Butterfly in the sky ... I can fly twice as high

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pulling Back the Curtain on Libraries as a Teaching Tool

The mantra in 21st-century teaching in a nutshell is inquiry-based, experiential learning with scaffolding and modeling built in to structure the learning experience. These strategies and approaches can be better implemented in library instruction to improve media literacy.

I think one way for us to better tackle information literacy is to better explain and allow others to experience what it is that librarians do. User experiences in libraries have been improving dramatically thanks to the serious exploration into how users are searching for and utilizing information and library spaces. But while we think a lot about how users engage with librarians, library webpages, library resources and databases, we think less about these interactions as teaching moments. The reference librarian used to be able to guide patrons to databases and show them the steps needed to access sources. Now much of that has been turned over to always-accessible Libguides and similar "How-To" resources. None of these tools, though, really teach those skills in the ways that educational research and psychology reveal to be the most effective.

So the challenge remains, particularly for school librarians but also for public youth-service librarians, how can we better teach good media literacy practices and research skills and effectively incorporate them into an inquiry-based curriculum. Luckily, libraries tend to start with the advantage of having the computers and technology that can engage students and continue to operate as essential cognitive tools. Certain media activities and tools, such as photography, videography, social networking, even powerpoint, can be easily be utilized in active learning environments. 

Other skills, such as responsible researching, can be harder to maneuver. I could not agree more with Frances Jacobson Harris' critique of the worksheet as a largely ineffective tool for teaching students about source authority and evaluation. I do not believe that many of these "check-the-box/proceed-to-the-next-step" approaches improve student practices. While slightly more advanced than the "just say no" approach of telling children what is right and wrong, it ultimately lacks much application and engagement by the students. In her book I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online, Harris has some great active-based learning examples that better engage the student. She incorporates quasi- and non-academic sources into a fuller discussion about the ways different news stories are covered in different outlets and platforms and asks students to discover these nuances. The most collaborative assignment she describes asks students to take the evaluation skills they learned and practiced in class back home to guide parents through a website, a great example of how far-reaching an effective collaborative assignment can reach.

I think more can be done, though, to be transparent to students about the research process today. As Harris notes of search engines, "the search process itself can mask authorship." A common assignment that I have seen asks children to find out how google works. Many are shocked to find out that few people really know due to the protected algorithm. But librarians can do more than just provide these "aha" moments. As Next-Generation Catalogs become more prevalent, it is important that librarians build in active assignments that help students better understand not only how google.com works, but also how the library OPAC works, and what exactly students may be finding through these sources, and the linked databases available to libraries.  We have lots of "how-to" guides, but fewer resources that engage the mechanics and finding structures of such tools.

One assignment I have been brainstorming is to allow children to choose and contrast a variety of different sources--either from a controlled list or open-ended--and then ask them to track the steps necessary to get that source from its initial production (writing, recording, creation, etc) to the computer screen the student now views. The teacher and librarian can model a few of these paths for students first and perhaps discuss some of the traits of search engines as well. By looking at the steps needed for a blog to reach the user, versus mapping the steps for an academic journal all the way through the library database subscriptions might help clarify the authorship component of evaluation. Furthermore, such assignments could be easily linked to other class components like student web publishing, and/or student-edited literary or research journals as well, making it interdisciplinary and collaborative. I think an important follow-up could be to ask students to turn that critical eye back upon their own publishing. How would another user see their publication through a critical evaluation lens? and are there ways to improve that authority?  These are important questions and concerns that can improve how students utilize the library and research.

There are some great ideas for teaching media literacy out there, and numerous media literacy toolkits. These can be valuable tools, but it is important to be sure that these tools are effectively reaching students. If we want students to be more media and research savvy, we have to trust that they can learn and understand the ways librarians incorporate and structure those media and research tools. As Harris notes: "We know from educational research and our own experience that such learning is most successful when it is built into activities that occur over time, across the curriculum, collaboratively, and in the context of application. It makes a great deal of sense to put students more directly in the driver's seat" (176). Lets try to pull back the curtain on library practices as much as we can, not only for our adult users, but also for our children and students.

Cover of: I found it on the Internet by Frances Jacobson Harris

Harris, Frances Jacobson. I Found It On The Internet: Coming Of Age Online. Chicago : American Library Association, 2011. Print.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Alone Together: Technology and Socializing

NPR never fails to provide a wealth of good information and talking points. I came across this great review and discussion in NPR Books. Author Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other examines the changes and consequences of our increasingly digital and plugged-in worlds. She postulates that even in this digitally connected world, we often find ourselves feeling very much alone.

Alone Together book cover

Some of the important topics she covers with application for Youth Service Librarians include the impact of digital devices on young children in the midst of developing individual identities, the impact of facebook and social networking on teen identity and teen's inability to reinvent themselves today, and the psychology of cyber-bullying in a virtual, rather than face-to-face world. I was particularly interested in the inability for children to separate the school day from the home because of these digital social ties. Whereas children used to be able play with identity, and "shut off" their social selves and social identities once in the privacy of homes, they now continue those social interactions and contests throughout the day and evening.

As someone who so often espouses the virtues of technology and the need for libraries to continue to expand and develop their digital outreach, this interview led me to pause. While I still think we must continue to implement these digital technologies, we have to be sure to redouble our efforts to teach media literacy and responsible digital use. In particular, cyber-bullying is an area that librarians can take a real leadership role in discussing the issues, providing opportunities for discussion and solutions, and display available tools and resources to counteract such behavior. 

Interestingly, this month's K-12 Professional Book Club at the University of Illinois will address this same issue. Dorothy L. Espelage, a UIUC faculty member and one of the co-authors of Bullying Prevention & Intervention:  Realistic Strategies for Schools, will be in attendance on Tuesday, November 6th to discuss her book (co-authors Susan M. Swearer, Dorothy L. Espelage, and Scott A. Napolitano).  This session will also be offered online, if anyone is interested. I look forward to finding the time to read both of these books--I think they will potentially work well in concert--and I hope to be able to virtually attend this session. 

As we continue to develop digital and mobile libraries, we constantly have to make sure we are considering the consequences of such technologies upon our young people so that we can both best utilize these tools, and ensure they complement a supportive and nurturing youth environment.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Undergrads and Information Technology

Check out this great infographic from the Educause Center for Applied Research.
ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2012
You can check out the whole study here.

Some of the interesting findings include the fact that students see blended-learning courses as the norm now, and expect to be able to use web interfaces to access course information. Perhaps more interesting, though, is how students use technology. Students desired a separation between much of their social networking tools (texting, facebook) and their course-work and interactions with their teachers. While students may not want teachers intruding on these social spaces, it is essential to be able to reach them through the devices they are using most: mobile smartphones. Schools do seem to be making a good effort to meet the mobile needs of their students and should continue to follow the models that are available.

I think the biggest takeaway from this study, though, is about students' attitudes towards technology and tech skills. Large majorities viewed technical proficiency as very important for their futures. And while many said they received adequate training, a majority still sought better training from their instructors, and nearly half felt they entered college without thorough preparation for using technology. Students were much more concerned about gaining these types of training than in utilizing the most cutting-edge technologies in their classes. It is important, then, for schools to prioritize skill-building exercises and resources to introducing "newer" and "better" technologies.

I think this holds particular relevance for K-12 librarians who can be the bridge to provide the better technical skill-training that students are looking for in their preparation for college. Technology is clearly an area of engagement for students, who see "real-life" skills they desire. This engagement can serve as a tool for librarians to enhance their role in inter-disciplinary curriculum and instruction. I think this ECAR study is a great resource to use to convince administrators of the importance of technology instruction and enhancing the library's role in the school environment.

What stands out to you from these ECAR findings?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

MOOC's and their Place in Libraries

The most recent Chronicle of Higher Education special report covers the fascinating world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). With a growing attention, participation, and curiosity about these offerings, we should start thinking about the role of MOOCs in our libraries.

Through interfaces like Coursera, EdX, and others, individuals now have access to a vast array of free, online courses offered by some of the top universities, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, and UVA. While these offerings are still somewhat amorphous, and do not currently offer credit, they do offer full-featured online class environments, including detailed assignments, and video-archived lectures and discussion forums. There is much still unsettled about these courses and how they will operate going forward, but there does seem to be a major groundswell for such offerings, from both the university perspective as well as the broader public.

Because there is such public interest in MOOCs, it is important for libraries to think about how such massive courses can support our principles. Just as collaborations between schools and libraries have proven to be so effective, collaborations between MOOCs and libraries also offer some great potentials. Of course, the relationship is a different one, though. One phenomena that has developed out of these MOOCS are local discussion groups forming and meeting in places like coffee-houses, libraries, etc. If the public library were to publicize this as a program it could further facilitate such peer connections, foster community, increase knowledge, and all cost the library very little. This also helps to overcome one of the major concerns over MOOCs, that they eliminate important face-to-face time.

There is also value in these courses, though, for teen service librarians. I can envision MOOC-inspired educational and informational programming for young adult users. Similar discussion groups based around a MOOC course or lecture are easy opportunities to capitalize on this popularity and hopefully bring teens into the library space. By offering college-style courses, certain teens who are seeking further enrichment have an environment to express that. Furthermore, from an informational perspective, what better way to give teens a sense of a college course, than to participate in a college course through MOOC? Just as teen programming often includes support for standardized test preparation, and college-seeking resources available in the library, they can also provide an environment to discuss a modeled college course through MOOCs.

I would be interested to hear of libraries that have started such programs and if they have found engagement with the public. Do you see other ways that MOOCs can be incorporated into libraries and the broader reading community?  While much is still unkown concerning MOOcs, with the budget challenges that so many libraries face, the wealth of free instruction available should be seen as a valuable resource going forward.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Library's "Ground Game"

As we move ever closer to election day, we hear more and more in the news about the importance of each political party's ground game. While this has been called the first social media election, and we have been fascinated with the high-tech campaign applications and the use of social networking, many in the media are once again pointing back to the old-fashioned ground game as a vital difference-maker in the next few weeks.  Yahoo News's Walter Shapiro discussed this in a recent article, noting that while "the voter contact lists may be based on sophisticated algorithms... the streetwalkers and the door-knockers of politics still depend on time-honored techniques like broad smiles, practiced pitches and infinite patience."

I think this is a great analogy to what we as librarians face today. We can encourage eye-catching technology, we can develop great city-wide and national programs, but in developing these advanced and complex plans, we can not ignore the importance of the "ground game."  I see this often in the public libraries I visit. Access to great digital resources, and great web designs are important and do encourage users and visitors. Great pedagogically-sound early learning resources made publicly available in libraries offer another great opportunity to encourage early reading. But all these efforts are often only as effective as the on-the-ground interaction that librarians can provide for visitors.

The importance of the reference desk librarian can not be lost in the flood of technology. Similar to the political campaigns, it is the broad smiles, ready answers, and infinite patience of the youth services librarian that can make or break a child's experience with books and reading, or provide a care-giver with the critical resources to encourage such skills. A good reference desk librarian can help build a lifelong connection to the library. But the opposite is also true. As libraries face budget constraints, I too often find that the librarian sitting at the children's reference desk is not a specialist in that field, and is unable to provide users with the answers and resources they need. Alternatively, an aloof and disengaged reference desk librarian can similarly dampen user's experiences.

I am a major proponent of technology in the library. And I am also very committed to creating and disseminating learning resources to libraries to help encourage early reading. These programs and technologies can be essential to improving library usage and teaching best practices. But, it is important to remember that in most cases, these tools are only as valuable as "ground game librarians" can make them. We have to support our local and branch librarians to best facilitate the use of our far-reaching library resources.