tutorials a la carte

So the thing about DIY tutorials is that even though the technology bar required to build them is pretty low, there are some back-end logistical issues that have to be navigated.  When I decided I wanted to try these with some of my distance learning classes, I had to figure out how to create a locally hosted blog, and we ended up doing it in a way that hadn’t been tried before (using Drupal) so we had to go through some rounds of figuring out settings and styling.

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a bad thing to go through for me, or for the library.  And when colleagues wanted a similar tool, we were that much further down the road and had some good reasons to try a different tool.  Still, when the goal is “I want to get a tutorial up” these kinds of barriers aren’t necessarily what you want to go through.

I realize that a local option wasn’t the only option – if all I cared about was putting up a blog for tutorials quick and fast there are obviously tons of options out there.  But that wasn’t the only problem I wanted to solve.  I didn’t just want to make tutorials myself, I wanted to do something that would make it easy for all of us to create tutorials and other instructional aids.

The issue of how to share the burden of creating instructional materials has been around for a long time.  Learning objects repositories like MERLOT offer lots of options for teachers – the ability to borrow online instructional modules, and the ability to comment on and rate those tools.  Shared tutorial projects like ANTS let librarians share tutorials, collaborate on prioritizing and creating tutorials, and also provide a social space to talk about tutorial-related issues.  Here, locally, we have  CLIP (Collaborative Library Instruction Project) which takes a good step in the right direction – making source files available and shareable, letting librarians share some but not all of the work of tutorial-building.

CLIP is just getting off the ground, so I don’t know what will happen there.  But here’s the thing.  Whenever I have talked to anyone involved with projects like these, or heard them speaking about the larger issues, they say the same thing – getting participation from educators is really, really hard.  They spend a lot of time gathering the content for the repositories themselves, they have a core group of committed people sharing, but getting the concept of sharing — of taking the time to participate in these types of projects and communities – to be part of the normal workflow for teachers is super difficult.

My own experience with the Library Instruction Wiki (now offline due to basement server room flood) left me feeling pessimistic about that project’s stop reinventing the wheel tagline.  I have come to believe some things – some things that got me thinking that instead of sharing the final product of tutorials, the way to go is to figure out ways groups of teaching librarians can share a process:

1. Teachers like reinventing the wheel.

This is something Jean Caspers said to me once, and its stuck with me because I think it’s essentially true.  Not that teachers don’t want to borrow and adapt and take advantage of other people’s cool ideas and good work, but to really feel comfortable going into a classroom and teaching a group of students something, a lot of us need to feel like we’ve made the stuff we’re teaching ours.  And the only way to do that is to adapt, and reshape, and refine.  So we don’t want to just point to other people’s handouts and tutorials (sometimes we do, but go with it).  We want to make them ours.

And an important part of the cognitive process that a lot of us go through preparing to teach is preparing the materials.  I know that when I create a course page for a class, I’m thinking about how I am going to present the material in class, and about how I am going to transition from one topic to the next.  And when I make a tutorial for an online class, I want to tailor it to their assignment, and the process of putting it together helps me clarify what they need to know/do for that assignment.

So, it’s not a bad thing that teachers want to reinvent the wheel, not at all.  And I think it’s a need teachers have that should be considered by anyone trying to help them work collaboratively.

2. The hard part of developing tutorials isn’t technical, it’s in the content.  And that’s the hardest piece to share.

One piece of this is practical – try teaching anyone how to do anything research-related on your campus and see how long it takes before there is some local quirk that you need or want to explain.  It doesn’t take long.  There’s a reason why the tutorials we’re most likely to share are on topics like plagiarism or citations — things where we are all working on basically the same standards and rules, defined outside of our local institutions.

One piece of this is related to the above point.  We want the content to be tailored to the students’ needs – we have strong opinions about how to do research and about how to teach it and about what students need to know about it.  I don’t know, I haven’t talked to many people who say things like “I would totally borrow X’s tutorial, but it’s built in Camtasia and I would rather it be in Captivate. The people I talk to are more likely to forgo borrowing a tutorial because they don’t like something about it — they’d like to change the way it explains a concept, or to add just one more piece.

3.  There is one sure-fire way to make the technical part hard – that is to tell everyone they have to use the same tool at every stage of the process.

Now this may seem to undercut the whole process-sharing thing I mentioned above but bear with me – I’m really talking about all of the component parts of the final product.  If you tell everyone that they have to use the same tool to build webpages, that’s going to leave you with a few people upset yes.  You’ll also have a lot of people that don’t really care.

But if you tell them that they have to use the same thing to take screenshots, the same thing to do screencasts, the same thing to create word clouds, or to display bookmarks, or to push useful links — then you’re going to start getting the kind of resistance that makes people decide not to create the thing at all.  This is especially true if people have been left on their own to figure out their own best way to do those things before.

So, to get to the point already…

So, Hannah and I were working on redoing our big tutorial – and one of the problems we wanted to address was the bottleneck that occurs when only a few people can edit or make changes to a tool.  We also wanted to de-Blackboard our beginning composition assignments, and make them more lightweight and dynamic.  Thinking to kill two birds with one stone, we decided to look at content-management-izing our tutorial building process.

The brain trust behind Library a la Carte (an open-source, lightweight CMS for building course pages and subject guides) works down the hall from us, so we had a place to go with this problem.  We were initially open to a variety of approaches (including Drupal and WordPress) for building these tutorials, but we ended up deciding that extending LALC to include a tutorial-building function made the most sense.

We launched it barely-alpha, with the fall term beginning composition students.  We found a bunch of things that wanted fixing, but even in this sub-optimal situation, there was an awful lot of it that worked well.   Now it is in barely-beta, and with about 40 sections of beginning composition using it, the reports we have had about it not working for the students have been in the single digits.

This is what the tutorials look like:

(Here’s a link if you want to look at the whole tutorial.  This one is cool because it has modules that feature: images, cartoons, videos and text included.  You have to log in to see the quizzes, but not to see the rest)

There’s a few things I really like about it -

First, it allows our teaching librarians to share at a pretty granular (modular) level – I can borrow Hannah’s catalog-using screencast, and put it into one tutorial that is really about how distance students can have books delivered to them by mail, and also into another tutorial that is really about the serendipitous process of browsing for books on the shelves.

And even at that granular level, it lets us borrow-and-then-tweak — keeping things right in most teachers’ comfort zone.

Using an incredibly scientific data gathering method (n=1; n=me) I have determined that instruction librarians just may be more likely to borrow from each other and to remember to share with each other in this format.

Secondly, it solves the problem of where everything is going to live.  Because it is integrated with our subject and class guides, the system lets us create tutorials and then automatically puts them on the website, with no pesky decisionmaking steps beyond what to call the thing.  Which admittedly, can stymie me for a while, but…

Using the same data collection method (this time n=me and Hannah) I have determined that with this tool available, we are more likely to include tutorials and learning modules in the things we do for our classes, whether we meet with them face-to-face or not.

It also lets the librarian pull in content from elsewhere, so they can use any method they are comfortable with to create the content initially.  If I want to store my photos on flickr, and edit with Picnik, that works fine. But so does uploading the photos that I edited with Photoshop.  If I want to embed a video I edited with iMovie, I do the same thing I would do to drop in a screencast video I created with Camtasia.

Editing a video module:

It also lets us easily use dynamic content (which sometimes breaks the styling but, live and learn) so if I want to embed a delicious linkroll to recommend links to three different classes of students, I can, and then of course I can update all 3 class pages at the same time when I update my Delicious.  Or if I want to do the same thing by embedding a Twitter feed, no problem.

Again, because this is integrated with our class pages system, we’ve already made a lot of decisions about where to share some of our resources.  But even though we have a flickr archive, lots of us don’t use that for building the modules.  And even though we have a YouTube channel, the videos there can be created in lots of ways.

I have no idea at this point if anyone else is going to start using this, or if it will mostly be used to update our main tutorial and in beginning composition.  But I do like the concept of process-sharing, and I think this might be a way that idea makes sense.

Changing expectations

Remember all of those fashion-centric shows on networks like MTV in the 1990’s? This is a bit of one, covering a famous runway show by John Galliano — scratched together with almost no support, held in a socialite’s house, with models who worked for free. I’ve been looking for coverage of this show for forever — because see the model who falls down on the stage in the beginning bit, falls down on purpose to evoke the desperation of the fleeing princess? (starts at 0:25 in)

That’s my little sister, Debbie. Not being in Paris at the time, I have only heard tell of this performance. I would love to see it unabridged, but for now, this will do.

It amazes me how quickly my expectations have changed from what I should be able to find – when I first started looking for information about this show, I was happy to find a review in an article somewhere. When I first started looking at YouTube for videos of Debbie on the runway, about two years ago, I was surprised not to find anything – surprised that there wasn’t a lot of content posted from this pre-ubiquitous digital video, pre-Internet era?

That seems a little unreasonable of me, but there it was. And now there’s lots and lots of video from that era up, and instead of feeling like I am living in the future, I expect it — and I’m really enjoying the trip back to the past.

adventures in e-reading

So I live on the west coast, and many library conferences are on the east coast, and I attend many library conferences which means a lot of long flights.  And I’m a fast reader.  Which all added together equals this one conference last year where I found myself carrying nine books with me on the plane.

Lest you think that was excessive, okay that was totally excessive.  But the thing is, I don’t really like to fly.  My legs are too long for the plane seats (and I’m not super-tall.  What do super-tall people do?), the air is too dry and I get headachy from the engine noise so my strategy of choice for dealing with all of that discomfort is to find something engrossing to read, and I never know exactly what it is I will find engrossing in the moment.

Plus I never know exactly how much I will get through, and I live in fear of finishing all of my books and being left!  on a plane!  without a book!

On that flight, I started and finished four of those books on the plane (one was a quick-read young adult novel and one was a totally mindless mystery that my traveling companion started and finished after I did).  The other five books included three things I read in the hotel: two comics collections in trade paperback, a novel I had started before and finished after the trip.  One book I started on the plane and didn’t have time to finish and the last one was a non-fiction book I never did pick up.

So that’s a long way of explaining why and when I decided that I needed to seriously pursue the idea of e-books.  And this video I came across today is the first thing that really kind of gets at why I have been so happy with that choice.  It’s in french, but even my lousy french is good enough to follow along.

(via if:book)

(I suggest going to YouTube itself to watch, and watching in high quality: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aK75RSQBZYs)

Happy except for the ever-present issue of e-book DRM.  My french isn’t up to telling if they really talk about DRM in the video or not, but even if they don’t that sure looks like what replicating open-formats aspects of the print world would look like.  I’m also on a small group looking at the issues surrounding circulating Kindles in the library, which has given me some experience with Kindles even though I didn’t go that way myself — because I couldn’t deal with the DRM issues, that just keep coming up.

At Menucha last year my colleague Terry recommended checking out the iPod touch as an e-reader, so that’s the way I went. Of course, that doesn’t mean avoiding DRM altogether, though Fictionwise’s might be softer.  And also of course now Amazon owns Stanza, which is the Fictionwise-connected reader I have been using, so how much longer will that be true?

But beyond the DRM, the movie also reminded me of an issue I am having with the device itself.  I have also noticed since using the Kindle for this project, that I am really having trouble using it because it doesn’t have a touch screen.  I don’t know if it is because I am trained to use the touch screen on the iPod, or if that is just what we are coming to expect?  But it’s been a while now and I keep trying to make that screen work by touching.  I don’t think it’s going to get any better.

This, though, this looks like what’s fun about the Internet with books added back in.  And as a book lover, I like that picture.

DIY tutorials, library style

Or kind of.  After writing this post last winter, I started thinking about this idea as a way to connect with some of the classes I work with.  Quick recap, I was looking at craft tutorials online and came up with some common characteristics they had, that our library tutorials don’t always have:

  1. They’re kind of at the point of need, they’re kind of not.
  2. They’re all about how to make something.
  3. They usually assume some level of knowledge on the part of the user.
  4. They are presented using social tools.
  5. There’s value added. They do some of the work for the user.
  6. A lot of the time, they’re marketing tools.
  7. They are created within an existing community.

I work with some of our distance education classes, the writing classes for example, and having some very quick and easy “here’s how to get this thing done” how-to’s make so much sense for those students – I tend to answer the same questions over and over and I have access to their class space in the LMS and to their email addresses.

But it’s not just the distance classes that I am thinking about.  I taught for a business writing class and it was exactly the kind of class I frequently have trouble with.  The students need to do a little bit of very specific kinds of research for every project they have in this class — there’s no way to time a single instruction section so that it works for this class.

To show them how to find the specific types of stuff (information on non-profits, job listings, community statistics, opinion polls, company information, annual reports, and on and on and on) they need to find, in a face-to-face session inherently means spending most of the session doing straight-up how-to demos to support assignments they don’t even have yet.  There’s no way around it. There’s no way the instructor could have structured the class any better, and there’s no way that I could make these topics more relevant in a traditional one-shot.

And the stuff is pretty straightforward – it’s mostly a matter of pointing to where the stuff is, and a few tips on the how, and they can take it and with it from there.  The complex part of what students need to do in this class is to figure out what kind of evidence they need to write about the project they’ve come up with for the audience they have — that’s good, interesting work but it’s also not well-suited to a one-shot because they have to do this over and over again for every project they do.  So multiple one-shot sessions would make no sense for this class either.

What makes sense to me is to connect with this class at the start of the term, by visiting them in person since they are an in-person class.  But the quick connection at the start would be pretty easy to replicate online.  And once that first connection is made, it makes sense to me to send the class quick how-to information about the stuff they need to find, when they need to find it.

Something like this.

companytitle

I am also thinking about some of the large general education classes that I would like to support, but which we could never support with face-to-face sessions given current staffing levels.  We are already embedded into the First Year Composition curriculum, which is the only course required for all of our undergraduates.  But there are a lot of other courses that have a lot of undergraduates enrolled and some of those have assignments that require outside sources.  Thinking about the opportunity to reach 500 or so students with some point-of-need help (that reinforces the FYC lessons) in each of those classes, while continuing to reach 700-800 in FYC – that would make me pretty happy about our impact on the first-year experience.

So, is copying the craft tutorials the way to go?  Maybe it is – not entirely copying, but there are some opportunities there, I think.  Our web developer, Susan McEvoy, put together a blog for me to use just for this – that should let us track the same kind of statistics we track on the overall website.  It’s very simple, stripped-down.  The posts are just text and images.  Because I write fast, putting together one of these takes 20-40 minutes, with most of that taken up uploading images.

DIY Research

So that means I can be really responsive and tailor things to assignments.  It’s also easy to send students a link and announcement from within the LMS.  In fact, there’s a DIY Tutorial on how to do that.

So how do they match up with the craft tutorials? Do these concepts translate?  Sometimes yes, sometimes now.

1. They’re kind of at the point of need, they’re kind of not.

This is true in that they are sent to students at the point of need, and they also persist, so they can be found or re-found later.  But I don’t think they’re very searchable now, given that I haven’t done much to make that happen.  The images are all on flickr, which is something I think could be utilized better – at first I thought putting together Joe Murphy-style tutorials at the same time as the DIY tutorials made sense, but then I realized that I re-use a lot of the images.  But I think the tagging here could connect people to the finished products too, if I think about it more.

2. They’re all about how to make something.

This one, I have trouble with.  The bibliographic management ones work in this way – “make a bibliography.”  A lot of the others are more process-focused.  I tried to focus the titles at least on the thing(s) that could be found with the process, but I think this one needs more work too.

3. They usually assume some level of knowledge on the part of the user.

I did link out to other tutorials when I thought there might be things people didn’t know.  But otherwise these are limited to the specific thing they are about, not all of the building blocks knowledge people will need, or the additional questions they might spark.

4. They are presented using social tools.

Yes, and this is important.  There is an issue with the comments, since most of our users don’t log in to the system before using it.  But putting it on a blog allows for the content to be repurposed easily into our Course Pages:

rsslalac

and our LMS:

diytrssbb

5. There’s value added. They do some of the work for the user.

This, I haven’t figured out.  Perhaps if I was working in less of a teaching environment this would be easier.

6. A lot of the time, they’re marketing tools.

Absolutely!

7. They are created within an existing community.

To the extent that they are being created and conceptualized entirely within existing classes, yes, this works.  To the extent that being of a community makes them findable, I think that is less clear.

So, we’ll see how it goes.  I have no plans for assessment at this point beyond web logging information – including the time spent and return visits, so more interesting than straight hit counts.  And I have a fairly modest definition of success – these take so little effort to make, I don’t need all of the students in the class to find them useful, or even to try them.  I will keep you posted.

it’s the math

I’m not sure that even my tendency to see information literacy connections everywhere will explain why I’m posting this, but I just thought it was really interesting.  This morning, I got pointed to this article (via a delicious network) which argues that hands-on, unstructured, discovery-based learning doesn’t do the trick for many science students at the secondary level.  Using preparedness for college science as their definition of success, most students are more successful if their high school science learning is significantly structured for them by their teachers.

Structure More Effective in High School Science Classes, Study Reveals

What jumped out at me here was that the reason seemed to be linked to the math – students with good preparation in the math, did benefit from unstructured, discovery based learning.  And then there was another “similar articles to this one link at the bottom of the page, pointing to another study, making another point -which supports this idea too (which is not hugely surprising because both items point to different papers by the same researchers).

You do better in college if you’ve taken high school classes in chemistry, better in physics if you’ve taken physics – but the one big exception to the success in one doesn’t generalize argument?  You do better in everything if you’re well-prepared in math.

College Science Success Linked to Math and Same-Subject Preparation

After that there are more “articles like this one links” leading to articles about middle-school math teachers in the US being really ill-prepared, or things about gender and math and science which really got me thinking about further implications of those findings – if math is such a lynchpin.  So there is something there about how this dynamic, browsable environment makes your brain work in ways that make research better.

There’s also something there about context – getting the “math teachers aren’t prepared” article in the context of the “math is key” research made the significance of the former clearer, made how I could *use* that research much clearer than it would have been if I came upon it alone.  There’s also something there about the power of sites like ScienceDaily (and ScienceBlogs, and ResearchBlogging.org and others) to pull together research, present it in an accessible way in spaces where researchers/readers can make those connections.

And there might even be something there about foundational, cognitive skills that undergird other learning. But mostly, I just found it interesting.

—————

Studies referenced were reported on here:

Sadler, Philip M. & Tai, Robert, H.   The two high-school pillars supporting college science (Education Forum)  Science 27 July 2007:  Vol. 317. no. 5837, pp. 457 – 458.   DOI: 10.1126/science.1144214  (paywall)
Tai & Sadler, Same Science for all?  Interactive association of structure in learning activities and academic attainment background on college science performance in the USAInternational Journal of Science Education, Volume 31, Issue 5 March 2009 , pages 675 – 696.  DOI: 10.1080/09500690701750600

DIY research

Not learning to do stuff from tutorials, though that’s where this started, but more thinking about tutorials by looking at tutorials.

It has been a couple of weeks, but I finally had some time to take a look at the backlog in my “arts and crafts” folder in Google Reader and one of the things I found there was this Top 100 Tutorials of 2008 post at The Long Thread blog.

Rachel and I have talked before about crafty or DIY tutorials because we both like to do crafty and DIY things so we run across a lot of them.  And with Karen we talked about crafty tutorials in the context of library tutorials for a bit.

But this Long Thread post got me thinking about that topic again – because I’ve been thinking about tutorials lately in my job sometimes in ways that I find fun, and interesting and sometimes in ways that just make me tired.

A lot about library tutorials makes me tired.  I get tired because the process of making them and maintaining them can quickly get so big.  I get tired because Camtasia doesn’t work on my Mac,  And I get tired using Camtasia and Captivate anyway.  I get tired because you can spend all this time making them and then you’re still left with the even more complicated question of how to get people to actually use them.

So I think it’s actually interesting to look at this crafty community, to look at DIY tutorials and think about what tutorials mean in a context where the basic assumption is that people do want to learn how to do this stuff, that they are interested, that they do want to do some of the work themselves.  I have looked at almost all of the tutorials on this list, though I won’t claim that I’ve seen every one of the 100 and there are some common threads that are interesting to think about –

(yeah, I didn’t really mean to say common threads there)

#1.  They’re kind of at the point of need.  They’re kind of not.

There’s no discussion here about how to get these tutorials into someone’s knitting bag or onto someone’s sewing table.  The expectation is that people will find them in their normal information flow, that they will get pointed to them by crafty friends, or on blogs they follow.  Or, that they will find them on the web.

The former thing, I think about a lot. Without a lot of success.  The latter thing, though, I think is something to think about – how searchable are our tutorials?  Do our students even think to use Google as a strategy when they don’t know how to do something?  I’m really asking – is that how they go about answering those questions?  When I need to know how to do something that’s not clear in the directions I have, whether it’s a tool thing, or a software thing, or a cooking thing, my first step is usually to search (Google Reader, Google or delicious) for an answer.  I would imagine that is not a generational thing, but I don’t know.  Are there students out there Googling “how do I find peer-reviewed journal articles?”  or “how do I find newspaper editorials?”

(plus side, by putting those phrases in this post, if they are searching for those things I should start seeing similar phrases in my referral logs soon)

And if they are, what are they finding?  Are our tutorials and modules and how-to’s findable?  Let’s see.  Trying search strings instead of keywords – if I try:

“how do i find op ed pieces using lexis-nexis”

Two of the top four results are from Lexis-Nexis itself.  Includng this one which is #1 and right on point.  Not surprising, and not bad.  The first library result is high, at #3.  It’s from Duke and it’s a more general page about finding periodicals online.

But I don’t think many students would actually phrase a search in this way.  Maybe if they could cut and paste from their assignment guidelines and their assignment guidelines pointed them to Lexis-Nexis.  So how about if we make it more general –  “lexis-nexis” becomes “newspaper databases”  and “op-ed pieces” becomes “editorials.”

“how do i find editorials in newspaper databases”

This time, a page from UT-Austin comes in at #2, and it is quite useful.   There are two other library pages in the top 5 – UNLV at #4 and Long Island University at #3, but in both cases the page in question is simply a list of newspaper databases.

Still, this search requires the user to be pointed to databases, or to know that these sources are likely to be found in newspaper databases.  Here’s the search I actually think is most likely:

“how do i find editorials in newspapers”

Nothing comes up here. The whole first page of results is pages explaining what editorials are, or how to write them.

I have more examples looking for how-tos on finding peer reviewed articles or citing sources, but they don’t really suggest anything different.  I’m putting the searchability question on the list of stuff to think about more.  That seems to be important on a couple of levels – if people are already using this strategy to find out how to do stuff, and we’re not findable there that’s an issue.   If our students aren’t using this strategy, they should be.  But we should make sure they’ll find the stuff we make there first.

#2.  They’re all about how to make something.

This might seem obvious but a lot of our tutorials aren’t about how to make something.  They’re about how to do something that will then let you make something.  So this is both a “how these tutorials are different than ours so we should be careful about drawing a lot of parallels” – and a “maybe there’s another way to think about our tutorials”part.

There are tons and tons of “how to do this thing” tutorials out there in the world too.  The fact that none of them are on this list means that the list is really more about the products that you can make with the tutorials, not the quality of the actual tutorials.  But I think it’s worth thinking about how we conceptualize and present some of our tutorials as well – can we identify some things that our users want to make/ need to make and present the tutorials as a “how to” in that way?

Which connects to -

#3.  These usually assume some knowledge on the part of the user.

In other words, these aren’t “how to sew a skirt if you’ve never seen thread” tutorials.  They are tutorials on how to make stuff for people who already know how to make other stuff using some of the same techniques.

A really extreme example of this is in this tutorial to make these:

The full set of instructions for these bookmarks is this:

I glued little craft floss hair-dos on them and then stuck pipe cleaners in their heads, used more glue to make a felt pipe cleaner sandwich and then whipstitched around the edge.

Now, that is kind of excessively brief, but most of these tutorials assume they can give directions like “whipstitch” or “use your zipper foot” or “use a long-tail cast-on” or “straight stitch” without having to explain every one of those terms.

Which is something I think we can think a lot more about in libraries.  On a couple of levels.

First, is the letting stuff go level.  I think we do have a tendency to think that the tutorials we create have to be complete and comprehensive.  Or maybe this is just in my library.  But the truth is that even though we usually pull back from it, in our conversations about the smallest learning objects we initially start having conversations that do this – “but to do X they will need to know A, B. and C.”  There’s a couple of linked assumptions there – that they will never click on or search for more help at this moment, and that they might never come across our help again after this one time.  I think we mostly know now that we have to let stuff go so that we can focus on real learning of the stuff we do have time to teach or cover.  But it’s hard.

On another level, though, our students do spend a lot of time finding stuff using online tools.  They do have transferable skills – we can assume they know some stuff.

Back to the craft people, they are also on the Internet.  So even if you use an instruction like “whipstitch” and Annie the Sewing Newbie doesn’t know what that means, she’s on the Internet and and Google will find something that will tell her what it is/ show her how to do it.  Which is another reason why the concept of making our tutorials as findable as possible is interesting.

Which leads to –

#4 – They are presented using social tools

Almost every single one of these tutorials is a simple combination of blog post + pictures.  No fancy video, or branching, or audio involved.  I do think this relates to the “people want to use this stuff” assumption that these tutorial designers have.  They are not focused on building in cool bells and whistles to engage the users because they can assume their users are already engaged.  So they can use the power of today’s social tools to get stuff up there fast.

But even the tutorials that are presented as PDF files are usually delivered via a blog post.  Which means that the people using the tutorials can ask questions.  So you don’t have to explain every step as if the person will never get any other help ever – they can ask you for it, or they can get that help from the other people who have used the tutorials.

For example in the comments to this tutorial, the comments include several from other other crafters answering a question that the original poster had about the project.

Beyond this, many of these projects develop a second life on Flickr – where a lot of different people can show what they did with the basic concept suggested in the tutorial.  This also has implications for library tutorials, I think.  Given how complex and dynamic and personal research is, the idea that other users can show how a different application of a basic concept can lead to different resultsc could have a great deal of utility.

As an example of this, in this tutorial (PDF) about making a fabric-covered charging box for your devices, there is a note to add final projects to the author’s flickr group.


Which connects still further to this -

#5 – There’s value added.  They do some of the work for you.

So these tutorials are made for people who already know how to do some stuff, and really, there are a lot of tutorials out there that seem kind of obvious.  Even on this list of the top 100 there is this tutorial for adding patterned paper to a clear iPod case that seems like it defies the need for instruction.  But there are two things to keep in mind here.  One is that sometimes all we need is the idea – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth telling people about the idea.

The other is that most of these tutorials add some value by doing some of the more fiddly work of crafting for you.   There are a lot of tutorials here where I could figure out how to make the thing myself, but it is really nice when someone else has already done all of the necessary math for me:

Hobo lunch bag tutorial (Sewing Notions)

I don’t know how to apply this to libraries, but I think there has got to be some things out there where we could present tutorials on – here’s how you make this thing, and we’ve already figured out some of the fiddly parts for you.

Anyway, it’s not surprising that -

#6 – a lot of the time, they’re marketing tools

The Purl Bee is a great example of this.  This is an upscale fabric and other crafts store in NYC.  There are tons of useful, cute tutorials on their store website – all helpfully linking users to the materials they will need to make the things in the tutorials, which are all available from… The Purl Bee.

materials list for the Bias Tape Bib from The Purl Bee

For this pattern for a Quick Bias Tape bib, there are direct links for four different items that you will need to make the (adorable and easy) bib.

For everyone like me who sees a pattern on the Purl Bee site and thinks “wow that is exactly what I need to make something out of that piece of fabric I bought in San Francsico in the 1990’s” there are probably a whole lot more who think “must buy fabric from Purl Bee now.”

That’s something I think we could definitely do  – create things we could link from our homepage that tell people how to do things we know they want to to do.

However –

# 7 – These are created in the context of an existing community

Even if we have blogs, I don’t think we have a lot of readers.  Even though we have a ton of visitors to our web sites, I don’t think we have a lot of people tracking the changes on those sites.  Relying on our students to point each other to our tutorials seems unrealistic no matter how useful they are.  This one bears more thinking about.

Now, I have big plans to go make reusable fabric versions of all of the gift bags I will need for the next year.   Unfortunately (or luckily) obligations at Midwinter may prevent obsessive crafting from happening, at least immediately.

on tag clouds and teaching

Inspired in part by a conversation from the Information Literacy Summit last week, and in part by this post from the awesome David Silver, we made tag clouds in my class this morning.  U-Engage is a first-year experience class, providing an introduction to what a research university is in general and to OSU in particular.  There are 100 students in the section I teach (actually, there are somewhere around 90) and the room is a classic, old-school lecture hall.

The size and the room make the course difficult in terms of planning engaging activities for the lecture time (the assignments and recitations are a different story – I think they’ve had lots of interactive activities there).  This has been compounded by the fact that most of the course content in the middle of the term has been delivered by guest lecturers.  I’m co-teaching the class and both of us have been feeling that we really wanted the last few weeks to be interactive and engaging because we have been kind of on the sidelines for so long.

My co-teacher had a brainstorm for last week’s activity, but we still didn’t have anything ready for this week – the final week before their group project presentations.  The textbook wasn’t inspiring.  There is some great information about the value of reflection (which has been a theme throughout the course), and on goal-setting but that stuff didn’t lend itself well to the kind of activity we had in mind.  Reflection and goal-setting kind of needs to be personal to be meaningful the way these things are presented in the text, and we wanted something social and collaborative.

So at the IL Summit my husband Shaun talked about how he has an assignment requiring students to pull keywords out of the readings they do.  It was fascinating to hear about that because his students’ difficulties finding keywords in many ways mirrors the difficulties we see students having in the library when it comes to choosing keywords.  But because he is working from a known thing “what are the keywords that the author uses that capture the key ideas in THIS TEXT” he has an advantage we don’t – it seems like that would work way better as a first step than what we frequently have to do – “try and predict what words authors will use in this discourse that is entirely or almost entirely unfamiliar to you.”

In his presentation, Shaun mentioned that he is still working on ways to make the larger class discussion about the keywords work better, and I thought about David’s post above.  But it wasn’t until I was working at the reference desk on Saturday that it all came together in my head – collaboration, social, keywords and tagclouds.

So here’s what we did – I demonstrated Wordle because, like David, I expected that most of the class wouldn’t know what a tag was and by extension, wouldn’t know what a tag cloud was.  I wanted to get two ideas across:  the idea that the tags needed to be single words or at most two-word phrases, and the idea that the tags would display larger if they were used more often.

(I also thought that Wordle would be of interest to some of the class, that it might come in useful for its own sake in their final projects, and that some of them might find it a useful study tool).

Then we asked them to come up with 5 keywords that described their first term/ transition to college and write a reflective paragraph about that.  Once that was done, we go to do the social part.  We had them get in groups of 4-5 and create a tag cloud out of all of their keywords.   This is why it was important to me to make sure the concept of “more use = bigger text” was clear.  To do that right, they would need to talk about their keywords, what they had in common, and if they maybe chose slightly different words to get at the same concept.  These small groups also had to come to consensus on five “group” keywords.

Looking at the group keywords after the fact, I was surprised that a lot of the groups seemed to put together their five not by choosing the five most “popular” keywords (the ones used by most people) but instead that they tried to choose one of each group members’ keywords.  I think this makes sense when the assignment is as personal as this – if they were trying to choose keywords that would reflect the meaning of another person’s text, I would expect this might be different.  In addition, some groups used keywords for their “group” keywords that didn’t appear on any of the individual lists.

ETA – we took pictures -

uengage1

Then, each group had to send one member to the chalkboard to come up with a group tagcloud, using the chalk that was available.  On one level, this would ideally take a while as the groups compared their five words and decided how best to represent them.  In practice, it didn’t work out that way, but I think that the way it did work out was better.  As it turns out, there was very little overlap in terms – in fact, there was less overlap in the group terms than there was in the individual terms in one sense.  So while there were a few terms that should probably have been bigger because lots of groups had them, there weren’t many like that.

ETA – more pictures -

uengage31

Secondly, even though there were 14 or 15 people up at the board making the tagcloud (remember – there were about 75 people in class, and the small groups were only 4-5) that meant there were still WAY more people than that still sitting in the lecture hall seats.  This means that every minute the representatives spent figuring out the “right” way to make a tagcloud was a minute the vast majority of the class had to be dis-engaged.

So instead, people talked some and made some words bigger because they were repeated.  But they also made some words bigger because they were the words that the smaller group had felt were the most important.  And there’s a validity to that, and a meaning to that, that I don’t think our original plan had captured.

ETA – last photo –

uengage21

All in all, I was pretty happy with how the exercise turned out.   I think this kind of exercise could have been especially effective earlier in the term, before the students knew each other as well as they do now – to humanize the 100-student classroom environment.  And on that note, I think this kind of exercise would work really, really well in library instruction sessions as well.  Combined with Shaun’s idea above about pulling keywords from a text, or perhaps using keywords generated another way – it’s a safe, collaborative way to talk about the connections between ideas and the terms we use to describe those ideas.

And isn’t that the big picture philosophy behind keyword searching – I mean, isn’t that the fun part?

Finally, I have to say that we could have just had each group representative put their terms into wordle – but I don’t think that would have worked as well.  I think the physicality of the chalkboard and the actual social/cognitive act of having to do themselves what the computer does for us was important in making this engaging.  In this case, the sheer number of people involved and the limited time we had meant that some got more out of it than others – and the chalkboard session had more of a free-for-all feel to it than a Deep Thoughts feel.

This also seems like a great way to connect class work/ reading with library session work.  I think we all feel like the “teach how to drive the databases” one shot feels disconnected from the learning that goes on in class in a way we don’t like.  We talked after the Summit about building in some keyword exercises in our beginning composition classes, at the start of the term in the non-researched papers, and using those keyword exercises to get at the critical reading piece that Shaun talked about with his assignment.

I think that’s a great idea on its own, but I also think that then building from keywords there to keywords while exploring ideas and finding your own sources might draw a connection between the idea of critical reading, writing and research — all of the pieces of the course.   With the tagcloud exercise, it’s easy to think of ways to do that in the disciplines as well – a pre-library session assignment identifying keywords from a class text, a library session tag cloud of that text and another of the student keywords.  And so on and so on and so on, leading up again to student-generated tag clouds representing ideas about research and suggesting pathways they can use to research about ideas.