learning in public and other musings on higher ed

Two things this morning – both touching on issues of digital learning, learning communities, learning socially and the big question – is higher ed closing students off from the kinds of tools and skills they’ll need to be lifelong learners?

Writer Response Theory provides this exercise to help students find their Social Bookmarking Soulmates. Basically the assignment is really, really, really simple — the student finds someone who shares an interest with them on a social bookmarking site, and then writes a profile of that person on their blog. So I think it’s really more of a brain-mate than a soul-mate that’s the goal.

While the output of the assignment is the profile of “here’s my soulmate” on the blog, what they learn about that specific contact is really not the point – the point is to show students that informal, asynchronous collaborative learning spaces exist and that finding these spaces and making connections within them is a part of learning today. And tomorrow – this is a major part of how they will need to learn when they leave the academy.

From the blog —

During the assignment, students are at first skeptical that they will find anyone with similar interest. Usually it is not till they find a “Gem,” or exciting link, through someone else’s tags that they see the value in the exercise. More importantly, the assignment hammers home the ways in which social bookmarking can help them become part of a network of scholars, collaborating albeit indirectly at times.

That’s certainly how this worked for me — I didn’t “get” the value of my del.icio.us network until I found some of those gems, and noticed that those gems tended to come from the same people over and over again.

I don’t think this exercise works if it’s not done in public – in an open, public, virtual space. There was a related post yesterday on Blackboard’s blog about their Scholar product – the social bookmarking service that exists within the Blackboard walled garden. It does look a lot better than it did to me when I checked it out about a year ago — the social networking features are easier to see and use, and there are instructions for exporting your scholar bookmarks out to another service (which didn’t work for me when I tried it, but I didn’t try all that hard).

But I still don’t think that this assignment could work as well within the LMS. Nothing could compare to del.icio.us’ user base, but it goes beyond that. There’s something essential about making these kinds of connections out in the world – interacting with experts, hobbyists, other students, professionals and everyone all in the same place. And in learning how to find those people who are useful connections because they are useful. Learning how to do that kind of information evaluation is, I think, a necessary 21st century information literacy skill – and one that can’t be supported by the closed-off LMS environment.

Which leads me to this story out of Toronto. A first-year student is facing academic honesty charges and expulsion because he is (was?) the listed administrator for a Facebook study group connected to an intro Chemistry course at Ryerson. He’s facing 147 counts – one for each member of the group. None of the other group members have been charged. After the course professor found out about the Facebook group, he changed the students grade from a B to an F and recommended action be taken against him, citing a rule that forbids “any deliberate activity to gain academic advantage, including actions that have a negative effect on the integrity of the learning environment.”

First – what does that even mean? Doesn’t studying in ANY form count as a “deliberate activity to gain academic advantage” ? I mean, the next clause makes it clear that penalties won’t be limited to just those deliberate activities that have an negative effect. But that’s not really the point. The student in question is maintaining that what is being attacked here is the venue – that this virtual study group is no different than the face-to-face study groups you’ll find in any university library on any campus any day of the week.

And it looks like he might be right. The Toronto Star article linked above quotes the student advocate in the case extensively, and she’s clearly advocating one side. But no one has come forward with any evidence at all that students in this group were doing anything more than time-honored study group activities like “I can’t figure out this problem. Can you help me.” No one has shown any evidence (and given that this is a virtual space, you’d think it would be there to be shown) that students were exchanging answers, doing each other’s homework, or passing work they did not do off as their own, which is the main point of this statement from Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-Commerce Law (crazy title).

Beyond this, the students in this course were apparently given different questions to prevent exactly the kind of cheating this student is being accused of facilitating. What’s really dismaying here, is that these students – if these initial impressions are true – are engaged in exactly the kind of learning behaviors we should be encouraging. There’s no evidence here that the learning that a student would do when it comes to these chemistry problems would be better if it was done in solitude, and I think there’s a lot of reasons to think that the learning could be better with collaboration.

I’m biased here – in favor of social learning and study groups. The Collaborative Learning Center in my library is one of my favorite parts of the whole building.

the CLC in the Valley Library

Tutors and graduate assistants provide drop-in tutoring in the evenings, and during the day they’re joined by supplemental instruction tables where groups of students enrolled in large courses with high failure rates work with a professional tutor on a weekly basis.

Ryerson has more to say in this CBC article than they did in the Star. This quote jumps out —

[Ryerson spokesman James] Norrie said the university understands the nature of Facebook and its groups.

“This is not a bunch of old academics sitting around a table saying, ‘Oh, this scares us.’ That’s not what’s happening,” he said.

They say that, but given what we know so far it really looks like the opposite of this statement is true. Not just that the university doesn’t understand the nature of Facebook and its groups (though it looks like maybe they don’t) but that they don’t understand the nature of social learning online in a much larger sense than this. Which is what brings us back to the social bookmarking ideas above. When these students leave Ryerson, their ability to find groups of people engaged with the same problems they’re trying to deal with — whether they’re professional or personal problems — is going to be a fundamental part of their ability to learn and solve those problems.

And like it or not, a lot of that networking and learning is going to happen online. And it might be scary to think of a world where the number of resources available to students goes beyond a study table in the library or the answers in the back of the book, but that’s the world we have. And our students deserve the opportunity to learn how to learn in that world.

facebook ain’t all that in French

Here are three visualizations of the most popular social networking sites, mapped (and tree-mapped) geographically created by a research student at University College Dublin.  It’s a nice reminder that no matter how many articles I run across about Facebook, Facebook privacy, Facebook Beacon and Facebook applications – Facebook like anything else is culturally situated and needs to be kept in perspective).  Sitting there all alone in Europe is France with a blue color representing a network I haven’t heard of I don’t think – Skyrock?  Skyrock rules Algeria too – and looking at the the treemap version I see that some of the smaller European countries with big French-speaking parts, like Belgium and Switzerland – are Skyrock countries as well.  As well as Senegal, Martinique, and New Caledonia.

This fascinates me – now I need to know more about Skyrock.  What about it is pulling all of these French-speaking places together?  Is it somehow easier to socially network in French using it? Is it something about the people behind it?  Its history?  Its marketing?  I must find out more!

The data is from Alexa, and the visualizations were created on ManyEyes, where the data is open, so you can go over there and play with it yourself.

FWIW – The US is not Facebook-violet on this map – it’s MySpace gold.

Now going to go find out more about the Skyrock thing.  Even though the pink text on black background thing on the project blog is making my eyes hurt.

social information networking literacy

First off – the SAG awards are tonight, which might be our only awards show opportunity this season and Ryan Seacrest called in sick. It is like it is my birthday.

So this morning Barbara Fister pointed out a recent survey by the Annenberg School (the USC one) – a survey trying to examine “gaps in media usage between communicators and the general population within the United States.” They gathered data from three groups of people:

  • influencers (“the 10%-15% of the population who exercise influence and control the levers of change in society as defined by Roper)
  • communicators (communicators and marketing industry professionals who have responsibility for what their company communicates to external audiences… and at least 5 years of experience in that field)
  • the general public (the general public).

So the researchers wanted to find out a couple of things: where people turned for they information they used to make decisions, and whether there were differences in the perceived value of different information sources among these three groups of people. Fister points out that it doesn’t look like “libraries” were even presented as an option to people given the survey, which is worrying. But she goes on to examine what the survey does show about information seeking, evaluation, and the effectiveness of marketing strategies — all topics of deep interest to librarians.

Two things jumped out at me in this study — first, the conclusion (on slide 17) that “the general population appear to be more skeptical of all factors than influencers and communicators.” This is something I’ve noticed on an anecdotal level for a while – that the students I teach increasingly distrust all sources, online sources, mass news, broadcast news, scholarly sources, alike. I think there’s something really significant in this for us in how we approach the question of evaluating sources with these students – I’ll probably revisit this topic soon.

(“factors” here means things like – do you consider factors like the type of media story, the media outlet, the journalist or reporter, etc.)

What I really want to talk about is the second thing – the significance of word of mouth marketing when it comes to connecting people with information sources. This one struck me today because it brought a couple of things together in my head.

The Chronicle reminded me about the Librarian in Black’s recent post about the University of Michigan study that suggested only 17% of teens think they might talk to librarians on social networking sites. LiB says, “it’s possible we were wrong to believe that a social networking tool would attract all of its users to our services.”

I liked that statement, yes, because it was validating for me — I’m someone who’s not great at going out and seeking contacts, even on social networking sites – and I’ve always been skeptical that they were a logical gateway to librarians for many students. But I really liked it because it left the door open for the idea that there might be lots of other reasons why librarians should use social networking sites. As a data geek, that’s the exciting thing about research for me – yeah, maybe one hypothesis gets blown, but that opens the way to new ones, right?

So anyway, that was in my head when I read ACRLog this morning, and it got me thinking abut marketing, word of mouth, social networking and information literacy. Here’s what I mean…

The Annenberg study finds that advice from family and friends is the number-one source of information for people when they make decisions. I don’t think many of us would find that statistic surprising. Thinking about this from a marketing perspective, though, this points to the significance of word of mouth. And as the Annenberg folks say “personal media is the ideal platform to trigger WOM.”

Now yeah, there’s definitely something hinky about the idea of phony word of mouth, or overly manipulative marketing campaigns – and that’s not where I’m going with this. I’m also not really pointing to the idea of Facebook or MySpace as a place for “OMG the stuff I get at the library is great” messages.

What I’m thinking is that there are lots of ways, on the web right now, that people can point their friends and family to the information sources they think are useful, authoritative, or otherwise worthwhile. Whether it’s sharing items using Google Reader, del.icio.us networks, or StumbleUpon, I think a lot of us have found really useful communities that have formed around this very thing – we use them to get advice and pointers to good information sources. Personally, I rely on my del.icio.us network beyond all reason.

Now, here’s the thing – I really don’t think many of my students are using these personal media tools — the ones that seem to most clearly fit in with the idea of using one’s friends and family to find good information sources. When I talk to students about the read/write web, which isn’t all that often, I don’t find that many of them have ever heard of tools like del.icio.us or StumbleUpon or Digg. Is this true? Have others found this? I tried to find statistics on this kind of usage among teens, or undergrads, and was unsuccessful. Does anyone have any research on this?

Don’t get me wrong, I know they know how to tag, because YouTube uses tagging. And I know they’ve forgotten more than I will ever know about connecting socially online. But do they use the tools that are about organizing, using and evaluating information — where the social aspect is specifically designed to help people navigate our crazy information landscape? I don’t think they do.

And the report Barbara links to really makes me think — shouldn’t they? Shouldn’t pointing our students to the tools and networks they can use, while they’re in school and after they leave, to find the good stuff on the web be an essential part of information literacy instruction? Not only to point our students to the tools they’ll need when they get out of school (which is important) but as a way to help them while they’re in college as well?

I spoke on a panel with Ann Lally from the University of Washington last spring – she was talking about the work the UW libraries have done to embed links to their special collections in Wikipedia. One of the things I remember the most from her presentation is the statistics she presented about how people were getting to the UW collections. StumbleUpon was on of the main things people were using to find the UW collections — I found that fascinating.

Basically, I think the resources our students can access because of our collections, our licenses, and our subscriptions are deeply useful – when I present article databases as a way to access “premium content” – I’m pretty convincing. I think our students would point each other towards these resources if they had a way to do so. And I think that pointing each other towards the “good stuff” will be an essential skill for them when they leave the university. So figuring out a way to get them at the tools that will help them do that – in college and after they leave – should be part of our information literacy instruction. Now I just need to figure out how to make that happen.

Again about reading

This isn’t really a continuation of the Caleb Crain post, more like something you might find on the shelf nearby.

Going through my feeds this morning I came across a couple of different things that got me thinking about reading, reading online, and reading in new ways —

First there’s this project, kind of like social reading — Book Glutton. They are operating on the premise that the time when you want to take notes about a book, or talk about a book, is while you are actually reading it. So it’s part online book reading thingy, part book-related social networking site.

You can read public domain books about Sherlock Holmes or Jeeves and Wooster, online — here’s what the reader looks like when you first launch it:

Book Glutton reader (closed)

But there’s more to the reader than that. Picking up on the “you want to annotate while you’re reading” idea – if you click on that little blue strip to the right of the text, an annotation panel opens up:

Book Glutton reader (annotation panel)

You can read alone, or you can join a group reading a book together. What I find kind of interesting though, is that they’re taking “reading together” a lot more seriously than “join a group of people reading the same thing.” Which anyone already can do in a lot of places online.

Within the reader, if you click on the blue strip to the left, there’s also a chat panel:

Book Glutton reader (chat)

And that’s what I actually find interesting about this site – that the basic premise is that people would rather read books together. I think this goes against a lot of our notions about curling up with a good book, in solitude and silence except for the rain drumming on the roof. Or the idea of “losing yourself” in a book – that doesn’t seem to have a lot of room for other people in it. But maybe that kind of reading only appeals to some, or only appeals in the abstract.

As the Stumbing Funsters, currently reading Alice in Wonderland, say — Rock on. We read, bub. We read. Mostly in the evenings, when we’re feeling social, btw.

So maybe there are a lot of people who would rather do their reading like this? On laptops, in coffeehouses, together? Or maybe this is a different kind of reading?

Then there’s this project, which is very different. Really, there’s nothing tying these together except in my head.

Where Book Glutton is largely replicating the physical act of book-reading, the “digital art publisher” tontonium goes somewhere else. The digital fiction, The Reprover was mentioned on the if:book blog today, and it looks like a fascinating re-visioning of one thing “reading online” might mean.

It’s something that you have to buy, and I haven’t yet. But I’m thinking that if I can convince myself that it will help me with my French, I might be able to justify the purchase.

Meanwhile, you can get a sense of what it is like on this page here, with one exception. if:book says that the fiction includes:

a witty text in French and elaborate English which expands and contracts – the same sentence blooming different additional clauses each time you pass a mouse across it. This is a deeply disconcerting effect at first, but once you’ve got used to it, a whole new kind of three dimensional reading emerges. It’s a fascinating idea which could only work on the web.

I think I’m going to have to justify buying it, just to see that.