Category Archives: Technology Issues

For posts about teaching technologies, library technology issues, new technology

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.

The Limits of Mobility

Some interesting articles about mobile technology caught my eye last week as I was finishing up the leftover turkey. Apple has come under fire for the reported inability of Siri, the voice recognition application on the new iPhone 4S, to find abortion clinics. As reported by CNN, quoting the American Civil Liberties Union:

“Although it isn’t clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra, but not the Pill, or help you find an escort, but not an abortion clinic,” the group wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Apple responded quickly:

“These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks.”

This is but one example of problematic access and information issues with our mobile devices, a topic that was explored in more detail last week by Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain in MIT’s Technology Review in his provocatively-titled article The Personal Computer is Dead. Zittrain begins by asserting that:

Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse.

Zittrain continues with an analysis of the state of mobile software development for Apple and Android devices, and the restrictions this development operates within. In Apple’s case users are limited to the software available in the company’s commercial space: the App Store (unless the device is jailbroken). Android apps are potentially available outside of the Android Marketplace, though I wonder whether many users go to the extra effort to locate and download those apps. In both cases developers are tied to the operating system of the device which dictates the parameters of the software. Perhaps most distressingly, there are hints that a similar environment for software development may soon be prevalent even on the PC: Apple has already introduced its App Store for Mac.

How does this aspect of mobile computing affect us as academic librarians? While we still have a sizable number of students without smartphones on our campuses on average,* there’s no question that smartphone and tablet usage is on the rise overall. What challenges will we face that accompany the increasing reliance on mobile devices? Certainly library database vendors are rushing to develop apps for these devices — how will we promote these apps to our users and integrate their use with the library website and other existing services? And while many libraries are also developing apps, that strategy may not be feasible for smaller libraries that already feel stretched by the efforts to provide digital library services.

Access to information — an aspect of information literacy — may also be affected by these restrictions around mobile devices. We’ve already read about the possibility of a filter bubble that impacts Google search results. With the increasing move to an app-driven environment, could an internet search provider’s app restrict or shape search results even further?

What should academic libraries be considering as we adapt to an information landscape that’s increasingly mediated by mobile technologies? How can we help our students, faculty, and other library patrons with their information needs while ensuring that they’re aware of the strengths and limitations that these technologies have to offer?

* The latest survey results from the Pew Internet Project show that the vast majority of undergrads have a cellphone (between 94-96%), and about 44% of 18-24 year olds own smartphones.

On Technologies and Library Space

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Maura Seale, Research and Instruction Librarian at Georgetown University Library.

Now that the fall semester instruction rush is over, I have been able to spend some time catching up on my library blog reading as well as my own research. I recently read this post on Academic Librarian about the National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2011. The study basically found that undergraduate students are pretty attached to ‘standard issue’ technologies like computers and printers and recommends that universities and colleges should research what their particular students actually use and use that information to make policy.

This post made me think about the recent photo study I worked on at my own library. I work at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, which is the main library on campus. It houses the humanities, social sciences, and business collections, and unlike many campus buildings, is open 24 hours on weekdays during the fall and spring semesters. We’re primarily a residential campus and our building sees a lot of use. We (my department, Research and Instruction, and another department, Access Services) decided to do a photo study of some popular study spaces on the second and third floors of the library after hearing a presentation from Kathleen Webb of the University of Dayton. We knew that the library was heavily used and we were interested in figuring out how to make our spaces even more appealing to our students. On random days throughout the spring 2011 semester, we took photos and did head counts of nine distinct spaces. We analyzed this data over the summer and will be writing up our results shortly, after doing a few comparison dates in the fall 2011 semester.

I’m not going to talk about the conclusions we drew about the spaces themselves, as I’m saving that for the article, but our photos revealed a lot of interesting things about how students use technology. One of the spaces we photographed was our reference computer lab, which is very heavily used. That’s right – our desktop computers and especially printers are consistently used throughout the day. In the afternoons and early evenings, there is often a line at the printers; we even recommended that the library consider purchasing more printers, due to heavy use. Our reference room also has long tables that seat six, but they are usually occupied by four or less students, who use that space to spread out. What are they spreading out? Laptops, notebooks, and books, some of which are obviously library books. In the reading room on the third floor, students use the armchairs to read books and newspapers and the tables to use laptops, notebooks, and books.

It’s not that our students don’t use other technologies; I know that they use smartphones just from sitting at the reference desk and whenever I show a class how they can send a text with the call number and title to their phones, they get excited. But they’re still using that technology to find a print book and they snicker at the idea of Tweeting a call number and title. I really don’t see that many iPads on campus and I don’t know how much use our QR codes have really gotten. Sometimes I think that librarians want to anticipate change so badly, and are so keen on meeting our users’ needs that we jump beyond where our users are. It’s important to keep up on trends, of course, and to be open to technological changes as well as willing to embrace them, but we also need to stay grounded in what our specific users want and need. This photo study was invaluable in this regard and now we have evidence to make our case for more and better printers, as silly as that might seem.

What trends have you noticed in your user population? Are you doing anything to assess how technology is or is not being used on your campus? Have you discovered anything unexpected about your users in your own research?

Clickers, or Does Technology Really Cure What Ails You?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Cori Strickler, Information Literacy Librarian at Bridgewater College.

During idle times at the reference desk, or when the students are gone for a break, I find myself creating instruction “wish lists” of tools or gadgets that I’d love to have for my sessions. One item that has been on my list for a few years now is clickers, or student response systems as they are officially called. In academic classrooms they are used for attendance, quiz taking, or other more informal assessments. For me, I saw clickers as a way to solve one of my basic and most frustrating problems: getting students to be engaged during the sessions. Students have little desire to participate in library sessions and trying to get them to comment on their library experience is like pulling teeth, except that the process is a lot more painful for me than it is for the students.

For those of you who haven’t heard of clickers before, they are little remote control like devices that allow the students to answer multiple choice questions by sending their responses to the computer for real time analysis. They are sort of like the devices they use on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to poll the audience.

My library doesn’t have the budget for clickers, but this semester through a chance discussion with the director of the health services department, I learned that the college received a grant for 100 TurningPoint clickers and the necessary software. The director rarely needed all of the clickers at the same time, so she offered about fifty for me to use during my instruction sessions.

So, I now have access to a tool that I had coveted for many years, but that was only the easy part. I still have to figure out how to meaningfully integrate this technology into my sessions.

My overall goals are relatively simple. I want to encourage student involvement in any way possible so I would not have to lecture for fifty minutes straight. My voice just can’t handle the pressure. To be successful, though, I need to be purposeful with my inclusion. I can’t just stick a clicker quiz at the beginning of a session and assume that the students will suddenly be overwhelmed with a desire to learn everything there is about the library. Most faculty who schedule a library instruction session have a particular purpose in mind, so I also need to be sure that I fulfill their expectations as well.

After much consideration, I decided not to add the clickers to all my sessions. Instead, I decided to focus on first year students, who hopefully aren’t quite as jaded as the upper classmen, and haven’t already decided that they know everything about research.

For my first clicker experiment, I used them with a quiz to help me gauge the classes’ knowledge of the library. I also decided to use them as an alternative way to administer our session evaluation survey. Ultimately, I had mixed results with the clickers. The students did respond better than before, but I did not get full participation. While this isn’t a big issue with the quiz, this lack of participation was an issue when they were asked to complete the evaluation survey. For most survey questions I lacked responses from five or six students, which was a larger number than when I used the paper surveys and could potentially affect my survey results.

Their lack of participation could be due to a number of reasons. The students claimed they were familiar with the clickers, but they did not seem to be as adept as they claimed. Also, due to my inexperience with the clickers there might have been a malfunction with the devices themselves. Or, maybe the students just didn’t want to engage, especially since there was still no incentive to participate. When I looked back through the survey results, they did not seem to indicate any greater amount of satisfaction regarding the sessions.

This first experience with the clickers left me a bit skeptical, but I decided to try them again. This time, I created brief quizzes related to brainstorming keywords and types of plagiarism. My second class was smaller than the first, and I seemed to receive better engagement. The clickers also seemed to allow them to be more honest with the surveys and they seem more comfortable indicating their disinterest in the information presented, though the results also indicated that they saw the overall value in the information.

I have used the clickers in about twelve sessions this semester, and overall they were well received by the students. However, I am not completely sure that it adds significantly to the engagement. I also have not seen any indication in the surveys that my sessions are better or worse with their inclusion. I have discovered though that there may be some sessions, and topics, that are better suited for clickers than others. Upper level classes where I am trying to show specific resources do not lend themselves initially to clickers, and the time may be better spent with other activities or instruction.

I am still in the process of learning how clickers will fit into my classes, but I would generally call them a success, if only for the fact that is makes the survey process easier. Though, they aren’t the panacea for student engagement for which I had hoped. Activity type and student familiarity are essential variables that appear to affect clicker success.

Unfortunately, the overall nature of one shot instruction seems to be the greatest contributor to student disengagement. Student and faculty buy-in is the necessary component for library instruction success, whether it includes clickers or not.

Once More to the Breach

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University.

Summer’s over, I know, but we must go once more to the breach of web privacy. A California librarian recently complained about Amazon’s new Kindle ebooks lending program for libraries. The complaint focuses on Amazon’s privacy policy and advertising. In a ten minute video (the transcript of which is here), the librarian argues that in our hasty “greed” to get books into the hand of readers, librarians violated one of our sacred trusts: privacy protection. Amazon keeps a record of all books lent on Kindles via corporate servers. This information is later used like it is on the website, both to recommend new titles and of course advertise products by selling that information elsewhere. While the story was picked up in the library press and on Slashdot, it wasn’t widely publicized, at least not to the extent of the story of Amazon’s lending program. The reason why is simple: web privacy is now a non-starter.

This isn’t the first such story about Web privacy (or lack thereof), and it is not likely to be the last. But it is a non-issue and will remain so as far as cyberspace extends. It’s not as if we weren’t warned.

As long as go as 1999, in a widely publicized story (perhaps forgotten now?), Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, told a group that the issue of privacy on the Web was a “red herring” (no relation by the way). McNealy went on to say that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” McNealy wasn’t the only one to argue in this manner, and neither is Amazon the only company with a patent disregard for privacy. Frankly, any company or social network on the Web puts privacy on low priority. Don’t get me wrong. Privacy isn’t an absolute right. I can think of times when not disclosing someone’s shenanigans would border on the criminal. But our patrons should be able to do basic library business without being hounded.

To be sure, the strength of the poisoned privacy varies among various Web apothecaries. With Facebook rapidly approaching one billion users, only a tiny minority remain who can care about privacy. Only last year Zuckerberg reminded all of us that “the age of privacy is over.” At the time, some saw this as an about-face. But anyone who followed Facebook helter-skelter knew otherwise. James Grimmelmann remarked once that of all the social networks, Facebook had the best privacy statement, and it was awful.

But I like the way Zuckerberg phrased it because I think it sums up nicely where we are about the Web and privacy. It’s a brave new world, and those not yet on board are from another, older and quite possibly, flat one. This was never made clearer to me than a few years ago.

I had the distinct pleasure to visit MIT in 2009 and learn of new web-related inventions in the proverbial “pipeline.” Amid our somewhat graying profession were these twentysomethings, naturally, all exceedingly bright. Some of what we saw has already come to pass, while others remain in development. There were toys, apps, and so on. But what really caught my eye was a broach or lapel pin.

This pin, our attractive, late twentysomething, explained to us, made certain you never forgot a name or a face again. I’m terrible with names, so naturally I perked up even more. When you approach a person, she said, the pin casts his or her “vitals” on their chest, visible to you but not to them. Commonly known things, she said, like age, marital status, number of children, where they work, recent vacations or even recent accomplishments. This way, she told us cheerfully, you’re never at a loss what to talk about. You know, how are the kids, is Peter enjoying Harvard, and how was the vacation in the Caymans?

Several of us, all over 50, let out an audible gasp. But isn’t that a violation of privacy, we asked, almost in unison. Oh, no, she reassured us. It’s all on the Web anyway. And then she said something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. When asked about the ethics of it all, she replied, again cheerily, “Those are issues taken up by another department. We don’t really engage in the ethics part of it.” And that’s when I knew. We are of a different age because even the developers no longer think about these things, assuming they once did. Ethics will ponder that matter and get back to you. But don’t call us; we’ll call you.

None of us want to remain fully anonymous, but many of us–at least those of us over 50–would prefer to remain somewhat private. Not anymore. Everything we are or hope to be, whether true or not, is on the Web; and someone is or will be making use of it. In this brave new world, we all live our lives on the backs of so many digital postcards that travel the globe daily.

This isn’t about going back, or trying to recapture the genie or clean up the toothpaste. Those days are over. Rather this is about how we librarians have become students of change and must now weigh those changes regularly. As the Web changes books, it also changes the libraries that house them. And so McLuhan was right after all: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

And so here we are, once more to the breach. Habent sua fata libelli: books have their fates. The only question that remains today is this one: is this the fate we want for them, for our libraries?