful that a shared, public Google Docs folder was created early on. There are notes from nearly every session, and if you’re interested in games and education I encourage you to take a peek.

Convenience and its Discontents: Teaching Web-Scale Discovery in the Context of Google

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Pete Coco, formerly of Grand Valley State University, now Humanities Liaison at Wheaton College in Norton, MA.

With the continued improvements being made to web-scale discovery tools like Proquest’s Summon and EBSCO’s Discovery Service, access to library resources is reaching a singularity of sorts: frictionless searching. Providing a unified interface through which patrons can access nearly all of your library’s collection has an obvious appeal on all sides. Users get the googley familiarity and convenience of a singular, wide-ranging search box and, according to a recent case study done at Grand Valley State University, the reduced friction patrons face when using library resources correlates to an increase — potentially dramatic — in the frequency with which they access them. While these tools will continue to be tweaked and refined, it’s difficult to imagine an easier process for getting students to scholarly sources.

That’s the good news, and the story you’re likely getting from your sales rep. And while none of it is untrue, in my role as a teaching librarian I’ve seen more undergraduate students struggle to get what they need from web-scale discovery than I’ve seen benefit from its obvious conveniences. These students often know intuitively how to get to results from Summon’s search box; often they figure out on their own how to get to the item itself if it is available in full-text. In the library’s statistics, these might be counted fairly as successful searches. But when I ask the student whether the article at hand is what they wanted, I get one response far more frequently than all others: “Not… exactly.”

Web-scale discovery is doing about as much for these students as we could reasonably expect, and, in doing so, offers teaching librarians a challenge and an opportunity. Both are at root about our thinking, and they stem from the same fact: these tools offer an unprecedented convenience. For all the familiarity it allows students, our decision to make library tools more similar to commercial web search can reinforce the idea — primarily amongst students, but also, potentially, amongst administrators making personnel and workload decisions — that information literacy instruction isn’t necessary because students know how to get what they want from Google. If the new tool is like Google, then why does it require instruction?

There’s a lot to unpack in that question. First and foremost, what web-scale discovery borrows from Google does not make it Google. Searching Summon for scholarly articles will never be like searching Google — not because Summon cannot approximate Google’s user experience, but because scholarly communications will never be like the things students use Google to find.

Consider the freshman student looking for a pizza parlor that will deliver to his dorm. He comes to his commercial web search with a knowledge base and a self-defined need: pizza literacy, let’s call it. Having eaten and enjoyed pizza countless times in the past, he knows what it is and the range of forms it can take. Over time, he’s developed a preference for sausage, but tonight he wants pepperoni. Perhaps in this instance, he’s working under unique constraints — he saw a coupon somewhere, and is hoping to find it online. Whatever his specific pizza need, could there be any doubt that this student has the literal and conceptual vocabulary to effectively communicate that need to Google? In a way that will undoubtedly yield him with an informed pizza-choice?

Of course not. But consider the same student, his belly now full, turning to the research paper for his freshman composition course. Unlike his soul-deep craving for pepperoni, his need for “2-3 peer-reviewed articles” has been externally defined. If she is like too many of her peers, the professor assigning this requirement hasn’t done so in detail nor explained her pedagogical purpose for including it. She has given our hero but one bread crumb: go to the library website. Assuming his library’s discovery tool is featured prominently, it can potentially spare him the UI nightmare that would otherwise be the process of selecting a database to search. That’s quite a mercy, but it really only helps him with the first of many steps.

To find the scholarly articles that will meet the paper requirement, the student will need navigate a host of alien concepts, vocabularies and controversies that will, at least at first, drive his experience with peer-reviewed scholarship. And while some degree of anxiety is probably useful to his learning experience, there can be little doubt that the process would be easier and of more lasting value to the student who has support—human support—as he goes through it.

Put another way: good learning is best facilitated by good pedagogy. The tool is not the pedagogy and it’s hard to imagine how it ever could be. Because of all the concepts and conventions implicit to scholarship, the scholarly resource that is not improved for students by expert intervention is and always will be a chimera. The future of teaching librarianship as a profession will only demand more vigilance on this point.

But for all these caveats, with the right framing discovery can be an excellent pedagogical tool. Because it relieves so many searches of the burden of that first question — which database should I search? — we can use our time with students to construct, together, answers to questions we all find more compelling. What is peer review? Why does it matter? Why would a professor use it as a standard for student research? Each can be elegantly demonstrated with discovery, and best of all, students can demonstrate it for themselves and each other while my guidance focuses on the concepts and conventions underneath all the clicking.

Rather than giving in to the temptation to compare discovery to Google as a means of marketing it to students, we should go out of our way to contrast the two. What is the difference between the commercial internet search and the library tool? What is the purpose each exists to serve? How does the commercial internet search engine decide what to show you? How does discovery? You might be surprised how sophisticated students can be when they’re given a space suited to sophistication. Discovery can help to create that space in your information literacy sessions.

Even in freshman courses, I’ve found that I’m able to dive right in to activities that lead to genuine and rewarding discussion. In one, for example, I have students choose a search term — usually the name of a superhero — and ask them to search it in both Google and in Summon (with the box checked for “scholarly” results only). To the average student my sessions, the distinction between thedarkknight.warnerbros.com and Batman and Robin in the Nude, or Class and Its Exceptions is instructive on its face. Discovery makes juxtaposition like this one quick, fluid, and highly demonstrable. My students don’t need to read more than the title and abstract of the latter to have a sense of the distinction at hand.

Discovery is also a great tool for “citation chasing.” Projecting a full citation in front of the classroom, I’ll preface the activity with a brief discussion of the citation itself. What is this text Pete is projecting on the board? Why does it exist? What are its component parts, and what do they tell us about the object it describes? Then I poll the students: how many of you think you could find the full-text of the article this citation describes using the library website? Depending on the class, anywhere from none to a half of the students raise their hands. Without discovery, I wouldn’t be able to say what I say to them next: The truth is you all can. So please: do. Within three minutes, the entire class has the full-text article on their own screens.

Discovery is not the tool for every task. Controlled vocabularies don’t federate well, and the student asking very specific questions of the literature is better off going straight to the disciplinary index. Known item searches proceeding from partial information are a recurrent challenge. We must be careful with the way we describe the scale of discovery to students. In our attempts to market discovery as convenient and easy, we may in fact be selling them on a product that doesn’t exist. In the absence of a clear purpose, convenience is not convenient.

But really, has convenience ever really been our only goal as educators? The commercial web has no doubt rattled the profession, and we must respond decisively to the vast changes it has brought to the information landscape. But when we start to speak primarily in terms of convenience, the risk is that we turn away from the terms of learning and pedagogy. It’s a choice you can make without even meaning to make it. The librarian who is able to choose between user education and user convenience, certainly, has the easier job. But will it be a job worth doing? Will his users get what they need from him? The hard thing, really, is find ways to give our users both with the fewest trade-offs. This is the tension at the heart of information literacy instruction. Romantics, we want to have it all. And so we should.

Collision Spaces

Please welcome Laura Braunstein to the ACRLog team. Laura is the English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library. She has a doctorate in English from Northwestern University, where she taught writing and literature classes. She has worked as an index editor for the MLA International Bibliography, and serves as a consultant for the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. Her research interests include collaborative learning, using archival materials in teaching, and the impact of the digital humanities on teaching and learning. She coproduced the ACRL Literatures in English Section promotional video, “Literature Librarians and Faculty: Partnering for Academic Success.”

A biologist friend just moved in to a beautiful new laboratory building on campus. Her old lab had been crowded and outdated: her graduate students made coffee in her office and there were women’s restrooms only on every other floor. Now she has state-of-the-art research facilities, a spacious office, and her graduate students have their own lunchroom. There’s a restroom right around the corner. So why does she miss the old, inefficient building? Because she never sees anyone anymore. Gone are the chance encounters and serendipitous meetings that would happen, even in the restroom, when a colleague in another department would ask how her research was going.

What my friend misses are the “collision spaces,” those informal physical gathering places, corridors, and hubs on campus where people collide and interact. In a recent blog post, the Ubiquitous Librarian wrote of his visit to TechPad, a collaborative office environment for startup companies near his campus. He mused that academic libraries could learn from the way that business incubators build into their floor plans collision spaces for “serendipitous conversation and discovery.” What does it take to enable an academic library to become a collision space? A cafe? Comfortable seating? Shelter from the elements? A fortunate position in campus geography? Tolerant food and drink policies?

As many lament the coming irrelevance of the academic library, I keep seeing evidence that these rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The most vibrant collision space on my campus is the library. Day after day it is packed with students, faculty, community members, and visitors to campus. Since we’re in a rural area, we don’t limit access to ID holders from our college. We have long embraced our identity as a resource for the community, and we value the connections that are enabled by being a crossroads for different kinds of users.

Social networking has certainly helped many of us make opportune connections in the virtual world. I would be truly sad, however, if our face-to-face arenas for networking disappeared. Day after day my work is enriched by being able to say: hey, it’s great to run in to you! How is that project going? What are you teaching this term? What can I do to help?

Stop Making Sense (Scholarly Publishing Edition)

Yesterday I was flabbergasted to read about the Research Works Act (hat tip to @CopyrightLibn and @RepoRat), legislation which is strongly supported by the Association of American Publishers. As described on the AAP website:

The Research Works Act will prohibit federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles that report on research which, to some degree, has been federally-funded but is produced and published by private sector publishers receiving no such funding. It would also prevent non-government authors from being required to agree to such free distribution of these works. Additionally, it would preempt federal agencies’ planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories for such works, which would duplicate existing copyright-protected systems and unfairly compete with established university, society and commercial publishers.

I recommend reading the AAP’s statement in full — it’s truly head-spinning. If this legislation goes through it would be a major blow to open access to scholarly research and publishing. And this comes on the heels of the (unsurprising, yet still disappointing) news that SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and the PROTECT IP act are also strongly supported by many commercial publishers.

Even more troubling are details on campaign contributions for the representatives who sponsored the act, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). Biologist Michael Eisen used MapLight to learn that Elsevier contributed funds to Representative Maloney’s campaign last year. Anthropologist Jason Baird Jackson found Representative Issa’s name on Elsevier’s contributions list as well.

If this makes you furious (as it does me), you’re probably wondering what we can do beyond writing emails or phone calls to register our disagreement with these legislative acts. Here are some ideas — please share more in the comments!

Keep talking! Every time the commercial publishers come out in support of restricting access to scholarly research it’s another opportunity to widen the open access conversation. John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian and others have called for scholarly societies to resign their memberships in the AAP. What else can we say in support of open access in conversations with colleagues, faculty, and administrators?

Familiarize ourselves with the issues Many of us have likely perused the wide range of top notch resources out there on open access scholarly publishing. Peter Suber’s excellent overview of open access is a great place to start, and I highly recommend sharing it with those interested in learning the basics. To keep up with OA news and developments I follow Open Access Tracking Project on Twitter, or visit the Open Access Directory hosted by Simmons College.

Know where to go The louder the open access conversation gets, the more colleagues, faculty, and administrators are likely to come to us with questions. The DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals) is a great place for scholars to start looking for open access journals to publish their research, and SHERPARoMEO has a wealth of information on both OA and toll access publishers’ copyright and self-archiving policies.

Practice what we preach It goes without saying that we should make every effort possible to publish our own research in open access venues. Jason Baird Jackson’s classic Getting Yourself Out of the Business in Five Easy Steps is well-worth a read for its sound advice on transitioning from commercial to open access publishing in all aspects of our participation in the scholarly communications system.

As academic librarians we’ve been advocates for open access for a long time, from the very beginning of the serials crisis (and far longer than I’ve been in the profession). But as these recent legislative acts demonstrate, it’s never been more important to push for ethical publishing practices and access to scholarly research.

Edited to add: The White House has extended the deadline for comments on open access to scientific publications to January 12, which is another way for us to express our support for OA (hat tip @brettbobley).