visual topic exploration – for reals?

Remember back when I was sad about the demise of Ebsco’s visual search?  I got over it, but I never replaced it with the beginning composition students.  They still explore in Wikipedia, and a lot of them have fun with that, and I still talk about news browsing tools like newsmap in the advanced composition classes, but I haven’t had something to show that gets at that general idea of visual browse and topic exploration since the old visual search went away.

Until now?

Well, I don’t actually know.  But I know the answer is “maybe” which is something.  I was pointed to this tool this morning (still in beta, first area of concern is that I can’t tell if its going to stay free) — eyePlorer.com.

It’s a way to visualize Wikipedia information, which is something we’ve seen before.  But there’s something kind of fun and compelling about how it works.  And there are some add-on tools within the interface that could be really, really useful in the topic exploration phase of the research process.  Still, there are a couple of things that are giving me pause – I’ll get to those at the end.

First, the good.  It’s got circles.  No, seriously, I mean it.  It’s a fun interface to browse around in.

When you start the tool, you get an empty circle with a search box.  It does okay at figuring out the topic you want.  My first try was the topic of a student paper from a while ago.  I remembered this one because I had been pleased at the time that Wikipedia had a page for this student, specifically on their topic – orcas san juan.

EyePlorer wasn’t able to figure out what I meant by that search, but when I backtracked broader to just orcas, it did.  And better yet, one of the clusters of additional information was about places – and I was able to click and connect to information on the specific topic.

There’s a tool at the bottom of the screen that lets you zoom in to see more connections:

or out to see fewer:

If you click on the topics, you get a snippet from Wikipedia, and the option to get a little more.  The snippet is a link which will take you to the wikipedia page.  You can drag these snippets over to a notebook space, and move them around.

(Note – you have to have popups enabled for these things to work)

The note book thing in particular seems really potentially useful during topic exploration.

So why am I hesitant?  Two things.  First, I don’t really get the being able to click through to the Wikipedia page thing, because all of these subtopics and broader topics took me to the same page – the killer whale page from which they were all drawn.  It didn’t even take me to the part of the page the snippet was on, which would have put me closer to being able to click to another page — but I kept expecting to do that, to switch topics, within the tool and as far as I could tell in 10 minutes, I couldn’t.

This connects to the notebook as well – unless you do another search on another set of keywords, the notes that you pull over and rearrange are really just rearranging an existing Wikipedia article.  That’s not very useful.  Your notes do stay on the notebook from search to search, so that’s good – but I think you would need to build in specific guidance about research as an iterative, back and forth process, and make it clear that to use this tool to its fullest they should expect to search on multiple keywords.

That’s fine – research is like that and they should be prepared for back and forth and trying different things.  But when the term you want is right there, and you know that it is a hyperlink in the initial article, it is a little frustrating to have to re-search to get it.

The other, and more important hesitation is the clustering.  Much of the informational material on the site is in German, which I don’t read, or in the form of videos, which I don’t use.  So the answers to this might be there and I was too ignorant/lazy to figure them out.  But I don’t really understand how these different clusters (like slices of pie – color coded?  These areas are representing some kind of clustering) work.  If you mouse over the edge of the pie, you get a label – and some of those made sense (like “place”) but others – not so much.

Check this one out –

That refers to the little blue snippet – mean of transportation.  The Hudson Strait, that I can understand (though I’m not sure how it is different than the other bodies of water which go under “infrastructure”) – but Squid?  If you click on the dot, the snippet tells you that squid are a food source, so it seems like they should be below, in purple, with “milk.”

This might be a beta issue, right now it looks like the same categories attach no matter what the topic – at least I saw the same ones for peak oil and orcas.  And it also might be a language issue.  But I think this is worth keeping an eye on as a tool to encourage broad topic exploration.

doodling as pedagogy

ResearchBlogging.org

This one has been all over the news in the last two days, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an Early View article in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The article suggests that people who doodle while they are listening to stuff retain more of what they hear than non-doodlers do.

As an unabashed doodler, for me it’s usually fancy typography-like versions of my dog’s name, this isn’t all that surprising. But my brain keeps going back to it — should we be figuring out ways to encourage our students to doodle in library sessions?

See, the article doesn’t say definitively why the doodling works.  But the author, Jackie Andrade, does suggest that it might have something to do with keeping the brain engaged just enough to prevent daydreaming, but not enough to be truly distracting:

A more specific hypothesis is that doodling aids concentration by reducing daydreaming, in situations where daydreaming might be more detrimental to perfomance than doodling itself.

So you’ve got an information literacy session in the library, with a librarian-teacher you have no relationship at all, about a topic about which you may or may not think you need instruction.  That sounds like a perfect situation for daydreaming.

And it’s not too hard to think of ways to encourage doodling.  Handouts with screenshots of the stuff you’re talking about – encourage them to draw on the handouts.  Maybe even provide pencils?  I don’t know – it’s not an idea where I’ve fully figured out the execution, but I’m interested.

My students, most of the time, don’t take notes while I’m talking.  Part of this is my style, I talk fast and I don’t talk for very long in any one stretch before switching to hands-on.  But I don’t think that’s all of it – most of them don’t even take out note-taking materials unless they are told to do so by their professor (and then they ALL do) or unless I say “you should make a note of this” (then most of them do).   And this isn’t something I’ve worried about.  I have course pages they can look at if they need to return to something, and I’m confident that most of them know how to get help after the fact if they need it.

But the no-notetaking thing means that they aren’t even in a position to do any doodling.  And as someone who needs that constant hands/part of the brain occupation to stay focused, I wonder why I’ve never thought about that as a problem before.

This study specifically tried to make sure that the subjects were prone to boredom.  They had them do this task right after they had just finished another colleagues experiment, thinking that would increase the chance that they would be bored.  And they gave them a boring task – monitoring a voice message.  Half doodled, half did not, and then they were tested on their recall of the voice message.

I don’t mean to suggest that information literacy sessions are inherently boring; I don’t actually think they are.  But I think some of the conditions for boredom are there, particularly in the one-shot setting, and I don’t think there’s stuff that we can do about all of those conditions.  Some of them are inherent.  The idea of using the brain research that’s out there to figure out some strategies for dealing with that interests me a lot.

——————–
Jackie Andrade (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1561

Why I don’t like Ebsco’s visual search interface, part 2 of 2

(Go here for part 1)

Because it isn’t any fun.

The old interface, with the circles and the squares, let you zip around and zoom in on an idea and then when that didn’t work, zoom out on the idea and try something new. I know that for some people, it didn’t work. For some people it was slow, and jerked around. And I get that. But for us, in our classrooms and on the computers in the Commons, it was fast, and kind of fun.

Here’s the column view of the new interface.

There’s a little bit of zipping around to be done there, but really, it’s just not as cool. It’s too hierarchical – it gives the sense that there is just one direction to explore – from the narrow to the broad and back again.

I was teaching a class a while ago and before we got started I was listening in on the small talk in the room and this one guy said to another one, “dude, I spent a couple of hours last night on Wikipedia so I didn’t get my math done.” That kind of blew me away. I mean, Wikipedia. It’s almost all text, with limited graphics. It’s written in boring, neutral encyclopedia style (at least it’s supposed to be), at least I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the prose sucking people in. And on top of it all it’s only mostly right (a description lifted almost verbatim from one of Jessamyn West’s talks).

But for all that, we all know it can be a bit of a time-suck. I think it’s the hyperlinks and the flattened browse that it facilitates that does it.

Here’s a visualization of the linked structure.

You go in, you click some links, and pretty soon you’re looking at a list of everything that happened on October 18. You’re not necessarily drilling down in a traditional sense, though you can do that, but you’re bouncing around a lateral plane of topics — and checking out connections you might not have even considered yourself. If it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t easy, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s both.

Now, the old visual search was hierarchical too, and most librarians I know didn’t really like to use it themselves in part because they didn’t like the categories that the database generated for subtopics. But it didn’t feel hierarchical in the same way. To use it, you didn’t have to go back up and down the hierarchy – you could jump from one subtopic to the other and explore it non-hierarchically within a topic, even if you couldn’t jump from topic to topic easily.

Here’s the other view of the new interface – the blocks.

This one seems more active and fun to watch, but you don’t feel like you’re controlling the movement. It’s not intuitive (at least not to me). I’m moving around between topics, which are still hierarchically arranged, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not controlling my browsing, not controlling the display, in the same way.

So why do I care if it’s fun or not? Well, because I want to encourage students to take the time to explore topics broadly before they make up their minds. I want them to put themselves in a position to find some new things out about their topic before they start to write. I mostly work with first- and second- year students doing cross-disciplinary gen ed type work. They do a lot of current events or similar type topics for their papers. They frequently have some idea of what they’re going to write about and what they’re going to argue, and it’s very tempting in a 10 week term to just jump in and gather together the kinds of articles that will support their preconceived idea of a thesis. I totally get that. I mean, seriously, I’ve done it.

But we know that deep learning is supported by authentic discovery. And because of Carol Kuhlthau, we know that taking the time to explore supports focus formation – the most important part of a research process that supports learning. And we know that when we ask students to explore before making up their minds about what they’re going to write we’re asking them to open themselves up to anxiety and uncertainty. We’re asking them to explore broadly, to consider sources and ideas they might not use when they are facing deadlines and anxious that they won’t figure out what they want to write about in time. And beyond this, we’re asking them to open themselves up to the possibility that they’re going to encounter some new idea that will force them to rethink some of their beliefs. This is scary stuff.

So – I say, let’s build them tools that make exploration fun. Wikipedia does this, and we encourage all of our beginning composition students to use it in this way. Ebsco’s visual search used to do it too.

Let me say one thing at the top – I am decidedly not saying “these kids today with their video games and their cell phones, everything has to be fun or they can’t learn.” I don’t believe that’s true, and my chapter in this book uses a lot of words to say why I don’t think that’s true. I’m not saying that the graphics alone made the Ebsco visual search fun.

No, I’m talking about the ways that learning, just plain old learning, not tricked out or dressed up as anything else, is fun. Remember what it was like when you were a little kid? When you’d check out books on bugs or the pioneers or maps from the library just because you were interested in bugs or the pioneers or maps?

When you’re a little kid you’re adding facts, and you’re learning about things for the first time, and that’s fun. And it’s more complex cognitively than we thought, and even little kids have to be willing to let go their preconceptions to learn, but learning then for a lot of us felt simple and easy. Then you get older and you start learning about harder stuff, and you start re-learning stuff. And for some of us, that leads to the little thrill you get when you read something or hear something or see some result in the lab that suggests everything you used to know about a topic was wrong and that what you’ve just learn will have a ripple effect – it’s going to make you think about things in an entirely new way.

I think this is one of the gaps that tends to crop up between those of us in academia on purpose as teachers and researchers and our students — our students don’t come to us with the idea that research and learning is supposed to make you rethink what you know, and that you’re supposed to engage in a process of constructing new knowledge. How College Affects Students reminds us that most people get to college just when they’re beginning to reach the developmental stage that lets them see knowledge itself as something constructed, not revealed.

I think this is crucial for us in libraries, and especially for those of us interested in information literacy to remember. What we do gives our students the tools and the understanding they need to find the information they need to build new knowledge and meaning for themselves. And when they come to us, most of them aren’t even thinking about knowledge in that way.

I think a lot of people who go on to get Ph.D’s can think back and point to formative experiences where they first realized how much fun research and learning and scholarship could be. Some of us have had that thrill for so long that we forget it’s entirely new to our students. And that it’s scary. And that it’s not that they want to be closed minded or that they’re refusing to learn – but that what we’re asking them to do is scary.

So that’s a really long way away from Ebsco’s visual search. Alone, did the little boxes and circles lead to seismic shifts in our students’ epistemological understanding? Of course not. But it was fun, and now it’s not. And the basis for authentic discovery is exploration. It’s looking at stuff that might be new to you, with an open enough mind that those new ideas might affect you. And anything we can do to encourage students to take that time, to explore, to learn, is well worth it. The visual search is less fun now, and I think it will be less useful for my students because of that.

more metathinking

Continuing from yesterday….. as I said then, I was really taken by the discussion of the connection between reading and thinking.  Then I was on YouTube the other day looking for something very serious and work-related when I thought "Hey! I bet they have debate videos on youtube now.  I will go look for some." 

Weirdly, they really don’t.  I mean there are some videos up there but really hardly any and even those that are there are very rarely showing actual competitive debates.  Which is interesting – why would that be?  It’s a pretty visual thing, and the people engaged in it are pretty much standing in one place and indoors so it would be easy to film.  Are there concerns about cheating?  About giving your opponent an unfair advantage?  Is the idea that debate is somewhat ephemeral or in the moment – that what you say in a round will to some extent stay in the round an inherent part of the culture?  I mean, the idea of instant replays in debate sounds pretty horrible to me – debaters’ capacity to relive the same round over and over again without video is pretty frightening.  I can’t imagine that any round would ever feel truly over if you had the capacity to let armchair critics revisit and re-judge it over and over again. 

But those aren’t actually the questions I wanted to ask here.  I did find a few videos – and this one was a little bit interesting.

That’s the final of the 2004 NDT – Michigan State over Berkeley.  A result I have to give you because the video itself isn’t all that good and cuts off right before the winner is announced. Clearly, it’s not interesting because of the video itself; what got my attention was the comments.  First, that there even are 100+ comments on a mediocre video about an arcane activity like academic debate.  But more than that the tenor of the comments – mostly those that are displaying on the first page.

As someone who was on the fringes of collegiate debate for a long time (my own experience came in high school where I was pretty successful but not really technically skilled) I have certainly heard these types of reactions to the very technical, very fast debate shown here.  But when I read these in the context of the many discussions Shaun and I have had recently about the need for liberal education, the conversations Kate and Sara and I have had about the thinking/ learning connection in the context of research and writing, and the thinking/ reading discussion I was having in my own head yesterday — these really struck me.

First we have edfehrman — its too bad that "debate" has become much less about making a good argument and the strength of your reasoning as has now become more about who can unleash the greatest volume of words, regardless of their content. No wonder logical discussion is in such short supply in our culture.

Now this really isn’t too bad.  I would probably counter that competitive debate has never been about making a good argument so much as it has been about making a winning argument.  But at the same time, I don’t really think those things can be separated.  To do so would suggest that one could make an objectively "good" argument totally separate from its intent, and its impact on the audience.  These video debaters are making their arguments in front of an audience they know well, in a way that is familiar, expected, and valued by that audience.  But still, my knee doesn’t jerk when I read this comment.  Probably, I’ve heard it too many times in my life for it to have much of an impact.

That brings us to sixlbs9oz
who says — "I agree with daytraderaz– this kind of debate doesn’t have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments and compelling rhetoric– this kind of debate is called "speed and spread" by debate teams (not all of whom do this kind of debate exclusively). I guess it’s interesting as an academic exercise, but it seems like an Ivory Tower hobby to me."

Again, this starts out totally familiar.  As if this kind of debate even wants to have anything to do with persuading normal people with watertight arguments.  As if watertight arguments alone are enough to persuade normal people of anything.  As if there is an objective standard of watertightness that we can use to decide whether or not we normal people are persuaded.  As if – all of that. 

No, what I find really interesting here, and a little bit depressing, is that last part of the statement.  That this is just an "ivory tower hobby"  – what does that even mean?  Because sixlbs9oz seems to understand a few things — s/he seems to understand that these debaters ARE performing for an audience.  And s/he gets that this specific audience both has the overt power to decide how effective this rhetoric is by giving a win or a loss in the round – and that this specific audience likes this kind of debate.  S/he seems to understand that this performance is built upon a ton of work, and that there’s some thinking going on there.  And yet, it’s just an ivory tower hobby.   The cognitive, rhetorical, critical thinking skills – these apparently won’t matter at all outside of the academy. 

Thanks to the reverse chronological order of YouTube comments, we only now come to  daytraderaz
comment — Only academics could come up with a system that if [sic] absolutely no use in the practical world.

Now, there’s been a lot of fights in debate over the years.  Actually, that’s not entirely accurate.  It’s more like there’s been the same fight and it’s happened a lot of times.  People worry that excessively technical debate – most of the time "excessively technical" can be read to mean "excessively fast" — is moving the activity too far away from practical skills. and that the activity should place a higher premium on a persuasive vocal style and the ability to turn a moving phrase.  Rules are changed, new leagues are built, new forms of debate are adopted.  Eventually, the debaters start to push at the new rules, and the argument begins again.   

And I’m not sure what my point is here except to say that this idea of debate having value only if it teaches transferable "real-world" skills is not just an us against them thing — debate people do this too.  Sometimes it is because they see something they value being lost in the activity.  But sometimes, I think it is because they take the daytraderaz’s of the world a little bit too seriously.  If the activity becomes so specialized or technical that the average person can’t see the value of it – then there must not be any value to see.

And this is where I get sad, and worried, because don’t you feel this happening in higher education?  A lot?  I think we frequently work under the assumption that the average person sees one value to a college education – and that value is all tied up in the ability to get a good job.   And I’m not saying that’s not a valid assumption.  At the very least, a whole lot of our students seem to come to us with the idea that the good job is the carrot they’re chasing.  But when we try to shift our focus to that value alone – to inculcating only those skills and characteristics that point directly (and measurably) to the "good job" — then we risk losing a lot. 

Because of course there’s more going on in academic debate than meets the eye.  I don’t think anyone would deny that the most obvious physical skills needed to win the NDT – the ability to flip a pen around one’s thumb and to talk really, really, super fast — don’t have a lot of real-world utility.

(Though I have gotten through a lot of awkward small talk situations because of the pen thing.  I’m just saying.)

But I don’t know many people involved in debate, even those who were not exceptionally successful, who think they got nothing out of the activity beyond an ivory tower hobby.  Instead, they argue that while the actual debates themselves might have been jargon-filled and specific to that context, the skills gained by doing the activity translate to almost every other context.

As a former female debater, I still take note of women who succeed in this very patriarchial activity, so I know that Greta Stahl – the woman in the video above – was not only a national champion debater, but she was also an honors student, and a Marshall Scholarship winner.  I’m guessing that some of the same skills that led to success in the debate venue helped her out in international relations?  I’m guessing that her ability to analyze, to research, to build an argument, to evaluate information, to find new ways to approach and attack a problem …. even practical things like controlling nervousness during public speaking …. that all of those things might have been honed and sharpened during academic debates.  And that they might have helped her succeed in all those other venues.  I don’t know Greta Stahl at all – but I still feel comfortable guessing that because those things are true of most of the academic debaters I know. 

And I have long thought, even though I was not a technically skilled debater myself and I would have benefited greatly from arbitrary rules set up to prevent others from using their technical skills against me, that debate as a whole should focus on all of those benefits instead of trying to turn the activity into something that a "normal" person can understand.  Because those under-the-hood skills are not just useful, they have actually been far more important to me in life than any practical public-speaking skills I developed.

And college too, is about so much more than measurable skills that employers say they want.  If that’s our goal – guaranteeing employability — we’re just measuring our students by someone else’s standard.  And by a standard that would call everything about college that doesn’t directly and obviously and measurably point to a good job nothing more than an "ivory tower hobby."

And that really, really scares me.  When the kinds of things that are not obvious, that happen behind the curtain of the academic performance — critical thinking, analysis, evaluation, creativity — become something that only a particular class of people get to do, when thinking itself is something that only those ivory tower freaks get to play at – we’re obviously the worse for it.   

Note:  if you want to look like a very cool debater, don’t start with the talking fast thing.  Start here: