The Importance of Phrasing: Librarians as (Virtual) Community Builders

So my boss wrote a blog post. And I’m totally down with it.

In it he talks about “personalized virtual communities for teaching and research” and says:

I think we’re seeing a shift occur. In the past it was “how to use a blog in your course” and now it’s “how to build an online social learning environment for your specific needs.” These conversations are the result of faculty becoming more comfortable and sophisticated using the social web. I’m finding many who are eager to expand their platforms and try new things.

And I was struck by how useful the framing was. For years I worked on this type of project. I (along with collaborators) partnered with faculty to design rich online learning environments, but we didn’t think of them that way. We thought of it more from an instructional design perspective: What goals does the faculty member have? What tools might enable them to reach those goals? How can we design the information environment to utilize appropriate tools and help them meet their goals? But really, all of this was basically creating the “personalized virtual communities for teaching” that Brian describes.
Discussion at the table - Meeting over coffee

What does it look like, you might ask. (People often do.) It’s a lot of discussion, listening, and brainstorming with the faculty member about what they hope to do with their class. A few examples of things that came out of this process:

  • A wiki platform to create a dynamic, course created encyclopedia for a sociology class that could be built on semester after semester.
  • A highly customized blog theme to allow a french class to publish a journal for french readers (particularly high school french students).
  • An easy to use process for making videos and podcasts that we frequently introduced classes to (including accounting and education classes!).
  • A google doc systems for collaborative paper writing in LIB100.
  • A google site that surpassed what the available CMS could do for online learning.

It was good work to do.

And, in fact, I wonder if the “personalized virtual communities” framing will help libraries see this as a realm that makes sense to explore. In my old way of thinking of this work, it blurred the line with what a lot of Teaching and Learning Centers do. That was the lens we used when we decided to transition this type of work to the TLC in my previous experience. However, I have always seen it as an “information environment” issue that makes sense in libraries. Even more so when I think of the “personalized virtual communities” that not only require some instructional design skill, but also information architecture, usability, and other domains that are frequently part of library work. So now, it looks like I’m back to exploring that issue (which, in many ways, has its roots in Blended Librarianship).

The Library’s Role

A topic I was batting around with a friend the other day was kind of related to this. In his organization, the library provides blogs, but not much support beyond that. (This is related to the categories of support Brian outlined.) We were wondering where the line is. Should libraries leave blogs to IT? Automate the creation of whatever web system the class is using and accounts? Offer customizations to platforms? Partner with faculty to develop a system together?

We easily agreed that the power is in the partnering. It’s not scalable, but it can create a powerful experience. And it makes use of the information expertise we bring to the table. At my library we’re framing it as more of a “boutique” experience. That is where the most value add is.

My friend and I were talking about writing something on this. I’m feeling an even stronger pull to do it now. (Watch out, friend.)

Assessing the Work

As Brian pointed out, it’s a challenge to think about how to frame this for reporting, since it’s not in any of the standard information gathering forms we deal with, and isn’t something that’s necessarily quantifiable. You can say how many virtual environments you built, but not the depth of relationships that came from the experience or the difference it made in students’ perceptions of the course or materials. That’s apparent more in stories, and shifts of attitudes about the library in the long term.


Anyway, I’m very excited about the potential in building personalized virtual learning communities, and, if you add a software engineer to the mix, the possibilities become even more compelling. And today, in 2013, with Google Glass, new online platforms, and an increasingly rich world of digital materials to work with, it’s even more exciting. Here’s to a fun (and productive!) semester!


My Experience with MOOCs (pt. 1/2)

MOOCs are all anyone seems to be talking about these days. As someone interested in good teaching, academic technology, and openness in general, it seemed it was time to participate in some to get a sense of them. So I signed up for two. I’ve drawn a lot of conclusions for both, so each is going to get a blog post. Here’s the story about my first MOOC:

Google Power Searching


Who: Designed by the folks at Google. Videos led by Daniel Russell, Senior Research Scientist at Google.

What: A series of videos that include both Russell as he talks from a couch with his laptop and screencasting. Each unit has activities for students to complete to emphasize the concept. Activities both are automated in grading and also open ended which are followed by providing a correct answer to contrast yours with. The course included both a midpoint and final exam. If you passed (percentages, according to a formula) the course you receive a certificate.


When: This course took place over a series of weeks in July. Each section had several medium-length videos to watch and activities to complete. The two assessments had a window of time in which students had to take them.

Why: I didn’t sign up for content, that’s for sure. I signed up for two (to me) very important reasons:

  1. to learn what Google thinks online education should look like
  2. to learn what content Google thinks is important

So I had very meta reasons for participating, I didn’t expect to learn much about searching that would be useful. I did and do believe that as one of the main players on the web, Google is both smart and has the power to influence fields it enters. Since it was entering online education, I figured the course would be both pretty decently designed since they are a smart group and also would have the power to shift what people think online education should be if they experienced it. Also, Google (as any of use using Analytics knows) Google is good at tracking statistics and use of websites. It stands to reason they have good data on what people do and don’t do in the search engine and would use this class to push more information out.

Learned: The main thing I learned is that Google wants to help shift people from thinking about their question to imagining what the answer will look like, and then get users to start from that place when designing a search. For example, when remembering a sandwich that was really good and wanting to find the name of it, realizing that the specific piece of information you’re looking for (name) will likely be on a recipe title, and then searching for ingredients that will likely bring back that recipe.  Or, if looking for an image of a fossil, thinking about the color of the stone it’s likely to be in and filtering that way to get to the image faster.

That’s a big, conceptual thing to teach. It’s not unlike those of us who start teaching with “what are you trying to find, now let’s think about the types of resources that have it” rather than just entering it in a multisearch environment and hoping for the best. Obviously, I did well in the class (I would hope), but it’s pretty clear that not everyone has this librarians’ approach to thinking about how to implement a search.

So that was interesting.

As a librarian who hopes to get our products simple enough to allow for library instruction to be more about critical thinking than training, I find it interesting that Google is moving toward training users rather than simplifying its tools. It’s true: to do complex searching, you need a more complex interface… as evident in our database platforms… but with that complexity comes a need for education, and it seems like Google has realized it’s getting to that space.

So, this is one MOOC I recommend to librarians. You might not need to watch every video–I’ll admit, at the end as I got busier preparing for fall, I paid less attention to the videos I saw–but you’ll get a good sense of where Google’s headed and good, specific things to teach your class. (Here’s a tip: ctrl+F and quotes for phrased searching will make a world of difference to your students.)

Stay tuned for post #2 on a very different MOOC experience.

Curriculum Mapping, Threshold Concepts, and LIB100

I’m home sick. The whole family is. And this is day two of it.

Luckily, today I’m well enough to pick up a computer, and John and I are trading off watching the little one and resting. With classes starting up next week I’m using my resting time to work on my course design. I’d been planning to completely rework it in light of some second half of the semester developments, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

This is quite a change for me. For the past four sections or so, I’ve let the students plan for me. I’ve had a rough idea of what they should do mapped out ahead of time, but I’ve walked in on the first day and let the students make a list of what they expected to get out of the class when they signed up for it and what they hoped for. I’d use the day between classes to take their information and plan it out. This time, though, I need to do the planning ahead of time:

Planning LIB100

Thanks to Brian Mathews, and a blog post of his, I’ve had a few concepts floating around in the back of my head, but I hadn’t taken the time to look them up and think about them. A few days at home is apparently all I needed. So, through the lens of course planning, here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

Curriculum Mapping

Curriculum mapping looks like it has a lot of possibilities. I’m just in day one of learning about it, but from here, it looks like it’s powerful on the course level as well as the curriculum wide level. Brian and Char Booth both have a lot good to say about the framework, especially from a eagle-eye, big-picture view of curriculum at the university. I’m really interested in that, but in the immediate term, I’m interested in its application to my lib100 class.

From the onset, it looks a lot like how I’ve been approaching backwards course design. And all that really is, is:

  1. Determining your learning outcomes.
  2. Figuring out what could prove your students learned those outcomes.
  3. Figuring out what you could do to get your students ready to prove that they learned those outcomes.

I normally do this by applying the ADDIE Model, but that’s another post. What I like about curriculum mapping is this formalized process that forces you to articulate exactly what you think you’re doing and what you’re hoping to achieve. By writing it out in detail, once it’s time for assessment, you can pay much closer attention to what role your teaching played in the learning that happened in your class. I’m still working on my map, but once it’s done I’ll share it online in case you’re interested.

And then, I’ll start thinking about what this means curriculum wide.

Threshold Concepts

The other big idea for me lately (again, thanks to Brian), was Threshold Concepts. I was incredibly lucky to get to hear Ray Land, himself, speak on Threshold Concepts at a local teaching conference (video behind the link, bonus points for picking out my head :) ) the other day. If you’re interested, I posted my initial thoughts on my library’s professional development blog. Some notes especially relevant here:

The idea of a Threshold Concept makes perfect sense once you hear about it. It’s those pieces of knowledge that change who you are as a person and how you see the world. You cannot unlearn them. The example that resonated most with me was that after taking women’s studies courses, you can’t see the world the same: family is different, work is different, your expectations for your own role change. He also pointed to other familiar concepts like evolution, deconstructionism, and very specific discipline based concepts like “photoprotection in plants” or “confidence to challenge” in design.

Throughout Land’s presentation I was thinking about what this means for information literacy instruction. I could think of two of those major shifts I went through. One was that there was an economics of information. As a child, prior to learning about employment, publishing models, tenure, and the like, I thought people sought out knowledge because that was important to do. And they made true knowledge available because that was the right thing to do with it. It never occurred to me that certain questions were asked because the investigator could get a grant to support the research or because it was something that could get published by a journal that was trying to make money. This was a major Threshold Concept for me. Another was that there are complex systems that might reveal information that would otherwise be unknowable. A librarian specifically taught me this when showing me Web of Science to track citations for a philosophy paper. Learning this system showed me a new type of information that I didn’t even understand could exist prior to that session. And learning it helped me realize that there were probably lots of other types of information out there that could only be revealed through these complex systems that I also did not even know existed. (…making libraries all the more exciting!)

[I chatted with a colleague] about how for today’s students, that you can’t find everything on Google is a Threshold Concept. It didn’t occur to me because search wasn’t so useful when I was in college. It was clear you’d have to do something to go beyond whatever you found on the web for an academic paper. Today’s students have a very different experience. And learning that they would have to go beyond the web is a certain Threshold Concept: it’s troublesomeknowledge in that they prefer the old world they lived in where Google could get them everything, it’s irreversible that once they learn about how limited that world is they’ll know they have to keep looking elsewhere for information, it’s integrative that it becomes part of who they are to continue to have to seek information through more complex means, and on and on.

Land mentioned that some faculty are reconstructing their classes around Threshold Concepts since they’re the ones that take more of a personal approach to helping students fully understand them and integrate them into their understanding. These faulty take the approach that the rest (or much of the rest) are details that can be self-taught, found through another resource, or could be taught in class to bolster the Threshold Concept.

Obviously, as I’m planning my class, I’m currently thinking of how to make clear the Threshold Concept of “it’s not all on Google.” However, I’m also interested in the next step Brian points out in his blog post: on how librarians can help students acquire the Threshold Concepts of their disciplines.  But first… I have to finish this syllabus!