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.

happy birthday to me from delicious, kind of

I don’t have an iPhone, so there are many web sites I’d like to use on my phone that just don’t look very good. Delicious has always been one of those middle-ground sites that looks okay because there just isn’t much to it, but that isn’t really optimal. There’s always been a lot of stuff to navigate through before you get to your bookmarks – like your list of tags. And if you have a crazy long tag list like I do, that’s a real hardship.

So I was pretty happy to see that there is a mobile delicious option now.

http://m.delicious.com

I’m not sure it’s 100% awesome. It’s basically, login, list of bookmarks, and the ability to filter by tag (if you know the tag you want). I think for most of what I want to do, this will do.

horrible mac photo booth photo of my non iPhone

horrible mac photo booth photo of my non iPhone

But I don’t see an option to search my bookmarks and as someone who frequently makes the case in presentations that the searchability delicious offers is one of its best features, that might be a problem. Still, as a friend of mine just said to me on another topic – “progress – yay!”

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.

stories, 2.0 and creative commons

This is mostly an excuse to post cute dog pictures – not my cute dog but cute dogs nonetheless – but something I find very interesting – in an I think this thing is awesome to think about but it’s only tangentially related to most of what I do and it would take a lot of thinking so right now it’s an interest that is very underdeveloped kind of way – is the different ways that the tools of the social, participatory web allow us to tell and understand and participate in stories.

This is what so interested me about Penguin’s We Tell Stories project, and why I am so sad that I cannot go to this conference (look how cheap the registration is!  Stupid international flights and exchange rates).

But one of the things that is so fascinating about the topic is just how easy and simple storytelling can be – I came across this today – a short dog story created by uberphot on flickr and was entirely charmed.  Possibly maybe because I have some experience in the holes to china area.  Go read.  It’s only 9 “pages” long.

Clicking on the image will take you to the flickr set.

Hole to China (part 1)

Hole to China (part 1)

And because uberphot was nice enough to put a creative commons license on that let me, I turned the story into an online book for my neice – whose best word right now just might be “doggie.”   WordPress.com won’t let me embed, so here’s the Slideshare link.

Election 2.0

Keeping an eye on the process -

Tracking the polling places – how long does it take, are the machines working.  Sharing this information can help the voter make the most of their time, but the implicit goal is also to ensure that any questionable practices at the polling places don’t stay under the radar.

My Fair Election – A mapping application that lets you rate your polling place.  Not much information here, really – and maybe that’s because there’s an easier way to share this info, that a lot people are already using -

Twitter election watch

Twitter Vote Report was described by Information Aesthetics as a grassroots election monitoring system… that features an innovative use of Twitter as the main infrastructure for distributed data collection.

Twitter users can mark messages #machine to report problems with voting machines, #wait to report on wait times, and #votereport for all kinds of polling-related messages.

00 am Election Day
real time results for #machine aat 8:00 am Election Day

Of course, the opposite problem might attach here – too MUCH information to make anything specific to my situation find-able.  Not to mention no Twitter user could possibly be entirely confident that the election won’t break Twitter.

ETA – Another twitter project.  Election Protection: You Have the Right to Vote. 1-866-OUR-VOTE.  The twitter feed gathers and broadcasts reports of voter suppression and other problems.  Users can also report problems using state code tags in this format:  #EPstatecode (i.e. #EPOR), and zip code tags (#EPzipcode).

Please let me know about similar projects in the comments!

Looking back at the campaigns -

The 10 most viral videos of the 2008 campaign (from Politico)

The campaign in posters (from Caleb Crain)

Dipity Election Center – mashing up election information and dipity’s timeline tool (from Dipity)

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.