Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Online Classes: The Current Dichotomy

Enrollment in online classes is very healthy where I work. Enrollment in some of the traditional, on-campus classes is less so. I'm torn about this.

Not so long ago, I was a student trying to get through a master's program in a reasonable amount of time. From my student perspective, the available online courses were attractive because they offered convenience and flexibility. As a student, my priority was earning the degree rather than worrying about the quality of the courses. This was at least partially because I assumed it was the duty of the institution to ensure that the courses were meaningful regardless of format. Basically, I trusted Syracuse to take care of that side of things, and I was easily frustrated by anything I interpreted as an administrative hurdle. 

Now as someone who works for a college, I see other perspectives about online courses. Those concerned with enrollment numbers view online courses as a boon; those concerned with student retention view the high attrition rates in online courses with horror. Faculty perspectives range. Some faculty assume that teaching online is easier and see it as a chance to put their feet up at their desks and ignore students whom they no longer have to deal with face-to-face. Then there are other faculty who spend more time on their online courses than they would on their traditional in-person ones -- mostly to take full advantage of the platform and to digitize their class materials. You can't always tell which type of professor you're getting when you sign up to take a class.  At their best, online courses are more interactive, more immersive, and more comprehensive than traditional courses. At their worst, online courses permit more cheating, more laziness from both instructor and student, and more disengagement from the subject.  

MIT's open courses have been in the news lately (see this Commentary from the Chronicle about MITx), and the venture seems like a promising direction for online courses. Online courses can be of high quality. The hard part will be to make high quality the norm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Work Flow

It is probably common at most jobs to have work that is distributed unevenly, meaning that it's very busy at some times and not so busy at others. The break between the fall and spring semesters is typically a quieter period on campus, at least as far as students and faculty are concerned. The winter intercession is usually a great time for planning and preparation. This year, however, I was barely able to catch my breath, and I completed only about half of what I set out to. Now classes are in session again, and I'm already scrambling. When it's busy, multiple people all need a librarian at exactly the same time, resulting in back-to-back instruction sessions all day, demand for a reference librarian at the service desk, on the phone, and on chat all day, and sudden interest from faculty to work on projects and initiatives. I can learn how to delay people, and I can learn how to schedule my time efficiently, but unfortunately I can't be in five places simultaneously.

Inevitably, this means I start work on projects during the slower periods, but they never quite move past the brainstorming and planning phase, and then I get swamped with more urgent things and forget about them until the next time it slows down.

Maybe there is nothing I can do about this, but on the other hand if there was an efficient way to bookmark my work to make it quick and easy to return to, I could make more progress during the slower times. Is there an app for this?

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Update 5/16/12: I just read about something called Gantto & may try it out for some summer projects!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

VALE Conference 2012

Last Thursday I attended New Jersey's VALE Conference, and I wanted to mention a few things I'll be following up on that were directly inspired by my participation:

(1) A few semesters ago a faculty member approached me about getting the resource SciFinder Scholar for our library. Unfortunately we haven't figured out how to justify the expense. I believe it would be about ten thousand dollars for an institutional subscription, but pricing is not usually made public, and I don't see it on their web site. Two-year institutions are not their primary market, either. But after speaking with a science librarian at one of New Jersey's colleges, I now wonder if CAS might be able to work with us to find a solution that would provide some kind of introductory or neutered (also cheaper) version of SciFinder. It's worth investigating, at least.

(2) I'll be doing a presentation to faculty in a few weeks discussing assignments that the library has helped to support. I'd like to cover assignments from both inside the college and out, and at the conference I learned about a great assignment involving Wikipedia. It was being done at a 4-year college, but for first-year students, so I think it will be relevant.

(3) Every institution's library is unique, which is something I knew but which was illustrated starkly by the keynote speaker Brian Mathews, who has worked in several large research libraries. What this can mean for library space is that depending on the users there may be a need to have multiple zones. Although it's a bit obvious upon reflection, the idea that a traditional quiet reading room with comfortable lighting and a no-food policy could exist side by side, instead of competing with, a flashy high-tech collaborative space, was novel to me. 

This was my fourth consecutive year attending this conference, and again I found it extremely rewarding. In fact, I've gotten so much out of it that I'm feeling obliged to give back in return. Assuming I do something worthwhile this year, I'd like to to submit a proposal to do a presentation in 2013. I've presented a poster at VALE before, but I've never done a presentation. I think many of the librarians who attend are required to present their work as part of their professional obligations, for tenure when they have faculty status and for administrative advancement when they do not. I do not have a requirement like this for my own position, but I hope I would be encouraged to present my work at VALE.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Looking Forward

I'm planning on rounding off this year and then ending this blog. It's been a fun project, and I've enjoyed doing it, but there are a lot of reasons behind this decision.

For one, I need to rethink what this is and why I'm doing it. If the purpose is to regularly reflect on my work, there are other productive ways to do that without involving a public forum. If the purpose is to participate in the profession, again there are plenty of other meaningful ways to do so.

Another reason is that occasionally I want to write about something specific to my particular place of work, but I have no wish to create a problem. I'm no rogue employee; I'm part of a team. So there have been times when I felt disappointed because my writing was not entirely forthright. It's no secret where I work; I'm not anonymous. I'm even wincing a little as I type this, in case it implies there is something wrong with my institution. I don't mean to communicate that, and it's evidence of how strongly I support my library that I am so careful about how I represent it. But I'm weary of wrestling with this.

Also I notice some unwanted pessimism creeping into my writing. Maybe it's just the shiny newness of librarianship wearing off. But when I entered this profession I thought I was being practical, that the world needed librarians and that I would be a useful addition to the field. Now I'm starting to feel like a librarian is viewed as a luxury -- or worse, a trophy -- and that libraries and librarians are a privilege for a select few while the norm for most people is to slog away with google and make do with whatever is free online. I hate this. For me it is untenable to spend large numbers of my working hours defending what I do and justifying my position. I don't mind being assessed, and I don't mind regular performance reviews, but right now I feel I face constant questioning about whether my entire job is necessary, and there's nothing I can do to prove myself. Maybe it's the economy, but I can't believe other professions are facing such severe scrutiny. Believe me, I'm thrilled to have full time employment at all, and I'm not looking for personal praise or reassurance because I think the problem is profession-wide. But what kind of job is it when others regard you as pork fat, when they regard you at all?

Lastly, and most superficially, I'm tired of this platform. Rather than migrating somewhere new, I'd rather just finish this and start another blog somewhere else, if I decide to continue.

I'm not going anywhere yet, though! Here's to 2012!

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Update 1/4/12: Anyone getting bummed out by this post should go read this and be inspired.