Conferences, end of semester, and summer projects oh my

I’ve noticed in my few years in academia that the year steamrolls until by this time, with just a few short weeks left until spring finals are over, staff, faculty, and students alike are running even in their sleep to keep up. Have you woken up at night to scrawl a note or set a reminder on your phone lately? Me too.

It doesn’t help in the library world that we seem to load all our conferences into a window from late spring to early summer. I’m sure this has to do with making sure people can attend before they are off for the summer if they are faculty or are on a 180 schedule. For those of us who work year round, it is probably a well-intended attempt to get us all fired up for that mythical time in the summer when we are “free” to do projects.

I’ve never really seen summer projects get completed, at least not the long lists we all make in the winter during planning meetings. I’ve got several large projects on the horizon myself, although I am trying to be reasonable and actually said no to something last week. I also have the inevitable end of the academic year  hiring committees,  plus co-chairing One Book One Manchester, our community wide read, with the city library director. I’m still distilling the notes from attending the Association of College and Research Libraries 2019 conference in Cleveland a little over a week ago, and I’m going to a few other learning opportunities or mini conferences in the next couple of months. I have some amazing opportunities coming up to do research, work on student success efforts, and participate in collaborative work on Open Educational Resources on my campus and in our community college system.

This is all super exciting — I’ve never had this many professional development, continuing education, and collaboration opportunities at once, nor so much institutional support for my growth as a librarian and educator. I’m fortunate. But I’m sitting here tonight wondering why the end of the academic year is this stacked up. Why don’t we have conferences in March? Why don’t we set more reasonable expectations for what can happen in the summer (when many people will also take vacations)? Why don’t we (ok, I) take on one project at a time?

For me it’s been a perfect storm, as I say, of support and opportunities that are too amazing not to try. But one thing I heard often at ACRL 2019 was that we have to caution against being overwhelmed by expectations, we have to help ourselves and those who work for us by setting boundaries such as actually taking lunch breaks, not working late or going in early every day, and managing to say no sometimes. I also heard an interesting talk by Fobazi Ettarh about not succumbing to “vocational awe” by making librarianship out to be the saving grace for everyone and everything on our campuses. Ettarh suggested being a “bad librarian” can be good, by which she meant, have a life outside of work, don’t sacrifice your social life or your well being to serve librarianship, and call out libraries and librarianship for the things we don’t get right, as well as celebrating what we do.

It was also my great pleasure to walk up and introduce myself like a total fan girl to Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, ACRL’s Academic/Research Librarian of the Year, to ask her how she does it. She works in a library with 2 librarians, like I do. I wanted to know her secret to doing more with less. Her advice? Take care of yourself, so you can take care of others. Take your lunch. Go home on time. So as we enter the last few weeks of the semester I will be working hard to work less hard — to come home to my family in the evenings close to when they are expecting me. To take a real break every day. To keep myself physically and mentally rested, hydrated, and happy.  I’m going to try to give myself permission to be more like my favorite Zen master, a grey tabby called Gwen:

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We’re going to go curl up with a book now.

 

 

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Do OERs impact success or “just” save students money?

The answer is complicated. As Open Education Week wrapped up, I read a thought provoking press release and the research it discusses. The paper, by Phillip Grimaldi, director of research at OpenStax, Rice University’s peer-reviewed OER* publisher, and colleagues Debshila Basu Mallick, Andrew E. Waters, and Richard G. Baraniuk, examines the “access hypothesis” and the trouble with studying it — unless you identify which students would not have had access to the traditional textbook, your results will be somewhat murky, because it will include students for whom access was not a problem. As the press release notes:

“Using OER could potentially make a very significant difference in course outcomes for a student who couldn’t afford the traditional textbook, and would try to make do without it,” Baraniuk said. “In short, the ‘access hypothesis’ could very well be accurate, but since it’s only relevant to a certain percentage of any class, those benefits are washed out when measuring outcomes of the entire class.”

Saving students money, however, also contributes to their success. In a far less scientific (ok, not scientific at all) survey that we did this week with a white board in our college’s main entrance, we asked students to share what they would spend money on if they didn’t have to buy textbooks and access codes. Here is a sampling of their responses:

food (another entry was “food for my children”)

paying off student debt

transportation

visiting a loved one in another state

saving money to take another class

saving for an apartment

childcare so I could study or participate in group projects

clothing and shoes

a home

So are OERs important to student success? Yes. Do they directly impact it? Sometimes. Do they make it possible for students to attend to their lives and responsibilities so that they are less stressed out and distracted by financial worries? Absolutely.

OERs matter.

*What are OERs?

“Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them.OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.” (UNESCO).

OER is related to “textbook free” — a textbook free course or degree may include OERs but often includes library and other reading materials, placed on reserve or uploaded to Canvas (or other learning management systems) and used according to copyright and fair use guidelines.

What’s the difference between “free” and “open?” Open educational resources are licensed to be re-used, while free just means there is no paywall to access something. Both benefit students!

 

The Misinformation Age

Apologies to those of you who follow both blogs, but I definitely have to share topics across blogs this week.  I’ve written a post over at bookconscious about a book that is very relevant to librarians who teach information literacy — The Misinformation AgeHow False Beliefs Spread  by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall.

How do we help our students understand the level of mediation they face when they are seeking information, or even just passively receiving it? My colleagues and I spend a good deal of time thinking about this, and I think the answer is one interaction at a time. All we can do is talk to our students, in class visits, individual reference interactions, and research consultations, and remind them in the course of those conversations that information is packaged, targeted, framed, manipulated, and selectively shared, and then mediated further by search engines and discovery tools. I think helping them see that they are probably always operating within a limited view of the big picture is healthy. I’ve taken to telling classes, it’s not that they shouldn’t trust information or that they should have a mental list of “trustworthy” sources (a concept I try to get them to  question anyway), but that information literate people should try to understand where information comes from and what the motivations of the people who published or posted it are.

Obviously that just scratches the surface, but I think it’s an important start and will serve many undergraduate students well in their research for assignments. Once they know who published something and why, they can move on to ask more questions: Who agrees and disagrees with this information? Is the disagreement based on facts or opinions? What evidence supports or doesn’t support this information? Is there a balance bias in the reporting? This my latest goal, to help students see that it’s actually biased to present different views as having equal merit when they don’t (for example, because one isn’t based in fact, or is held by a very small minority but is presented as a mainstream view).

The good news is that information literacy — the skills and habits of mind that make it possible to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly — can only help them. Some of our students may go on to take an active role in stopping the spread of misinformation or fighting it, in science, media, or policy-making roles. Others will not have an active role beyond being intentional about what they click on or share in their own networks, but they’ll know what to watch for as they consume information. Some of them will work for marketing, commercial, political or even media interests that are engaged in the work of misinforming the public, intentionally or as a result of serving their own interests above the public good. I like to think some bit of what they learn about information literacy will stay with them, wherever they end up.

I can’t recommend The Misinformation Age highly enough. I hope you’ll check out my review and either ask your librarian for it or if you’re a librarian, order it for your collection.

New year, new reading data

As tends to happen, the end of the semester bustle combined with the holidays kept me from posting here — but I did get in some wonderful end of the year reading time. For more on that, check out my other blog, bookconscious. Here at Nocturnal Librarian, I write fairly often about examining assumptions, so when I came across this reading habits infographic page today in a newsletter, I was intrigued. I was fresh from absorbing the many wonderful examples of graphical presentation of data at the Information Is Beautiful 2018 awards page over the weekend so I was primed for some more infographics.

I find some of this unsurprising — it’s well known among people in the book world that reading is still quite popular, for example. But bits of this were really interesting. For example, I had no idea Estonia and India were such book loving cultures. Or that all but one of the eight most checked out books from Australian libraries are Harry Potter volumes. Hey America, do we ever try to determine the most checked out library books here? We apparently DO track the bestselling books, but I know the infographic is not accurate because it doesn’t list Becoming, which Publisher’s Weekly reported was the bestselling book of 2018, in the “Top 20 Print Books of 2018.”

The part most relevant to me as a college librarian are the reading “myths” and the stats on eReading.  I was especially interested in the data on reading eBooks on computers, which happens more than on eReaders, a stat I can only assume is related to the increase in academic eBooks, which students (including this one) often read on their laptops rather than phones or tablets. And I love that indexes are still popular with readers.

I’m not sure that I’d swear by this infographic, but it certainly got my attention and got me thinking about the assumptions we make in my library about readers and reading — that people aren’t reading for pleasure, that they won’t read eBooks, that we have to teach them how to download eBooks, that for our busy students, magazines might be preferable.  I’d like to learn more in the new year about our patrons’ reading tastes and habits. College campuses are survey-saturated, but I’m hoping to talk to our regular borrowers and also to get out of the library more and ask people who maybe aren’t coming in what they read. Most of all I’d like to keep on questioning assumptions!

Two tech stories

One of the things both academic and public libraries provide is internet access; it’s hard to carry this out of the building. A few library systems lend wifi hotspots but I recently looked into this and they are reliant on cell phone coverage since the cell providers offer the hotspots, and where there is poor coverage (outside of towns and cities), there is poor wifi. Nearly all the papers students write in high schools and colleges depend on their access to search engines of various kinds, whether databases their schools subscribe to or the ubiquitous giant search engine that starts with a G. Two stories caught my eye this week, related to the need for students to do online research and challenge of getting internet access to rural areas.

First, Pew Research Center studied public trust of algorithms. While their study focused on the kinds of algorithms that make decisions — like who should be hired (algorithms are used to screen resumes and applicants’ answers on job applications), be up for parole, or get certain financial perks — it also looked at attitudes towards the algorithms that decide what you see on social media. Majorities of people in the Pew study don’t trust algorithms, yet, whenever I teach an information literacy class, I have a hard time convincing students that the results they see when they search online are delivered to them not because they’re the best sources around but based on algorithms that calculate what they should see, based on what else they’ve seen and clicked on.

Similarly, many people I know seem to feel confident that while there are misleading or “bot” generated “news” stories online, they don’t see anything like that in their social media feeds. And yet, what we see on social media is also highly controlled by proprietary and opaque algorithms that are controlled by a handful of tech companies. While I don’t know any students who use those sources for their academic papers, I have started asking classes where they get news and stay current, and they nearly all say social media. So, I guess I need to keep talking about algorithms, because people seem to be properly cautious of those, even as they seem to trust the name brands that use algorithms to control the information they see.

The second story that I saw is about an obscure FCC rule that currently exacerbates unequal access to high speed internet access. Just under 1 in 5 students can’t get online at home in rural parts of America. But it turns out there is actually an “untapped spectrum” that due to this little known rule sits available for broadband right now, and the FCC will soon decide whether it can be licensed by school districts rather than sold to internet companies. Since this spectrum was originally “reserved for educational television broadcasts in the 1960s,” it makes sense that the FCC should license it to schools and help mitigate broadband inequality. States that are hoping for access to the spectrum have plans to “broadcast wirelessly into surrounding rural communities” from existing wired school internet networks.

Would that mean fewer people in the library? It would certainly mean fewer people in the parking lot and outside the front door trying to get on the wifi. And it might mean a new role for libraries, as partners in this kind of statewide broadband program, or maybe even more appreciation for school libraries (which have suffered cuts all over the U.S.), because librarians can play a key role in teaching students the information literacy skills they will need to be good researchers.

 

 

The undead and the unfree

Grad school started back up so I’ve been busy. But two stories caught my eye this Halloween. One was about a library in the Atlanta area offering a pandemic program with a zombie theme. The library had “a bit of pushback from staff about the zombie-themed marketing.” But the programming coordinator went for it anyway. The program sounded great — a public health information session on preparing for emergencies, learning about vaccines, and understanding pandemics. Perhaps some staff thought it was too frivolous a marketing theme for a serious subject. But since it is a really important topic, shouldn’t the marketing be designed to attract the most people possible?

Meanwhile, I also read yet another story about prisons banning books, and requiring prisoners to use their eReaders instead (at a high cost). Right now my library had an inter-library loan that is overdue at the federal prison in our state. They aren’t easy to lend to — my access services coordinator says this is not the first time they’ve held onto an item long past its due date. But this article gave me pause and made me realize what a valuable service it is to lend to prisons. Reading in jail has been linked to lower rates of recidivism. Books can help inmates learn about the laws that have impacted their lives. And I certainly couldn’t live without books. It seems to me that if people have lost their freedom we don’t need to also refuse them access to information and reading. It also seems silly to ban books rather than just inspect them with greater scrutiny.

Happy Halloween.

More knowledge for good: research as resistance

I heard about a project recently that I somehow missed — Emily Dreyfuss wrote in Wired about it in June, when the family separation crisis was still in the public eye. A band of what Columbia University librarian Alex Gil is quoted as calling “digital ninjas” from all over came together online, gathered data from public records, and created Torn Apart/Separados, “an interactive web site that visualizes the vast apparatus of immigration enforcement in the US, and broadly maps the shelters where children can be housed.” This must have taken forever, right? It took a week.

That, my friends, is some serious bad-ass librarianship. Torn Apart/Separados Volume 2, which is live now, shows “the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA. This data & visualization intervention peels back layers of culpability behind the humanitarian crisis of 2018.”

Did I mention how badass these people are? This is all just volunteers using their research skills to shine a light on some serious darkness. Alex Gil also created what he calls a Nimble Tents Toolkit, so that other researches can put together their own “relief mapathon” (Gil was also involved in mapping Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to help aid workers) or “rapid response research.”

I told a class today that I freakin’ love Wikipedia — they stared at me, the crazy librarian with the rainbow chickens and colorful cat on my door raving about the beauty of making all human knowledge available to all humans — but they listened when I said that crowd-sourced knowledge is what will keep the world moving forward. I asked them what was more important, that a source accurately express a well reasoned, well supported opinion, even an unpopular one, or that it be strictly factual and “unbiased.”

By the time we were done, we’d had a very heartening conversation about how their generations (mostly 20s and 30s — yes, those very same Gen Y and Millenials that so many people malign, who in my view are our future and are doing the best they can with what they have to work with) are tearing apart old definitions and building a more equitable, inclusive world. And that taking a stand — being “biased” by naming your values, gathering data, and making a rock solid argument in favor of a better world, a better future — is why they are in college.

I am glad to be part of the same profession as Gil and other badass librarians. And I am glad I could strike a chord today with a few students who are going to feel a little bit better about crowd-sourced knowledge and about taking a stand (properly cited, APA or MLA, your choice).

Knowledge panels, and Wikipedia as a force for good

In my information literacy classes I frequently blow students’ minds (and faculty even more so) by praising Wikipedia. I’m a librarian, aren’t I supposed to be telling them that Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source? I don’t. I tell them truthfully that I love Wikipedia, which is a community of people who agree with Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, that all humans should have access to all human knowledge. It is a great example, like citizen science project Galaxy Zoo, of the power of crowd-sourcing.

And now I’ve read that Wikipedia and many of its dedicated collaborators are working to help local newspapers be better represented on its site, which is the source of many “knowledge panels” on Google and Facebook, through a project called Newspapers on Wikipedia (NOW). In a terrifically interesting article on Medium, Eni Mustafaraj explains why this project and knowledge boxes matter.

If you’re thinking you don’t know what the heck a knowledge panel is, you do. Here’s one:

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It’s that little box that appears in the upper right part of your screen, or at the top of your results list, in Google. Mustafaraj and colleagues looked into how knowledge boxes can unduly influence publics’ understanding of news sites’ credibility. Some sites’ knowledge boxes seem to be watered-down or spiced up to make them seem more reliable or inoffensive.

Mustafaraj notes that a benefit of the NOW project is that many smaller community papers will be better represented not only on Wikipedia but also with knowledge panels, which come mainly from Wikipedia entries. So once again Wikipedia is a force for good in the struggle for information literate. There I go again, equating Wikipedia and information literacy. Yes. It’s a great place for students to learn to decide for themselves how thoroughly an article has been written, cited, and edited. It’s a place where knowledge professionals and subject matter experts converge to share what they create with all humanity. It’s a place that is democratizing access to a wider variety of news sources than most Americans are routinely exposed to.

But, as Mustafaraj explains, knowledge panels aren’t necessarily providing people with accurate information, and they may not even address a source’s reliability or accuracy. Some of the examples she provides are quite eye opening — Google and Facebook are claiming publicly to fight fake news and even have a tool —  knowledge panels — to help publics find out about sources, but these powerful companies are not always using those tools to inform. Here’s the link to Mustafaraj‘s article again in case you are too discouraged to scroll up.

What is nontraditional? Who is online?

Librarians aren’t the only ones who categorize information. Humans are really, really comfortable sticking with what we know, and rejecting whatever counters what we know. It’s all a part of our brain’s effort to defend us from the unknown — a phenomena known as confirmation bias.

For example, everyone knows that most college freshmen are 18-19 year olds whose parents pay for everything  right? Obviously not. But, I’ll bet that your brain was cozying up to at least one thing in that sentence: that college freshmen are 18-19. I have to admit, even though I am opposed to stereotypes and I work at a community college, where the population is diverse in many different ways, I fell for that part myself. I know not everyone in college today is fresh out of high school, but I would have said the majority of students are.

Wrong. I came across an article on NPR’s website about a researcher whose work is to study these demographics (Alexandria Walton Radford) and it turns out what college administrators and faculty call “nontraditional” students are actually the majority and have been for some time. You can see all the traits that are included in “nontraditional” in the article. Things like not being a recent high school grad (or not graduating from high school at all), having kids or caring for other family members, working full time, going to college part time, being on their own financially, etc. The article notes that according to Radford’s research, “close to 74 percent of undergrads” meet one of the criteria she uses to define nontraditional, and around 66% meet more than one.

Turns out FiveThirtyEight wrote about this two years ago. But the mainstream culture continues to hold onto the stereotype. Speaking of, another common stereotype our confirmation bias loves is “everyone” is online. Everyone has the internet in their pockets, right? We’re all zipping around shopping, playing games, and streaming movies wherever we go? That’s also wrong. As I recently noted, Pew Research Center reports that 1/3 of adults in America don’t have high speed internet access at home, and many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Today I read that Pew delved deeper into this research and fully 58% of rural Americans feel their lack of broadband internet access is “a problem” (24% think it’s a major problem, and 34% say it’s a minor problem). Rural Americans are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to never go online at all — 22% don’t, which really shocked me. Only 66% have smartphones, versus 83% of city dwellers.

So, no everyone is online. And college students are much more diverse in age, experience, and financial standing than we think. All of this very much impacts academic library services because I think it’s safe to say our confirmation biases tell us that online resource and service are what “everyone” using our libraries wants or needs.  And we tell ourselves “everyone” can get to our services, especially since mobile access is often growing (possibly because our students can’t afford laptops, but that’s another blog post). But the conversation on my campus lately is that these assumptions are not only wrong, they are important for us to counter, because some of our students are simply not able to access what they need to for class because not everyone is online. I’ve looked into wifi hotspots, which some public libraries lend, but for students who live outside of areas with good cell coverage (I lose cell coverage between work and home frequently) this may not be a viable solution.

As librarians, we need to check our confirmation bias, examine who our patrons really are and what they need, and think about alternatives.

Is textbook adoption immoral?

On Friday a higher ed newsletter headline caught my eye: “Outrage over university’s $999 online textbook.” It wasn’t a typo — the book for a 200 level accounting course at University of Louisiana at Lafayette costs that much.

A couple of weeks ago I attended my community college system’s annual summer symposium. The most compelling presentation I heard was from Robin DeRosa of Plymouth State University. She talked about a subject I’d spent a good bit of time thinking about this summer: OERs, or Open Educational Resources. If you haven’t heard of them, here is UNESCO’s definition: “Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.”

Like community colleges around the country, mine is concerned with making education as affordable as possible, and one of our system-wide efforts is to make OERs a priority. I put together a LibGuide for my campus so that faculty can see some choices and learn about how to adopt/adapt/create their own, and I have found some faculty are already doing this. So I was already an OER believer.

Novelist Paul Harding speaks of writing so readers will think “That’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.” That was how I felt, listening to DeRosa. I already knew much of what she said — students often don’t have a plan for textbook costs like they do for tuition, 2/3 of students report either dropping a class because of expensive textbooks or not buying a textbook because of cost, students who can’t afford textbooks do worse in their classes, and textbook costs have risen more than healthcare.

But then she delivered the words I knew but hadn’t heard said that way before: we’re preventing access to knowledge by continuing to require traditional textbooks, and for those of us in “public” education (in NH, the university system where DeRosa works only receives 10% of its funds from state appropriations) this is a moral issue. She wondered aloud, how can educators require our students can’t afford, in good conscience? How can we support a system that is inhibiting the transmission of knowledge?

And then she went on to describe how she worked on an OER early American literature book collaboratively with her students. This work is known as open pedagogy, and really appeals to me as exactly what education should be about: students not as consumers, but agents of their own education, synthesizing what they learn in work that demonstrates not only mastery, but application of their new understanding to a real world problem or question. Our son was fortunate to have a professor, Patricia Siplon, who was ahead of the curve on this at St. Michael’s College and a few years ago, he was in her class on the politics of HIV/AIDS, where the final project was to write a chapter for a textbook she planned to use with future classes. That’s open pedagogy: learning, synthesizing and producing knowledge, collaboratively.

DeRosa’s class’s anthology is now a Rebus project and she predicts that by the time it is finished later this year, it will replace traditional print anthologies sold in college bookstores around the world. Rebus is a place where people come together to work on OERs. I am hopeful that this is the future of textbooks. Librarians’ role in OERs and open pedagogy is simple. We just need to do what we already do best: teach the research skills that help faculty and students seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and then collect, index, and make accessible the knowledge creation happening on our campuses.