cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudel

Another essentially no more than bullet points post — I have a lot of formal writing I have to be doing now, so this will end at some point.  So, cool stuff…

via Dave Munger (twitter) Alyssa Milano pushing peer-reviewed research — see, it is relevant after you leave school!

via A Collage of Citations (blog).  Former OSU grad student/ writing instructor turned Penn State PhD candidate Michael Faris’ First-Year Composition assignment using archival sources to spark inquiry and curiosity.  Note especially the research-as-learning-process focus of the learning goals.

via Erin Ellis (facebook) plus then via a bunch of other people — proof that, in the age of social media, an awesome title can boost your impact factor.  But the content stands on its own as well – I’ve been thinking a lot about different information seeking style, and how different people gravitate naturally towards different approaches.  By Karen Janke and Emily Dill: “New shit has come to light”: Information seeking behavior in The Big Lebowski

via @0rb (twitter) Journalism warning labels

via Cool Tools (blog) Longform to InstapaperLong Form by itself is pretty cool, it aggregates some of the best long-form (mostly magazine) writing on all kinds of topics.  But what makes it really cool is that it integrates seamlessly with Instapaper, meaning that I can find something there, push a button and have it available on my iPad to read offline the next time I am stuck somewhere boring.

Related – Cool Tools’ post on the best magazine articles ever.

via Cliopatria (blog).  Obligatory history-related resource — London Lives: 1690-1800.  Pulling together documents from 8 archives & 15 datasets, this online archive asks “What was it like to live in the world’s first million person city?”

so whatever happened with that fear factor book?

Or, sort of peer-reviewed Monday!  Not quite, but a book review.

I didn’t want to list the name of the book in question before because I hadn’t read it yet, and didn’t want to answer questions from people who might have found the post by googling the book title.  Especially if they were people who really liked the book, because I didn’t know yet if I liked it.   And there are people who really, really, really like it –

Best book ever on how to prepare students for college (Jay Mathews, Washington Post blogs)

I don’t really agree with the title there – the point of this book didn’t seem to me to be about preparing students for college so much as it is about preparing college for students.

Citation:  Cox, Rebecca D. (2009).  The College Fear Factor. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

The book is based on 5 years of data gathered from community college students.  The author herself did two studies examining community college classrooms.  One was a basic writing class and the other looked at 6 sections of an english composition class.  Each lasted a semester, and gathered qualitative data about the classroom conditions that had an impact on a student’s successful completion of the course.  She also participated in a large scale field study of 15 community colleges in 6 states, and another national study of technological education.

The argument in the book comes from research on community college students, but it is still of interest to those of us who work with students managing the transition to college at any institution.  It is perhaps more relevant to those of us at institutions that attract a significant number of first-generation college students.

I am not sure entirely what I think of the book – on the one hand, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it as I usually enjoy well-reported stories drawn from qualitative investigation.  On the other hand, it struck me as one of those books that reports on an important conclusion, but one that could have been well-covered in an article-length treatment.  The conclusion is drawn over and over again in this longer work, so sometimes chapters go by without me feeling like I had really encountered anything new.

What is that conclusion?  I said to Caleb earlier that I wasn’t sure where the fear factor part of the title came into the book (becuase at that point I was on about page 17) and I have to say now that the title is good insofar as the real point of this book is on fear, and how that emotional state affects student success.  (Insofar as it evokes a really awful reality show, on the other hand, not so good).

And in this, I think the book is valuable.  We don’t think and talk about the role of affect enough in higher ed – at least not on the academic side – nor about the intersections between affect and cognition and affect and everything else we do, and this book is an important corrective to that.  Basically, Cox argues that students can be scared away from completing college – not because they are not capable of doing college-level work, but because they have not been prepared to do it before they get to college, and they are not helped to do it once they arrive.

The many students who seriously doubted their ability to succeed, however, were anxiously waiting for their shortcomings to be exposed, at which point they would be stopped from pursuing their goals.  Fragile and fearful, these students expressed their concern in several ways: in reference to college professors, particular courses or subject matter, and the entire notion of college itself — whether at the two- or the four-year level.  At the core of different expressions of fear, however, were the same feelings of dread and the apprehension that success in college would prove to be an unrealizable dream.

Cox argues that these fears are exacerbated when one doesn’t come in to college knowing how to DO college.  And that most first-generation, non-traditional and other groups of our students don’t come to college knowing what the culture and mores of academia are.  They have expectations, but those aren’t based on experience (theirs or others’) and when those expectations are challenged, their reaction is to think they can’t do it at all or to convince themselves that it is not worth doing .

Professors too have their own set of expectations about how good students approach their education, and when faced with student behaviors that are different than those expectations would suggest, they make some faulty assumptions about why students are behaving the way they are. A student who attends class every day but never turns anything in  — that’s incomprehensible behavior to the professor who doesn’t understand how that student possibly thinks they are going to pass.  After reading Cox’s book, you consider the possibility that that student doesn’t think they are going to pass, but are just playing out the semester in a depressed

I still feel like I am missing from this book much of a sense of why professors have these expectations  –  besides “that’s the way we’ve always done things.”  In other words, it doesn’t really work for me (nor do I think Cox is really claiming) that there is no value at all to the way that professors were trained, and that that they are hanging on to methods that don’t work simply because they went through it so others should have to.  Yeah, yeah, there are professors like that.  But my sense as a person engaged in higher ed is that a lot of professors think that there is value in the way they look at learning, meaning-making and knowledge creation and the joy they get from teaching comes from working with students who can share that joy.

Cox does a good job arguing that many of the students they have are not ready to do that, but I don’t get the sense from her book that she doesn’t see the value in that view of education.  I have a much clearer vision from this book what the students Cox interviewed value –  mostly the economic benefit they connect to the credential — but because her research didn’t extend to the teachers, I don’t have that same sense from them.

Here’s the thing – universities aren’t just about the teaching. They’re not going to be just about teaching and it’s not a really hard argument to make that they shouldn’t be just about the teaching.  A lot of professors were hired for their research, and the research they do makes the world better, and connecting students to that kind of knowledge creation is cool.  And even when they are about teaching they’re not just about the teaching of first-year undergraduates making the transition into college.  Even those students in a few years, immersed in a major, are going to need something different than they need when they first hit campus.

Just as it is not useful to sit in meetings about teaching and spend all your time discussing the students you should have (and yeah, we’ve all heard those discussions).  I’m sure I’m not the only one to say that at some point you have to put your energy into the students you have.  But when I say that, and when a lot of people say that, they don’t mean – the students we have can’t learn how to participate in academic culture.  We don’t mean that – academic culture has no value to these students.  Which is the really valuable point in this book – unprepared does not equal incapable.   I don’t want to say the book offers no solutions, because it does.  I guess what I do have to say is that I don’t find those solutions convincing in a research university environment.

All of this, of course, goes well beyond the scope of Cox’s book and Cox’s research, which is about particular students in a particular setting where teaching, and the transition to college, is paramount.

It’s a long way of saying that while the book has value to those outside the community college setting, that value only  goes so far.  There is more work to be done figuring answers to the questions she raises in other environments.

Which is why the chapter that was probably the most interesting to me is chapter 5 – which examines the work being done by two composition instructors – instructors who by most accounts are doing everything “right” in their classrooms  — right by the Chickering-type standards of active learning and engagement and right by what we are constantly told these hands-on, tech-savvy experiential-learning-wanting students today need.  In other words, they’re doing the things we think we should be doing in the research university to connect the students to what it is that scholars do – and they’re failing.

The idea that students have to be forced to be free is not a new one, but it is a point that gets lost sometimes in discussions about what is wrong with higher ed.  We hear that lectures are dead, that students can’t learn that way, that they hate lecturing, they tune out, they want to learn for themselves, and … it just doesn’t always reflect my experience. They may hate lectures, but that doesn’t mean that’s not what they think higher education should be.  They have their expectations that they bring with them, and professors that try to turn some control over the classroom and over learning to their students can be shot down for “not doing their job.”  That’s what Cox found, and I’ve certainly seen it happen.  The assumptions that these professors are falling victim to aren’t assumptions that students are going to be unprepared, or ignorant, or unwilling to learn – they’re more the opposite.  They assume that students will be curious, will have a voice they want to get out there, will have learning they want to take responsibility for.

So, I’m glad I didn’t bail – but I’m also glad the book didn’t take more than a couple nights to read.

what I’ve been doing instead of blogging

I have no idea why I am feeling compelled to put this up here, except that it is what I have been writing instead of blogging.  Not that I’ve been spending the actual minutes writing it, because I limited the writing time carefully, but it is where the mental energy that would usually produce a blog post has been going for the last couple of weeks.  The hours when I’d usually be thinking about something I have read and getting worked up enough to write about it have gone to thinking about how to finish this teaching philosophy statement.

It starts here –

Learning can be hard, it can be exhilarating, it can be scary, and it can be transformative changing the way the learner understands the world.  The most meaningful experiences I have had in my education, as both a teacher and a student, have happened when a new thought, a new idea or a new understanding has that transformative effect.

…human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which
children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.
(Lev Vygotsky, Mind and Society)

Teaching college-level research inherently means teaching students that research and learning are social processes.  Scholars do their research and communicate their findings according to practices and conventions defined by disciplinary communities and practice networks.  Teaching information literacy works best when the learning students do is grounded in these larger conversations.  This means the most effective teaching happens when I am working closely with faculty, to connect the research activities students do to the broader learning going on in the class.  For example, in Oregon State University’s beginning composition classes students engage in information literacy activities throughout the term, that connect information literacy skills to every stage of the writing process.

I believe that the best learning is a personal act of meaning-making where new information is integrated with existing mental models to create new knowledge.  Within this context, information literacy is not an end in itself.  Instead, it is the thing that gives students the cognitive capacity make that meaning for themselves.  As such, I believe that the best way I can teach students about information literacy is to introduce them to the necessary concepts, skills and ideas in an environment and context where they can immediately apply them within a larger process of learning and meaning-making.

While the meaning we make out of new ideas and information is deeply personal, the learning that supports that meaning-making is still social and collaborative.  My own ideas about teaching and learning have been strongly influenced by constructivist philosopher Lev Vygotsky, who frequently focuses on this connection. Vygotsky’s work emphasizes the interplay between teacher and student.  His description of learning as that which we can do with help, reflects the teacher’s expertise and body of experience without devaluing the knowledge, understanding and body of experiences the student brings to the process.  This is an especially useful and important way to think about learning for me, as an academic librarian.  My teaching is most effective when my knowledge and expertise about the research process combines with the student’s own expertise and experience with their topic area.

Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information.
(Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

When that connection happens, between teacher and student, we are both engaged in the learning process.  I believe that one of my most important responsibilities as a teacher is creating an environment where that kind of learning can happen.

As a teaching librarian, I think one of the most important things I can do is to model an appreciative, curious, recursive research process.  Scholars do not know all of the answers in advance when they do their research; the research projects that result in deep learning are frequently those where no easy answer exists to find.  It is in the process of constructing an answer out of the information that is out there, a process that is often messy and chaotic, that that deep learning happens.  I have come to believe that avoiding that messiness and chaos when I am teaching does my students a disservice.  Instead, using my time with the students to show them how to navigate the research process, to troubleshoot when problems arise, and to keep their minds open enough to recognize opportunities when they find them is a more effective, though stressful, way for me to teach.

This includes strategies as simple as using new, untested topics to demonstrate research strategies, trying keywords without knowing what they will find.  It includes developing activities that focus on broad exploration, and teaching students how to browse a topic before searching for specific sources.  For example, in OSU’s advanced composition class the students and I spend half of our class session browsing obviously biased online news and commentary sites before switching our focus to published sources.

This also includes an emphasis in the classroom on active learning activities that allow students to connect new skills and concepts introduced in class to their own topics of inquiry.   It is when the idea or skill I have just demonstrated works to further their knowledge of their topic that they learn it best.  Building in time for them to make and reflect on those connections is crucial.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a teaching librarian is that most of the direct contact I have with students happens in the context of a single-shot, guest lecture appearance in someone else’s class.  It can be very difficult to push beyond the idea of teaching as an act of transferal in that context, because students frequently make the crucial connections between your teaching and their learning after they leave that guest-lecture session.  After several years in this environment, I still feel that I have not mastered this type of teaching.

The big deal is, that it’s part of my job to make sure that you don’t grow up stupid
…it’s bad for the world.
(Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights)

I will continue to work on becoming effective within that one-shot context, and developing new ways to teach beyond that context because I believe that what I teach, what we teach as academic librarians, is important.  It’s good for the world.   Information literate learners can take control of their own learning, and continue learning throughout their lives.

Students who understand what evidence is, and how other people use it to further particular agendas are powerful.  Students who can find, understand, evaluate and use evidence themselves are even more powerful.  When people graduate from college without those skills and without mastering those concepts, it’s bad for the world.  As a teaching librarian I get to focus my time and energy on helping students develop their power, and making the world a better place.

and ends here.

So there it is.  For all I like reflecting on stuff, I find this kind of writing excruciatingly mentally difficult, and have to strictly limit how much time I give it.

In the end, the only way I could was to focus on a few of the things that have really sparked me to think about teaching in ways that have stuck with me – even the quotation  from Mrs. Coach on Friday Night Lights (which I agonized about because the word “stupid” seemed too unlike me to put in a teaching philosophy statement because I would never say that. But Tami Taylor would so I couldn’t change it either, and there’s no room in said statement to explain the context where it is not about that, but actually is exactly about what I wanted it to be about.

And of course it’s not finished.  That’s why this kind of writing is so difficult for me.  I never feel happy with it, and it never feels done.  I suspect that is the main reason I feel compelled to post it – because sharing it takes it out of my head.

Motivating students in the one-shot (peer-reviewed Monday)

ResearchBlogging.org

Okay, not really.  And OMG Peer-Reviewed Monday is back!  But there are connections to the one-shot here, really.

One thing that came out, over and over, in the research that Kate and I just presented at WILU was the idea that student in information literacy classes aren’t motivated to do the work, and that the instructors in those classes have to work super hard and super constantly on engagement.

So this special issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching caught my eye because of its focus on motivation.  And this article in particular further caught my eye because of its focus on situational interest.

Palmer, D. (2009). Student interest generated during an inquiry skills lesson Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46 (2), 147-165 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20263

(I couldn’t find an online copy, even though this is a Romeo green publication)

Palmer defines “situational interest” in contrast to “personal interest” where the latter is a deep, lasting, engaged interest in a topic or domain.  The former, in contrast, is “short-term interest that is generated by aspects of a specific situation.”

The relevance to information literacy instruction is obvious when Palmer’s example of the kind of “situation” that can spark “interest” is a particularly engaging or awesome demonstration.  Like I said, one idea that came through in many, many stories we gathered was the idea that if we as librarian instructors can be engaging, exciting, fun and compelling enough, our students will be motivated to learn.

Palmer synthesizes several factors that lead to situational interest from the literature:  novelty, surprise, autonomy, suspense, social involvement, ease of comprehension and background knowledge.  So one could expect that there are things that could be in an IL session that are not spectacular demonstrations that could still tap into this idea of situational motivation – content they’re not expecting (novelty and surprise), giving them real, authentic choices (autonomy) and group activities (social involvement).

So on to the study itself – Palmer’s purpose was to evaluate different parts of a science lesson to determine how much situational interest was generated, and to identify the sources of that interest.  Students participated in a 40 minute lesson (the topics of the lesson varied, though the basic structure did not, to protect against the possibility that some topics are just more motivating than others).  The data gathered was qualitative, gathered via group interviews at the end of the lesson.

His population was younger than you’d find in my academic environment – 14-15 years old.  And, of course, they were studying science, not library research.  On the other hand, he chose a hands-on lesson, delivered in one shot, which does have relevance for my sessions.

The results are interesting in part because of how similar they are, in some specific ways, to the ways librarians and faculty describe student library research skills.  For example, the researchers examined how students engaged in inquiry skills (problem-setting, observation, reporting, analyzing, etc.) during the lesson.  While they had many chances to use these skills, most of the time they “were not of a high standard.”  Students were more likely to describe their method than articulate meaningful questions, and more likely to describe their experiment than analyze their results.

When it comes to motivation, students demonstrated a significant preference for certain parts of the lesson.  The experiment was broken into the following pieces for analysis:

  • Copying Notes
  • Demonstration
  • Proposal
  • Experiment
  • Report
  • Copying Notes 2

Of these, students showed the lowest amount of interest during the Copying Notes phases, by a lot.  Anyone surprised?

Of the others, they showed the most interest during the Experiment phase, with Demonstration next.  Both of these were noticeably higher than Proposal and Report.   The two pieces with the highest level of interest total, also had high levels of interest in terms of how many students showed that interest.  95% showed interest during the Experiment phase, and 90% during the Demonstration.

In the interviews, students said copying notes wasn’t interesting because it was what they were used to doing in science class.  That’s kind of sad.  This piece was to get at the domain knowledge piece needed for motivation, but there must be a better way to do that.  I copy notes on my own motivation regularly, but it sounds nightmarish as an in-class activity.

Learning came up over and over as a source of interest, which explains the popularity of both the Demonstration and the Experiment phases.  Students in 68% of the groups said that having a choice about what to do was a source of interest, even though it only really came up in the Proposal phase.  Physical activity was also a source of interest, and this one connects most strongly to the Experiment phase.  Novelty and surprise came in a little lower.  These codes actually came up most often in the Demonstration phase.  Palmer points out, however, that the learning they said they liked could in fact be a form of responding to novelty – enjoying the learning because it was something new.

Palmer, in fact, seems to credit most of the “learning” responses to the idea of novelty — he concludes that 3 factors are most responsible for student motivation:

In summary, it has been argued above that the situational interest experienced by students in this study was basically derived from three separate sources — novelty, autonomy (choice) and social involvement.

The decision to dismiss learning as a factor here seems a bit abrupt.  I would have liked to see it unpacked a little more – as it is, I don’t see the evidence Palmer saw.  This connects to the biggest gap in the paper, from my perspective – the fact that there’s no reporting of any assessment of the learning that did happen in the lesson  in this paper, with the exception of the evaluation of their inquiry skills (which is presented separately from any content or domain knowledge learning).

It seems a little incomplete to talk about motivation to learn without talking about learning.  As Palmer says himself:

a student might be very highly motivated to learn in a lesson, but if the teacher does not use appropriate teaching techniques by guiding and scaffolding the direction of learning, then very little science will be learnt. For optimal learning to occur, motivational strategies need to be used in tandem with instructional strategies which focus on the development of scientific understandings.

One of the inherently interesting things about this paper for instruction librarians is its focus on immediate classroom practice.  There is nothing in this research method or in the analysis of the results that wouldn’t totally apply to the one-shot, which is pretty rare in the education literature.  Of course, the author counts this as a limitation in the study, because real inquiry “is usually developed over a longer time frame than the 40-minute procedure used in this study.”  But still, his limitation is our relevance.

Connected to this is his finding that there is a lot of variability in situational interest throughout this lesson.  The different pieces were only a few minutes long, so that suggests that students’ interest and motivation can change very quickly.  On the one hand, this suggests that we could lose them quickly.  On the other hand, it also suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about those normal ebbs and flows.  If one piece isn’t hugely motivating to them, the next one could be.

Other implications for instruction librarians are found in the lit review, Palmer uses research that suggests “multiple experiences of situational interest” can develop into long-term interest.  At best, this suggests that students would need repeated exposure to awesome information literacy teachers to develop a long-term interest in research or inquiry just from IL classes alone.   In fact, Palmer suggests that one reason for the mediocrity he observed in inquiry skills was the fact that students didn’t really have the experience with independent inquiry to know how to talk about what they were doing.

Situation motivation seems like a fruitful line of further inquiry for instruction librarians, though even this easy intro to the subject suggests that it’s not a panacea for what ails the one-shot, or for what ails the librarians who teach too many of them.


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.

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.

discovery and creation and… lies!

I’ve never really understood the whole pirate thing. Talk like a pirate day can come and go without my noticing, and despite the presence of Johnny Depp, I didn’t make it through the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

So even if I had seen the mentions of the Last American Pirate hoax on the blogs I read all the time, I’m not sure that I would have bothered to follow the links. But maybe I would have. This story does combine two of my favorite things – scholarly uses of social media and history. Still, amidst holiday preparations and Oregon-style snowapocalypses I totally missed the initial stories on the topic.

Which is relevant in that I’m not a disgruntled blog reader feeling taken in. I was not personally hurt in any way by the deliberate historical hoax created by the students of History 389 at George Mason University last term.

And yet.  I keep thinking about it and I’m not sure I can really articulate why.

So, quick recap.  Professor Mills Kelly of eduwired.org fame taught a class on historical hoaxes last term.  Early in the term, he gave advance notice that his class would be perpetuating their own historical hoax.  The class created a fake story about the search for the Last American Pirate, a guy named Edward Owens.  The search was chronicled by fake student Jane on this fake blog, discussed in these fake interviews on YouTube, and finally reported as fact in this fake Wikipedia article.  Some people were taken in by said hoax, most notably a pop culture blogger at USA Today.  Kelly reportedly pulled the plug on the hoax when some of his real-world colleagues were taken in and the whole thing was revealed in the December 19th  Chronicle of Higher Education in an article only found behind the paywall.

So why do I keep thinking about it?  There has been a fair amount of discussion about it, some I really like.  Some talking about things I really don’t care about.  There are some people that love the experiment.  I’m not really moved by any of those arguments.   They seem to be mostly focused on the idea that kids today can’t get into traditional historical research, so this is a good, creative alternative.

The criticisms i find most compelling are found here, where Michael Feldstein explains why vandalising Wikipedia for the sake of a lesson is uncool and here in the comments on Dr. Kelly’s reveal post.  Commenter Martha, in particular, talks about the impact of this kind of project on trust networks.  Given that trust networks are, I think, a crucial part of meaningful information evaluation on the social web and thus a tool any information literate student should know how to use in this context, an assignment that deliberately devalues and damages those networks strikes me as problematic, even if there is some small benefit on the cautionary tale scale.

But that’s not what I keep thinking about except in a tangential way.  No, what’s got me thinking is what this project means for teaching information literacy and research — first in terms of the evaluation skills that are an overt, intended outcome articulated in the syllabus but also, and more deeply, in terms of research itself – why we do it and why we want students to do it.   These are, I suspect, related, but I’m not sure how.  Maybe if I write about it they’ll come together.  Maybe this will be in two parts.

Dr. Kelly says at the top that he is hoping for an information-literacy, information evaluation benefit to this assignment.

I’m hoping that this will mean that my students dig in and do some excellent historical research. I’m also hoping that they’ll learn a number of technical skills, will learn to work in a group, and will develop greater “information literacy” as we like to call it here. And, of course, I’m hoping they’ll have fun.

Specifically (from the syllabus – opens in PDF):

I do have some specific learning goals for this course. I hope that you’ll improve your research and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you started the course.

So the quick issue I have with this is that I just don’t see where the information literacy skills here translate into what most students need in their real work with online information sources.  Increasingly, I just think that a focus on deliberate hoaxes isn’t a very good way to teach students how to evaluate information.

Now I get that the work done to create the hoax might give the students in this class a greater appreciation for stuff that could make them more information literate, and that knowing specifically what they did to create a fake site might give them some stuff to look for in other sites, but I don’t really see the larger benefit here beyond the reminder that stuff on the Internet can be fake and I honestly don’t think that our students don’t know that full well already.

Because here’s the first thing – helping students learn that there is stuff on the wild, wild web that was put there just to trick them,  to punk them or to prank them – well, there’s not a lot of value in that.  The punker or the pranker will either be really good at it, in which case all of the abstract stuff we might teach them about how to identify bad information won’t help them because the good pranker isn’t going to do any of that stuff.  Or, and this is more likely, the prank won’t be all that good.  And our students – I really think they’re very able to identify the obvious crap that exists online.

They don’t need help identifying stuff that is fake or wrong just for the sake of being fake or wrong because there’s not a ton of stuff like that out there.  Honestly, our ability to identify stuff that exists for no other reason than to trick us is not a real-world problem that keeps me up at night. Most people who put fake or wrong or misleading information out there on the Internet have an agenda beyond April Fool’s – they’re trying to do more than trick us and what our students need is help identifying those agendas. They need help identifying the information that isn’t flat out lies, but that is a particular kind of truth.

There’s not a lot of historical information TO evaluate on the pieces of this hoax that are available to the public – the blog talks a a lot (I mean, a LOT) about how painful and difficult research in archives and mircofilm collections is – but the details about the sources themselves are pretty light.  Most sources are presented as transcripts  (“once I found the articles, there was no way to get a copy of them, apparently the machine is broken, so I had to transcribe them by hand,” that kind of thing).  The main thing that is presented as a digitized image is a will, not found in any archive or collection that could be investigated further – it is from the private attic-type collection of one of Edward Owens’ “descendants.”

Very clever.

No, what we have to consider here if we are evaluating information is not the quality of the historical sources in question (for the most part).  We don’t have the information to evaluate most of the fake sources, and beyond that – most historical sources in the world aren’t on blogs or YouTube so the skills that would help us evaluate them there wouldn’t necessarily translate to evaluating sources in archives.  What we really have to evaluate here are the classic foci of Internet evaluation: the authority of the scholar/author  herself and the nature of the digital tools used to present that scholarship.  And here is where I think it is useful to return to the criticisms mentioned above  – the tools we need to use to filter the social web are different than the tools of historical scholarship – and this project made those tools less useful for the rest of us.

Yes, we should remember that our trust networks and Wikipedia pages aren’t infallible.  Treating them as if they are is dumb and dangerous, of course.  But not starting from the assumption that someone is willing to do all this work just to fake you out? That’s not unreasonable.  Creating a hoax like this just for its own  sake, after all, is not more fun than the work it takes to do it is not fun.  This one took an entire class of students working for a whole term with the great big huge carrot of the GRADE as motivation, after all.  When someone, or a class of someones, does deliberately put false information out there – and I’m not talking here about the fake historical documents, but the fake blog posts and tweets and comments and pointers – it makes it harder for all of us to use the skills that really do help us navigate and evaluate the social web.

I think it’s pretty significant that outside of the USA Today blogger, most of the people who got excited about this story – excited enough to blog about it – weren’t excited because of the history beyond the “that’s kind of cool” level.  The excitement was about how “Jane” leveraged social media tools to present her research broadly:

This undergraduate took her research to the next level by framing the experience on her blog, full with images and details from her Library of Congress research, video interviews with scholars and her visit to Owens house, her bibliography, along with a link to the Wikipedia page she created for this little known local pirate.

Or stated more directly, after the reveal:

But I want to concentrate on something else. Amidst all the fiction, alternate and virtual realities, hoaxes and pranks, one thing jumps out at me as utterly real, wholly genuine, honest. Read Jim’s post on this when he first came across the project. Here is passion and excitement, a celebration of what a student might be able to achieve with the tools now available, given the right puzzle to work on and a supportive network and intellectual environment.

And I agree with all of this in theory, but in terms of this specific hoax there is still something missing to me, and it’s an important something.  It’s research – and inquiry – and discovery.

I know I am only seeing a tiny portion of what is going on in this classroom – and from the syllabus just the idea that one of the goals of the class is to show that hoaxes can themselves be the topic of serious historical research, just like wars or elections, is something I find fairly awesome.  I have no idea how the process of discovery was inculcated in the other projects the students did.  All I have is the public pieces of the course – the blogs, the videos, and the rest.

And that’s a piece of this discussion that shouldn’t be missed.  By putting this material up on the real web, on the public web, by consciously trying to get people to access and engage with this material the question of what kind of learning experience does this material provide for those of us NOT in the class is a valid one.   Is our learning experience supposed to be related to information literacy as well?  To history? Or is it just a clever, creative prank?

Because here’s the next thing – I don’t think that there is much of a learning experience for the rest of us in this project – at least not in terms of information literacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I value creation and creativity.  I value world-building and imagination.  And I don’t think those things are separate from academic research.  There is definitely creativity and imagination in scholarly inquiry, in looking at sources and seeing what might have been or what could be and re-searching based on that new potential meaning.  Watching a class of students using the social web to extend and communicate such a learning process would itself be valuable in that information literacy context.

And I think there’s room in that picture for fiction as well – in telling a story that you know in your bones to be a kind of truth even though you can’t prove it, at least not in a way that would be recognized as proof, epistemologically speaking.  I think there are truths and stories and voices that can only be captured with fiction.  So it’s not the made up or false part that gives me pause.

But in the case of this project, as it is laid out for us to see — the public pieces of this class project combine to celebrate what a truly information-literate student can do to take control of their own learning – but all the time that information literacy only exists on the surface.

This is why I have problems thinking about the pirate hoax as a great new way to talk about or teach information literacy. Because beyond the fact that I don’t think hoaxes are a great way to teach evaluation, I’m also not sure they are a great way to talk about research and scholarly creativity. At its heart, I think information literacy is inherently linked to inquiry, and discovery.   It’s about the ability to learn from information – not just to find the sources worth learning from but to use that new information to change the way you understand things, and change the way you approach the next question.

“Jane” talks endlessly about the physical pain she feels as a result of days of looking at microfilm:

But, I have no idea how I am functioning right now…I can barely look at the screen without wanting to throw up, my eyes are in so much pain.

And she goes on about how frustrating it is not to find that evidence in the documents that will prove that her pirate existed:

After my failed trip to the town, I was really discouraged. I found out enough information to keep me going, but nothing really substantial. I have not gotten any closer to figuring out a name, and my trips to the library that last four hours at a time to look through the microfilm (I’m convinced I’m causing permanent damage to my eyes), have yielded absolutely no results.

But she never talks about that other kind of pain and frustration that comes with research and learning – one of the big things that makes research hard – feeling stupid, or having to question what you thought you knew before.   That’s what I mean when I say “Jane’s” process is all surface-level.  She never finds anything in her research that leads her in a new direction. She finds additional things she can use on the path she’s already on, but that’s not the same.

In the end, it is a lucky break that brings Jane’s process to a close.  The lucky break isn’t the issue — the real issue is that at the end of the research process described in the blog she finds exactly the single document perfect right source she had been looking for from the start.  The perfect right source she imagined might exist that would answer the narrow question she formulated before she even know much about her topic at all.  That’s not how research usually works.  You could argue that that’s not how good research ever works.

And that’s the last and main thing.  At no point does Jane really engage with something that leads her to change her mind about anything, to reevaluate her process, to go back over the same ground with a new understanding or a new set of questions.  It’s needle in the haystack searching she does – she has to be creative to find different ways into the haystacks but at the same time she’s not going into the haystacks to find out what’s there.  She’s going in to look for that one needle that she thinks/hopes must be there.

And yes, I get that she’s pretend, but the fictional process the real class came up with does suggest that historical research is difficult and tedious and one doesn’t make the great discovery by engaging with sources in an open-minded way.   If the class had been engaged in a discovery-based research process I would hope that that would have come through in their fictional avatar’s narrative.  It doesn’t.  There is no doubt that this group of students were truly engaged – playing with history, creating a new world and the characters to fill it.

I can’t find it now, but when I was reading about this project earlier I was struck by the description of how the topic was selected in the first place – all of the considerations were practical – not too well known, not too likely to inspire a lawsuit if the hoax was discovered, and so on.  The reasons for piracy were practical as well – a topic of broad popular interest, local, not likely to be something anyone would already be an expert on, etc.  They didn’t talk about discovering the space in the historical record for their hoax to exist, they talked about creating it.

And if it’s mainly about creativity, about the class’ engagement around creating this alternate reality, around engaging with each other, and about engaging with others on the social web, then I’m not sure I see the value in making it a hoax.  Except that that was the topic of the rest of the class to which we were not privy.  If the skills they were learning were about creativity and world-building it seems like the resulting project could have taken the form of an ARG or a similar project where those creative muscles could be flexed in the service of creating a world for the rest of us to play in, too.

showing not telling

I’ve been working today on a presentation for next week – not a typical conference or workshop presentation, but a presentation for a class I’m teaching. I thought I was thinking of it more like a presentation than like teaching because the environment I’m teaching in here is so different than the environment I’m used to – 100 students, lecture-style classroom – very different than the 20 students/ hands-on workshop that I’m more familiar with.

Today, though, I’ve been realizing that I’m thinking of it more like a presentation as much because of the content I have to cover as anything else. AND – because I’m thinking in terms of ‘coverage’ – which is not only something I don’t usually have to do, but also a focus I usually find myself arguing against. So I had to think about it – why am I thinking about coverage now?  Why am I thinking about the stuff I want to introduce more than the stuff I want students to be able to do when they’re done?

On Monday, I need to talk about college student development theory.  Part of this is to supplement their textbook’s super-brief description of Chickering’s seven vectors of college student development, because all of the 700 students (our section + six others) are supposed to apply that model their midterm paper. Part of this is to introduce the concept of theories and models, what they means for academic discourse, and what it means to use theory critically. The following Monday, I need to talk about critical thinking. For fifteen minutes.

So, the thing is, there really isn’t anything concrete that I want them to be able to do – or, there’s nothing specific that I want them all to be able to do. I don’t really want to break down critical thinking, or what theory is, and have them take the first step in this class – which is the only way I can think about active learning in this case.  That might be a limitation on my part, but there it is.

Because a huge piece of these topics, a huge issue that I actually do want to communicate to the students, is that no one can make these students (or anyone) take theory seriously and apply it to practice.  No one can make them think critically – even if they have all of the skills and understandings necessary to do those things they can still choose not to do them and there is nothing that I, or anyone else, can do to change that.

Take this paper assignment.  Yes, we can require them to read about Chickering’s seven vectors, we can require them to understand them well enough to write about them.  We can even require them to write a paper about their own connection to that theory — but we can’t make them do it for real.  We can’t force them to reflect.  We can’t require them to be honest in their analysis and application.  They can make up every specific example from their own lives and there is truly nothing that we can do about it.  And, to be sure, doing so successfully would exhibit some high-level critical thinking and creativity skills, but it wouldn’t get at everything we want to get at here.

On at least one level, this is what the content itself is all about.  College student development theory is, in a very real way, describing the process by which students get to the point where they can do those things not just because they can, but because they want to.

So, what I’m thinking is that the issue isn’t how to figure out active learning exercises for teaching these topics.  On some level, the papers and projects in the class are the active learning experiences – and they are active learning experiences that give the students a lot of freedom to do these things in a way that makes sense for them.

No, what I’m thinking is that the best thing to do is to acknowledge up front that no one can make them use this stuff.  Correction – no one can make them meaningfully use this stuff.  Acknowledge that up front, and keep the focus of the presentation on why it’s useful to me.  Why I like it, how I use it, how other scholars use it and why it’s useful.  After all, if we’re going to ask them to be honest and reflective, it seems only fair to provide them with a little of that in my own presentation.

Oddly, I’m fairly comfortable with this focus, even though it means I’ll be talking for quite a while on Monday.  Of course, I have plenty of places where I can ask them questions and check in with them, but still it’ll be a lot of me-talking.  And I’m sure part of the class will never engage with what I say, no matter how many cool pictures and analogies I use to supplement.

All of this has me thinking as well about library instruction.  In a lot of cases, we do teach the stuff that we can (kind of) require people to do – we can require people to find articles using databases.  No matter how resistant they are, if they go through the steps and the exercises, they’ll learn something about how to do that.  It’s easy to come up with concrete, “what I want them to be able to do,” learning outcomes for that stuff.

But there are also these bigger picture questions we would like them to start thinking about, and start applying to their own lives, their own practice, and their own world view about how knowledge is communicated and valued.  And I realized, in those segments I do the same thing I’m doing here – I’ve stopped telling students that the quality of the information they’ll find in databases is inherently better, for example.  Or that the quality of peer-reviewed articles is inherently better.  Generally, I approach the “why you should use databases” piece as a demonstration, and from the perspective of “here some reasons why I use these tools or sources.  Here’s why I think they’re cool.”  It seems to work.  I’m certainly more comfortable with that approach, and they seem to be open to hearing the message in this way.

Which gets me rethinking some of these ideas about coverage.  Certainly, there are lots of situations where we value coverage over learning.  The whole idea that if I mention 10 topics in an hour, they’ll somehow learn about 10 topics in an hour is bad and has to go.  But maybe the flip side is also unbalanced – if we try too hard to make everything about active meaning-making for them, do we leave ourselves out of the equation too much?  If learning is social, and I think that it is, constructing meaning together is a crucial part of that.  We know that when it comes to group work, and to peer groups.   But maybe showing why and how we care, why and how we really use the stuff we want them to use – isn’t the same as telling so much as another way of constructing meaning together?

ARGs in academia, or, gaming for health

via ARGnet – researchers at Indiana got a big ($185K) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation to study how digital, interactive games can improve students’ health.  They’re studying this by creating a Lee Sheldon-designed alternate reality game called Skeleton Chase, “to help college freshmen develop healthy habits for life.”

While the game will contain the same kinds of mysterious, creepy elements found in lots of ARGs, there’s not much secrecy about the game’s existence.  Given the legal and ethical restrictions involved when a college does research on, or provides services to, its own students it’s not too surprising that TINAG would be one of the first things to go.

In any event, new Hoosiers will find announcements about the grant and game (and associated research) on the webpage describing faculty research projects, on the Department of Telecommunications webpage, and in the local media.

It also looks like the traditional “rabbit hole” mechanism for allowing players to come across and ARG won’t be in play here.  The designers are, obviously, not disclosing a lot of plot points, but in an early press release about the grant they explained some of the game’s structure:

Sheldon is designing The Skeleton Chase, which for eight weeks will pit 30 teams of three students each against each other as they solve an “undisclosed” mystery and learn about nutrition, stress management, physical activity and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle along the way…

…Students participating in the study live in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center, one of seven specially themed environments in IU Bloomington residence halls. Johnston said Residential Programs and Services is supporting a pilot project designed to examine the impact of participation in the Fitness and Wellness Living Learning Center on health and well-being within the college student population.

One of the things that is interesting about this to me is that research and assessment about the learning impact of this game is built into the project.  The researchers in this case, like principal investigator Jeanne Johnston, are focusing on whether participants’ health and wellness related habits change by looking at physical activity, health and wellness outcomes at the start and the finish of the school year in question.

They also plan to look a little more deeply at the gaming experience and what people like about it.  Researcher Anne Massey (Lilly Faculty Fellow for Information Systems) developed a “a psychological attractiveness metric and procedure to assess not only the strengths and weaknesses of design elements embedded in The Skeleton Chase, but assess other games as well.”

I hope this research also parses out some of the experiential aspects of this kind of “alternate learning environment” – something a little different, or at least not pretending to be, an alternate reality.