I’m not sure if I’ve become more cynical or just more observant, but lately I feel like I’ve been seeing things through new eyes. We make so many assumptions in this profession, often based on the idea that we know what students need and want. Time and again, research has shown that we’re usually wrong. Some of the things we think are great might actually be great… just not for the average college student. Some things create a whole different set of problems. I’ve been thinking a lot about how so many of our efforts to make things simpler for our students only seem to make it more difficult for them to find the best resources for their papers. Are we making things better or just more complicated?
An example we’re dealing with now at our library involves WorldCat Local. Our library is going to be moving over to OCLC Web-Scale Management for our ILS (which I am really excited about!). Now that we’re going in with Web-Scale Management, we are going to be upgraded to the full version of WorldCat Local (which is called a discovery tool, but doesn’t hold a candle to something like Summon). Through agreements with vendors it is indexing and in some cases federating a variety of database content. But I have to wonder if doing this is going to make it easier or more difficult for students to find what they’re looking for. I’d say at least 75% of students doing research at Norwich have to cite scholarly works in their papers. When they search in WorldCat Local, they can’t limit their search to scholarly sources, so students have to look at each source and determine whether it is scholarly or not. How is this any easier for them than just going into Academic Search Premier, and limiting their search to scholarly journals? It’s searching more stuff at once, but it’s not giving students the tools they need to narrow down their search to quality sources. And as much as I’d like to believe that our information literacy sessions are churning out keen-eyed critical thinkers, too many students still can’t distinguish a blog post from a scholarly journal (as I discovered this semester when I assessed EN 101 students after their library session).
It gets even more complicated when you think about teaching all this. How do you explain this buffet of options to students when the majority of college students don’t want a buffet; they just want some relevant, authoritative options. I’ve experienced this when teaching students about Google Scholar. On its face, it seems like an easy sell. It has scholarly stuff and it’s the Google interface. ‘Nuff said. But then you find books from Google Books in there… most of which are not available in full-text… even though it may look like they are when you find a long preview. Oh yeah, and some of the books aren’t scholarly by a long shot. Uh oh, and did you just find a website with someone’s unpublished articles? And you found an article from the New York Times? And you found some random crappy website? Ok, so yes, there is an awful lot of awesome scholarly stuff in here, but unfortunately, just like with regular Google, you still have to wade through a lot of stuff (some scholarly, some not) to find what you’re looking for. And if we use WorldCat Local as a discovery service, I fear our students will have similarly frustrating experiences.
Project Information Literacy’s most recent report indicates that “students think library sources require less evaluation than information posted by anyone on the open-source Web.” When you have library search engines that are throwing everything from Time-Life books and USA Today articles to the Journal of Military History and Oxford University Press books at students, it’s scary to think that students are assuming the resources they are finding through the library are always of sufficient quality to use in their paper. Then again, I’ve even heard faculty say that to their students that anything from the library is of good quality. One of Project Information Literacy’s other reports suggests that students are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them and have difficulty making sense of the results they get. Does this seem like a group in need of more or in need of simplification and a sense of context?
Another thing I’m having a crisis of faith about is screencasting. I was one of the screencasting early adopters and promoted it in presentations and on my blog. But the more screencasts I created, and the more students I worked with, the more I realized the limitations of screencasting for providing assistance to students. I read an article about screencasting a few months ago (darned if I remember who wrote it), but it confirmed what I was beginning to suspect. The author(s) gave students an assignment for which online instruction would be helpful and then had some students use a screencast and some use an HTML tutorial. What s/he found was that while students found the screencast more engaging, they weren’t as easily able to use it to complete the assignment because they couldn’t easily switch back-and-forth between the database and the screencast. This begs the question, do most students want to watch a video of how to search a database or do they want to quickly pick out the piece(s) of information they need and move on? This, other articles and my own experience tells me that the majority of students are coming to online instruction with a specific information need and want to skip, skim and scan around until they find the answer. Satisfying an information need like that with a screencast is like students coming to the reference desk with a specific information need and us spending five minutes showing them various aspects of a database that they don’t care about. I can see screencasts being good for people who just want a basic orientation or as a required component of a class in place of face-to-face instruction (I can also see quick-and-dirty custom screencasts being useful for providing reference assistance to remote students), but the majority of people who could benefit from library instructional assistance probably have a very specific information need and would likely rather skip, skim, and scan their way to the answer.
And don’t get me started on ebooks or patron-driven acquisitions! I’ll save those for future posts. I’m not saying I have all the answers — or any of them for that matter — but I do think the answers for figuring out what our patrons need come from… wait for it… our patrons. We need to understand how they do research, how they use our current resources, why some of them don’t use the library, and what they want from the library that they’re not currently getting. So often, library surveys ask about their satisfaction with our current services, not what the ideal library would look like or how we can support their research needs. They may never even have thought about those things themselves. We need an in-depth understanding of our users, through focus groups, surveys, ethnographic studies and more. And while studies like those from Project Information Literacy are fantastic, they aren’t a substitute for studying your own unique population. Development of technologies in the library world is way too vendor and librarian-centric, when the focus should be on what it is our students really and truly need.
I’ve found learning by screencast to be slow and inconvenient. I’d rather blunder through an interface just to teach my fingers and brain what to do, or have a FAQ in front of me that I can refer to. Screencasts are more effective as surrogate “booktalks” — a lecture describing a concept or a resource.
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Interesting points of view.
At Internet Librarian in October, Greg Notess had some real reservations about discovery tools. http://waterlibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/internet-librarian-2010-part-3/
And some folks from UC Irvine made patron-driven e-book acquisitions sound perfect for academic libraries. http://waterlibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/11/27/internet-librarian-2010-part-7/
As a virtual reference librarian, I frequently encounter frustration from students who say, “I spent two hours searching for this information, and I couldn’t find anything.” Where did you look? I ask. “Google.” Or they looked in the absolutely wrong database for their subject. Or they had no idea where to begin, even if they had a vague memory of Academic Search Complete from their introductory library classes. Or their search terms are pathetic. Or their topic is unfocused. Or they are *very* confused about citation. Or something they thought they knew how to use, like Refworks, suddenly is non-functional because they took a shortcut and didn’t log on through the library website. I always hope that libraries look over these sessions because they’re excellent ways to reveal what’s wrong with library websites, what gobbledy-gook terminology we’re using (ILL anyone?), and how students want it to be easy and available right here, right now.
One solution to your screencasting dilemma may be to create smaller screencasts or to use video technology (like TubeChop) that allows you to bookmark sections of video. That way, you could combine both HTML tutorials and screencasts. Students could either watch the whole video or just jump to the parts they need.
Would that make things any easier? Or maybe that is just a helluva lot more work with little payoff…which seems to be a running theme with web tech. =(
I find that the ability to limit to scholarly sources in databases backfires, too. Students assume that all of their results will be “scholarly,” which we know means peer-reviewed. But those limiters only filter down to the source, not the article level, so students erroneously use book reviews, letters to the editor, editorials, and columns that are really not meeting the criteria of peer-reviewed. No matter how much I emphasize this in ILI sessions, it doesn’t seem to sink in.
I would love to hear your thoughts on patron driven acquisitions.
Totally agree with the sentiments behind this post. At the institution where I work, we have a federated search which searches across our library catalogs, broad databases like Academic Search Premier, web search engines like Google, and various E-Book providers. It may be a librarian’s dream–we can finally search all our holdings at once!–but it’s a patron’s nightmare. They’re almost always confused and rarely have any idea which link to click on to get to the type of resource they want. On top of that, some the links just don’t make sense: who would go to the library site to do a Google search? Why are there two entries for the library catalog and what’s the difference? Yet our solution has been to make more federated searches and add additional features, rather than make an intuitive interface in the first place.
You might be interested in reading what David Lewis, dean of libraries at IUPUI, has to say. (Try his listing in IUPUI’s IR.) He too believes that library resources have far outstripped the average undergraduate, and he thinks that’s part of a larger pattern of disrupted (in the Clayton Christensen sense) libraries.
From my privileged position nowhere near info-lit, I go back and forth. I can definitely see the advantages of letting undergrads frolic in a tiny but carefully-tended English garden, but I also wonder how well that serves them when they graduate and have to face the howling wilderness. The information world is confusing; that is a truth. How much and how long should we conceal that truth?
No argument about interfaces, though. Gah.
I sometimes have to teach students about a neighboring institution’s research tools. They have one discovery or federated search interface, and one “classic” interface for going into the library catalog and individual databases. I tell the students that they can try the newer fancier one-box interface, but that *I* find the results pages confusing, and it’s my job to understand how these tools work. When they do try it in the hands-on part of the session, confusion is a very frequent response for them too.
“The information world is confusing; that is a truth. How much and how long should we conceal that truth?”
I am not sure that is something we are capable of concealing from undergrads, even if we wanted to. The open web and TV are there, all accessible and popular.
Academic library resources are, almost by definition, not the howling wilderness. They have barriers to access and deliberate selection criteria. Personally, I think the greater disservice to graduating seniors is cutting off their academic library access, not failing to teach them how to make sense of a public information environment that is in large part senseless, sometimes deliberately so.
I might simply not be paying enough attention, but one thing I don’t see very often is academic librarians trying to prepare college students to be skilled users of public libraries. I don’t wish to overly romanticize the reliability of libraries and librarians, but “here is how you can continue to do library research similar to this after you’ve graduated” has seemed more achievable to me than “here is how you survive the howling wilderness on your own.” So that is what I have tried to do, when I have had the opportunity, which is not as often as I would like.
I’ve had frustrations with this recently too. Our classes are usually one shots, so I have forty minutes to teach students everything they need to know. I’ve found that I have perfected my search methods and examples just so I can cover everything, when in truth the whole demonstration is quite misconceiving. I do tell them of the special case scenario’s but still when I set them loose, they leave thinking it’s pretty easy, just a few clicks here and there, and I’m done with research. Of course, they discover later that it’s not all straight forward afterall, they wind up frustrated, annoyed and a lose faith in our library resources. So, back to Google they go. I have no answers yet either. 🙂 Great post, important issue to bring forth.
I’m glad to see others have the same view as me on screencasts — I found them more difficult to use as a tutorial myself while in grad school and think static/HTML tutorials are more user-friendly for completing a task (for flipping back and forth). When creating tutorials for students, I have opted for the web page/PDF instead of a video.
[…] on December 19, 2010 by simonchamberlain Discussing college students, Meredith Farkas asks ‘what do they really need?‘ She discusses innovations such as screencasting and federated searching, noting that they […]
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