Our Assumptions Require Caution

One benefit of the semester winding down is the opportunity to catch up on readings and podcasts. EDUCAUSE produced several from the latest conference of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). One worth your 30 minutes is a chat with Susan Gibbons, Assistant Director for Public Services and Collections at the University of Rochester. She talks about some of the technology they are experimenting with at UR’s Library, which does seem to be developing a culture for cutting edge resources and services.

One of the trends discussed is the personalization of library services. Gibbons mentioned giving students the ability to add reviews to catalog records, and to receive book recommendations from the library based on borrowing patterns. I ask if students really want that sort of thing. Let’s say the typical undergrad borrows several books to write a paper for a required class. Will they appreciate receiving announcements a semester or two later for new books based on a topic they have no intention of ever researching again? Maybe we need to first determine if anyone wants that sort of service. Just because Amazon does it doesn’t mean we should. Turns out the students pretty much ignored these services, and Gibbon says “We were surprised they didn’t jump on this.”

The dangers of assumptions about what we think the user community wants – versus what they really need – is made again when the talk turns to institutional repositories. Gibbons says “We thought our faculty would just add stuff, but they don’t.” They thought faculty would be compelled, for one reason or another, to self archive their content, but “faculty don’t yet see the benefit”. So the job becomes figuring out how to get users to actually use these services. Maybe we need to be more focused on figuring out what users want and need, and then making it available to them.

That’s where this interview gets even more interesting, because the folks are UR are doing just that. Seems they got a grant that allowed them to fund an anthropologist to study the work flows and behaviors of faculty and students to determine what services would really support their work. Gibbons makes a great point about WIIFM. Faculty will use our services when we can clearly demonstrate WHAT’S IN IT FOR THEM. She says that if it gets their research more citations, if it gets them more recognition, and more visibility – they will use the repository. This information is coming out of the anthropologist’s research into where the users go, what they do, how much time they spend on different projects, etc.

It’s a shame we can’t all conduct our own anthropological studies of our user communities. It sounds like an excellent idea that could help us to target our resources into focused services that we know our users want and away from those that we develop based only on our assumptions about what they need – particularly when those assumptions are based on business models and commercial activity that doesn’t necessarily translate well to our academic libraries. Give this podcast a listen and see what you think.

Sensations Or Experiences: Which Do We Want To Provide

I may have a tendency to beat the drum about the importance of integrating our resources and services into the teaching and learning process – and advocating user education – so that we can help students achieve important learning outcomes. That goal often seems in conflict with those who advocate that we need to make things as simple as possible to eliminate complexity for library users for fear that complexity will drive them away. “Keep it simple” is usually code for “make it more like Google.” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who thinks we might be shortchanging college students by making their education a series of technology sensations rather than a true learning experience.

Well, thanks to Bob Rogers, an associate professor for 34 years at Queensborough Community College in New York, I know there is someone else out there who shares my concerns. In an essay in the November 2005 issue of University Business titled “When Will They Learn“, Rogers writes:

There is a difference between entertainment and learning, between sensation and experience.Experiences change us. We see a play, climb a mountain, visit a foreign city, go to war, have a child–or struggle to reach any grasp-exceeding goal–and we are changed. Such experiences don’t need to be repeated; we are different people for having gone through them once and the change is permanent. Sensation, on the other hand, is something that merely happens to us; it’s more like a stimulus that momentarily alters our state of mind, perception, or awareness. But when that stimulus is removed, the sensation will fade. Sensations need to be constantly renewed, re-experienced, and repeated in life…Change does not occur without resistance. It requires work, sometimes sacrifice, even hardship, to achieve.

I really like this idea of experience versus sensation. Do we want to help our students learn how to conduct research? If so, we need to create a persistent change in their research behavior; that’s what learning is – a persistent change in knowlege and behavior. That change is likely to occur only as a result of coordinated user education (call it information literacy if you like) that takes place in collaboration with faculty and is integrated into the curriculum. If we choose to simply provide a “search sensation” through a smorgasbord of resources for students, and we provide no guidance nor create expectations for their use and application for learning, than it should be no surprise when we discover they begin their research at search engines and largely avoid library resources. If this trend continues it won’t be because we were too complex for students, but because we didn’t integrate ourselves and our resources into their learning experience.

What will it be? Sensations? Experiences? Which would you rather provide?

Myths And Realities Of Gaming

A previous post here at ACRLog discussed higher education’s divided response to Millennial Generation learners. While some experts advocate changing teaching methods to conform with the learning styles of Millennials, others insist that it’s the Millennials who need to conform to the way the professor chooses to teach. Because Millennials are strongly associated with the playing of video games one suggestion is that educators should do more to incorporate gaming into their pedagogy in order to better connect with Generation Xbox. Many faculty and librarians loathe gaming on a number of levels, but what many find most reprehensible is the violent themes and action woven into large numbers of video games. But are those concerns overblown? Is there any substance to claims that violent video games create violent individuals? How academic librarians respond to gaming, and whether we choose to accept or embrace it as a method for reaching our traditional user population, can be influenced by our own perceptions of the gaming culture.

It may be worthwhile to read the essay “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked” by Henry Jenkins, the Director of Comparative Studies at MIT, as well as a response to it found at the blog Cognitive Daily. Jenkins takes on some of the key issues related to video games and their impact on players, and argues that most of the claims are just myths. But the folks at Cognitive Daily do a good job of dissecting Jenkins’ arguments and showing where his supporting data contains some flawed logic. Both pieces can certainly help us to get a better sense of how we feel about video gaming, and whether our own attitudes are mostly myth or reality. One thing we should avoid is denying that this is a trend to which we should be paying attention.