Is It Just Me Or Does It Seem Like Some Startup Is Always Stealing Our Great Ideas

Social networking and media are attractive tools for academic librarians. While we are still looking for the killer application for an academic library, our experiments and efforts to leverage social media to connect with students are worth pursuing and occasionally produce good results. There is evidence that having a presence in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can increase the possibility for connection between the academic library and its community members. Some of us are taking a more strategic approach to using social media. We may be creating guidelines for the appropriate uses of media, staff teams devoted to the regular use of social networks and our parent institutions are getting more serious about their use of social media as well. Where we still struggle though is in figuring out how to exploit social media to get students to become more aware and make better use of academic research resources for their course-based assignments.

I’ve always thought the real success of social media for academic libraries would involve some type of application where we would create networks that allow our students to engage with us and their peers to get the research help at the point of need. Consider a scenario where a student is working on his or her research paper assignment. He or she needs to find several articles for background information, but hits a roadblock in trying to find a few on-target scholarly articles. Instead of falling back on an Internet search, what if the student could tap into a social network monitored by academic librarians who could quickly respond with advice and direct links to the appropriate resources? It’s similar to the embedded librarian approach, but without the need for a formal arrangement with a faculty member for a specific course. The network would allow librarians and students, and perhaps faculty as well, to informally engage with each other to promote academic success.

Now a start-up, entrepreneurial venture is pursuing the exact sort of thing we academic librarians recognize as a good idea, but are without the capital and infrastructure to create ourselves. As I read the New York Times article “Homework Help Site Has a Social Networking Twist” I got that deja vu all over again feeling. The article discusses a new firm called Piazza that is signing up higher education institutions for a homework support system based on social networking concepts. According to the article here’s how it works:

Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to. Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time. Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments. Although there are rival services, like Blackboard, an education software company, Piazza’s platform is specifically designed to speed response times. The site is supported by a system of notification alerts, and the average question on Piazza will receive an answer in 14 minutes.

Go to the Piazza site and read some of the testimonials from faculty such as this one: “Piazza has proven to be an ideal forum for my class. Compared to conventional bulletin boards, the design makes it much easier for students to find relevant posts, and for my staff and me to keep track of outstanding questions.” At first Piazza sounds like the typical course management system discussion board where students might post their questions. Piazza adds the social networking component by issuing alerts so questions receive an answer quickly. Apply that to a research help scenario and instead of waiting around for a librarian to respond to a question posted to a discussion group, a text message could alert the librarian that a student needs assistance pronto. Even if a librarian wasn’t available to provide immediate assistance, in a large network research help could be provided by a more experienced student or faculty member, with a librarian checking on the accuracy of the response and improving on it if needed. Piazza is designed to reward good responses.

One thing I did notice about Piazza is that most of the highlighted courses are in the hard sciences. No doubt most of the assignments are problem-based, rather than research projects. The article states that while Piazza now has subscribers at over 300 institutions (it may be just one or two faculty per institution), it’s not making a profit and isn’t exactly picking up new customers like gangbusters. That’s something we academic librarians often overlook when we ask questions like “Why didn’t we create Google (or Amazon or YouTube, etc.)?” We seem to think that we have a natural instinct for coming up with surefire entrepreneurial concepts that involve the organization and distribution of any type of information content. What we fail to recognize is that most of these ventures lose money and disappear quickly. We like the idea of starting up an innovative new business venture, but we rarely think of the risks involved. Even if Piazza doesn’t make it, as the article points out, there are plenty more startups out there with every intent to disruptively innovate higher education with new concepts and platforms for helping students to learn by interacting in different ways with each other and their instructors. While we academic librarians may not be on the forefront of creating the new innovations, we may benefit by following the action closely and picking the right ones with which to partner.

Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts

At Least This Professor Is Trying To Improve Student Research

The general reaction to this story is that the faculty member is making a big mistake by banning Google and Wikipedia from student research (at least in the freshman year). I admit that such a strategy is likely to turn out to be a losing proposition, but what I find refreshing is a faculty member who at least cares enough about the quality of student research to take a stand on the matter. Too many faculty simply pay too little attention to the need for students to develop effective research skills. So while we may not agree with some of this instructor’s approaches or practices, I think we should give some credit to this person for having the right intentions. That said, based on article I’m wondering if this faculty member has considered collaborating or working with librarians to enlist them in the effort. I guessing the answer is no.

Your Books Are Out And Anything That’s Electronic Is In

While reading this month’s issue of University Business I came across one IT person’s “What Out, What’s In” list for 2008. Under “What’s Out” I find “Library Stacks” and what’s replacing the stacks under the “What’s In” column? Just a few things such as collaboratories, eJournals, Wikipedia and Google. Well, that settles it. Out with all the books. Go use Wikipedia and Google everyone. Sheesh! This list is courtesy of John Bielec, the CIO at Drexel University. That institution has been moving towards a heavily e-based library for years. Looks like the VP for IT is hoping that 2008 is the year that most, if not all, of the books will finally be gone from the library.

I’m Just Passing This On – Come To Your Own Conclusion

Since I’ve been accused previously of being biased when presenting information about librarians and social networks, here’s an advance warning. This is the ONLY data I’ve seen recently related to librarians and social space integration. (A) I’m not surpressing other study data with different conclusions and (B) I’m not adding any comments to it – it means whatever you want it to mean. This comes from a study of student use of the library web site and other information resources produced at the University of Michigan:

A total of 23% of respondents stated that ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’ they would be interested in contacting a librarian via these two social networking sites (MySpace and Facebook). Undergrads had a slightly higher than average percentage of 34%. Nearly half of the total respondents stated they would not be interested, but for various reasons – the biggest reason being that they feel the current methods (in-person, email, IM) are more than sufficient. 14% said no because they felt it was inappropriate or that Facebook is a social tool, not a research tool. Though this latter category does not represent a majority, these responses were the most emphatic

Well, I can’t resist one observation – 23% is better than I would have guessed, and is even potentially encouraging. You can read another summary of this data provided by Gerry. This might also be the first study I’ve seen where the students report using the library’s databases for starting their research as much as they do Google.

Here’s A Crazy Suggestion

Wouldn’t you agree that the librarian community played a significant role in Google’s rise to the top. After all, librarians were among the first to recognize Google’s uniqueness when it first appeared. We used it ourselves. We told our users and friends about it. We provided the word-of-mouth promotion that made Google what it is today. So my modest proposal is simply that we repeat history. Let’s pick another engine and make it even bigger than Google. I suggest we choose Search Wikia as our next great search engine. Why bother? Well, Search Wikia seems to have a nice community feel to it, and the search algorithm, if it works, could be quite effective. And, quite frankly, we need something else to talk about. How do we start the revolution? Tell someone about it today…and they’ll tell two people…and…