Thursday, April 29, 2010

SMS Reference from Springshare, Woo-Hoo!

Blackwood library building, rose bush in the foreground

Soon after I wrote my thank you note to Springshare last month, our library signed up for a fairly new service from the same company, allowing us to receive and answer questions via SMS (text messaging). This has been on my mind for a while, but we didn't get it off the ground until now. And let me say, Springshare has done a beautiful thing.

We were already using Springshare's LibAnswers, which, in a way similar to NJIT's use of IntelliResponse, funnels questions typed into a search box into a data bank. This means that before a patron sends an email s/he can see if someone has already asked a similar question, neatly combining reference email and library FAQs. We're also already using Springshare's LibAnalytics, which tracks information about our reference transactions. With the SMS product, we're not only able to provide a phone number for students to text, but those questions arrive in our LibAnswers queue and can be added to our Analytics. Impressive, no?

One barrier in the past to providing an SMS reference service was the price. Although we have a large student body, we weren't sure how many students would really use the service (it kinda reminded me of this Onion story -- Post Office Extends Hours To 3 A.M. To Attract Late-Night Bar Crowd), and we were reluctant to sign up for something very costly. Before Springshare came along, I was looking for something that would allow us to provide text reference through our instant messaging service (we use Meebo). For various reasons involving money, that didn't look like it would happen soon. Through Springshare, we paid a flat fee for a local phone number and 4,800 text message credits, and the rest of the service is free. This will allow us to gauge whether there is enough usage to continue.

I was going to hold off writing about all this until I got a feel for how patrons were using it, but to be honest the SMS messages are so seamlessly integrated into LibAnswers that I haven't noticed a dramatic change. When a librarian replies by SMS, the form looks a little different than usual, and the replies are limited to a certain number of characters, but that's about all. Frankly, it's a relief that this has been so easy. No-one needs to administer anything outside of the Springshare module, and the initial set-up was simple. Meaning I can focus my energy on the other 700 (or so) things I'm working on...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Online Learning and Being Officially Educated

wisteria, in bloom at the park

I noticed with interest the story "Downloadable Education," on the cover of last weekend's Education Life section of the New York Times, which discussed various free educational resources. The world of free education might be attractive for lifelong learners and home-schoolers, but, glaringly, it doesn't come with an official degree, accreditation, or recognition.

The obvious follow-up question to this is, what is the purpose of such official recognition? My thinking is that a degree from an institution is a guarantee by an objective third party. An individual may claim to be good at math, but if Harvard grants him/her a degree in math, the claim is more persuasive. At the least, an educational institution acts as a responsible agent to ensure that tests are administered fairly. Even if an educational institution ends up teaching educational culture as much as any subject, learning how to succeed under someone else's rules does have real-life relevance, as when a person goes to work in an organization or a corporation.

This is to say, an individual may have the capacity, and it is becoming increasingly possible, to learn something online without having to register for a class or become an apprentice to an expert, but to learn something and be recognized by society for it (and barring some product of your learning such as an independent portfolio), that individual continues to be somewhat beholden to occasionally messy, dysfunctional, or unfair educational systems.

Consider on the one hand an example of online learning deployed in real life: An organization's mandatory employee training program, covering topics such as How to Lift Heavy Objects and How Not to Sexually Harass One's Co-workers. Self-paced, easy to use, with quantifiable assessments, would it be surprising to hear employees trying to figure out how to cheat the system? Many might consider the training a chore to be done as quickly as possible, using tactics ethical or not. On the other hand, consider learning for the sake of learning, in the form of a higher degree in the humanities. Every anecdote I hear about a humanities PhD relates that it should be pursued out of love for a subject rather than hope of professional reward. With that in mind, what motivates people to participate in the humiliating, grueling, and time-consuming process of a graduate degree program? Is it the attention of an insulated group of scholars? Why not just remain an enthusiast, reading books and attending public lectures and exhibits -- much of which can now be done online? Does an individual truly need formal academic training to satisfy a curiosity about the world? Open learning may be for the people who answer "No" to this question.

And so, while open access to enriching educational materials is wonderful, I wonder whether it revolutionizes education to the extent that some imply. It is true that all you need for a learning experience these days is a computer and a network connection. But in the mainstream, open educational materials are supplemental, and it is still necessary for someone to validate that learning experience. Can technology fully replace this last, yet?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reasons to Feel Sorry for Students Sometimes

dogwoods, in bloom near the gym

It's high research paper season again, and I continue to be impressed by the variety of ways that students can misunderstand things. Maybe that sounds snarky, but I mean it sincerely. For example,

-A Web Site Is a Web Site is a Web Site

Displayed on a computer monitor, a free web site can look identical to a subscription-based journal article, or a page of an e-book. It's all on the internet, and unless a student is scrupulous about figuring out exactly what s/he is looking at, it's just another web page.

I suppose this becomes another argument in support of books, because with a self-contained physical object there are more clues about what it is, whereas an out-of-context link may require some analysis...

-Does catering to unique learning styles encourage people to avoid challenging themselves?

It is interesting and occasionally useful to know how a person 'best' learns (I'm referring to Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences here), but there are many situations where students have no choice about how they learn something -- they simply must. If a student arrives at college where a professor has certain immutable expectations for how a student learns something, and if these vary from what a student thrives under, I'm not sure how learning theory helps. (Only, when students go to study independently they might understand how to teach themselves? This requires very self-reflective students.)

-Web 2.0 may prove to be just another niche in the diffusion of information thing I was talking about last week.

As geeked as I am about Web 2.0 (look at this fashion site where you can clip things from the web and make them into a collage, for instance!), sometimes new technology just ends up being another skill to learn, another tool to add to the arsenal, another time suck. Rather than making the picture clearer, for some it may instead muddy a learning process.

It's true that my experiences with students skew toward those who are struggling, and many may not have difficulties with these things at all. Or, perhaps a lot of them are struggling and don't say anything.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Diffusion of Information, and E-books in Libraries

Bradford pears, framed by cherry, in bloom this week

I notice that in the current information landscape, the preferences and habits of individual users are supported as never before. Those who are mobile can go mobile. Those who sit in front of a personal computer all day have habits grounded in PCs. Those who hate computers can still buy books.

This thoughtful post from a personal finance blog addresses the idea that purchases should follow from needs, rather than the other way around. People who read a lot might think about buying kindles; people who merely want to read a lot should not buy a kindle. (Let's forget for a moment about those who would buy a kindle to look cool.)

So should community college students, who are not always readers in the first place, be required to use e-book readers? Sometimes I have trouble imagining this. Not that the e-readers will fail, but they are perhaps most heartily embraced by those who habitually read books. People who are familiar with books are currently deciding how e-book readers should work, but these decisions are meaningless for those unfamiliar with books. (On the other hand, if typical college students are expected to use e-book readers, students at a community college should be expected to use e-book readers too.)

In The Case for Books, Robert Darnton writes that "The strongest argument for the old-fashioned book is its effectiveness for ordinary readers. Thanks to Google, scholars are able to search, navigate, harvest, mine, deep link, and crawl ... through millions of Web sites and electronic texts. At the same time, anyone in search of a good read can pick up a printed volume and thumb through it at ease, enjoying the magic of words as ink on paper."

Then again, book publishing is a business, and people who buy books are the customers. If I'm not mistaken, the number of readers buying printed books is in decline. I read a little while ago that the market for Amazon's e-reader, the kindle, is dominated by affluent baby boomers, and I wonder if that will dictate the book environment for everyone. Or, is the kindle just a device for a certain niche, and some people will find and use all the information they need through their cell phones? Or, will it all be e-reader apps? iBooks? Or, all of the above and more? This returns to ideas about diffusion and personalization that began this post.

I just read an article in Computers in Libraries about an experiment giving students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) e-book readers. Students there overall enjoyed using the e-readers, but the librarians had some interesting observations and practical considerations on why the library will not be purchasing them. For example "The e-reader market is developing so fast that it is almost impossible to keep up ... By the time our project was finalized, more companies were bringing e-reading devices and book-reading applications for smartphones to the market" and "The devices available on the market work well for an individual user but create many problems when it comes to using them in the library. The issues of circulation, content acquisition in terms of physical management and copyright, cataloging, and other library-related matters have not been addressed by the distributors of these portable reading devices."

When information was centralized into only a few different formats, libraries could process, organize, and provide access to it in a straightforward way. When information is dispersed, the situation becomes more difficult for libraries. With relative ease, we can continue our historic relationship with books, keeping an eye on e-books and e-book readers, and we can continue to manage subscriptions to established periodicals in print and online, but what about the free (and not-free-but-not-usually-part-of-a-library-collection) content online? What about the content that is fee-based but is not a book or a periodical? However we proceed, the clear, organized model we traditionally relied upon now seems limited.

Perhaps the specialization inherent to libraries will be our enduring strength. At a college, the role of the library is to acquire, maintain, provide access, and increasingly instruct about the various resources -- regardless of format -- necessary to support teaching and learning in higher education. As long as we are paying attention, we should be able to successfully continue doing this.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can We Teach Information Literacy and Not Be Tech Support?

March showers, April flowers

The short answer to this post's title is no. Here are some examples of what I mean:

-If we put our library resources and services into an online course management system (CMS), aren't we responsible for answering questions about that CMS to some degree?

-If we help students with how to cite resources, is it fair to withdraw assistance when there are questions about how to use a word processing program to create a works cited page?

-If we provide instruction in computer classrooms, shouldn't we be capable of troubleshooting when a computer is not working and is preventing a student from following our lesson?

As I've said before, I did not become a librarian to be a tech support person. We librarians do have specialized knowledge and skills, but people should not believe they have to be librarians to successfully use technology for academic work.

And while I'm all for being helpful, I also think it is appropriate to draw some lines. For instance, the last time I found myself on hands and knees at a computer after someone didn't believe a USB port was where I said it was, I realized that students need to be able to figure out how to use their flash drives themselves. When it comes to computer problems, I describe, confirm, encourage, etc., but sometimes I find myself saying, in the end, "Fiddle around a little and you'll get it." This approach is not always popular, particularly if due dates are looming.

I have embraced being a librarian-teacher, but I'm not particularly thrilled about being a librarian-do-this-computer-thing-for-me. And as librarians try to define our roles, I am not convinced that the latter is even something we should even aspire to.

But sometimes we are stuck in roles whether we like them or not, and so I do my best to make tech support a teaching and learning experience. If we are to be the champions of information literacy, a skill unavoidably integrated with technology, this may be the cost.