Research methods and networks

I was delighted to be selected as a 2019 Institute for Research Design in Librarianship scholar. IRDL “is designed to bring together a diverse group of academic and research librarians who are motivated and enthusiastic about conducting research but need additional training and/or other support to perform the steps successfully.” At the week long institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I met the other 22 scholars and spent each day learning research methods, having consultations with qualitative and quantitative research experts and the two project directors, and basically geeking out over libraries and library research. I learned so much about research methods; I feel confident in my research design and methodology and equipped to carry out my work, which is to create and study a program in which peer Learning Success Mentors share information literacy and learning science tips with new students at my community college.

But the most important thing I gained is a research network. I would have taken a research methods class (although not in a week and not in such a beautiful place). But getting to know other people who are interested in which design will best answer a research question, how to write an in-depth interview guide and develop a codebook to analyze the transcripts, when to use regression theory, and why this matters to librarianship is not an experience I could every have had without IRDL. Knowing I can call on my fellow IRDLers and starting in July, my mentor, an experienced research librarian who will support me through the year’s work, is also pretty awesome.

The coming year will be difficult — I’ll be working harder than I ever have, trying things I’ve never done, working to deadlines, all on a project with a lot of moving parts that may not turn out as I hope. It’s pretty daunting. But so was getting on a plane to LA, being away for nine days, worrying about whether I’d be able to hold my own at the Institute. And in the coming year, the best part is that each of my fellow IRDL scholars will be doing what I am doing — holding ourselves to getting the work done, and standing with each other as we prioritize our research among all the other demands on our time. They are an amazingly talented group. I feel like I upped my game just being with them all for a week. Plus, I earned some pretty cool badges (yes, literal ones, not virtual).

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It’s great to be home, and I am excited to be on this research journey in such good company.

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!

 

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.

 

 

Creating lifelong information seekers

On a library instruction email list I read, there was a recent discussion that included an interesting point: when we teach the use of databases to college students, it’s both worthwhile and in line with our mission of producing lifelong information seekers and users to note that once students graduate, they can often access databases through their public libraries.

The thread stayed with me. First of all I like the idea of fostering a continuum of library use. There’s a natural progression from toddler story times to college library users (although we often lose them in their teens), and if we can pay it forward in academia by encouraging our students to return to their local libraries when they need information in the future, we should.

Second, I think it’s useful to think of what we’re doing in larger terms than just helping students learn what they need for the current assignment. Informed citizens are good for our country and our local communities. If we can play a part in preparing students to find, evaluate, and use information well, and also influence those students to become lifelong library users,  it will hopefully be helpful to them, good for society, and good for our profession.

As I prepare for my first full semester of library instruction, I’m going to keep these things in mind and be sure to remind students that the skills they are applying to their papers can be just as helpful later when they want to learn a new skill, research places to live or work, find out about health concerns for their parents and schools for their kids, and much more, and that their local library will be a resource for them as they go into the world. Do you talk about these kinds of things in your information literacy program? Leave a comment and share your ideas.

 

More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.