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Navigation is Dead: Long Live Navigation

Navigation is Dead: Long Live Navigation

For the last year or so I’ve been toying with the idea that website navigation is basically dead. Not to say that it’s not still important, but I’ve come to think about a website’s internal navigation structure (by that I mean tabs and dropdown menus, side navigation, that sort of thing) as the absolute final, last ditch, if-all-else-fails means by which the average internet user will find content on your website.

It’s possible I’m jumping the gun, but here’s why I’m increasingly thinking this way.

When was the last time you went to the front page of a newspaper’s site? Most of us read articles from newspapers online, but I suspect most of us don’t do so by navigating to the front page of their site. The latest navigation for newspapers and news organizations generally is probably Facebook, Twitter, and/or Tumblr. You don’t visit the front page, you follow a link someone’s posted in your path that strikes you as interesting, and read it there. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen the front page of the Guardian, for example (I certainly can’t conjure up an image of it), but I read Guardian articles all the time. I go in through side doors that directs me exactly where I want to be.

When I come home from work, I catch up on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They’re on too late for me to watch live, so I watch the online versions via the Comedy Network or CTV. I have never once gone to the Comedy Network or CTV’s main site to find them. It’s way too many clicks that way. I just type “Daily Show Canada” into my Google search box and it takes me right there. I don’t even care if I’m watching it via the Comedy Network or CTV’s interface; I just click one of the links and get the content I was looking for.

There are some sites that are staples of people’s every day, and in that case, there are things you want on the page that make it easy for you to navigate around. For instance, your email: I don’t want to have to use a Google search to find my inbox and my sent mail. I want links to those. Functional links to things I use every day. Likewise, Twitter needs to put up clear links to my @replies so I don’t struggle to find those. But that’s inching into application design decisions rather than strictly navigation, I’d argue. And applications I use all the time every day are different than websites I use from time to time for information when I need them.

When I’m looking for this Historical Studies department on the UTM website, I don’t go to the main UTM front page. I don’t, even though I work there. I look at a lot of sites every day, and there is no one true classification method we can use that will always be clear to everyone. Every site is different, every site uses different metaphors to organize their content; how can I be expected to remember how any site has decided to arrange content to make it easy for me to find? I don’t remember what navigation decisions UTM made in it’s site design. I could take a moment to look at the site, scan it’s existing top level nagivation terms, use my critical thinking skills to work out where the department might be, or I could just type “UTM historical studies” in my Google search box and be done with it. Type and enter, and click. That’s way easier on the brain than trying to understand someone’s thoughtfully-designed navigation structure.

When I say things like this, people remind me that I’m in the rarefied world of academia, for one (true), and that my job title includes the word “technologies” (also true), so my perspective on browsing the internet based on my own experience and habits is highly unlikely to be universal (absolutely true). However, let me show you some  statistics:

Three Years of Web Stats

This is a graph of web traffic for the months of August and September for one page on our library’s website (http://library.utm.utoronto.ca/faculty/blackboard). It’s the front page for frontline support for courseware for instructors at UTM, and the portal to all our how-tos and instructions on using all the courseware tools available to faculty at UTM. We are a busy service, and get lots of questions and phone calls, so we know our instructors want and need this information. There has always been clear navigation to arrive at this page. We printed it on brochures, inside documentation we handed out, had it on business cards, etc. That clear navigation’s utility can be seen as the blue line in that graph, which is our data for 2010. Very low traffic, in spite of the fact that it’s a busy service. Those are the stats when we just put good content up and wait for people to navigate to it if they need it.

The red line in that graph is our data from 2011. That’s the year we stopped expecting people to navigate to the site, and instead emailed out short messages (we call them “protips”) when the questions are likely to come in. For instance, instructors usually ask us how to add TAs to their course websites somewhere around 5 days before the first day of class, so 6 days before the first day of class we send out an email to this page with instructions on how to add TAs to a course website. For the last week in August and the first couple of weeks in September, we send out nearly one message a day, with a tiny amount of information in it, and a link to this page. See what happened? That’s something like an 8000% increase in web traffic. This page became the second or third most hit page on our site. The internal navigation was exactly the same.

The green line in the graph is our data for 2012, and we were extremely surprised to see another 50% increase from the year before. We learned from our faculty that some of them had started to forward our messages on to colleagues on other campuses, which might account for some of it.

It’s not a revelation to say that publicizing a web page gets you more traffic; it’s probably the most basic of basics from web communications 101. We pushed content, therefore we got traffic. But it made me realize that, like me, other people are much more likely to dive into the interior of a website from the outside (in this case, from email) rather than trying to navigate through from the front page. Being directed to the one thing you need is way more attractive than wading through lots of useful but not immediately needful things in order to find the one thing you want. Obviously the need for the content in question is there; if our instructors weren’t interested, they wouldn’t be clicking on the link in the first place. They would just delete the message and move on. So the interest is clearly there and our traffic is growing.

At this point I think I could probably remove this entire section of our website from the main navigation and see absolutely no dip in traffic. I’m tempted to do that as an experiment, to be honest. I have a feeling no one would even notice.

So I’ve started to really question the basic utility of top level navigation. In a pinch, if you’re really lost and don’t even know what’s available or where to start, I can see it being useful. But for our client base, people we know and we know how to contact, I don’t expect my thoughtful navigation decisions to ever even register. I am building navigation for them through a variety of media, not just through our website as we traditionally think of it. Their interface to our website happens to come through email messages; it’s current, topical, and ephemeral. Their interface, essentially, is us. We dole it out over time and place it in the places where their eyes already are, much like my librarian colleagues and friends do when they post messages on Twitter and I click on them.

glass whiteboard calendar

It’s a weird way to think, but it’s where I’m sitting just now. I don’t want web traffic for the sake of web traffic; I want our patrons to have this information when they need it, and I realize I can’t change their behaviour to make that happen. I can’t rely on their need to bring them to me and muddle through my navigation to find it.  I can’t sit behind a desk/website with all the good news and wait for them to come see me. I want to answer questions before they have to be asked; I want to be on the path of their success, and that’s something they define. So I find and build up the navigation that demonstrably works for them, even if it’s unorthodox. In this case, the navigation that appears to work best for this kind of information and for this kind of audience is us, outlook, and our calendar of needful topics, and a series of targeted email messages sent out like clockwork every year.

There are of course many such solutions; or me, the key part of this whole experience was rethinking what navigation is and what it means, and to stop thinking in such two-dimensional terms. As creatures of the internet, as the majority of us now are, we find information in a wide variety of ways; top level navigation has got to be somewhere down at the bottom of the list.

What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

What I learned about Librarianship from the Signage on the Underground

As a preface: I can get lost anywhere. I have no sense of cardinal points, I am a daydreamer and don’t pay attention to where I’m going most of the time, I can’t follow directions very well, and I struggle to make a visual connection between what I see on a map and what I see in front of me. I still regularly get lost in cities I’ve lived in for years. Being lost is a kind of default state for me. So, as you can imagine, visiting foreign city comes along with a bit anxiety for me. I know I will get lost. I do what I can ahead of time to avoid the worst of it, but it’s bound to happen. It always does.

So I was extremely surprised, and delighted, to discover that the one place I never once felt lost inside of was London’s underground transit system.

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The London Underground is a rabbit warren of tunnels, and not just the ones that carry the trains. Because each line was originally built privately by a separate company, designed to work independently and sometimes in competition with each other, they were never meant to interact particularly smoothly or efficiently. At points, switching from one line to another, you might walk 10-15 minutes underground, turning this way and that with the crowd, going up and down stairs, and generally getting utterly spun around. If I were to get lost and feel anxious anywhere, you would think, it would be there. But never: not even once.

The degree to which I felt no anxiety in a tube station became a notable thing. Once I saw the roundel of the Underground anywhere, I immediately relaxed, because I knew it would easily and gently take me where I meant to go. So I started to pay attention to why I felt so confident anywhere near the Tube.

It’s the signage.

This is what the experience is like: you walk into a station, and you make your first decision: which line are you looking for? My home station was Victoria, which has three lines to choose from. Left for the Victoria line, or right Circle or District? That’s the one bit that’s easy to remember! I want the Victoria line today, so I go left. I don’t pause to think about it; the directions are clear. A few feet down, I get a confirmation: yep, this is the right way to the Victoria line. Keep walking. And stick to the right if you’re not going stand on the escalator, btw. Phew! Great! I can do that! I didn’t take a wrong turn! At the bottom of the escalator, the signs continue to direct me: yep, this way to Victoria line. Great! Still not lost!

At this point, feeling confident about decision one, I start thinking about my next steps. I want to go north on the Victoria line. I want to go up to Euston to switch lines. I follow the signs up and down stairs. I follow the signs left and right. Do you want to go this way? the signs ask me. Then go left up here. Yes, there. Well done, you! Go left! Look at that, there’s Euston on the sign! I’m in the right place!

Once I’m on the platform, I can see from every direction that I’ve done everything right. Even though I’m a tourist with no sense of direction, and only the bare minimum of understanding where my journey will take me, I have managed to get from the front doors of the station all the way down to the platform without pausing to check a map, without stalling with hesitation or sudden panic that I’ve taken a wrong turn, and without making it obvious to anyone that I’ve never been inside this station before. The London Underground only gives you the information you need at any given point to make a single decision. It guides you all the way to your landing place so gently you barely notice it’s happening.

Arriving at a new stop on the Tube, they make the experience of getting out very, very simple.  The signage tells you there’s only one way out.

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This may or may not actually be the case, but having only one way out means you just follow the arrows. This way will take you out. Just follow me. It entire experience was so easy, so simple, so clear, it was practically instant: I was in love.

When I got home I looked up the documentation about Tube signage. Obviously nothing like that could happen by accident. Someone was doing this on purpose, they were pacing out these spaces, simplifying complicated underground walkways and intersections, and looking for points of confusion, then adding the signage required to keep people anxiety-free and moving forward. London Transport calls these “decision points”.

Decision points are the places inside the station where you need to decide what your next step in your journey needs to be. These decisions are so small and discreet, so absolute, that you can make while walking. London Tube stations are busy places, and people stopping to hesitate would create pedestrian traffic jams and angry commuters. They need passengers to make quick, accurate, confident decisions so that their journey is smooth and confusion-free. So they break down the process of the journey, and plot every decision required in every station and every corridor, tunnel, and stairwell, wonky passage, corner, and escalator, and then add the information to the walls to make those decisions happen quickly and easily. They are outrageously successful at this.

The Underground administrators have no idea what my journey is, but they know I have one, and that I need help along the way. Rather than try to give me advice about specifically how to get to Euston station, they just guide me there step by step, decision by decision.

Librarians have a tendency to behave as if patrons walk through the door needing to know practically everything about their journey before they take their first step. We haul out the maps, give advice about the weather and what footwear they need for the first half, and trace the entire experience out before they get past the turnstile. We may never see that patron again; we’d better make sure they’re well-prepared. For each and every leg of the journey. Then we leave them to their own devices, unless they want to seek us out again. What if we didn’t do that? What if we focused on reducing confusion and anxiety if all of our patron interactions by guiding their decisions in small pieces, manageable ones, rather than infodumping right at the start?

A research process is very much like a journey, with decision points along the way. What if all we focused on at any given point (on a website, in a reference interview, in a  physical library, inside a database) is getting to the next decision point? We don’t know what every research process is going to lead to, but everyone hits roughly the same points along the way, regardless of their final destination. If we hold back, and guide people through gently, one decision at a time, maybe patrons will look up at the end of the journey and say, “Well, that was easy.” That, it seems to me, would be ideal.

Question Everything: In class engagement

Question Everything: In class engagement

I’ve been interested for some time in how good it feels to teach. It feels really good, to the teacher, to hit every note, give out every bit of information, to give a good presentation of a set of information. It feels great. And that feeling surely colours our understanding of what a good job it is we’ve actually done.

From Joi Ito:

A single student’s brainwave activity over a week. Sitting in class is about on par with watching TV and sleeping. As Joi states, it’s just one student and it would be foolish to draw conclusions based on it, but it’s certainly interesting. Being in class, the way we’ve currently structured what “being in class” means, is a among the least engaging of this student’s week. Sleeping looks more engaging than class time does.

More research like this would probably make more people want to “flip” their classrooms.

The Information Literacy Agenda

The Information Literacy Agenda

Goal SettingEveryone has an agenda. We have official, institutional agendas that guide us and help those who hold the purse strings to determine where the money flows and where it doesn’t. I believe, in general, the overarching agenda of an academic library is to be indispensable to the university community. We will have an indispensable collection, an indispensable reference service, an indispensable staff, and indispensable librarians.

We also have personal agendas. Librarians want to do their job well, be well-regarded, and accomplish their goals. Faculty have research and publication goals, and largely want to get their work done as painlessly as possible. Each individual has their own agendas and needs; we spend most of our lives parsing each other’s agendas. They shift and change over time. Agendas are a fact of life.

I had the experience recently of being trained by someone with a very clear agenda. That agenda had nothing to do with me, my goals, or our library, but she was bound and determined to do what she was there to do. The experience was alienating, frustrating, annoying, boring, and frankly offensive. She might have had something to teach me in there, but I was so put-off by the approach I wasn’t ready to hear it. Rather than being a partner in learning and working with my goals, she was forcing me into her rigid expectations, which she clearly felt was for my own good. She knew what I need to know, and what I needed to do: she’s the trainer, I’m the trainee. She wasn’t interested in my agenda; she was going to follow her own come hell or high water.

That experience made me revisit pretty much everything I do. I don’t ever want anyone to see me as rigidly enforcing my own agenda upon them. That made me question our commitment to information literacy as a standards-driven, independent program. It frequently appears to be an agenda that bears no clear relationship to the agenda of the faculty or the students. It is a broad-based project with excellent goals that does little to make the right-now, hands-on experience of being a course instructor any less painful, which probably goes some way toward explaining why it so often fails. It might be as alienating and off-putting as that woman who trained me.

This is what I see: librarians ask faculty to give them a “library assignment”, where the librarian can work with the instructor to construct an assignment that will further the kind and human goal of making students one tiny step closer to being information literate, and to make them better citizens and better people. I have seen librarians successfully secure these assignments, only to have them taken away a year or two later when another, more pressing need appeared in the agenda of the instructor.

Charity enriched Lemon-AidThese concessions on behalf of the instructors read to me like charity. The instructors like and respect the librarian; when she asks for a slot in the syllabus, they want to give it to her. They can’t see the relationship between that assignment and their own immediate goals (other than building a smoother and better relationship with the librarian), but they’re willing to give up 5% of the final grade as an act of goodwill. Like all charity, that goodwill dries up when a more pressing need appears, or when the course changes hands. It’s not that the instructor doesn’t think information literacy is a good idea, or that they can’t get behind creating information literate citizens and life-long learners and all those great motherhood goals; it’s just that the specific goal doesn’t figure directly into their immediate, overriding agenda: it’s not contributing to making the process of teaching the course as painless as possible. No wonder so many faculty leave the room when library instruction is going on in their classrooms. They’re busy, and you’ve given them a break. The break is more important to them than the content is.

Information literacy, on its own, is too weak an agenda to hold its own on a daily basis without allies in a university environment. It gives librarians a potentially-alienating agenda separate from the mission of the students and the instructors.

It’s not that the ideas are necessarily bad (though I could go on a long screed about the absence of web literacy in the information literacy paradigm, but I’ll leave that for another day). It’s not a bad thing to be guided by ideas about exactly what kind of impact you want to have for the greater good. I believe in the civic responsibility of librarians. But in practical terms: we’re not sufficiently addressing the needs of our allies. Without their buy in, our agendas are meaningless.

I know there are some amazing information literacy librarians who do get buy in from faculty on information literacy issues and have successful programs. This is only praise for them. You, successful information literacy librarian, you are managing to reinterpret this rather painful and pedantic structure into something that fits into the goals and agenda of your university and your teaching faculty. A gold star to you: the standards don’t tell you how to do that. None of the workshops on information literacy that I’ve attended have come close to explaining how to do that. There seems to be a dearth of understanding about how important this is, and the fact that you’ve worked it out means you have excellent salesmanship skills. Probably far better than mine.

I’m advocating agendalessness here, but that’s a bit disingenuous. Let me explain.

I have an agenda of my own, as everyone does. But I have to tell you, I’m never going to lead with it. I’m not going to walk up to an instructor and say, “you know, I think your students are bored and motivationless. I find this profoundly sad. I think you need to redesign your course to make it more interactive and engaging. Remember your best educational moment, when you felt like you had something to contribute and you learned so much just sitting there with your classmates, wrestling through a problem? Why can’t the entire undergraduate experience be like that? It’s so much easier now, you know, look at all these tools. Why on earth are you choosing to use medieval teaching methods? Doesn’t that strike you as odd? You can do better than that. I can help!”

I’m never, never going to say that. That’s a terrifying amount of work I’m proposing there. That is the opposite of painless. But my real agenda is in there: I want the student experience to better than it currently is. The way I’m going about doing that is by helping faculty use technology better. That’s my piece of the pie. Once they understand that they have someone around to help them, they start to get really creative. The motherhood statement that is my actual agenda seems like something fulfillable once the supports are in place. They want the same things I want, in the end, but high on their agenda is to keep it painless. I can’t expect them to put my agenda first, ahead of theirs. My agenda is pretty painful. I have to help them get to painlessness first. That has to be my primary goal, because it’s how I keep my allies. Once we get that, then we can get creative.

I don’t bury my agenda entirely; it guides the decisions I make, the options I suggest, the places where I spend my time and energy. It is the basis for the consultation I give. It informs how I participate on committees. It guides me in how I think about and experiment with new tools. But I have to put other people’s agendas first if I want to be successful. Because I’m a librarian: I don’t have control over a course, or a program, or a division. I can’t dictate how things are done. Librarians are powerful in that we sit in the middle between staff and faculty, we aren’t beholden to the same things either group is. We have a lot of independence. But along with that comes a gap: we can’t do big things with big agendas without allies.

So librarians want to teach students to be information literate, and we can’t do that on our own.

We can’t impact students without buy-in from faculty. And why is that? It’s because of the student agenda: students have one too. They share the keep it painless agenda that the faculty have, but added to it: get the highest grade I can for the smallest amount of effort I’m willing to expend. No one likes this agenda. People criticize it all the time, but keep in mind: we constructed it. A grade is the only motivation we give them. We want them to be there because they want to learn, but that’s not good enough. Grades are the currency of undergraduate life, and until we reward anything other than grades, that’s the world we’ll live in.

So if we want to impact students, we need to either change the currency system (possible, but difficult), or we have to get into the existing currency stream. In either case, we need to work through faculty to accomplish anything with regards to students. (Or: through certificate programs run by departments. Those are an excellent example of providing an alternate currency for undergraduates, and it works.) Our motherhood statements are wonderful and well-meaning, but we need to make the connection to the individual faculty agenda in order to bring all that good knowledge and skill to the students. All librarians know this, but it’s not enough to just bring our agenda to faculty. We need to work with their agenda first. We need to be indispensable first. As indispensable allies, we have some leverage and influence.

We can’t be the terrible trainer who trained me. We can’t be rigid about what we want everyone to know, regardless of their own goals and circumstances. We can’t rely on charity and goodwill; we need to be indispensable. We need to understand the agendas of our allies, and tailor our services and goals to support them. That doesn’t mean information literacy goals can’t shape what we do, but I don’t believe we can lead with them. Information literacy can’t be an addition to an existing curriculum: it needs to be the solution to a clear problem presented by the instructor. It needs to be the solution that leads to painlessness. A painless solution isn’t one you let go.

This is my (perhaps mercenary) perspective. Information literacy is great as an internal mandate, but it’s a tough sell otherwise.

No one wants or needs to contend with another agenda.

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

The UT Librarians Blog posted another authorless post I have attempted to comment on; while they announced some time ago that the blog would no longer put comments in a moderation queue, I seem to be stuck in one. Again. And thus:

The post in question is a link to the Globe and Mail article entitled, “Books Vs. Screens: Which should Your Kids be Reading?” The article contains such wisdom as:

In Britain, University of Oxford neuroscientist and former Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield revealed a far different vision – one that could have come straight out of an Atwoodian dystopia – when she warned that Internet-driven “mind change” was comparable with climate change as a threat to the species, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantalized mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.”

Less dire but no less pointed warnings have come from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I do think something is going to be lost with the Twitter brain,” she said in an interview.

The UT Librarians (apparently collectively) said:

Is this something we should be thinking about? Deep Reading vs. Screen Reading? In today’s Globe & Mail, Dec. 12, 2011, John Barber, examines recent studies on screen reading vs. what is being called deep reading – something to consider as educators and leaders in our fields.

On the platform, reading

And now, finally, my reply from the moderation queue:

This is blatant scare-mongering, and disingenuous to boot. Comparing reading novels to reading tweets is like saying the card catalogue, with it’s tiny bits of information, was a threat to “deep thinking”.

There are many kinds of reading, and literate people engage in many of them, sometimes within the same afternoon. People who follow Margaret Atwood also, as a general rule, read novels. “Screen reading” pontificators need to spend some time looking at the actual reading (and writing) going on on the internet. Like BookCountry, from Penguin, which is practically brand new, and fictionpress. Look at all that reading and writing going on! Reading and writing of lengthy bits of writing, no less, and on screens! If you’re brave, look at Fanfiction.net (there are 56k stories on there about the television show Glee alone) or AO3 (which, for the record, has works over 100k words long with as many views and thousands of comments from readers). Lots of people read online, and form communities around texts. It might not be the kind of reading you want to see, but it’s sustained, lengthy, uninterrupted, and on screens.

We need to stop fixating on the form content takes. What the screen is providing is a platform for people who would never get their work passed through publishing houses and editors, and while you may scoff at that (because we all know money is the ultimate test of whether or not something has value, right?), there is more text to read and engage with now than ever before, and people are engaging. Young people are engaging. Some of that text is in short format (like twitter). Some of it is so long publishers would balk at the idea of trying to publish it in physical form. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a screen. Content in content. This new form has the potential to save the monograph, not just to kill it. The form of the novel, the short story, the extended series, the monograph are all alive and well and being published online.

I think, as librarians, we should be concerned with providing access to content, and, perhaps, providing platforms for content to be published, found, and engaged with on every level (deep or browse). Marrying ourselves to paper is the death knell of this profession.

Spooky and I enjoy the Nook--Daily Image 2011--October 2

The Technology Trifecta

The Technology Trifecta

I work with the soft side of technology. I don’t write code (I only have the tiniest bit of coding ability, and I haven’t used it in years), I don’t do hardware. I don’t monitor servers. The soft side of technology is all about working with the people trying to use it, and helping them to understand it. I’ve come to believe that there are three key things required to help other people use technology effectively. I’ve come to this realization as part of the rethink and reworking of our faculty training program this year, and it’s forced me to think about the whole experience from another angle.

Granted, my background in theological studies and my penchant for writing fiction in my spare time probably play a role in my perspective on this, but I’m going to run with it.

The (soft side) Technology Trifecta

1. A Good Metaphor

Metaphor

All technology requires a good metaphor, something people can seize onto. The wrong metaphor can leave a technology languishing for ages. Metaphor is how the brain learns what to do with a thing. When they called it “email” (a stroke of genius) everyone knew what they could do with this network messaging system: send and receive, store, forward, add attachments. That metaphor is what, I believe, makes email the most obvious and easiest-to-learn application we’ve got. Blogs had a good one with old school journaling and diaries (and explains why the first run of blogs were all intensely personal). Without decent metaphors, our patrons will struggle with the web. A good metaphor might take years to think up, and we might only come up with one really good metaphor in our lifetimes, but I think coming up with them is a worthy pursuit.

2. Faith

Faith Street

I had the experience recently of having to investigate something pretty dire, and then relay my findings back to a distressed and disconcerted instructor. He had to take my word for it that the thing he was afraid had happened had not in fact happened. I had to reassure him that he could still trust the system. If you don’t have faith in the system you’re using, if you think it’s possible that, without your knowledge or understanding, it’s revealing secrets or displaying your content to the world without your permission, your willingness to be creative with it will rapidly vanish.

There’s a difference, however, between selling someone a system and helping them to have faith in it. You don’t have to adore a bit of software in order to have faith in it. You need to know that when you trust it with information it will do what you expect it to with that information. Setting those expectations appropriately helps people develop faith in a system. I see my role not as making you love the institutional system, but to have faith in it.

The best gift I could receive in this situation is to have the instructor believe me when I explain what’s happened. I want him to have faith in me, too. (He did.)

3. A Mac Friend

Geek Squad to the Rescue

This one takes a bit of explaining. Back in the 90s when I first started using macs, I wasn’t comfortable making that decision on my own. Everyone I knew was a PC user: what if I ran into a problem? There were no mac stores then. I would have been on my own. I might not have stayed a mac user if it had not been for the one guy I knew who used macs. I had my mac friend, and I knew he could help me with the things I didn’t understand. Knowing I had a mac friend meant I could try things and feel comfortable knowing there was someone I could turn to.

In a meeting several months ago, a retiring librarian told me she wanted to switch to a mac but wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing. I said to her, “It’s okay. I’ll be your mac friend.” That was when I realized that I didn’t need a mac friend anymore. But I had become one for other people.

Of course, this is the genius of the apple genius bar: they sell mac friends.

I think every technology needs a mac friend, and that’s how I’m currently framing faculty technology support. They may not need you to walk them through every “click here” and array of options. They may just need your help to get them started, and your reassurance that you are there for them when they hit a wall. They have a mac friend; they can try things and not be afraid of having to dig themselves back out on their own. It’s like a safety net; personal, one-on-one, on call reassurance.

We’ve spent years focusing on the content of training when it comes to technology, not realizing that the most important thing we were doing while giving that training was just demonstrating that we know what we’re doing and we’re here to help.

So that’s what I’m focusing on now. I know what I’m doing, you can trust me. I’m here to help you, not just now, but all year long. See this thing? It thinks its an archive. Go play with it. If you run into trouble, I’m always here to help.

Co-Working in the Library

Co-Working in the Library

I read this great post about coworking in the library that recommends public libraries doling out space for freelancers who’d rather work somewhere other than home. People put out real dollars for coworking space; why not use the library? In place of cash, they could donate their time and skills.

I like this idea. I don’t work in a public library, so I got to thinking about the academic library equivalent: doling out office space in the library to faculty/postdocs/graduate students in exchange for their time and skills.

(Probably doctoral students. They’re the loneliest.)

In the article the focus was on educating the public via these coworkers. Our students generally already have access to the faculty and graduate students through courses and as TAs, but they might appreciate these folks for doing different kinds of work. Maybe very (very very) specific help, or a workshop or two, or something like that.

But what if these doctoral students could cowork in the library, working on their dissertations in the company of other doctoral students? A crowd noting when they’re missing, someone keeping tabs on them, a tribe looking out for them and bringing them a coffee every once in a while? And then, for a bit of time every term, they help us with library projects?

Say: help us learn R and see it applied? I know a doctoral student with some really fascinating work on power dynamics in the classroom, that could be extremely useful for our instruction librarians. Someone like that could help us rethink our teaching and training strategies. I’m sure there are some sociologists who wouldn’t mind hanging out with us for a term and examining the social capital under our roof. I’m sure there’s lots of interesting research going on that could improve the workings of a library, or help us see our work from a different angle. And doctoral students could form a little tribe and help each other get their dissertations done.

We could accept applications, and try to put a group together that had something to offer each other. Some odd connections, maybe. Or none at all, who knows.

Not that we have any office space to dole out at my place or work. We’re massively too full of that. But still. Neat idea.

Technology is (not) Special

Technology is (not) Special

The world believes that technology is special. Not all technology: not refrigerators, not hammers and nails, not paper and pencils. That stuff doesn’t need a users guide. Computers, though, do. Anything to do with computers, digital materials, online tools, that’s “technology”, and it’s different from everything else. Sometimes a lesser cousin (ebooks), and other times the superior advance (email). But different. It’s treated differently, it has new rules. In the world of libraries, that means that while books go in the catalogue, ebooks might not; since you can’t browse ejournals in the stacks, they go into some kind of special digital collections category, as if they are different and special.

I don’t think digital stuff is special at all.

I don’t think it’s a useful distinction, largely. Eventually digital materials will be like hammers and nails, like your refrigerator. It will be a thing that exists and provides a critical service, but not something you classify differently than other key household object. But I find myself on different sides of this argument a lot of times lately.

As long as technology is so special, it’s best left to the technology people, right? That’s the thing I run up against all the time. I know when it comes to work you have to build some walls around what you do, and sometimes those walls are arbitrary. You can’t do everything, so you need to hand of some stuff to another group of people. But it seems that all these great big huge projects involving some form of technology ends up in the hands of a tiny group of coders and tech support people to implement, innovate, program around, and communicate. And the people who are best at implementing changes, innovating, programming, and communicating to the public at large often think that because the project involves technology, it’s not their place to get involved, or they aren’t qualified, or it’s not their job. Technology is a black box to them, they can’t see through it, and have given up trying. This is a tragedy, I think, since most new technology is less a matter of actual technical knowledge and more a matter of metaphor-building, communication, and creative application. Not the stuff of databases and lines of code. In one fell swoop we devalue both ourselves and the technology tools. We dig in our heels and avoid being transformed by something new.

So on one hand I think we need to get rid of the distinctions around what involves tech and what doesn’t. When it comes to teaching and research tools, we need to bring the people with technical knowledge into the fold, let their expertise shape us, and support their projects with all the creativity we can muster. The introduction of a technological tool cannot happen in isolation, separated from all the “non-technical” people. We don’t have a department of pens and pencils, after all. Change is hard; a change in the tools we use is a communication project, a narrative-building project, not only a technical one.

But on the other hand, I’ve discovered that sinking the tech inside whatever it is we think is more valuable (pedagogy, teaching, communications, reference) is often a disaster. People whose expertise is technology seem to become easily ignored or shunted aside, as if what they bring is not as valuable as the higher goals of these great ideals. As much as I agree that technology in and of itself is not special, it still needs to be treated that way. Because otherwise it gets lost, abused, abandoned, or misunderstood. I guess we’re not at the pens and pencils stage with computing.

And quite the opposite, I’ve discovered that claiming the tech as the front runner and sinking all the other stuff, the big ideals, the real goals, behind it, is often more successful. I find this quite bizarre and counter-intuitive, really, but it’s true. For instance: say your goal is to help faculty to teach better, to have more engaging classes, and give students more opportunities to interact and learn in a constructivist manner. You can push out your pedagogy shingle and say, here, let me help you teach better, welcome a few keeners but largely watch the tumbleweeds roll by. Why isn’t this a sexier topic? I think in part because there’s a shame spiral involved. You’re meant to know how to teach by the time you’re teaching in a university setting! In my experience, the people who frequent the pedagogy shops are genuinely interested in learning and teaching better, and thus are already better teachers than the majority of the teaching population. Which is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not getting you to the greater goal of making the overall student experience better. Not really. You’re only improving on the already-improved.

But if you write TECH HELP on your shingle and push that out, but have the same goal, well, that’s a different thing altogether. Totally different direction. You deal with everyone, pretty much. Even the ones who understand the tech; they want to tell you how frustrated they are, or how things could be better. When people know you’re competent in technology, they will come ask you for help about all kinds of things. Many of those things relate to their teaching.

They don’t have to call it pedagogy. But when people come to you looking to get students more engaged, or want to try something new, or want help with a tool, or have questions about what other people do with discussion boards or virtual worlds, you have an open opportunity to change the way things happen in the average undergraduate class. Technology is the best disguise ever.

There is a shame spiral about not understanding technology, but it’s mostly reserved for the millenials. Millenials, the digital natives, they’re supposed to be experts on technology. Faculty nearing retirement are supposed to be technology dunces, right? So it’s okay. It’s okay to be the classics geek, or the chemistry wizard, or the close reading genius of the English department and not understand a bit of software. The self-image of the teaching faculty isn’t built on a knowledge of bizarre little bits of courseware or new-fangled collaboration software. Knowing how to set up a blog, or what a wiki does, or how to record an audio file with just a tin can and a laptop (you don’t actually need the tin can) isn’t a category in anyone’s performance or tenure review. We’ve made it okay to ask questions about technology, to seek help, to take advice. So the person with technology on their shingle, and the desire to make education better for students, is in a position to touch the educational experience of many.

And thus I have my crisis: I don’t think technology really warrants its own shingle, but it’s so effective to have one. I expect that someday it might look a little foolish, like anyone with paper and pencils on theirs. We don’t need you anymore, they’ll say. We’ve sorted that out. We keep it in a cabinet by the copier. But until that time, we still need someone to say, It’s okay. Let me help you. Would you like to see a better way to do that? Until no one needs to hear me say those things, I still have a million opportunities to make things better.

Impact: The Sidewalk that wasn’t, and now Is

Impact: The Sidewalk that wasn’t, and now Is

I take the bus to work every day. I noticed this year that there are A LOT more students taking the bus with me. It’s great! UTM has been pretty responsive to the changes in the bus schedules and routes that mean more students wait for and get off buses. We have a much bigger and better bus stop (now officially a layby) than we used to have. But then there was this:

This is what happened when students got off the bus and tried to walk across campus toward the library: they had to walk through what is part parking lot, part loading dock, and part kiss’n’ride. Some students were making a path on the grass to avoid the parking area, but there was no official walking path. This is largely due to the fact that our campus is growing and changing so rapidly; the official walking path is on the other side of the Kaneff building (on the right). In the original plan, I doubt too many people walked along this route at all. I never used to, not until the new library opened. Putting the library in what used to be a parking lot on the far end of campus is reorienting the whole place. Thus: this weird little gap in pedestrian traffic.

I raised the walkway/parking lot/loading dock issue as our college council meeting, and I sent on this video to explain the place I was talking about. I shot this video on October 14th.

Now, that same area today:

No one walks through the parking area anymore! Now, you’d think they can’t because of the safety railing there, but that’s only covering a bit that used to be grass, not the road. You could still walk across the parking lot/loading dock if you wanted to. But no one wants to. I can’t tell you how pleased I am about this. Not only because we solved a relatively minor but kind of serious safety problem on campus with a bit of sidewalk, but also because this campus is built by people who actually listen to ideas, consider what the daily life of a student is like, and act remarkably quickly.

Man, I love UTM.