Why I don’t like Ebsco’s visual search interface, part 2 of 2

(Go here for part 1)

Because it isn’t any fun.

The old interface, with the circles and the squares, let you zip around and zoom in on an idea and then when that didn’t work, zoom out on the idea and try something new. I know that for some people, it didn’t work. For some people it was slow, and jerked around. And I get that. But for us, in our classrooms and on the computers in the Commons, it was fast, and kind of fun.

Here’s the column view of the new interface.

There’s a little bit of zipping around to be done there, but really, it’s just not as cool. It’s too hierarchical – it gives the sense that there is just one direction to explore – from the narrow to the broad and back again.

I was teaching a class a while ago and before we got started I was listening in on the small talk in the room and this one guy said to another one, “dude, I spent a couple of hours last night on Wikipedia so I didn’t get my math done.” That kind of blew me away. I mean, Wikipedia. It’s almost all text, with limited graphics. It’s written in boring, neutral encyclopedia style (at least it’s supposed to be), at least I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the prose sucking people in. And on top of it all it’s only mostly right (a description lifted almost verbatim from one of Jessamyn West’s talks).

But for all that, we all know it can be a bit of a time-suck. I think it’s the hyperlinks and the flattened browse that it facilitates that does it.

Here’s a visualization of the linked structure.

You go in, you click some links, and pretty soon you’re looking at a list of everything that happened on October 18. You’re not necessarily drilling down in a traditional sense, though you can do that, but you’re bouncing around a lateral plane of topics — and checking out connections you might not have even considered yourself. If it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t easy, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s both.

Now, the old visual search was hierarchical too, and most librarians I know didn’t really like to use it themselves in part because they didn’t like the categories that the database generated for subtopics. But it didn’t feel hierarchical in the same way. To use it, you didn’t have to go back up and down the hierarchy – you could jump from one subtopic to the other and explore it non-hierarchically within a topic, even if you couldn’t jump from topic to topic easily.

Here’s the other view of the new interface – the blocks.

This one seems more active and fun to watch, but you don’t feel like you’re controlling the movement. It’s not intuitive (at least not to me). I’m moving around between topics, which are still hierarchically arranged, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not controlling my browsing, not controlling the display, in the same way.

So why do I care if it’s fun or not? Well, because I want to encourage students to take the time to explore topics broadly before they make up their minds. I want them to put themselves in a position to find some new things out about their topic before they start to write. I mostly work with first- and second- year students doing cross-disciplinary gen ed type work. They do a lot of current events or similar type topics for their papers. They frequently have some idea of what they’re going to write about and what they’re going to argue, and it’s very tempting in a 10 week term to just jump in and gather together the kinds of articles that will support their preconceived idea of a thesis. I totally get that. I mean, seriously, I’ve done it.

But we know that deep learning is supported by authentic discovery. And because of Carol Kuhlthau, we know that taking the time to explore supports focus formation – the most important part of a research process that supports learning. And we know that when we ask students to explore before making up their minds about what they’re going to write we’re asking them to open themselves up to anxiety and uncertainty. We’re asking them to explore broadly, to consider sources and ideas they might not use when they are facing deadlines and anxious that they won’t figure out what they want to write about in time. And beyond this, we’re asking them to open themselves up to the possibility that they’re going to encounter some new idea that will force them to rethink some of their beliefs. This is scary stuff.

So – I say, let’s build them tools that make exploration fun. Wikipedia does this, and we encourage all of our beginning composition students to use it in this way. Ebsco’s visual search used to do it too.

Let me say one thing at the top – I am decidedly not saying “these kids today with their video games and their cell phones, everything has to be fun or they can’t learn.” I don’t believe that’s true, and my chapter in this book uses a lot of words to say why I don’t think that’s true. I’m not saying that the graphics alone made the Ebsco visual search fun.

No, I’m talking about the ways that learning, just plain old learning, not tricked out or dressed up as anything else, is fun. Remember what it was like when you were a little kid? When you’d check out books on bugs or the pioneers or maps from the library just because you were interested in bugs or the pioneers or maps?

When you’re a little kid you’re adding facts, and you’re learning about things for the first time, and that’s fun. And it’s more complex cognitively than we thought, and even little kids have to be willing to let go their preconceptions to learn, but learning then for a lot of us felt simple and easy. Then you get older and you start learning about harder stuff, and you start re-learning stuff. And for some of us, that leads to the little thrill you get when you read something or hear something or see some result in the lab that suggests everything you used to know about a topic was wrong and that what you’ve just learn will have a ripple effect – it’s going to make you think about things in an entirely new way.

I think this is one of the gaps that tends to crop up between those of us in academia on purpose as teachers and researchers and our students — our students don’t come to us with the idea that research and learning is supposed to make you rethink what you know, and that you’re supposed to engage in a process of constructing new knowledge. How College Affects Students reminds us that most people get to college just when they’re beginning to reach the developmental stage that lets them see knowledge itself as something constructed, not revealed.

I think this is crucial for us in libraries, and especially for those of us interested in information literacy to remember. What we do gives our students the tools and the understanding they need to find the information they need to build new knowledge and meaning for themselves. And when they come to us, most of them aren’t even thinking about knowledge in that way.

I think a lot of people who go on to get Ph.D’s can think back and point to formative experiences where they first realized how much fun research and learning and scholarship could be. Some of us have had that thrill for so long that we forget it’s entirely new to our students. And that it’s scary. And that it’s not that they want to be closed minded or that they’re refusing to learn – but that what we’re asking them to do is scary.

So that’s a really long way away from Ebsco’s visual search. Alone, did the little boxes and circles lead to seismic shifts in our students’ epistemological understanding? Of course not. But it was fun, and now it’s not. And the basis for authentic discovery is exploration. It’s looking at stuff that might be new to you, with an open enough mind that those new ideas might affect you. And anything we can do to encourage students to take that time, to explore, to learn, is well worth it. The visual search is less fun now, and I think it will be less useful for my students because of that.