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.

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

28 thoughts on “Convenience and its Discontents: Teaching Web-Scale Discovery in the Context of Google

  1. Pete – thanks for submitting this guest post to ACRLog. I wanted to something I learned from the early days of discovery tools that suggests that if the intent was to get the student to the most relevant results, that not the results early adopters were seeing. If you go to this ACRLog post from 2009 titled “Something is Better Than Nothing” (at http://acrlog.org/2009/07/22/something-is-better-than-nothing/ ) you’ll see that those early adopters found that the big improvement was the ability of the discovery tools to get students into the content. What they found wasn’t as important as the fact that they could at least get the search going. Thus, just saying “Well at least they found something, and isn’t something better than nothing” seemed like progress. That said, I’m thinking that discovery tools don’t have to be a tradeoff between convenience and quality. We can work to integrate their role – as a search tool – into a more strategic search strategy. Personally I’ve found our Summon search to be a good starting point for students and myself – especially when I get into unknown territory. The trick is moving from “something found” to “something relevant”.

  2. Thanks Steve. I wholeheartedly agree. There’s no necessary trade-off here, just one that we risk making if we don’t conscientiously avoid making it. To put it another way, I see this as more a pedagogical challenge than an algorithmic one.

    Thanks for engaging!

  3. Pete, thanks for this post! You’ve raised some great thoughts here. So much so, I think i feel my next research project coming on!

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