On the Relationship Between the Web and Instruction

I have spent a majority of my professional life focused on two areas: learning and instruction & the web. I find these areas to be the most fascinating to me, and I love them equally, though they might not appear related at first glance.

Much of traditional library instruction is teaching people how to navigate and use the library website. How to find databases, how to pick a database from the list, how to search within it: none of these are skills that make sense outside of our own constructed online environment. Of course, instruction also includes finding and evaluating information on the general web, critical thinking, thesis formation, and other skills, but a bulk of our instruction has focused on the library’s website and the websites of the third party products we offer our communities.

surveying the damage

Usability testing has always been fun for me, either from a web perspective or an instructional one. Usability testing is extremely valuable as an instructor. In really watching and hearing our users navigate our tools, we learn about how people approach the site and we see the common pitfalls users might make. This is a goldmine for instructors. When you see the same miss-step time and time again, you know you have something worth talking about in class.

Of course, this information is useful to a web professional as well. They see this issue and can actually fix it. Win win for everyone. My teaching was more effective, once the change was made the website was more intuitive, and the user had a better chance of success in their work at either point.

Much of the web (at least on the design side) is about how to set up a space where people can get what they need as easily as possible. I have found this to be, essentially, an instruction task. How do you set up a site so that it teaches the user how to use it? How do you frame the information in a way that is intuitive to its users? These questions can be informed by good instructional design, the feedback from users, and judicious use of analytics data.

Wether it’s using the website to find information (we teach people how to), to market what we do (the website teaching people about what we’re up to), or just informing people about the organization (signals sent through design and selection of images and creation of video), it’s all about teaching the users in one form or another. And that is why, in my own head, I have a hard time keeping the web distinct from the instruction mission of a library.

Make It Easier To Learn

I am really enjoying listening to Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.  It’s good enough I’m probably going to want it on paper by the end of the book. I was interested in it due to my interest in clear thinking, but I also had a predisposition to be interested in the author due to his fascinating work on happiness:

There are a number of interesting and useful concepts in the book, but today I’m thinking about the idea of cognitive ease.

Kahneman is also well known as a nobel prize winner for his work on prospect theory. This is, roughly, the idea that people are more likely to act to avoid loss than to achieve a gain. In his work is a warning that we are not the rational players that economists would believe that we are. Part of the discussion he has on this issue is that when we feel cognitive ease, we’re likely to focus on that, and believe it, rather than something that causes cognitive stress or strain. Obviously, in a book focused on helping the reader identify their own cognitive biases and how to think past them, Kahneman points out qualities of cognitive ease so we can be aware when we’re feeling them and be more skeptical of the information. However, I also heard in that section very specific instructions for a good user design/experience. So what produces cognitive ease?

  • Maximize legibility (clear fonts, contrasting backgrounds, use bold to emphasize the important points)
  • Use simple language when possible
  • Make a memorable message (slogans, catch phrases, etc)

Good design? It sets people up for cognitive ease. Good communication skills? Also sets people up for cognitive ease. User experience? The same. Which I’ve always focused on as an aspect of making it easier for people to learn and incorporate information.  Though from Kahneman’s work I now see something that should have been obvious before: that’s it’s not always employed for good.

That being the case, I’d like to think that libraries and educators are doing good, and any work we can do to create environments of cognitive ease for our patrons and students would be a good thing. And it appears I’m not the first person interested in design to make the connection between Kahneman’s cognitive ease and good design. Check out his stuff, at a minimum scan the wikipedia entry. It’s good context for our work!

Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary Change

Some of you know my husband, John Borwick, has started a business: Higher Ed IT Management. His company focuses on coaching and other educational engagements to help make higher education IT better. From his website:

consulting and custom training engagements to help higher education improve how IT is managed. These engagements can be “pull” engagements from IT or “push” engagements by administrators or governance outside IT. We work with on-campus champions to build institutional capabilities for managing IT: capabilities such as project management, service management, continual improvement, or IT governance. We understand higher education and believe that outside groups must assist and coach in improvements, rather than lead them, for the improvement to take root.

It’s really interesting work, and John is particularly good at it.

Anyway, as part of his work, he maintains a blog on these issues. And a lot of the topics he addresses are relevant to our (library) interests as well. To some extent it’s useful because it’s helpful for libraries (in this case academic libraries) to understand how other units we might collaborate with (campus IT) function.

But in a different vein, it’s useful because a lot of the concepts apply to our world as well. The other day he posted on Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary Organizational Change. As The Library feels the pressure to reinvent itself, so too does organizational IT. There is a lot of change in that industry, though it looks different from our change, we’re all going through the business of adapting our organizations in light of evolving conditions around us.

Revolutionary change is fast. It’s driven from above. It’s mandated. It’s not necessarily rooted in a culture. Evolutionary change is slower. It’s change by convincing others. it’s long lasting. This framework reminds me of, but is not exactly the same as Jason Griffey’s post on farming vs. mining from a few years ago.

Me? I’m an evolutionary farmer. There are moments when I do revolutionary change, but normally only when I know a group well enough give a pep talk/set up an inspirational framework for it. More often, my approach to change is very person driven, with a strong emphasis on getting to know an organization and where people are, and building from there. It’s slower, but hopefully has a way of sticking. I’ve had a lot of situations where I was learning evolutionary change and the change I was a part of didn’t stick, and I don’t want to waste my time on that. I want what I spend my time working on to matter in the long run, which often means a lot more one on one conversations and figuring out where we’re all starting from.

ScaffoldingEvolutionary change actually makes me think a little bit of constructivist educational models. Figure out where people are, find out where they need to be, and help them build the “scaffolding” to get from one place to another. Sometimes it’s in a classroom. Sometimes it’s informal learning. Sometimes it’s organizational. But it sure is slower than revolution.

I find this concept really interesting and a useful framework for thinking about change. If you want more information, hop over there and read John’s post!