New semester, same challenges

We’re about to enter week two of the fall semester, and even though a new term always provides some of that fresh start feeling, some things never change. For example, printers are always surprised that students are back and generally respond by jamming, making print jobs disappear, or otherwise malfunctioning. Students are sometimes surprised to realize they have no idea what their login information is to get into the various systems that can tell them what time their classes are and in which rooms, who their professors are, and what they need to know about their classes, either because they forgot their logins over the summer or they are new and aren’t even sure they know what it is or where to login yet. Ditto on how to get into or find their college email.

Students don’t always arrive on campus digitally literate, or in other words, able to use the technology we expect them to in college (which is often some of the same technology we all had to learn at work, never by osmosis). Just because they can text and use apps doesn’t mean they can navigate various portals and systems that contain the vital information every department on campus thinks they should immediately take in. They may have limited experience with email and word processing and other productivity tools, and they’ve mostly, at least at my community college, never seen a learning management system before (like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle).

But the default in higher education is to assume they can master all this at the same time they are adjusting generally to the freedom and responsibility of college. Some of our students are fresh from twelve years of public school where they had very little freedom and nearly no personal responsibility other than to show up and follow directions. Others may have worked and have some experience making sure they get where they need to be on time and manage their tasks independently, but even these more worldly new students are often in the same boat as recent high school graduates when it comes to digital literacy — they may know a few more tools, but not those specific to higher education, and possibly they worked at places where they had limited access to technology outside their very specific responsibilities.

The library and learning commons staff find ourselves helping students who’ve been told on the first day of class to print a module or syllabus without really knowing what that means — not where to find those, not what they are, not how to print the on the mysterious campus printing system. I’ve been thinking about this digital literacy gap ever since hearing Ben Remillard, a doctoral candidate at UNH who also teaches at a community college and has experience working in student success programs in learning commons settings, speak about it at LAANE last fall. His point was that simply expecting students to grasp what we’re talking about when we tell them to start using their “EasyLogin” to get into multiple systems and tools doesn’t work. We wouldn’t onboard someone into a workplace that way, so why do we expect students to just start using everything at once without any training?

This is closely related to another perennial back-to-school struggle for librarians: convincing faculty to wait to schedule information literacy instruction until a few weeks into the semester, once students have had a chance to get familiar with all the digital tools and systems we throw at them, and they have a research assignment to work on. I always get requests to come on the first day of class or sometime in the first 2-3 weeks to “teach databases.” My gentle response is always that it might work better for students — resulting in better work for their faculty to assess — if we schedule information literacy instruction for later.

And that we don’t really “teach databases,” but instead teach students to seek, find, assess, and use information to answer a question or solve a problem. Because if we start by talking about databases when they don’t even know what that means yet, we’ve lost them. They’ll think using the library is too hard. I hear it often: a student will say that all this info lit stuff is fine for other people, but they can never find what they need that way so they “just Google.” I suspect no one has ever taken the time to help them see that the same skills they use to “just Google” can be honed until they are able to use them to successfully tap into the many collections of information — which is all Google is, really — they now have access to in college. And it’s hard to teach people to identify their information need before they have one, so tying this kind of work to an actual assignment is much more meaningful.

I am not one to let the perfect get in the way of the good; if it’s not possible can’t get on the schedule to work with a class unless it happens in week one, I’m there. At least letting students know who I am, how to find me and my library and learning commons colleagues and how to get in touch with us, and a teeny bit about our resources is better than never getting a chance to meet students and reveal the wonders of the library website to them! But I do think that until students have a chance to get comfortable with all the digital tools afforded to them as college students, they won’t be able to fully absorb everything we librarians have to say about information literacy. And until we help them see what they can already do with technology and how it relates to the new tools they’re expected to use, we can’t close the digital literacy gap and help them succeed.

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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).