Lessons from ECAR – “Real Books and People”

poor URLs

The new ECAR study on students and technology has just come out (thanks for the tip via Collib-L, Bill Drew!) and as usual, there are interesting findings. Nearly 90% of students come to college with a laptop now, and an even higher percentage of them use the library’s Website at least once a week. That’s a higher percentage than those who download music or videos (86%). Update: Bernie Sloan at Collib-L points out an interesting tidbit from the report: “…the percentage of students who reported using the library website daily has increased from 7.1% in 2006 to 16.9% in 2009.”

Texting and use of social networks are nearly ubiquitous, but instant messaging is dropping, which has interesting reference implications. The number who report they contribute content to the Internet through videos, wikis, or blogs is under half, and when asked about their use of these technologies for academic purposes, the percents drop into the single digits. Sorry, blogs and podcasts – they’re just not that into you. But they figure they know their way around searching. Eight out of ten say they’re proficient Internet searchers; about a third say they’re experts.

One finding that hasn’t changed much over the past few years – students don’t want a whole lot of technology in their courses. About 60% prefer a “moderate” amount of technology; only a small percentage wanted no technology, but they outnumbered the even smaller percentage that wanted their courses delivered entirely through technology.

In their responses to the final open-ended question of our survey, students wrote explicitly about a preference for “real books and people” and said “shiny new tech is still no substitute for well-trained, passionate instructors.” Of the many comments expressing this sentiment, perhaps this one sums it up best: “There is still a big disparity among academic staff when it comes to use of IT in class. Some professors are obsessed with their technology and some don’t like to use it at all. There needs to be a balance between human interaction and IT-based learning.

This is one of those studies that I read each year, a useful snapshot of emerging technologies and the role they play in the lives of our student. This one makes me think about ways to add texting to our reference repertoire, and reassures me that our Website is important to students. It reminds me that students thing they’re pretty good at searching and that I will need to persuade them they could be better. But it also reminds that these “digital natives” are not full assimilated into the Borg; they still prefer face-to-face learning with some, but not too much, technology involved.

CC-licensed photo courtesy of Frank Farm (frankfarm.org)

Manual Labor

As if health care reform, the mess in Afghanistan, and H1N1 weren’t enough to ruin your day, having to cope with new editions of two major style manuals (neither of which actually keeps up with new information formats because they keep changing) is one of those “in the cosmic scale of thing it’s really incredibly trivial but ARRRGGGGHHHHH!!!!!” events.

MLA has finally decided it doesn’t matter what library you were in when retrieved an article or what “service” happens to be selling your library a particular database this contract year. Ten points for the rationality team. But leaving out URLs because anyone can do a search and find a website? One with no discernible author and several phrases at the top of the page, any of which might be the title – or the site name – or the sponsor? All of which are commonplace phrases that retrieve 5 million possible URLs? Okaaaay…. Deduct five points and go stand in the corner.

But it’s undeniably APA that has won the World Series of Stupid Style Manual Changes. DOIs? Not a bad idea. Citing the web site of the journal? Bad idea. Issuing seven pages of corrections and making excuses by saying they are “nonsignificant” errors?


This could be the tipping point. The time has come for faculty and librarians working with undergraduates to loosen up. In the cosmic scale of things, this manual labor really is trivial, but it carries a huge carbon footprint. For every hour spent writing a paper, at least an equivalent hour is spent trying to figure out whether you need a comma or a period here, which city out of the six on the title page is the one to use, what database you printed that article out of, or trying to identify the website of a journal for an article published in 1986 that you printed off JSTOR, given the publication changed titles three times and switched publishers five time since then. As this activity always happens in the wee hours of the morning on the day the paper is due, lights and computers have to be running, so we’re talking about a major energy drain. That’s not counting the environmental damage caused while creating and shipping the large amounts of carbonated caffienated beverages consumed in the process. Or the evening hours of the professors who are doing much the same while marking papers. Or the librarians trying to update their websites, guides, and class materials.

And what exactly are the learning outcomes of creating an error-free list of references? You learn that research is a pain in the butt. You learn that it’s really, really important to follow pointless rules with utter scrupulousness. You learn that, at the end of the day, you’ll get points off because you didn’t follow the pointless rules – unless, of course, you’re making a bundle off book sales, in which case “nonsignificant” is a valid defense.

I recommend that librarians stop teaching citation styles. (Why did we get stuck with that job, anyway?) That professors stop spending hours trying to correct student work using new style manuals as unfamiliar to them as to their students and go play with the baby or take a walk instead. That students are told “the reason we cite sources is because they serve as your expert witnesses; people need to know who these witnesses are, so provide their credentials, ones that readers can use to find the sources themselves, because they may want to learn more about the subject. That’s why we cite things. Oh, and to give credit where it’s due and avoid a plagiarism rap. That’s important, too.”

As for all those arcane rules? “Don’t worry about it. They’re nonsignificant. Just give me the information I need to find the source, and make it easy to read. That’s all I ask.”

We might not save the planet, but we would save a lot of pointless aggravation. Not to mention a few bucks buying updated style manuals.

CC-licensed photo courtesy of Jonno Witts; part of the Writer’s Block set.

Not About Technology, Not About Teaching

Sometimes things I’m reading via RSS feeds evaporate as soon as I’ve read them. Others linger a while, and sometimes they strike up conversations with each other.

Not long ago, a columnist at AAC&U’s Leap project blog, liberal.eduation nation, complained about the increasing crowd of literacies clamoring for our attention and suggesting that apart from the problem of all the newcomers – digital media literacy, spacial literacy, diaspora literacy – most new kinds of literacy have a short shelf life.

The “literacy” that seems most to vex educators and students alike is the one that takes aim at the moving target of technology. Indeed, the very terms used to name this elusive yet much-coveted literacy—computer literacy, information literacy, technological literacy, digital literacy, etc., etc.—are no more stable than the knowledge, skills, competencies they’re meant to describe.

Er, but . . . this seems to me to confuse information with information technology, learning how to think with learning how to use tools. Sadly, the only reference to an exploration of what we mean when we use the term “information literacy” is Stanley Wilder’s complaint that it is useless and misses the point. (ACRLog included the storm of debate it kicked up as a top story of 2005.) Given that most of us involved in teaching and learning in libraries thought Wilder didn’t actually grasp the concept he was criticizing, it’s kind of sad to see an organization that mostly wants to do what we are trying to do give him the last word.

The other big problem is linking information literacy with technology. Somehow once the techies took on the name “information technology” people forgot that information also resides in technologies that are centuries old. And they lose sight of the fact that it’s not about technology, it’s about what the student does with what he or she encounters. True, we get sucked into explaining how the library works, but the ultimate aim is to get students working in the library so that they can become part of the process of making knowledge, not just absorbing it as a finished product.

This morning I read Robert J. Nash’s essay in Inside Higher Ed, “Resist the Pedagogical Far Right” where he argues (as does AAC&U and as do most libraries serving a student population) that our focus should be on learning, not teaching, and on how the student can learn to as her own questions and solve problems rather than be exposed to a body of core knowledge in the hope some of it sticks. I’m not entirely sure why he characterizes this as a “far right” pedagogy – unless he’s thinking of ACTA, which, among other things, wants to return to basics and defend students from David Horowitz’s dangerous academics.He also seems to be taking a dig at those who feel youth have had their brains stolen by Web 2.0 and turned into ignorant and shallow-minded zombies. Or perhaps he’s thinking of the funding cuts and business strategies that have turned the professoriate into work-for-hire temps paid by the course. Whatever he means, he doesn’t really make a strong case for why this has a left-right dimension. What he says afterward, though, is a good defense of liberal (as in “liberating”) learning that focuses on the student.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to [Ken] Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself. . . .

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.

I think that’s actually our best argument for academic libraries and for giving students a chance to learn in them. Not learn about them, not learn how to manipulate the tools, but to be actively seeking, sorting, sifting, and making meaning as a central part of their education. If we want to define information literacy, we need to make it clear that practicing it – exploring ideas independently – is a big part of the high-impact practices that we know make learning stick.

And in the meantime, maybe we can also reflect on our own teaching practices. Can we teach less to make more room for learning? Do we do some of the things that Stanley Wilder believes is information literacy (information-seeking training done exclusively by librarians)? Can we put the focus on not just learning how the library works but learning where knowledge comes form and how it’s made? Can we work with faculty to make this happen more often?

Maybe if we can do that, Stanley Wilder will figure out what we mean when we talk about information literacy as a critical habit of mind and the AAC&U will realize it’s not about technology that will change next week.

Balancing Act

I’m kind of in the pickle that Maura describes – subscribed to too many sources of information that I would read if I weren’t so busy keeping up with the stream of new information. But Current Cites is always a good ‘un for finding a cross-section of interesting new stuff and this week it pointed me to a twig I must have missed in the current. Sometimes it’s only when you see it the second time, maybe just as you’re pouring a second cup of coffee int he morning, that it catches your eye.

First Mondays (an excellent and long-established open access journal) has an article by Brian Whitworth and Rob Friedman on “Reinventing Academic Publishing Online.” In a nutshell, it examines the fact that the “top” academic journals remain vested in a traditional system in which maintaining barriers and exclusivity because their exclusivity is perceived as rigor and therefore value. The higher your rejection rate, the prouder you are. But there are two mistakes academic publishing can make: publishing stuff that isn’t any good and not publishing stuff that turns out to be good. It’s the cost of the latter – failing to publish something innovative and challenging for fear it might be wrong – that these authors feel is left out of the equation.

These error types trade off, so reducing one increases the other, e.g., a journal can reduce Type I errors to 0 percent by rejecting all submissions, but this also raises Type II errors to 100 percent as nothing useful is published. The commonsense principle is that to win a lottery (get value) you must buy a ticket (take risk). In academic publishing the rigor problem occurs when reducing Type I error increases Type II error more . . . Pursuing rigor alone produces rigor mortis in the theory leg of scientific progress.

The authors point to the fact that the publishing industry essentially determines who is hired and fired in universities, which flies in the face of the mission we are supposedly on and the intellectual freedom that should enable our work.

When a system becomes the mechanism for power, profit and control, idealized goals like the search for truth can easily take a back seat. Authors may not personally want their work locked away in expensive journals that only endowed western universities can afford, but business exclusivity requires it. Authors may personally see others as colleagues in a cooperative research journey, but the system frames them as competition for jobs and grants. As academia becomes a business, new ideas become threats to power rather than opportunities for knowledge growth. Journals become the gatekeepers of academic power rather than cultivators of knowledge, and theories battle weapons in promotion arenas, rather than plows in knowledge fields.

The authors suggest that under the color of “rigor” this model sustains a system in which cross-disciplinary and innovative research is unwelcome. “As more rigorous and exclusive ‘specialties’ emerge, the expected trend is an academic publishing system that produces more and more about less and less.” (And hey, it’ll make the Big Bundle even bigger and more expensive, therefore more profitable.) They think instead technology could offer ways to facilitate information exchange rather than creation of further citadels of isolated specialization. Paying more attention to the mistake of failing to publish something that turns out to be worthwhile will require the creation of a democratic open knowledge exchange which can better balance the equation.

The funny thing is that this tension has existed for a long time. Well before the Internet enabled the opportunity for fundamental change in the way we share research, both Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn described the delicate tension between maintaining an agreed-upon understanding by fending off crackpot theories and the need to allow something new to challenge the dominant paradigm. Both self interest and a more idealized notion of rigor conspire against innovation. What I find interesting about this First Monday article is the idea that our current dominant publishing model has let self-interest reign supreme, and that a new open model could let the more idealized urge to preserve that which is solid and true duke it out with ideas that challenge it. It could balance the risk/reward tradeoff involved in choosing what to publish and which questions to pursue.

By the way, what is your library planning to do for Open Access Week?

(Photo courtesy of rptnorris.)

There’s Something About Mary George

. . . that you should know. She’s just started blogging for Inside Higher Ed. Woo hoo! She has an almost Dickensian flair for description (“that murky blob marked library on your campus map . . . the Great Grimpen Mire of academe”), but she also has a purpose in mind. She wants to help faculty set up more successful learning opportunities for their students by trouble shooting unanticipated failures encountered with student researchers.

Teaching faculty have immense persuasive power; we librarians do not. What we do have are sweeping views of what scholars are up to, a grasp of how researchers do their business and what evidence ensues, and a knack for identifying and locating that evidence. By and large faculty and academic librarians respect one another’s expertise and collaborate happily. But where and how do our apprentices—either undergraduates or graduate students — learn the process and logic of source seeking? That is the question that haunts me and inspires this blog.

The nexus of knowledge transmission, of teaching, is the assignment, the place where faculty intent becomes student incentive. One thing I hope to do in this blog is to suggest ways to invigorate library research assignments that don’t seem to be working.

Whether faculty will be willing to share their challenging moments, even anonymously, is an open question. It’s much easier to get people to share what has worked for them than what hasn’t. But let’s hope she’s able to coax some conversation out of faculty whose students get stuck in the Grimpen Mire.

In case you don’t know Mary, she’s a librarian at Princeton who is the author of The Elements of Library Research.