Category Archives: Simplicity vs. Complexity

Use this category for items that relate to an ongoing discussion of finding a balance between givin users simplicity or expecting them to deal with complexity.

Coping With The Catered Generation

It was somewhat of a surprise to find an editorial in a metropolitan paper criticizing higher education institutions for pampering and pandering to what they called the “Catered Generation”. But I found it a pleasant surprise. Anyone dumbfounded by a student whose expectations for personalized service were far beyond the norm will appreciate this editorial. It is sparked by an article in the same paper about the shift in orientation programs from basic college survival skills to, well, survival skills for being on your own (sorry, the article is no longer available online but it appeared in the Boston Globe on July 9, authored by Marcella Bombardieri – I found the full text on ProQuest). Here’s an excerpt:

These warnings for entering college freshmen have popped up at area college orientations during the last couple of years. Officials say that they keep adding new “don’ts” partly because the online world has brought new temptations. But they also say they’ve become more intent on reviewing every conceivable danger because today’s college students, known as the millennial generation because they came of age in the 21st century, have been so coddled by parents that many of them lack basic street smarts.

The editorial encourages higher education institutions to stop babying their students and start treating them like adults. That will require all of us who work in higher education to both raise our level of expectations for students and present them with some academic challenges. While it is important to take notice of changing demographics and user expectations, the editorial suggests that we fail our students when we make things too easy for them for fear that their possible failures may do them irreparable harm. Nor does the argument to stop catering to student whims suggest that good customer relations at all institutional service points should in any way diminish.

I can’t help but feel that this coddling mentality has invaded the academic library’s territory to a certain extent. Is seems our profession has likewise become preoccupied with discovering methods to provide students with the lowest-common denominator research tools and the elimination of anything that might be perceived as too complex for fear that students will – what – complain that libraries are too hard to use. Do we fear that students will abandon our resources for the ones that do coddle them by eliminating the possibility of failure? It’s almost impossible with most search engines, no matter how awful your search is, to get nothing in return. You can’t fail. With a library database if you do a poorly conceived search you will likely retrieve nothing – the equivalent of failure. Heaven forbid we might expect someone to show some resolve and actually think about what they did and try to improve upon it – even if the cause of failure is as minor as a mispelled word. Now if our systems don’t have spellcheck and auto-correction that’s a cause to castigate library resources and those who promote their use.

In defense of this generation of students, this editorial and the orientation programs it remarks upon are likely directed to a segment of our students who do get attention for their juvenile behavior and their parent’s meddling ways. To the contrary we help to educate many self-reliant students who show remarkable potential as researchers and adults. While we should not allow generalizations to influence ourselves to think negatively about our current or incoming students, there is some advice worth comtemplating in the editorial. On the simplicity-complexity spectrum we need to avoid drifting too far towards simplicity in an effort to shelter students from the true complexity of academic research. Encouraging students, with support from our faculty colleagues, to engage with primary research materials or higher-level scholarly works will contribute to the sharpening of their minds and better prepare them for the complexity of their post-college lives. Our responsibility, I think, is to play a part in ensuring our students graduate with street smarts for the information jungle. Allowing our students to always play it safe, satisfy for just good enough, and live in fear of encountering complexity does them no favors.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Choosing Where To Be Simple Or Complex

I’ve ranted in the past about my annoyance with those who spout platitudes about library web sites needing to be more like Google or Amazon – although those two sites couldn’t be more different. Why do we need to be more like those web sites? Well if people like those web sites, goes the rationale, then people will like our web site better if it’s more like those sites. Part of the rationale of developing a library web site that is more like Google or Amazon gets back to the simplicity factor. If it’s simple people are more likely to use it – and find what they need quickly. But it may not be as cut and dry as choosing between simple and complex. That’s why I liked what Gerry McGovern had to say about this issue. He says that not everything on a web site can be simple, so it’s up to the web managers to decide what basic items to make simple, one-click resources, and which may take some additional clicks. Like Don Norman, McGovern points out that Google is simple for searching ordinary web pages, but not so simple if you want other features or types of information they offer. McGovern concludes that making a web site simple is not easy work because not everything can be simple. Decisions need to be made about what will require more complexity. Rather than being fixated on coming up with academic library web sites that mimic Google, Amazon, or any other commercial site, consider a library web site that is a reflection of local needs. Where does your community need simplicity, and where can they cope with more complexity? Figure that out and let it serve as a guide to your web site’s development.

Educating The Creativity Right Out Of Students

Education is our business, so it behooves us to pay attention to what experts have to say about the education industry at any level. Higher education and K-12 are inextricably woven together. I recently came across this video of an education visionary giving a talk that I thought was worth sharing. In this 18 minute presentation, Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and a leading expert on innovation and human resources, focuses on how education stifles creativity. The presentation was made at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, which is an annual event where leading thinkers and doers gather for inspiration. Here are a few of the things he had to say:

“Creativity is as important as literacy.”
“If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original.”
“We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
“Nobody has a clue what the world will look like in five years, yet we’re trying to educate people for that world.”

Since we don’t know what that world will be like, perhaps the best we can do is foster creativity and innovation that will enable today’s students to adapt to and succeed in a new environment. I’m going to make more of a personal commitment to encourage students to be creative in my library instruction sessions. It won’t change their overall college experience and it will mean taking more risks in the classroom for me, but I’ll feel like I’m making a small contribution to their future.

Dark Days Of Education

When it comes to education visionaries, Chris Dede is certainly no slacker. The learning technologies expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education takes on what he sees as some current failures of the United States education system in this 8-minute video interview(scroll down and click on Dede’s photo). It’s quite a contrast to Robinson’s presentation. Dede acknowledges that education has to be more than preparation for the workplace, but he discusses the strong links between business and education in those countries that are developing high quality education systems. His main problem with the current education climate, which he refers to as “the dark ages in education”, is that unlike other professions higher education has failed to educate the public about what teaching and learning methods will work best to prepare students for a 21st century global economy. He believes that most citizens are stuck in the 1950s when it comes to visualizing what should be happening in classrooms. Dede’s commentary reminds me of a course in which the instructor asked “What is the purpose of education?” It was clear that for most societies the answer is to build a stronger economy than competitor countries. We might like to think that education has more noble goals, such as liberating individual creativity, but Dede makes the point that most parents want an education system that gives their children more economic opportunity than they had for themselves. Dede’s concern is that in these dark days the US government is moving away from the investment needed to create schools that will give students the necessary skills to achieve economic success in a flattened global economy. Given the ongoing funding challenges faced by the vast majority of higher education institutions (just read about what’s happening in New Jersey right now) it may be quite some time before we emerge from the current dark age of education.

Gotten Any Complaints About Your OPAC Lately?

The discussions about the OPAC and all that ails it go on unabated. I will acknowledge that the tone of the conversation has shifted from mere complaining to a greater focus on ways to improve the OPAC. For example, see Eric Morgan’s discussion of the next generation catalog posted at LITABlog. Given all the discussion about why the OPAC needs to improve you would think that academic libraries are besieged with complaints about the library catalog. Somehow I doubt that this profession’s concerns about the OPAC are shared by library users. As evidence of that I turn to the recent OCLC “College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources” report. When the respondents were asked “If you could provide one piece of advice to your library what would it be?” a mere 2% of the respondents suggested improvements to the local library online catalog (see page 4-6). They were much more focused on improving collections and computing facilities in the library. So if 98% of library patrons (Ok, I know it’s statistically inappropriate to extrapolate this finding from a small sample to all academic libraries) have no real concerns about the OPAC, why is there such a fuss being made about fixing something that the users don’t even think is broken? On a day-to-day basis in your library do you see patrons having massive search failures with the OPAC? Are they demanding enhancements? I recall that when I worked at the University of Pennsylvania the greatest patron reaction to the debut of our then new web-based Voyager OPAC was a mass call for the return of the telnet-based catalog. The new OPAC was simpler by far, but patrons perceived no problems with the telnet system which did just what they needed. I agree that we should always be working to improve our systems and make research a more satisfying experience for our user communities. We shouldn’t only give attention to problems when users get vocal about them, but should work proactively to consistently improve our libraries. But reports like the OCLC study suggest that our patrons are more concerned about “quality of life” factors such as having working photocopiers, good customer service and up-to-date book collections than they are about their library’s catalog system. Are we focusing our priorities in the right places? I think I’ll remain content to wait for my ILS vendor to tweak our OPAC while we direct our attention to getting students to use the library’s resources and services.

See You At the Baltimore Acquarium

I recently learned that the Baltimore National Acquarium will be the venue for the Saturday night social event held at the ACRL 13th National Conference in Baltimore. The conference goers will have the whole Acquarium to themselves that night, and it should be a great opportunity to see the exhibits without needing to fight the crowds. I love Acquariums and Baltimore’s is certainly one of the best you’ll find anywhere. I hope to see you there.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Kudos To Educause

I’ve previously taken higher education associations to task for not inviting us to the table when it seems clear we can contribute to the discussion and action. So it’s only fair that I commend those organizations that are getting it right. In reading an article about the top ten IT issues in the latest EDUCAUSE Review I saw that Barbara Dewey, Dean of Libraries at University of Tennessee, is the current Chair of the EDUCAUSE Current Issues Committee. So not only is an academic librarian on this committee of IT experts, but she’s running the Committee. That’s impressive. So I commend EDUCAUSE for their forward thinking.

Does A Google Jockey Have To Jockey Only At Google

While we’re talking about EDUCAUSE, their “7 Things You Should Know About…” series is something I find quite useful, not only for my own education about new instructional technologies but also for pointing our faculty to these new pedagogies. The latest in the series is on “Google Jockeying”. What is that? A Google jockey is a participant in a presentation or class who surfs the Internet for terms, ideas, Web sites, or resources mentioned by the presenter or related to the topic. The jockey’s searches are displayed simultaneously with the presentation, helping to clarify the main topic and extend learning opportunities. It’s an interesting idea, and perhaps something that librarians could use in library instruction to get or keep students activated. Just one quibble. While there is a passage that suggests that an instructor, while taking the role of Google Jockey, could show students other search engines, it concerns me that the choice of “Google Jockeying” may send a message that this teaching method can only be completed with Google – and that’s just not the case. Why not call it something like “Surfing Assistant” or just plain old “Web Jockeying.” It’s not that I have a problem with Google, but anything we can do to discourage Google-centricity will help students in the long run.

Reading Across The Web

I came across a few worthwhile articles/posts last week. Tomorrow’s Professor Blog carried a story about “The Lecture Club” that describes an effort by a group of faculty to encourage the peer review of teaching. Those of us who teach could probably benefit more from peer analysis of our instruction, but it’s not an easy thing to develop. This story may provide some incentive to give it a try. A columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discusses the “post-literacy” era in which today’s students just don’t read books. What struck me was the author’s reflecting on the simplicity-complexity conundrum, as characterized by students being able to digest information in only tiny, fragmentary bits. The author asks if this is the price we are paying for technology and instant access to too much information. Though a bit longer I found the text of a commencement speech by Tim O’Reilly did a nice job of explaining an interesting perspective on Web 2.0. He states that the real heart of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence. Seems that libraries have been gathering the collective intelligence of civilization for a long time, but in our collections each book is its own silo. Users cannot navigate between them following link trails. Perhaps what we need to explore further is how to tap the collective intelligence of faculty and students to enable users to find information, not by search alone, but through the guidance of the collective researchers within our communities. There is a wealth of collective intelligence on and among our campuses, and we’re perhaps just at the beginning of an era in which any individual within the community can exploit what the collective know.

Commencement 2006

And speaking of commencement speeches, I listed to a few yesterday at my own son’s college graduation. Something that the university president said in his remarks resonated with me. Among the points of advice he gave to the graduates he included “Do not be scornful of complexity.” We challenge our students too infrequently in their undergraduate education for fear that we will alienate them. I like that the president reminded the students that anything worthwhile they’ll achieve in their lives is going to take hard work and devotion – and certainly some complexity will be encountered. While academic librarians should endeavor to avoid making using their libraries unnecessarily complicated or complex, what more can they do to challenge students and prepare them for the complexities of life after college.

Look Out For the XC OPAC

In the debate about how to redesign the library OPAC for the Age of User Experience, there have been more than a few complaints about the inadequacies of the OPAC , suggestions for eliminating local OPACs altogether, and some initial efforts to make it more effective for library users.

Now there is an addition to the latter category of research into how to make a better OPAC. The folks at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, with an expanding reputation for library innovation, have obtained a grant to develop a new system referred to as the XC – the eXtensible Catalog. From the press release.

With a $283,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University will begin planning and requirements analysis activities for a new system known as eXtensible Catalog (XC). XC has the potential to allow future library users at any level of proficiency to get more out of academic library collections and to give academic libraries more control over how best to help people gather information. As envisioned, XC’s simple yet powerful interface will allow users to navigate through comprehensive search results sorted into useful categories that will give them the resources they seek more easily.

I’m in Dayton, Ohio today giving a talk to the folks from the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education (SOCHE) about the simplicity-complexity conundrum. One of the issues is how do we create simpler systems without compromising the ability of our resources to connect users with quality information – and to meet the needs of all members of the community, from the new freshman to the advanced scholar. I hope I’ll be able to mention the XC project because it sounds like a step in the right direction. I can’t wait to see what the OPAC looks like.

“Searching for Dummies”

The New York Times has an op-ed piece by Edward Tenner that propsoses this paradox: Google has made it possible to find good information easily, so students have become less skilled at research. Nothing new in that argument, really, and it’s nice to see the words “information literacy” on the Sunday op ed pages, but he gives Google more credit that in deserves when he says old-style search engines had to be coaxed to cough up the German composer “Engelbert Humperdinck” through clever uses of the not operator whereas Google’s improved search immediately put the composer on the same page as the singer. I doubt that’s due to Google’s methods. And that’s not the only non-sequiter in the article.

What’s more interesting is the coincidental position of this essay on the same page as Byron Calame’s Public Editor column, the weekly review of what’s wrong (and sometimes what’s right) at the Times. The embarrassment of the week? A front page report that gullibly profiled a man who said he was the man under the hood in the photo that became an icon of the Abu Ghraib scandal. The reporters looked for previous stories about the hooded man, but missed the one that named the correct victim. The story, an 1100-word feature following up on Abu Ghraib detainees, was obviously of interest, but the word “hood” wasn’t used to describe the man in the photo, so they missed it, searching only for stories that mentioned “Abu Ghraib,” “box,” and “hood.”

Obviously, there were other fact-check failures in this story, but this happens to provide a much better example of what Tenner is trying to say than any that he used. When you rely entirely on the granularity of search engines (whether Google or the archive of your own paper) and a few choice words, you’re bound to run into a 101: Human Error message: language is flexible and concepts can be expressed and categorized in many different yet meaningful ways. It isn’t – and never should be – the only way to search.

As students will tell you, you can always find something that way. You just may miss the thing you need most.