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.

browsing the public discourse

Last spring, I talked about showing a news visualizer from MSNBC called Spectra to a group of advanced composition students. And I talked about how none of the students chose to use that tool when they got to the hands-on portion of the class.  I thought about that again this morning because three sections of that same course came in for library instruction.

An aside – these classes aren’t the typical “how to find a scholarly article” sessions that I do.  The students are being asked to engage with the public discourse in these papers.  Instead of the “find three peer-reviewed journal articles” requirement, these students have to find three editorials or letters to the editor, as well as public conversation on websites like blogs or discussion boards.  So what I show is very different than the things I show in most of my sessionstechnorati authority ratings, advanced searches on Lexis-Nexis and the like.

So we want to encourage some broad exploration of the conversations going on online and in the news media in this class.  Especially this term, because in all 3 classes the students were turning in one paper and just beginning to think about the research paper assignment.  Especially with this kind of find-the-public-conversation topic, it is so much easier when they browse the public conversations and find something that catches their interest and sparks their curiosity than it is when they decide on a specific topic and then have to knock themselves out to find discussion about that.

So this year, I pointed them at Wikipedia, which is an obvious place to browse.  But assuming they all knew that and how to use it, I also showed them newsmap.  This visualization tool has been around for several years now (long enough that they describe themselves as being in need of an upgrade).  The information here is just Google News, but displayed (using flash) as a treemap.  It’s a slice of what’s being highlighted right now (or ten minutes ago, or an hour ago) by Google News.  You can’t search it, you can only browse it.  You can browse by some very broad subjects (health, sports, world news, etc.)

And you can also drill down a bit by geographic location.  Newsmap lets you choose to look at stories from Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, New Zealand, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.  You can also display all countries at once and see them next to each other.

newsmap

So here’s the thing – lots and lots of the students chose to use this tool for browsing.  Even though it can’t be searched.  Part of that, I think, is because of where they were in their process.  Most of them hadn’t even taken the time to think of a general topic area – they JUST finished the previous paper last night or this morning.  So they were more amenable to the idea of browsing broadly.  Part of it, though, is that they obviously found the interface intuitive.  They weren’t just clicking on stories, they were using the tool to browse by country and by subject – everyone I saw was very active in how they used the site.

I don’t know if they were getting the larger ideas about the patterns of the data that the treemap re-presentation of information is designed to provide.  I don’t know if they were seeing how the format “ironically accentuates the bias” of the news, as the site creator claims.  They asked me things like “how did you get to that colorful site,” and “where did you find that really visual thing.”  And in each class, at least a third to half of them were using it for at least part of the time.  So compared to last year, I call that a win for visual browsing.

Gray Lady not so gray, actually

Somewhere, I thought that I had listed some of my favorite news visualizations from the New York Times.  The NYT has really set itself apart among major newspapers with its creative and useful and glanceable visualizations.  It’s the only newspaper I see regularly featured on my favorite infoviz blog – Information Aesthetics.

But I can’t find it.  I still think it’s there, but I can’t remember what I was talking about when I wrote it.   So this isn’t my favorite example – just the most recent one I remember:

New York Times Endorsements Throughout the Ages

So this morning I read (in Information Aesthetics, of course) that the NYT is partnering with Many Eyes to open the visualization lab up to the rest of us.  There are only a few data sets there right now to play with but the topics range from baseball to religion to Sarah Palin. You have to work with them as-is, it’s true.  So like many other projects the ultimate value of this will be determined largely by the quality of the datasets the NYT makes available.

From the About page:

With Visualization Lab, NYTimes.com users will be able to visualize and comment on information and data sets presented by Times editors, share those visualizations with others and create topic hubs where people can discuss specific subjects.

The visualizations that have been done will look familiar if you’ve looked at Many Eyes before – charts, maps, network graphs and more.  There are also tag clouds, and Wordles, though I’m not sure what Wordle’s connection to the project actually is.

The awesomeness of the NYT visualization project isn’t an accident, it’s intentional.  At last year’s InfoVis conference, Matthew Ericson’s keynote on bringing visualizations to the masses underscores this face (this account at the Visuale blog is thorough and interesting, though more focused on maps and mapping than the keynote was.  It also includes a link to the slides).

Bertini, linked above, says at the end of his account that the one thing that remained obscure after Ericson’s keynote was the tools the NYT was using to make these visualizations.  Certainly, the tools from Many Eyes and Wordle have been available to all of us for a while – this doesn’t answer that question.  But it does highlight how powerful some of the tools available to us on the emerging web are.


How I’ll transfer my Olympics obsession to politics

via TechCrunch – C-SPAN gets a lot of things right…

Several months ago, Karen pointed out how libraries could learn something from information portals created by major media outlets and news organizations.  The example she used at the time was a site about the U.S. Elections produced by the Globe and Mail.  There was a lot of stuff going on on the site, but the overarching theme was a rich body of information presented in interesting-looking and attractive graphic forms.  By presenting and re-presenting the information, the Globe and Mail provided some context and analysis to the data, and also supported the user as they made meaning out of that information themselves.

Karen asked then -

is this a kind of instruction that we’d like to work towards developing?  Should we be training ourselves to create materials like this–if not a guide to the electoral process, then maybe an interactive history of African-American migration after emancipation, for that American History class we teach every year?

I think it is.  Another major media outlet that has generated a bunch of notice lately for its informative and engaging visualizations has been the New York Times. Examples here, here, here and my favorite, here.

Karen pointed out at the time some of the barriers to this kind of thing, one of them being money and another expertise.  After all,  So today, when I saw that C-SPAN is augmenting its coverage of the upcoming major party conventions with a variety of familiar social software tools, I thought back to this post.

C-SPAN’s got two connected convention “hubs” augmenting their main politics site.  They’re going to launch for real in the next few days, but you can get there now from the politics site or the TechCrunch review.  They’re video-heavy, but much more stripped down and flexible than the videos normally provided by C-SPAN.  These will be embeddable.  There are also connections to YouTube, and to Twitter, and content aggregated from several blogs – some state-focused, some national.  Bloggers can ask to be included in the aggregation, and can also ask for help getting their hands on video not readily available from the site.  It’ll be interesting to hear how well that works.

There’s also a twitter feed.  By using official tags (#DNC08 and #RNC08), people twittering from the conventions can get their comments included on the C-SPAN feed.

What I like about the site isn’t just that it’s exciting and more dynamic because of this content, but the social content seems purposeful.  One of the TechCrunch commenters grumbled about C-SPAN jumping on the twitter fad, but I don’t know – I think this is the kind of focused thing twitter can do well.  I use twitter now to follow live sports events in other countries, or film festivals I can’t go to.  And recently I picked up a few people to follow through the  TV Critics Press Tour and Comic-Con.  This seems similar – and like it could provide two kinds of information that twitter provides very well – that vicarious sense of being there and in on exciting things as they happen and the sense of being connected to other people participating in or watching the same thing you are.

So I think this might be a connected but not exactly the same example of the ways we could build information portals that would help our students and our users make meaning out of the information and events around them — both with us and with each other.

I never thought I’d really have to update those screenshots

Raise your hand if you thought that del.icio.us was never ever really going to change?

Yeah, me too.

my bookmarks at the new delicious

my bookmarks at the new delicious

No more weird URL — it’s at http://delicious.com

So far, so good?  I’m going to miss the little star that says I have a new fan.  And some other things I haven’t discovered yet.  But after four minutes with it I can say nothing has bugged me excessively.

fun with words! pretty, pretty tagclouds for all

peer review 2.0, the proceedings paper in tagcloud

This is the paper Kate and I submitted along with our LOTW presentation, rendered into this gorgeous tagcloud by Wordle, a new tagcloud generator I saw today on Information Aesthetics.  I love tagclouds anyway – but this one lets you play with layout, fonts and colors in a way I’ve never seen before.  You can upload or copy and paste any text, or hook it into a del.icio.us account as a new way to see those tags.  So much fun.

good interface + bad metadata =

well, not really bad metadata.  More like the wrong metadata.

Dipity lets you build interactive timelines. You can pull in all kinds of information sources — video, text, images — and display them in a nice, linear timeline. The interface is easy to navigate. Each item in the timeline can be viewed within the timeline, and each item has a handy “next event” button to make navigation easier.

Sample Dipity timeline about the Beatles

Anyway, I have some ideas for how to use this interface and if I ever get time to try them, I’ll post about it more.  But that’s the thing – putting this stuff together does take time.  If you choose the browse timelines option on the dipity site – there are a LOT of timelines with no events, with 2 events, with 4 events.  I’d imagine a fair number of them will never be finished.

So the other day I noticed this – Time Tube – a mashup that puts the Dipity timeline interface together with YouTube.  Same cool interface, but you just have to keyword search a topic and your timeline will be populated with YouTube videos a few minutes later.  It’s created a fair amount of buzz over the last couple of days, most of it positive because it’s fun to use and some of the timelines are pretty interesting.

But – the timelines are based on the date the video was uploaded.  If all you want is a nice browsing interface this is okay – as another way to display the results of a YouTube keyword search.  But as a way of visualizing information, if what you want is to add some kind of meaning or context to the videos, it’s only useful for a very narrow set of topics.

Compare this “Beatles” timeline to the one above -

TimeTube for \"The Beatles\" - 1 year span

It doesn’t look too bad, but there’s no real meaning there.  Not even a spike when Across the Universe was released.

TimeTube lets you pick a longer timespan – here’s fifty years.  This really shows the limitations.

TimeTube for \"The Beatles\" - 50 year span

Everything clustered in the middle because YouTube didn’t exist until a short time ago.  The fact that they let you open out your range to 20, 50, 100 years suggests that the upload date might not always be the way these things are generated?  Or maybe it’s just a holdover from the original Dipity interface.  The timelines created are dynamic and there’s no way to save them.  There’s no account to create so you can’t find timeline buddies either.

Where this is useful now is for topics, like “olympic torch protests” where people upload their videos right away after an event happens.  Or to track the zeitgeist when something emerges out of nowhere to become the next big thing.  Or as a fun browsable interface for a YouTube keyword search.

maybe fun isn’t quite enough

So back in this post, I explained why one reason that I don’t like EBSCO’s new visual search is that they didn’t preserve the fun factor of the old interface.  And I stand by that.  So I was intrigued when I saw this in my feeds yesterday.

This is Spectra, part of msnbc’s Newsware suite of tools, applications, games and widgets.  From the site:

Spectra merges the news spectrum and the color spectrum into an expansive news viewing experience. With comprehensive live news coverage, striking design, complete customization, dynamic browsing, human body interaction and many other unique features, Spectra brings A Fuller Spectrum of News to life in our most immersive extension yet.

A wee bit hyperbolic?  Yes, maybe.  But it looked swirly and fun, so I thought I’d check it out.  I showed it to a class of students this morning (advanced rhetoric and composition) and I definitely got some interest in the fun swirly interface.  What do I mean by “swirly?”

Well, you choose from a variety of news channels – by subject (sports, science, etc.) or by format (videos, blogs, etc.) and items from those channels fly up into this swirly looking thing – kind of a tornado of news:

msnbc Specta swirl screengrab

After you watch it swirl around for a while, you can start looking at the articles.  They display like this:

article view on msnbc\'s spectra

You can save articles you like to a newsreader as you pick them out of the swirl.  You can also search your swirl, and then all of the articles that don’t have your search term will drop out, which looks kind of cool, and which is kind of useful.  And you can re-order the items in your swirl so that they’re grouped by subject, or displayed in date-time order.

What’s not as useful – you can’t click on an item as it swirls by and skip to that item.  I don’t know, this seems like a deal-breaker for me.  I kept wanting to do it even after I knew that I couldn’t and intuitively, I think I can’t be the only person who might want to do that.

Also not as useful, under the option “Change View,” Spectra will apparently tap into your webcam and see what color you are, or what color you’re wearing, or what color your walls are or something and then feed you news that goes with those colors.  Seriously.  It took me like an hour to figure out that part was supposed to be doing because I just kept saying, “no, that can’t be what they mean by that.”

And finally not as useful is the fact that the only news is msnbc news.  While not surprising, this is disappointing and probably makes this a tool I won’t come back to again.

The Newsware package includes games (some integrate with Facebook) that I didn’t play.  It also includes widgets, screensavers, feeds and more.  All in all, I think there is a lot of good work going on here – but I don’t really think they’re there yet.

Back to Spectra, the headline reader, and fun.  It’s a little fun to watch, and when I demonstrated it the students were interested.  But I don’t think it’s interactive enough or that it gives the user enough control to really be fun to use.  And fun to use is what’s really important, at least to me.  I’m excited about the potential of dynamic information visualization because I think it fits into the whole idea of research as part of a learning process, based on exploration and discovery.  Just watching doesn’t get you to that point.

After the demonstration, when students had the option to use any of the tools I’d demonstrated, I did notice that none of them picked Spectra.  I may not have been as clear on what kind of tool it was or how they might use it as I could have been.  But I also think that it might be a situation of what’s fun to watch in a demonstration isn’t fun in the hands-on if all it really lets you do is watch.

More news meta…

…still thinking about last week’s conversation about the corporate media and what that means for information literacy instruction and the broader idea of library users as informed citizens. A couple of things have come across my screen that seem to fit into this conversation.

First, continuing the theme of cool and awesome visualizations is Muckety, with the tagline “exploring the paths of power and influence.” The site is a simple blog like presentation of news stories, focusing on the connections between people, corporate entities, topics and more. But the stories are accompanied by these interactive maps that let you explore those connections on your own. I like how easy and responsive it is – do a search, choose a result and generate a map around that result. The visualizations seem to be based on an in-house database, so it’s not as easy as it could be to follow the sources and explore the relationships further.

The first thing I thought of was using this tool to look at some of the corporate relationships I talked about last week – someone’s already done it. And that’s great because the resulting map is a bit chaotic and crazy and probably took forever to put together -

Big 8 + Sony Muckety Map

And in a nice bit of synchonicity – today’s top story on Muckety is the other thing I was going to talk about here. Jason Mittell and Barbara Fister both talked about this yesterday and got me thinking about the connections between all of these conversations. Barbara got a comment when she cross-posted the story on ACRLog that suggested the commenter saw the story as an attack on the Bush administration and nothing more.

I think the commenter was primed to see things that way and wouldn’t have been open to any other interpretation, but I also think Mittell’s JustTV post raises another important issue that has particular significance for us when we’re trying to think about the question of how to teach information literacy – the kind of information literacy that supports informed citizenry and lifelong learning:

The biggest gap in Barstow’s article is an explanation for why the media allows its “experts” to hold forth unchecked, whether due to conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, or demonstrated ineptitude for actually displaying expertise. The end of the article tries to address this, but the networks stonewall Barstow in a range of ways, from ABC saying it’s the responsibility of analysts to report their own conflicts of interest, to Fox’s outright refusal to participate in the article. Of course looking too closely at these issues would force the Times to justify why it publishes its own discredited “expert,” William Kristol, despite nearly every claim he’s made for the last 7 years having been proven wrong.

So yay for the Times for pulling back the curtain – but to some extent this little glimpse just shows how much more pushing at the curtain still needs to be done.

cool stuff that’s fun to look at!

For reasons I won’t go into, I recently spent way too much time on the internet looking for magazine scans. (Anyone going to Online NW might soon be able to piece together why). Looking for those I ran across some other things I thought were awesome, even if I’m not always clear on what to do with them.

The Book Scans database

  • I’m linking to the main page – the database page is on the left. I probably lost an hour going through these. The site design is a little old-school, and navigating can be kind of clunky. The site is also intended for the collector community, so it might be perfectly organized for their needs and only clunky for non-collectors. Oddly there’s no notes anywhere about what one can do with these images, or actually anything at all intellectual property-related.

Steven Hill’s Movie Title Screens Page

  • Again, more a browsing space than a searching one, and initially I was like “why would I want to browse this.” Thirty minutes later I still wasn’t sure but I couldn’t stop. These are screengrabs of the title shots from a whole lot of movies. I almost didn’t include this one when I couldn’t find All About Eve, but this one from The Awful Truth was entirely charming so I left it in –

Title shot from The Awful Truth

Vintage Vanguard

  • A big collection of scans of old Vanguard record albums. Both front and back material, which is awesome. I love these because you can see how old they are.

And I also found magazine scans galore — these were my two favorite sites:

MagazineArt.org

The Conde Nast Store

And finally this – cute mid-century French stuff. I’m not sure how to categorize this, but how could I not include it?

Lefor-Openo