Practicing Pre-emptive Reference With Student Blogs

ACRLog features occasional guest posts by academic librarians who wish to share their commentary on popular issues, or in this case, have an idea they’d like to share with colleagues. Today’s guest post is from Brian Mathews, Distance Learning Services & Mechanical Engineering Librarian at the Georgia Tech Library & Information Center. We often hear the phrase “be where the students are”, and Brian has found an interesting way to apply this at his institution as described below:

It’s that time of year again! That time when students “discover” the library, seeking those last minute resources for a paper due tomorrow. This is a major challenge that we face. Despite classroom instruction and outreach efforts, many students are unfamiliar with the library and the available resources.

In an attempt to be proactive, I started following student blogs in search of educational opportunities. Popular online journal sites, such as LiveJournal and Xanga, allow users to identify their college or university. By subscribing to their RSS feeds, I am able to monitor them in Bloglines and use a keyword crawler to sift through new entries for terms, such as paper, assignment, library, or class.

While academics may not be the predominant theme in student journals, it does come up. Students will often share classroom experiences and express frustrations with assignments. This channel provides a meaningful and timely opportunity to interact with them. Rather then waiting around for students to approach me, I can provide intuitive assistance by responding to their posts.

Preliminary findings are available here: Intuitive Revelations: The Ubiquitous Reference Model.

What About Some Good Old 20th Century Literacy

Just a few months ago ACRLog reported that the nation was shocked by studies that pointed to alarming decline in the literacy skills of college graduates. Studies from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Pew Charitable Trust indicated that college graduates had difficulty reading and understanding text, and that they lacked three basic types of literacy including analyzing news, understanding documents, and solving math problems.

Well, according to an MIT professor we may need to broaden our perspective on what constitutes literacy. If we were to consider 21st century literacy, teens and college students would demonstrate vastly improved literacy skills. That professor is Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. In addition to old standards such as reading and writing, Jenkins says that 21st century literacy includes the digital skills needed to participate socially and collaboratively in the new media environment. This new kind of literacy is based on an understanding and use of IM, Myspace, sampling, zines, mashups, Wikipedia, and gaming. While those other literacy studies were raising concerns about student preparedness for the workplace, Jenkins suggests that by encouraging students to collaborate and share knowledge in large communities they will be better adapted to the team work and collaborative problem solving that is expected in the workplace.

I would like to believe that student literacy need not be of either the 20th century or 21st century type, but that our higher education institutions will succeed at producing the most competent and workplace ready graduates by encouraging both types of literacy – as well as other critical competencies such as information literacy. The problem is that it’s easier within an education system to pander to what’s popular rather than develop high expectations and rigorous assignments that challenge students. I imagine it could be more fun to develop an assignment around free-form blog and wiki participation, as opposed to an assignment that demands the reading of a challenging text followed by an analytical essay. But there are clear dangers in offering too much of one and not enough of the other. Perhaps one thing we need to do as a profession is to be sure we are well versed (or have some level of comfort) with these new media technologies, and able to communicate with both faculty and students about them. As academic support professionals in higher education our challenge will continue to be how we can best help our students to obtain the literacies they will need to succeed in the workplace and as life long learners.

Bring “Helicopter Parents” In For A Landing @ Your Library

Today’s CHE provides a link to a Survey of Current College Parent Experiences (PDF), which, among other things, tells us that:

“Of the 839 parents surveyed, 74 percent communicated with their student two or three times a week and one in three did so at least once a day.”

This is consistent with what our Student Success people tell us here at Kansas and is one the the reasons why KU is one of the many institutions to have created a Parents’ Association, which begs the question: what are libraries doing for parents?

I first started to think about the significance of parent involvement a few years ago when the NSO staff at Washington State took the library off the standard summer orientation tour. I didn’t hear complaints about this from incoming students, but I did hear complaints from their parents who, for some odd reason, wanted their students to be oriented to academic resources as well as to social opportunities. That feedback helped with later NSO discussions. Here at Kansas, we have a very successful NSO workshop program, but the Parents’ Association is new and we’ll have to work to get involved. This would dovetail nicely with some development activities that we’ve pursued with parents of current students in partnership with the KU Endowment.

As the oft-cited-this-week Susan Gibbons mentioned in her presentation at the Taiga Forum, there is another dimension to “helicopter parenting,” as well. Her research showed that undergraduates are likely to consult parents during the research process and she concluded that effective ILI programming for parents could help direct their children back toward library resources and services during one of those weekly (or daily) phone calls.

So, another audience for our services and another opportunity to partner with our colleagues in Student Affairs!

The More We Know The Better We Can Do

Over at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community they sponsored a webcast today that offered information about a unique project. The presenters were Susan Gibbons, Associate Dean, Judi Briden, Digital Librarian for Public Services, and Nancy Foster, Lead Anthropologist and Co-Manager of the Digital Initiatives Unit. You read that correctly. Foster is an anthropologist working with the librarians to help them learn more about their user community. In this presentation, titled “Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design In a University Library”, Gibbons, Briden, and Foster explained how they are using ethnographic methods to collect information about how students and faculty members do their research and use the library (or other non-library resources). The research is funded by an IMLS grant.

One of the things they do is have students draw diagrams that illustrate how they conduct their research process. We saw examples of drawings made by students (these use stick figures folks – the students aren’t expected to be artists) that show where they start and how they proceed through the research process. The research team members collect and analyze the drawings looking for patterns to provide more insight into student research methods. They also ask students to indicate on campus maps those buildings they use and what they do in those buildings. This can provide insight into which buildings the students feel most comfortable going to for their computing, research, and socialization. Students are given disposable cameras and are asked to take photos of their rooms, and their work materials. Research team members visit students in their dorm rooms and videotape them working on their computers. I guess ethnographic research can be a bit invasive at times. They described how they are using similar methods to better understand faculty use of institutional repositories, as they hope to learn more about ways to encourage faculty to make use of the repository.

The point of the webcast was to demonstrate how a user-centered design process can help librarians to better understand our user communities and how they do – and do not – use our physical and virtual resources. Design thinking suggests we can continuously improve our services by asking how our resources can better fill the users’ information needs. But if we fail to clearly understand those needs it’s not possible to design the approriate systems that best suit our students and faculty.

Perhaps the most salient point that I took away from the presentation is that the more we know about our user community – the more information we gather about their research workflows – the more things we will know that our information competitors can’t possibly grasp. That should position us to customize or frame services in ways that will deliver services to our users that should far exceed what they can obtain from generic search engines. Wishful thinking? I think not.

BTW, there are some sample documents used in the ethnographic research available within the University of Rochester’s institutional repository. They are pubicly accessible.

Sorry, but because of the confidential nature of some of the photos and illustrations shown in today’s webcast presentation, it was not possible to archive the program. But if you missed this today you should have opportunities to hear more about this exciting research program. The team members will be doing some conference presentations, and I hope they’ll publish some of their research and findings in the future.

Like MySpace But For Academics Not Dating

ACRLog has previously discussed academic librarians creating profiles for themselves and/or their libraries in student social communities such as Facebook and MySpace.

It seems like a good idea. We should try to connect with students where they are. But spaces like Facebook and MySpace are primarily social sites, and the people who join and use these sites rarely have academics in mind. So it seems that a good idea would be to create a space like these social sites where students, faculty, and administrators can meet, communicate, share, and otherwise get to know each other, without the heavy emphasis on, well, whatever it is that students do in these social spaces.

Well, this article discusses a college that decided to do this exact thing. Columbia College Chicago used its e-portfolio software to create a MySpace like environment where faculty and administrators can create profiles that allow students to get to know them online. In the article the administrators of the system say that their community space is intended to “augment face-to-face contact, not replace it.” If our objective is to connect with students where they are, in a meaningful way – and by that I mean in ways that encourage use of the library’s resources and services – perhaps we need to promote the idea of community spaces within our institutions where faculty, staff, and students can learn more about each other.

BTW, I hope that you are making more use of a news aggregator such as Bloglines to capture RSS feeds. Those just getting started, especially if they’ve quickly added quite a few feeds to their aggregator, may be finding themselves spending more time than they anticipated reviewing blogs and reading news stories. While that’s good, because it leads to discovery and innovation, it can also create some stress and pressures on time for other responsibilities. For those feeling this way, I recommend this post on “10 Tips for Effective Blog Reading” which offers good tips for being efficient and saving time when reading blogs and other news sources in an aggregator.