We Have To Add The Value

You may have watched the video of the Dean who explained his rationale for removing computers from the classrooms at his school. His primary concern was that faculty would simply show PowerPoint slides and deliver boring lectures to accompany them. While I don’t entirely agree with his perspectives on the merits of teaching “naked”, I definitely understand his concerns about the future of instructional technology in higher education and the role that faculty play in making smart choices about which technologies they select and how they use them. I see a similar challenge facing academic librarians.

My point isn’t about the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom. I think that academic librarians are totally on board with the concept of using technology purposefully for teaching and learning. I certainly hope we have gotten away from subjecting our students to PowerPoint slide shows over which we drone on about the virtues of appropriate database search techniques. Now that many of us are teaching in hands-on classrooms we can get more creative with methods for activating the students and really engaging them in learning how to think critically about their research responsibilities, how to work effectively with their fellow students, and even how to efficiently capture, store, retrieve and cite their resources. Of course, like the Chronicle article states, there are students who don’t want to be activated. They would prefer to just sit there and have a librarian-instructor talk at them for 50 minutes, which they can tune out and then get on with what really interests them. So just like our faculty colleagues we are challenged to leverage technology that gets students thinking, working, and maybe even enjoying their time in the classroom with us.

But here’s my point. I get what Dean Jose Bowen is telling us about being overly dependent on technology, especially when the focus is on the technology rather than the educator in the room. It’s all about adding value to the learning process. He is spot on when he says that students can now go anywhere to simply hear a lecture by a talking head that is attached to a series of slides. That describes a good deal of online learning and open education resource experience. You go to a web site or a course delivery system and just tune in to a lecture/presentation. But where’s the added value that comes from the dialogue between the teacher and the student? I believe what Bowen is really afraid of losing at his school is what makes the learning experience truly unique – the engagement between the instructor and the learner.

Academic librarians need to be mindful of the same challenge. We know that while we offer high quality information resources, our students and faculty can obtain information from a wide variety of resources. And there are times when they are accessing our subscription content through free search engines and are not aware that the content is delivered by the library. Those are well known issues. If the boundaries between information sources are becoming increasingly blurry to the end user, what is it that distinguishes what the academic library does for them? Finding the answer to that question is part of the challenge we face, just as our faculty colleagues will need to make clear to future students the value that they add to the learning process. Otherwise why bother with the huge investment in a traditional college education. I will continue to be writing about these challenges and possible solutions here and in other venues. I hope you’ll be a part of the conversation in helping us all to figure out how we add value for our students and faculty.

Explaining Authority (Part 2)

After writing my previous post, our library director brought this report to my attention: “The Changing Nature of Intellectual Authority” by Peter Nicholson, presented at the 148th ARL meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, May 17-19 2006. Apparently I was “scooped” by a good three years, as the ideas in the report are similar enough to my own (albeit worded more eloquently) that I should have been aware of and acknowledged it. Better late than never, right?

One way of thinking about the problem of authority that Nicholson suggests, and which Emily described in my post’s Comments using slightly different terms, is that there are various species of information, with differing niches. For example, when you have a ‘good enough’ mentality, wikipedia is usually fine, but there are other times when you will demand and value peer-reviewed sources.

And so I have begun to think that when librarians teach information literacy, the underlying question to encourage students to ask should be “Why was this information generated?” That can be unclear, so the question becomes “Why COULD this information have been generated?” It is easy to become paranoid when searching for this answer, but I like to think that misinformation is usually caught, and when it is not, it is a source of outrage, or at least newsworthy.

Deliberate propagation of misinformation is greeted with protest rather than resignation, at least in this country. Whether we work in information professions or not, everyone is responsible for paying attention, and because of the abundance of critical minds, we can count on someone to call out untruths, mistakes, biases, and sinister influences.

As Nicholson points out, institutions suffer as a result of a breakdown in rules about authority. I do work for an institution, with all that implies. As I proceed blithely ahead, attempting to teach students information literacy and how to use the traditionally accepted, scholarly resources that the library provides, perhaps I will best serve them if I bear all of the above in mind. I should be pleased if they are skeptical of me and my message. At least, if students stop to consider where information I recommend is coming from, they can take personal responsibility and have a personal stake in the information they choose to rely on.

If I can make all this clear in my library instruction sessions, while still being relevant to the task or assignment at hand, I will consider my job well done.

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P.S. The next post will be my last as a First Year Academic Librarian here on ACRLog. Technically this should have been my final post, but the administrators kindly granted me one extra.

Thinking About the Future

As the end of the semester rolls around I’ve been sorting through the evaluations that we ask our English Composition I students to fill out at the end of their required library session. I was scrolling through the spreadsheet of student responses the other day and one in particular jumped out at me: “How will this help us in the future?”

It’s often said that there are no bad questions (and I agree), but there are also some really good questions and that’s one of them. Why DO our students need what we teach them in a library session? How will they apply what they’ve learned in our classes to their lives in the future?

I spend the first part of my classes trying to emphasize that information literacy and the research skills they’ll begin to learn in college are transferable knowledge. I give them concrete examples of the relevance of information literacy to their careers (preparing for job interviews, staying current in their fields, etc.) and their lives beyond college (finding health information, moving or traveling to a new place, etc.). I’m at a college of technical and professional studies, and planning for their future jobs is always on students’ minds.

I also point out that becoming a proficient searcher is relevant to their work here at college, when they’ll need to search for library materials, and for searching the internet (again, both in college and in their everyday lives). I stress that different questions require different information to answer, and the importance of evaluating information, especially on the internet but also “traditionally” published information.

Our time in the library sessions always seems too short, but I feel like I do a reasonably good job of explaining the relevance of research skills and information literacy to the lives of our students both in college and in the future. So, what happened in that class? Did the student come to the session late, or sleep (or web surf) through the beginning, when I usually cover these topics?

Or are the reasons I give to students not compelling enough? Maybe they’ve heard it all before, that every subject they’re required to study is relevant, and since they haven’t actually gotten to their post-college careers and lives it’s not real for them yet.

Whatever the student’s reason for asking the question, it’s still a good question. I’ve written it on a post-it and stuck it above my computer monitor so I can keep it in mind when thinking about the future of our information literacy and instruction program, too.

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

Faculty Blog Round Up: Teaching with Technology

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we put out a call for someone to be our new faculty blog correspondent. With this post I’d like to introduce Laura Wimberley, the librarian we’ve selected to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening in the faculty blogosphere. Laura works at the Medical Center Library at the University of California San Diego. In addition to her MLIS – which she just completed – she also has an MA and PhD in Political Science. Her research interests include information policy, scholarly communication, and collection development. In addition to her posts here, you can read her at Libri & Libertas. We look forward to Laura’s future posts.

Much of what’s going on with faculty is very similar to what’s going on with librarians: Conferences are great, highly specialized, but exhausting! Or: Why, oh why, do students not cite sources after we work so hard with them? These experiences, we know.

What we don’t usually observe is the teaching, and this is one of the parts we need to stay in tune with. Here I’ve highlighted three posts with really innovative technology teaching techniques – ideas that you might not have thought about how to support from the library. Or maybe you’re dying to include blogging, Wikipedia, and gaming, and you didn’t know how to find faculty who are doing it, too. Either way, here’s a sample.

Acephalous is the blog of Scott Eric Kaufman, who teaches English at the University of California Irvine; he also contributes to the faculty group blogs The Valve (mostly literature) and Edge of the American West (mostly history).

SEK is blogging with his students in his undergraduate writing course the Rhetoric of Heroism. Because the course relies so heavily on detailed analysis of film and other visual iconography, a blog with embedded images seems like a wonderful way to communicate the material. I expect they’re watching and discussing the films together in class, but images are usually not the kind of thing students are accustomed to taking notes on (especially in the dark).

Jeremy Boggs, who blogs at ClioWeb, is a graduate student in American history at George Mason University. He’s also creative lead at the Center for History and New Media, so it’s not too surprising that he’s willing to take on the bete noire – Wikipedia. In his undergraduate American History Survey course, he assigns students to not just use, but create, Wikipedia articles, including citating sources, monitoring for follow-up collaboration, and writing a reflective essay. One of his students wrote the article that developed into the entry for Living Newspapers.

Another history professor, Rob MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario, blogs at Old is the New New (with a charming original steampunk blog theme). Rob uses the game Civilization to frame the course Science, Technology, and Global History. He asks his students to write an essay that reconceptualizes technology not as a serial, linear progress of development – as the game depicts it – but in some other way. How could we play a game that thinks of history as more contingent or branching or cyclic?

In this assignment, the game is laying bare a lot of social assumptions we carry around without realizing, and making them something students can analyze. If you ever need to justify a games collection in your library, this kind of work is a stellar example of such a collection could do.