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Month: April 2007

Reference, Transcripts, and Ethics in SL

Reference, Transcripts, and Ethics in SL

Librarian spy

So here’s the situation: I dropped into the Info Island Reference Desk because someone asked me what librarians in Second Life look like. A neat question, I thought. How do librarians represent themselves when they can look like anything they want? Do they look like traditional librarians, with glasses and buns and sensible shoes, or do they mix it up and look more radical? So I thought I’d drop in and see if I could take some pictures of people to show the variety of looks librarians sport. But this is what I found instead: a librarian sitting in a chair with text over his head saying he’s just listening in to reference questions. (click the picture to see it bigger; the key parts are the hovering text over him, and probably also the two lines of chat in the bottom right corner. That tells you how people were reacting to the fellow!)

Does this seem appropriate to you? I mean, would we let someone just hover around the reference desk and record to the kinds of questions people ask us? This guy is sitting there completely mute. He’s probably away from his computer, so the joy for him will be in reading the transcript. I make no secret whatsoever about my issues with transcripts; I found this guy entirely creepy. He’s sitting in his chair, staring blankly out at us, recording everything we say. We apparently give our permission by merely being in the space. Since this is a reference point, this basically says, if you want to ask a question, you have to let this guy record it. And newbies may not realize that that’s what’s going on. I have a bad feeling about this.

He didn’t mean anything by it, I know it. He just wanted to get a sense of the kinds of questions that are asked at a SL reference point. He’s trying to learn. I understand that, but I think this approach is a classic example of misundertsanding the nature of a virtual environment. While it might look like it’s just another form of virtual reference software, it’s important to remember that you have a body in Second Life. You have presence and you can intimidate people. Someone plonking down in your living room and staring into space, with a tape recorder in their hands, is going to be saying something to the occupants, even if he says nothing at all. While body language is a null issue in traditional virtual reference software (I didn’t think it was time to attach the word “traditional” to vref, but there you go), body language has real meaning in a virtual space, and we need to be conscious of that. It would have been wiser to ask to shadow a reference librarian in action in SL rather than to just sit around and listen while afk. Actually participate in the process, like reference librarians in training tend to do. Watch and learn, participate and learn, interact and learn. The things we do in real life often work pretty well in an immersive digital world.

Is it respectful to record people’s conversations at the reference desk in real life? Why would we do it here? It’s possible here, of course; you can always record the conversations around you. It’s just transcripts, it’s just text. But in SL it’s not just text; it’s more personal than that. While it’s possible to record and study every word that’s said in SL, I expect librarians to be more thoughtful and more careful about patron privacy. We live by it in our work lives, so why shouldn’t it carry over? Why is it so difficult to bring the rules of real life social engagement into a digital world? Is it because, in the end, it’s hard to believe in the place and the people inside it? Is it too easy to dehumanize the virtual?

I used to run into that in text based environments. It was just too difficult to read closely and feel the three dimensions in text. But this is a three dimensional world, with human-like avatars. I would think it would be easier to humanize our presence there. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

Service-Learning: How Everything I’m Hearing Lately Falls under the same Paradigm (when I’m looking at it, that is)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about service-learning. A variety of things from all different directions have merged in my brain to force me in this direction, and that’s handy, because I’m presenting about this in about a month at WILU. The presentation there is called “Making Coursework Matter”, and had more to do with two or three specific projects and had no particular theoretical underpinning that I was aware of. I had an idea about rescuing student work from the shedder and putting out into the world, and I wanted librarianship to a leadership role in implementing that kind of project. What I was planning to present was, in essence, a call to action. I still want that, but I’ve realized lately that what I intending to propose has far deeper implications and wider-reaching possibilities, and was already rooted in some established ideas.

The basic gist of my presentation (I’m totally scooping myself here) is this: at my institution, and at most others, students have a wealth of resources available to them, and then time and requirement to process them into something new. In other parts of the world (not to mention other parts of the country), this is not the case, and rather than encourage and support assignments that work out to busywork for students, why don’t we create spaces for students to contribute their work, so that students in other places can benefit from it? When you’re creating a document to help someone else form an idea or use a theory, that citation being properly constructed matters a lot more. I have two personal experiences this year with watching student engagement rise to unbelievable levels as soon as their work matters to someone other than their instructors; I have a few ideas for how to form these kinds of assignments, and that’s what I wanted to talk about. I know others will surely have ideas of their own to share, and I’d really like to talk about the role of librarianship is archiving this kind of information and making it globally available. That’s our expertise, right?

So I already had that idea in my head (and I feel it pressing against me with a certain amount of urgency). At the same time, I’ve been doing my research on the ins and outs of Second Life. As I’ve said, I’m spending time with Second Life to get a sense of what it offers (a lot) and how we can best take advantage of it to foster more engaged learning experiences. I’ve got some ideas at the moment, but I’m still new to the space, and I don’t want to jump to conclusions just yet. There’s been way too much jumping to conclusions in Second Life by educators and librarians of all varieties, seeing the fast, immediate use of the thing before really digging in the dirt a bit to see how far it can go. Heck, we’re still in the stage where everyone thinks this kind of space is Brand! New!, which is simply not even close to the case. We’re great at getting excited about things, but there’s far more work to be done. I want to be a little bit slower about this, get to know the natives and see what it is they’re trying to accomplish, see what actually works and what doesn’t, get into the scripting, read up on the theories and the experiences of others, and try to propose something thoughtful; if you look around in there, you’ll find a lot of flashy educational spaces, but I’m not convinced they’re nearly as rich as they could be. And I’m still a newbie. Do we build a space where we provide service to students, or do we provide space for students to provide service themselves, in whatever way makes the most sense within their curriculum?

I’ve heard very (very) often that students are really only interested in grades, so they only truly relevant coursework is anything that provides grades. For librarians, if the work you’re doing with a class results in students getting grades for paying attention, then you’ve succeeded. This argument has never sat well with me, but as a deeply political person, with grand ideas about the human condition and the responsibility of each of us to each other, surely I’m biased. However: students at my school put on a production of The Vagina Monologues on their own, without urging or organization from the administration or the departments, and donated the entirety of their proceeds to a local women’s shelter. There were about 20 students involved, only one of them from the drama program. 20 students dedicated their time and effort to this production, and for no grades at all, because they wanted to draw attention to the relationship between the treatment and perceptions of women’s bodies and the process of war. How can I possibly sit there in the audience, watching these amazing, talented, committed women on the stage, and keep thinking that they only thing that motivates them is grades?

Last week I attended a workshop where fourth year students in an “Information Preparedness” course presented their proposed curriculum for fostering the kind of learning they felt they needed but didn’t recieve. They did a great job, and lots of interesting discussion ensued. The pieces that really stuck with me, and kept coming back at me afterward, were the parts where the talked about how they came to learn the skills we talk about when we talk about Information Literacy; not in class, not in a library instruction session, not in the process of trying to write a paper. They learned things when they were out on co-ops or internships, and where the learning of these skills mattered to someone. If our goal is to equip students with the skills they need for just these situations, should we pay attention to these kinds of results? If the purpose provides some of the engagement required to learn, should we be looking for and providing that kind of purpose?

And then this weekend, while perusing the blog of my (prolific) friend Jeremy Hunsinger, I followed his link to a post about how schools and museums aren’t about learning, they’re about making (and playing). What on earth does learning mean when someone can say something like that? Today I recieved an email from a local teacher Jason Nolan and I have been working with to do some socially-relevant coursework with high school students; he told us that his students are having such a great time with it that he has a hard time pulling them away from the project to work on other things. Everyone presumes the cool part is the technology (that’s certainly part of it). But what about the social action part? What causes and creates engagement? And how can we use that knowledge to encourage real learning?

From servicelearning.org:

service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.

I’ve seen service-learning in action before, but it’s only now that I see how it could blend nicely with library instruction, and with my particular role as a collaborator with faculty. Service-learning generally implies a large project, but what I’m thinking now is that it could also be scaled down; why shouldn’t we propose micro serivce-learning projects that have an impact, not necessarily or only on the local community, but on the global community? Creating information sources for others, with the right citations, in order to improve the lives of people who don’t have the same level of access as we do, is a form of service-learning too. Even traditional coursework can become part of a service-learning project. The moment things became digital, we entered a world where our community can span the entire globe; maybe one way we engage students and show them the relevance of information literacy skills is by getting them on side to start making that global community a better place.

Libraries/Homeless Shelters

Libraries/Homeless Shelters

From America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters:

In a democratic culture, even disturbing information is useful feedback. When the mentally ill whom we have thrown onto the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us something important about the state of our union, our national character, our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books. The presence of the impoverished mentally ill among us is not an eloquent expression of civil discourse, like a lecture in the library’s auditorium, but it speaks volumes nonetheless.

This is exactly the kind of thing I needed to read in this moment when I’m seriously considering how best to understand the term “Information Professional”. [via Jeremy]