Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Facebook, LibGuides & TLC event

Acorns! (and leaves, and a mushroom)

Days at the library have been extremely busy for me lately, and so instead of writing one of my usual meditative/rambling posts this week, I'm just going to describe some of the projects I'm currently working on:

#1) Camden County College Library's Facebook page

There have been a couple of past attempts at creating and maintaining a page for our library, but when I was recently nominated to take charge of the library's Facebook presence I decided to start from scratch. Due to a great many discussions in libraryland on the topic, I feel well-versed in the theory of library facebook magic, so this is a great opportunity to implement it.

I'm looking at the Green Library (Stanford University), the Library of Congress, and the TC3 Baker Commons pages for ideas. Also I'm hoping to eventually embed widgets from our various vendors in the page. Glad to see that the Camden County Library System has already created them for CamCat (our shared OPAC).

#2) LibGuides, LibGuides, and more LibGuides

We began using LibGuides when I started my job, so I cannot imagine our instruction program without them. They are a fantastic resource for librarians, students, and faculty. They supplant the paper subject guides or pathfinders, but they also can be used for a variety of other projects such as faculty support and special event pages.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, here's one way we're using them: A professor requests a library instruction session, usually related to a particular assignment. We create a LibGuide to highlight resources and materials to support the assignment. We publish the guide, the faculty member reviews it, and then we cover the material in the guide in class. The guides can be quickly and easily updated if anything changes, and they are extremely useful for students and the reference librarians to refer to. All librarians can edit the guides, but some of us have claimed ownership of particular ones.

At this point, we have 45 published (active) guides, and approximately 75 unpublished (in-process) guides. Here are some of the ones I've worked on: English Composition 102, Intro to Literature, Music subject guide.

#3) Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) event at the college "Technology In and Out of the Classroom: Online Communication with Students."

On Thursday I'm helping to host this event for faculty on campus. Two colleagues and I have divided up various Web 2.0 tools to discuss. My part of the presentation will be about how to use twitter as an educational tool. I'm looking forward to hearing faculty responses and questions!


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Audio Book Recommendations?

(darker earlier in the evenings)

And now for something completely different...

During this past year of my commute, I became a devoted admirer of audio books. Most recently I am reminded of how wonderful they can be while listening to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, read by Simon Prebble. However, I do not enjoy just any old audio book: There are many that I started and disliked so much that I stopped listening to them. I try to keep my ears to the ground (ha!) for recommendations, and I scour metafilter and similar sites to see what other people like, but it comes down to a question of taste.

Any economics student knows that taste is elusive when it comes to making accurate predictions: What is brilliant and wonderful to one person is awful to another, and it is perniciously difficult to know what will sell successfully. To add variables unique to me, I usually do not want to listen to titles I have already read, and although I am interested in a broad range of topics, there are some I'm decidedly less interested in. The self-help genre, for instance, which includes many titles that regularly top the best seller lists for audio, does not entice me. I also refuse to listen to anything abridged. But rather than describe my audio book tastes in theoretical terms, I'll give some examples:

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, narrated by Ron Silver
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, narrated by Rob Inglis
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, narrated by Jeff Woodman
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, narrated by Suzanne Toren
Animals Make us Human by Temple Grandin, narrated by Catherine Johnson

1776 by David McCullough, narrated by the author
Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, narrated by Dick Hill
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, narrated by George Guidall

Now, I think this problem has broad implications. I must not be the only person reluctant to pay for a service such as Audible, for example, when I can't get a sense of what I'm getting into beforehand. It is somewhat annoying in this age of convenience to track down the CD version at the library (and I work in a library) only to discover I don't like it, but I will continue to do this unless I am certain I will enjoy a certain purchase.

Netflix and Amazon grapple with this constantly -- Netflix being so obsessed that they made a competition and awarded $1 million for the creation of a recommendation system, recall -- and readers' advisory services at libraries are also meant to assist those in similar situations. Gnod is another attempt. Not having had much luck with these services, I reluctantly continue to depend on the time-consuming process of trial and error. And unfortunately I don't have an alternative to this -- only a description of a need, in case anyone listening.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Is Higher Education Providing?

Canna lilies, next to a parking lot on campus

I've recently noticed a number of people (see citations at the end) suggesting that higher education needs to relocate online in a way similar to what the commercial world has done. Online classes are supposedly cheaper, faster, and more flexible than traditional in-person classes, and they can be offered to more people than those in a narrow geographical location. I have a lot of thoughts about this (including on the topic of hybrid courses, which have the potential to blend the best of both worlds), but today I'll expand on just one:

All this largely ignores what the purpose of a college degree is. To many students, a degree now presents itself as merely a barrier toward a job. That many American institutions have neglected to correct this misconception may be to everyone's disadvantage.

I want to believe that everyone can and should go to college, but my thinking is currently being influenced by Charles Murray, who in his book Real Education makes a compelling case that the opposite is true. Perhaps some individuals will never be fluent in calculus, or be able to write a clear essay. Perhaps institutions that make it seem as though these things are attainable to everyone are setting students up for disappointments when instead they could be playing to their strengths.

On a related note is the false perception that education is transactional. Teaching and learning are not so simple. If a student pays money to take a reading class, and at the end of the class still cannot read, it is usually not due to the failure of the college or teacher. A college that promises an easy path to academic success for all students is lying, or at least being unrealistic.

Finally, there is the point that instructors make a difference. This is an inconvenient truth for administrators. You cannot easily duplicate a good instructor (see What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain for a close examination of this topic). Students can succeed in spite of poor teachers, but the best teachers understand that what they do can make a serious difference in a student's motivation, self-worth, confidence, capacity, etc. (According to the fascinating article "The Rubber Room" by Steven Brill in the New Yorker, "most serious studies on education reform have concluded that the critical variable when it comes to kids succeeding in school isn’t money spent on buildings or books but, rather, the quality of their teachers.") This is why in education, the cheapest option might not be the best, despite whatever magic the internet brings.

The question then becomes this: What are institutions of higher education providing? If they are providing a degree, expectations can be fairly low, and degree acquisition rates can be high. If the goal, however, is to provide meaningful, useful, interesting, enlightening experiences that create well-informed, mature, wise adults who are equipped to handle a sophisticated world, then the online degree-farm model fails. A degree is supposed to be an indicator of an education, not the purpose of it.

College for $99 a Month by Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly
Welcome to Yahoo U! by Zephyr Teachout in Slate's The Big Money
book chapter:
"Public Institutions. Google U: opening education" in What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Back to Basics"

rain all summer = mushrooms

Last Monday was the college's Opening Day, an annual gathering where staff and faculty welcome each other back to the new semester and academic year. The president's message this fall focused on remediation and retention, and he highlighted certain facts about our student body. For example, of students who take placement tests upon entering the college, less than a quarter are able to do college-level math. Less than a quarter are able to write at a college level. And less than half are able to read at a college level.

For many staff and faculty these numbers were not surprising, and I imagine they are consistent with other community colleges nationally, but a week later I still find myself stunned. I understand that access to opportunities is part of the basic mission of a community college. We work with the underserved, the poor, minorities, non-English speakers, and people of all ages who may not have experienced high academic success in the past. However, I had previously not seen numbers such as these so starkly laid out.

The president suggested we treat the situation as a personal challenge: How can we help these students succeed? I am highly motivated to do good work, but I catch myself feeling helpless because I make many assumptions about students' abilities. For one, I have been assuming that the patrons I help at the reference desk can read. For another, we librarians try to make the library as easy to use and intuitive as possible, but what is easy to librarians with master's degrees may be very difficult for someone else.

Not to sound disheartened, but I wonder whether I am doing a good job as an educator if in the end all I can do is show students the path to success. When students are starting with such serious underlying educational disadvantages, is it enough to just show them the way? Giving everyone a chance comes naturally to me, but I struggle with the thought that that's the most I can do.