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.

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.