undergraduate students + iPads + photographs

Today my colleague Margaret Mellinger and I are presenting at Online Northwest, one of my favorite conferences of every year.  It’s a one-day regional technology focused conference held on my campus, which is super convenient.  And it’s a conference that really knows how to make things easier for its presenters – seriously, if you’re looking for a venue, consider it.

Today, we’re presenting on a study we’re actually still in the middle of, but which is probably my favorite thing I’m working on right now — for many and varied reasons.  About five months ago, at the start of fall term, we gave six of our undergraduates iPads and we’ve been gathering data about how they use them ever since in several different (qualitative) ways.  We knew that one piece of the data-gathering – the photo-elicitation piece – would be done in advance of Online Northwest, so we decided to talk about that piece here.

So the presentation is going to talk about the value of the research method (auto-photo elicitation) and about some of our preliminary analysis – we’ll talk about themes that are illustrated most strongly by the photographs, and also some ideas that have been coming out of the interviews that are illuminated or illustrated by the photographs.  I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s a sneak preview (click to embiggen):

One of the things that was really important to us in this study design was the idea that the iPads needed to belong to the students – that they couldn’t be loaners or have a temporary home with the students if we really wanted to see what kind of impact these devices would have on our subjects’ information practices.  The theme of ownership and personalization is part of every interview.  In our initial interview, we asked them to talk about the first piece of technology they could remember that really felt to them like it was “theirs.”  The other side of the handout has their responses.

I’ll post a link to the slides when they’re posted elsewhere.  It’s a big file.  This is one of those talks where I think the subject is SO interesting that I am a little worried others won’t see it that way — I’ll report back on the conversation as well.

(p.s. I’m also giving another talk on another research project here.  In that one my co-investigators are doing all the heavy lifting and there’s no handout.  It’ll get it’s own post after the slides are up.)

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.

dude, that’s so punk rock

So my Facebook friends, and my other friends, and the people in the cubicles next to me, and, well, anyone who has ever heard me speak knows that I’m not a big fan of the Blackboard learning management system. Despite having some good interactions over email with Karen Gage and the group of people responsible for the “2.0″ side of Blackboard development, my actual experiences with Blackboard have been confusing, frustrating, clunky and … more frequent than I would like to remember.

So this post yesterday at the Chronicle’s Wired Campus made me smile when I scanned the headline and saved it to my del.icio.us account – I’m not just a disgruntled librarian who lacks the patience to make Blackboard sing. I’m totally punk rock. This morning, however, I realized I needed to go back and read more than the headline – this edupunk idea is apparently a whole thing that resonates with a bunch of people.

This post says “Enter EDUPUNK” and future posts will continue to develop the idea and what it means. I’ll admit I loved this post because it details how the idea developed out of connections made between frustration with something Blackboard was doing, reading a really great novel and an awesome bar conversation — a process I can totally relate to. I loved this statement:

The insanely irresponsible advertising for BlackBoard 8 suggests that Academic Suite release 8.0 will “enhance critical thinking skills” and “improve classroom performance.” What LMS can do this? What Web 2.0 tool can do this? This is total bullshit, how can they make such an irresponsible claim? These things are not done by technology, but rather people thinking and working together.

OMG yes. But more than that – the connections drawn go on to talk about the implications of the specific, corporate environment Blackboard creates and is created by — “And this move by BlackBoard to commodify the labor of others is exactly the problem with the idea that educational technology “is about the technology.”

On his other blog, term-coiner Jim Groom provides an image of himself as the edupunk poster boy. There’s a little badge on the bavatuesdays blog now – leading here — edupunk.org (nothing there yet but an anthem)

Leslie Madsen Brooks at BlogHer provides a much better rundown of the conversation that’s been going on on the blogs.

Generally speaking, when I’ve talked about my problems with Blackboard I have focused on the closed nature of the LMS and how I think that closed off, password-protected, walled garden e-learning environment doesn’t work. Of course on one level I’m talking about the way that Blackboard just doesn’t work very well and there’s no way to go in and fix it. It’s a closed shop and a closed shop that doesn’t seem all that interested in creating something that works well.

But the real problem with the passwords and the walled gardens isn’t really about how it affects me as a teacher. I usually end up talking about how those things affect students as learners. I think that learning how to learn on the web and learn from other people on the web, is an essential part of what it means to be able to learn at all today. And that means learning how to learn in public. It means learning how to find the learning communities that will help you get where you need to go, and learning how to participate in those learning communities — contributing to the shared knowledge as well as consuming it. My del.icio.us network is hands-down one of the most important learning networks I have and it has been for a long time. And a big part of why it is so important is the way that it pushes things I wouldn’t otherwise find across my path. In that community, I make connections between things that I would never have made otherwise.

When Blackboard introduced it’s del.icio.us clone Scholar, Karen Gage provided me with a password so that I could check it out. Even though my interactions with her were really positive, my reactions to the product were not. The big advantage over del.icio,us seemed to be the ability to tag items by course name/number. I needed the special password in the first place because the only way to use it in my own BB environment was for our Blackboard administrator to do a system-wide implementation. And at that time, you could bring your bookmarks into Scholar, but you couldn’t export them out.

Scholar to me became the perfect metaphor of the BB LMS — sort everything into courses, don’t even consider that the best learning comes sometimes from drawing connections between learning experiences, don’t consider customization or user control of their own environment and once you leave school – you won’t need that knowledge base you developed while you were there anymore. Yeah, I know that Scholar might have improved in the year since I checked it out. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that matters.

Even if Scholar worked perfectly and even if it did some awesome things that del.icio.us could never do — I don’t think I would think it a substitute because of the walled garden thing. Our students don’t need to learn how to learn from a pre-selected, safe group of peers. They need to learn how to function on the wild, wide open web. They should be learning that in college. E-learning is something they will be doing for the rest of their lives. They should be learning how to do that in college. Closed off LMS’s don’t give them that experience, and they never will.

Alex Reid takes a rhetorical look at the term, and decides that it might be a case of trying too hard. And I think he might be right. I like his concise articulation of the question –

Still, I think there’s an interesting question here about how pedagogues position themselves in relation to institutionally-approved technologies and in the marketplace and commons of the larger techno-mediascape.

But I’ll also admit to liking the edupunk term. My friend Matt Cibula wrote this essay way back in the nascent days of the participatory web when we were very young but already nostalgic. Matt was a year ahead of me at Canby High School and while we never talked about the Clash while we were in Canby, this essay explains why they were important to some of us who were there better than I ever could. I honestly never expected to have a reason to link to it here – so bonus!

Notes from the freeculture front

From this — The Future of Online Music: Why Closed Platforms Will Fail –

Alternatively, the disappearance of an open platform could spell the end of DRM technology altogether, at least for digital music. Since I believe strongly that the market in the end must and will be based on interoperable digital formats, if DRM is used to erect barriers to that goal, then there is no question it will be swept aside, and the industry may end up with what many have believed was the obvious choice from the beginning: open MP3 files.

Either way, Napster has the tools in place to adapt to whichever way the environment evolves and will remain committed to the common-sense goal of helping to shape a music industry that actually benefits consumers over the long-term.

To this — Napster goes DRM-free as iTunes war steps up –

Napster has bowed to the inevitable and stripped away the DRM from its entire catalogue of tracks, meaning music purchased through the service is Mac, iPod and iPhone compatible for the first time. The service is offering six million tracks, free of usage limitations, in high-quality 256kbps MP3 format.

(For an interesting exercise – check out the difference in tone between the Macworld (US) story and this one – the US one reads much more as a “Napster vs. Apple” tale.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Both stories point out that the significant thing here is that Napster has apparently convinced all of the major labels to take part, including Sony-BMG, something Apple has been unable to do.

Napster’s subscription service continues, with a slightly higher price tag.  The DRM-free option does not apply to the subscription service, only to songs purchased individually.

And shifting gears – from the MIT chapter of Students for Free Culture (freeculture.org) comes a fairly awesome research project – Youtomb.

From the project –

…YouTomb continually monitors the most popular videos on YouTube for copyright-related takedowns. Any information available in the metadata is retained, including who issued the complaint and how long the video was up before takedown. The goal of the project is to identify how YouTube recognizes potential copyright violations as well as to aggregate mistakes made by the algorithm.

And a little further down – they say that they became interested in the issue after YouTube announced that the takedown process would be automated.  The students wondered if this would lead to collateral damage and take-downs of videos that should fall under fair use or that should not have received any scrutiny at all.

You can’t watch the videos anymore – and the site makes it pretty clear that this is an informational/research project only that’s trying to see what kinds of videos are being challenged and to see if there are any patterns to be found.  So it’s kind of interesting to look at the comments on the TechCrunch story about it where it’s being discussed more like it’s just another startup.

historians harnessing the web 2.0

I saw this on the American Historical Association blog today – the AHA is maintaining an archives wiki – a clearinghouse of information for researchers with everything they need to know before heading off to a new archive. I went there expecting to see the usual just-launched wiki with more promise than content and I was blown away by how much information is already there.

Here’s the entry for the archive where I researched a substantial part of my undergraduate honors thesis. What is not included there is any mention of the nice man who fed me soup on the day when I forgot to bring a lunch, and decided to skip eating because I only had one day that weekend to spend in the archive and I didn’t have the time to spare looking for food. But then, because I am very old and my undergraduate years were so long ago – he’s probably not there any more.

The idea of the AHA blog and the Archives wiki is kind of funny to me, given how much some of my professors used to insist that they didn’t ever want to use computers, especially not for email. On the other hand, it’s really not that surprising. Way back in the day, when you had to learn Unix commands and I still had a reference book for Archie and Veronica on my desk, the one killer app I could use to convince just about the most entrenched of old-school scholars that this Internet thing had some merit was — Hytelnet.

Does anyone remember Hytelnet? The thing it did was make it relatively easy to search other libraries’ catalogs. It would tell you where to go, and give you the login information you would need. If you want to see what it used to look like – this is pretty close. But it was about one thing — the one thing you don’t want to do when you have to go somewhere else to get the stuff, is waste your time. So this wiki just reminded me of that – and what a great use of a wiki it is.

YouTube & me

The Royal Family apparently started a YouTube channel about two months ago, but I don’t think many people over here noticed it until it came time for the Queen’s annual Christmas message.  At least, I don’t remember seeing anything about it two months ago, but I’ve seen it mentioned on three or four blogs this week.

I’m trying to figure out why I think this is such a good idea.  If the Bush Administration suddenly started a YouTube channel, I wouldn’t think anything good about it.  And I don’t think that’s entirely partisan.  I don’t see myself watching 20 minutes of old Clinton home movies on the morning after Christmas either.  But this morning, that’s what I found myself doing with the Royal Channel.  An old movie depicting events from the death of King George to Elizabeth’s coronation, followed by a silent movie about the Queen Mother’s wedding and all of a sudden it was 20 minutes later.

Interestingly, they’ve disabled embedding.

I think there’s some aspect of admiration for whoever in the Royal Household had the idea of putting video proof of charitable acts and royal family events out "where the people are," to use that tired phrase — but I don’t think that by itself explains why I’m taken with this idea.  I think that combined with the kind of information the royal family has available to broadcast in this way — those old videos, the historical stuff — is what makes this seem right to me.  Most of the time that’s where I end up losing time on YouTube.  Thirty minutes searching for Mario Savio talking about the machine, two hours of old Olympic coverage.  This is where my actual time has actually gone in the last year.

So that leads me to the question – is this just the historian in me?  Am I taken with the royal family channel because it’s way to see historical artifacts I wouldn’t otherwise easily see?  Or is this a more objectively cool example of the right medium for the right message?

Hmmmm…..