Category Archives: Student Issues

Use this category for posts about our students, student services, and other issues involving students.

The Library is Open

For the past couple of years I’ve been wearing two main hats at my job: one as an information literacy librarian and the other as a lead on a collegewide pedagogical grant. I’ve had several opportunities to connect the two, which I think strengthens both my library and my grant work. This year the connection I’m working on most actively is between the library and a new digital platform that’s been developed via the grant: the City Tech OpenLab.

The OpenLab is a website that faculty and students can use in their work on courses, but it’s much more than a learning management system. The website also provides spaces for projects and clubs to collaborate and promote their work; it hosts our student eportfolios, too. As a commuter college we’re hopeful that the OpenLab will help strengthen the City Tech community by providing our students, faculty, and staff with a virtual space to connect and collaborate.

We built the OpenLab using the open source applications WordPress (blogging/sitebuilding software) and BuddyPress (social networking software), much like successful efforts at our university and others, including the CUNY Academic Commons and Blogs@Baruch, as well as the University of Mary Washington’s UMWBlogs. All of these platforms share a commitment to openness that’s missing in most conventional learning management systems (like Blackboard) and even open source systems like Moodle and Sakai: the ability for users to make their work publicly visible and to share it with the entire university and beyond.

Academic librarians have been successfully working with learning management systems for years now, and there are lots of articles, blog posts, and other sources to consult for ideas and strategies about how best to collaborate with faculty and connect with students as embedded librarians in these platforms. At City Tech our librarians do a bit of embedding in Blackboard, the LMS that our university uses, too. But the OpenLab is different: it’s not just for coursework, and the tools available on the platform — discussion boards, blogs, collaborative documents, and file storage — are available to any member, project, or club.

It definitely makes sense for the library to be involved in the OpenLab, and my colleagues and I have been grappling with the question of how our presence on the platform can complement and augment the other ways the library uses to reach students and faculty. It would be great to use an OpenLab space to answer questions from library users, to point them to resources and services, to share news, and to highlight librarian profiles. But we already have a library website, which includes one page for each of our library faculty, as well as a library news blog.

We might need to be careful about duplicating our efforts excessively in the two spaces. Will patrons be confused if some library content is available on the OpenLab and other just on the library website? We can presumably use RSS feeds to bring content over to the OpenLab from our blog, so we won’t need to reproduce that content in two places. And we don’t have an interactive area for patrons to ask questions on our website, just a suggestion form and email address, so it’ll be interesting to see if we can attract Q&A in a more synchronous way from students and faculty on the OpenLab.

We’re actively brainstorming other ways to take advantage of the opportunities that the OpenLab offers, and I’m eager to begin experimenting in this new pedagogical space. Have other academic libraries worked with students or faculty on open educational platforms? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences if so!

Commuting is Not Distance Learning

The other day I met the student who won the prize drawing in my library’s new student orientation scavenger hunt this semester. She was delighted as I handed her the gift card to the college bookstore, and I was delighted that she had the chance not only to win the prize but also to get to know the library’s resources and services. As it turns out her odds were quite good, because unfortunately participation in the scavenger hunt was somewhat less than overwhelming. There are lots of possible reasons for that which we’ll try to get at them when we make changes for next semester.

But thinking about those reasons started me thinking about commuter students. I’m at a large urban public commuter college within a large urban public (mostly) commuter university. When many people think of college they likely conjure an image of a traditional campus with residence halls, as we tend to see in movies and on TV, but I’d guess that a sizable number of college students commute to school. After all, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, in Fall 2009 fully 44% of all U.S. undergraduates attended community colleges, most of whom are commuters.

When we talk about library resources and services I think there can be a tendency to conflate commuter students with distance learning students. Both groups spend large amounts of time off-campus, but I think there might be real differences between them. Distance learning students have chosen their off-campus program of study, which presumably means that they have the space, time, and technology available to them somewhere off-campus, perhaps at home, to complete their coursework. They go into college knowing that they’ll need to carve out an acceptable study space for themselves, and that they’ll need to access college and library services online. We may worry whether distance students are finding all of the great content — online tutorials, ask a librarian, ebooks — on our library websites, but at least we can be reasonably confident that they have the technology to do so.

I don’t think we can necessarily assume the same for commuter students. I’m deep into analyzing and writing up the data a colleague and I have collected about the scholarly habits of students at several colleges at our university, and it’s clear that for many of them the above assumptions don’t hold true. They may not have a quiet, solitary space for study in their homes, which they often share with family members or roommates. They may not have reliable access to the internet or even a computer in their homes, and while some have and use smartphones for many information and communication needs, not all do.

What do commuter students need from their college library, and how are we doing at meeting these needs? Two thoughts spring to my mind:

Quiet study space: Earlier this year a great post over at Confessions of a Community College Dean caught my eye. The library on his campus designated one room as a “tech-free quiet study space,” and the students flocked to it, even going so far as to self-enforce the rule for silence. At my library students sometimes come to the Reference Desk to ask a librarian to shush a noisy group of students, so I find it especially interesting that students self-monitored the silent study room.

Accessible collections: Even though not all college students have mobile devices or reliable access to the internet in their homes, it’s clear that smartphone ownership is increasing. I imagine that it would be very useful for students with unreliable internet access (or a long commute on public transportation) to be able to download relevant content at the library for use later, when they may be offline. When we acquire ebook packages with restrictive DRM and downloading policies and multiple, confusing steps required to access content on a mobile device, it presents a barrier to students using this content in the ways that may be most supportive of their learning.

What other resources and services can academic libraries offer for commuter students? I’d be interested to hear what’s happening at other colleges with large commuter populations — please leave a comment!

Failing Forward, Supporting Students

My son starts middle school in a week, so I’ve been more susceptible than usual to headlines about how parents can help their kids succeed academically. A couple of recent articles in the New York Times caught my eye. First was an opinion piece by psychologist Madeline Levine called Raising Successful Children. Levine is the author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, and she encourages parents stand back and let children make mistakes (within reasonable safety parameters, of course), rather than jump in to fix problems that kids should learn how to solve themselves. More recently I read a review of a new book called How Children Succeed by journalist Paul Tough. He echoes many of Levine’s points about giving kids the space to try, fail, and try again, but cautions that unless children are supported in their efforts it will be difficult for them to pick themselves up and keep going. The reviewer refers to this as a “character-building combination of support and autonomy.”

It’s easy to consider strategies to use to encourage students to try, fail, and try again in a college course, as there’s time over the semester for students to work on problems and concepts that may initially elude them. I’m interested in games-based learning and this is a familiar theme in all good games; noted education scholar James Paul Gee calls it “failing forward.” In a videogame, for example, I usually don’t finish the boss level in my first try, but I learn its attributes and weaknesses so that I can apply what I’ve learned in my next attempt (and repeat until victorious).

In academic libraries we don’t usually have the semester-length relationship with students that classroom faculty have. How can academic librarians allow — or even encourage — students to fail, but be there to support and encourage them when they do?

  • As an instruction librarian, one obvious strategy that leaps to mind is giving students the space to practice their research and library skills during our instruction sessions and workshops. I still struggle with my tendency to want to tell students every single thing about the library, but I’m getting better about keeping my presentation short and preserving time for students to search on their own as I make myself available to answer their questions (and watch closely so I can offer help to students who don’t explicitly ask). And if I happen to fail when demonstrating a search to students, so much the better.
  • At the Reference Desk, we can allow students to “drive” their search for information by turning the computer keyboard over to them so they can type their search query. We can support them as they sort through their results, and offer suggestions of strategies for revising their search to produce better results. This might be tricky at busy times, of course, so we might not always be able to use this approach with students. We can also think of roving Reference as an opportunity to help students fail forward: librarians can roam the study areas in search of students who look like they may have a question or be in need of assistance.
  • On our websites, we can embed instructional text, tutorials, and ask a librarian links within our electronic resources and services, or on the web pages that link to them. Ideally students will try to use these research tools themselves, but, if they run into trouble or don’t find what they need, they can easily find support or can reach out and ask for our help. One caveat is that it may be difficult to determine whether students are taking advantage of the support offered rather than just failing and moving on, though usability studies and web analytics could be employed to gather information about usage.

I’m sure there are lots of other ways that academic librarians can help students try, fail, and try again — I’d be interested to hear about them. And what about students who won’t or can’t seek encouragement, how can we support them when they try and fail?

The Trouble With Books

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with faculty in the library and in other academic departments about undergraduate research assignments. We discussed some of the stumbling blocks that our students seem to face, especially as they search for sources for their papers. It’s hard for us to put ourselves back into the novice mindset that our students have, particularly in their first and second year at college, in which they’re not (yet) familiar with the disciplines. We don’t want them to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedias (which may become increasingly scarce?) as research sources, though for background information they’re great. But many students are just not ready to tackle the scholarly research articles that they’ll find when they search JSTOR or even Academic Search Complete.

More and more often I’m convinced that our beginning undergraduates need to use books for their research assignments. Books can bridge that gap between very general and very scholarly that is difficult to find in a journal article. They often cover a broad subject in smaller chunks (i.e., chapters), and can provide a good model for narrowing a topic into one that’s manageable for a short research assignments. Books can also help students exercise the muscles that they need for better internet and database searching as they mine chapter titles and the index for keywords. I’ve begun to push books much more vocally in my instruction sessions for these very reasons.

However, books come with stumbling blocks, too. Ideally students could search our library catalog and find the books they need for their assignments right on our shelves. We have a collection that serves our students’ needs well, I think, especially in the degree programs. But we are a physically small library, and it’s difficult for us to build a book collection to serve the general needs students have in English Composition I courses, for example. While some of those sections focus on New York City or Brooklyn in their reading and research, in other sections students can choose their own topic, or the faculty member picks a topic of interest which may change from semester to semester. It’s difficult to keep up with these changing topics and, though all of those classes come to the library for an instruction session, we often don’t know which topics students select unless they stop by the Reference Desk to ask for help with their research.

My college is part of a university in which all of the libraries circulate books in common, as do many academic and public library systems. Students (and faculty/staff) can have books delivered between the colleges in just a few days, and we encourage students to take advantage of this service when they’re hunting for sources on their research topics. But sometimes students aren’t doing their research far enough in advance to accommodate the time required to have a book delivered, and, while they can also visit the other colleges’ libraries in libraries in person, they may not have the time for that, either.

What about ebooks? Ebooks can help bridge the just-in-time gap, though they are not without their own issues: subscriptions to ebook packages that may shift the titles available over time, confusing requirements for reading or downloading on mobile devices, variable rules about what can or cannot be printed, etc. And while all of the ebooks we offer in our library can be read on a desktop computer, of course we can’t always accommodate all students who want to use a computer in the library.

So I’m left wondering: how can we get more (and more relevant) books into the hands of our beginning students? And, barring that, are there other resources that cover that middle ground between the general knowledge of encyclopedic sources and the specific, often too advanced, scholarly research of journal articles?

Digital Library, Virtual Place?

All of our academic library services and resources have their origins in the physical world, but many of them can be and are replicated online fairly easily. Access to collections in multiple formats (text, image, audio, video), reference services, and library and information literacy instruction all have digital variants, and examples of each are out there in the academic library universe (though not all libraries may implement an online version of every physical service or resource that they offer). Of course any service or resource can be improved, but there are lots of well-understood and tested models for moving these kinds of services and resources from the physical to the digital world.

But what about another important reason that students (and sometimes faculty) come to the library: a place for academic work and study? There’s lots of recent research on (and speculation on potential) student uses of the library as place. We all grapple with issues around these uses of our buildings: quiet vs. noise, group work vs. individual study, technology-enhanced workspaces, etc. If your college or university is seeing lots of growth in student enrollment the way mine is, you may be noticing some of these issues increasingly often.

The library is different from other spaces students might choose for study and academic work. In my own research I’ve often heard this from students: how they sometimes struggle to find a spot in the library with the ideal combination of light, sound, and space for them to work in, and that they find it challenging to create a space for study in areas outside of the library: at home, on the commute, etc. Some students describe specific college libraries in my university system as “serious” and prefer to work there rather than their enrolled college library. Space for academic work matters to our students, very much.

Is it possible (or even advisable) to replicate or provide an online alternative to the academic library as a place to study? As Laura’s recent post pointed out, our libraries can be spaces for all sorts of productive conversations and collaborations, both formal and informal. But I’m in a small library in a large commuter college, and on urban campuses like mine it can be difficult to find locations to expand our physical space. I tend to view adding online services and resources as a strategy we can try to address some of the limitations of the physical world.

Is there an analog to the library as place in the digital world? Should there be?