Of Horseless Carriages

Of Horseless Carriages

Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

National Post Alters a Web Article…based on a Tweet

National Post Alters a Web Article…based on a Tweet

Well, this is the last thing I expected to happen today.

I read an article online from the National Post about Tom Gabel from the band Against Me! coming out as trans in Rolling Stone today. Unlike the Rolling Stone article, the National Post article kept the male pronouns. So I tweeted the writer. Here’s our exchange:

Not only was this not what I expected from a journalist, this isn’t what I expected from the National Post. I thought we’d end up having a snarky back and forth (like I did recently with @jessehirsh, who treated me like an idiot for raising a question with him about something he said on the radio), and everyone would end up feeling annoyed and wronged. But that’s not what happened.

Colour me impressed. Some random nobody on the interwebs tweets you and you actually alter content because they have a point? Thanks, man. Thanks for listening to me. Thanks for being willing to listen to me. Fantastic. That’s really not what I thought would happen.

I’m not sure what the lesson is here, but the bar has been raised. I will expect other content creators to follow suit now! My pesky tweets will never stop!

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:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUoBdQi7jj4?rel=0&w=640&h=360]

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:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZM2gtiE6IA?rel=0&w=640&h=360]

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.

Novel Outlines

Novel Outlines

I believe this belongs to @digitalinkwell on twitter: a bird’s eye view of a novel. Another outliner! I’m always happy to see someone else’s process.

Mine is entirely digital (though I have been tempted to cover over my walls with post-it notes). Here’s what it looks like:

That’s The whole thing, divided into chapters. I summed up each of the chapters in as few words as possible here for the slimmest bird’s eye view possible.

Here’s what it looks like when you open up a chapter:

Those are scene summaries for each scene in the chapter. I spend most of my time at the scene level rather than the chapter level. I think of chapters are mostly organizational.

And this is what it looks like when you actually start to write the story: the scene summary is on the right hand side, and the pane in the middle is where the actual words go. (This is a shot from before I started.) The software is Scrivener, and I am in love with it. Outlining for the win!

You can still “Play Nice” as a Critical Thinker. Honest.

You can still “Play Nice” as a Critical Thinker. Honest.

I left a comment on the UT Librarians blog on Friday morning, and I think my comment must have gotten eaten by a spam filter or something, because it’s still awaiting moderation. As background, the UTLibrarians blog is the blog of the committee representing U of T Librarians within the faculty association. This is the post someone (the posts are anonymous) wrote a couple of weeks back:


[here’s the entire post, since I just snapped a pic of the top two paragraphs here.]

This sounds extremely familiar to me. The library where I work has brought in a vibrant and experienced consultant who talked with us about the definition of critical thinking, so I presume this might be about our library. (I could be wrong: it must be planning season in other libraries too, maybe everyone’s doing this. I don’t know.) But this post is so remarkably unrepresentative of my own experience of our planning process that I was sort of jolted by this post. I have replied in a comment on the site, and I hope that one day it will appear there. But until then, here’s my comment in response to this post:

I’m a bit surprised to see this here. Is there really any question about the definition of critical thinking? Critical thinking and criticizing is something we teach undergraduates to carefully differentiate as part of their studies, so I hope that academic librarians, with an interest in information literacy, have a firm handle on it. Criticism in the classical sense doesn’t mean negative comments about the status quo; it means thoughtful and deliberate analysis. That sort of analysis often uncovers holes, problems, and new directions…and that’s what strategic planning is for.

“Play ball nicely”: does that mean, “be collegial”, “don’t be a bully”, “listen to other people”? Because, if so, I’m personally quite in favour it. It’s important for everyone to retain compassion, work towards a co-operative environment, and to engage with our colleagues with respect and with an open mind. Strong negative voices who lead with criticism as you define it tend to shut down others in an organization, thereby silencing large swaths of new librarians and library staff in particular. Rather than open with “the status quo sucks,” how about “here’s how we can make things better”?

It’s very easy to get caught in a wheel of negativity, but it’s rarely productive. The most powerful agents of social change in our time have not been bundles of negative energy; they have been beams of light full of new ideas, peace-making, bridge-building, and productive discussion of new ideas and approaches. I’m not sure what strategic planning you are engaged in, anonymous-writer-of-this-post, but isn’t it great that you’re part of a process? Isn’t that how it should be?

I will continue to be hopeful that we librarians can work together productively and collaboratively rather than antagonistically. I know if I have to choose an environment in which to pour my creative energy, I will choose the collaborative one every time.

Giant QR codes: If Oreo can do it…

Giant QR codes: If Oreo can do it…

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/29436229 w=400&h=225]

QReo from redpepper on Vimeo.

It’s amazing how flexible QR codes and QR code readers are. We discovered this when putting squished or stretched ones on digital signage; QR code readers seem to be able to parse irregularities in them remarkably well. So I’m not entirely surprised that a QR code made of cookies actually works (it does; I tried it!).

If QR codes were more universally understood and used by our students, it would only be good for the library, from my perspective. I’d love to be able to use QR codes to allow students to navigate our website and digital resources by navigating the physical library. If you’re in women’s studies range in the stacks, shouldn’t you also be able to find the digital materials that fit in that range while you’re standing there? If you need to contact someone, shouldn’t you be able to scan a code on their door and email them? Innovative libraries like (all hail) NCSU have their study room booking system available on study room doors via QR code (as well they should).

QR codes don’t have to be the way we accomplish these kinds of ubiquitous computing goals, but they would be a dead-easy way to do it. I can see how we can get from here to there; not difficult! We can do that! Simple summer project! So I see education around QR codes as a reasonable goal for our library. So naturally I see a QR code made of Oreos and think, yeah, how can I do something like that?

Maybe I can do this with post-it notes.

I mean, it would be cool to do it with books, really, but it would be massive, wouldn’t it.

I say that like it’s a bad thing.

Maybe we should make a giant QR code with discarded journals. That would be kind of awesome, from a distance.

Training is Broken

Training is Broken

By training, I mean technology training. Instructional technology training for faculty in higher education, in particular. I’m not sure how this applies to other forms of training provided by librarians; I don’t do other forms of training, so I can’t really speak to that. But instructional technology training is definitely broken.

There are several competing factors in play when you sit down (or, more likely, get up in front of a podium) to teach a group of faculty how to do something (anything) with a computer. The first factor is that you want them to know how to use this tool so that they can teach (or research, I suppose) effectively. You want them to feel confident in their knowledge about this tool. In our dream world, they will grasp the basics and move on so that we can all get to the more interesting topics, like using this piece of software in new and interesting ways. But the first thing is always to just grasp the basics. Somehow, we end up just sticking to the basics for years (and years and years). Possibly that’s a giant, flashing sign pointing to our failure, and it should help us understand that our training program is broken.

The second competing factor that gets in the way of effective instructional technology training is the goals of the faculty; they want this silly process over with. They want to get their questions answered, but mostly they just want to get through this required practice as painlessly as possible and hope that something makes sense. Often the easiest way to get through it is just to sit still, listen, pick up any hand outs, and leave when the thing seems to be finished. What helps tremendously is if the thing is shaped like a class: there’s someone at the front giving a lecture of some kind, there is homework no one will ever check, and there is a definite, obvious moment when they’re allowed (and in fact expected) to leave.

A third competing factor: our own burning desire to tell this group of faculty everything they need to know to be successful, as if that will help them. We really, really want to do this. If only they would listen to us, all would be well! We recite The 15 steps they need to do, each subdivided into it’s own series of steps. Don’t forget to do this. Oh, did I mention you also need to do this. And this other thing. 15 times. There is a deep sense of satisfaction involved in getting up in front of a group of faculty and telling them everything they need to know. You did it; you imparted the information. It’s in their hands now. We can sleep well at night having done this needful job.

Too bad it doesn’t actually work.

I’ve been experimenting with training for a couple of years now, trying on different methods, trying to engage the faculty and not just lecture to them. The truth: I don’t want to spend my time pointing out where to click. I’m not a tip sheet. I’m not a list of bland instructions. I have spent the last six years observing, reading about, and experimenting with courseware so that I can help faculty to use technology effectively in their teaching, not so I could tell someone (once again) how to add a TA or make their course website available to students. Why would I deliberately bury my true value by spending an hour (or more) reciting how-tos that go in one ear and out the other?

So we’ve thrown all that out. We put all the instructions for how to do every blessed thing onto ipads. Want those instructions? Touch the document, press the button, email them to yourself. Done. You have them. Relax. Now, talk to us. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s giving you grief?

It doesn’t look like normal training. It doesn’t look like a classroom. It looks like a group of people talking and laughing. Yesterday, the faculty all gave us hugs when they left. It’s not about my burning desire to make sure you know which buttons to click; it’s about the individual needs of each of these people. It’s about helping them use the right tools to make their lives (and their students’ lives) easier. It’s helping them to use a tool to accomplish their teaching goals. They can refer to the instructions later. You know what they can’t get from a piece of paper, or from a website? One-on-one, personalized, interactive advice. That’s what my value is.

This is awkward a bit, at first, because the rules are different. Everyone feels comfortable when someone lectures in academia. We know what to do when someone lectures. It’s comfortable. But you can’t passively wait until it’s over when the whole point of a session is to talk about what you want to do, in very concrete terms. It’s impossible. You have to open up, talk about your experiences, the things you don’t understand. And I can listen to you, make suggestions, show you how to avoid that problems you run into. I can explain what’s coming. I can show you how to use the tools available to do the kinds of things you want to do. We just need to spend the time talking it out.

It’s great. I can’t tell you how great it is. It’s exhausting, of course. But I have never in my career gone to this kind of depth with our faculty. I’m recommending tools and those recommendations are embraced. I’m discovering new uses for tools I couldn’t have imagined before. We’re making collaborative timelines and providing students with a way to interact with each other. We’re thinking hard about what students need, working out plausible and functional means to communicate with them effectively. The revelation on the instructor’s faces when we explain that the best thing they can do for students is edit the course menu to reflect the language and content of the course; it’s the secret they’ve been waiting to hear. Everyone’s shoulders relax. This is what training is supposed to be.

Scratch that: it’s not training. Training is what you do to dogs and horses. I don’t train faculty. I support, advise, guide, and, on a good day when I’m really lucky, inspire them to try something new and unique. I help them to accomplish what it is they have been wanting to accomplish all along, but the tools kept getting in their way. I let them feel like someone’s got their back so they can reach out and do something innovative and extraordinary with something that looks mundane and dull.

Here’s what I’ve learned: get down from the podium. Put the powerpoint slides away. Sit down and talk to the people you’re trying to train. Show them how valuable your knowledge and experience actually is. It’s so much more fun.

And, if we’re lucky, more effective.

Retro Web Design

Retro Web Design

It happens in fashion, but I’ve never seen it happen in web design before. I guess the web is now officially old enough that old trends can make a return in a new way, because that’s exactly what’s happening.

Frames
Frames are generally a faux pas in web design. As we move into the semantic web where content lives in one place and is mashed together in another, it makes sense to use whatever options are available to push content around the web is as many ways as possible. We used to rely on the embed tag for this, but lately frames, or iframes, are making a return. But they’re not doing layout work anymore; now it’s just seamlessly bringing content from one place to another. Youtube is the big example of the return of frames: the new embed code you snag from youtube is actually just a frame.

This is one trend I’m particularly grateful for; I have a little project that involves pushing local campus content into the front page of our course management system using frames. We create tiny little web pages hosted locally, and frame them into the existing courseware system. The advantage of the frames is primarily that it keeps 100% control of the content in the hands of local content creators; no one needs admin access to the courseware system in order to update the content. No need to overhaul everything just to do one little thing. It’s just a matter of updating the tiny web page, and voila! Students get to see fresh content via a website they already log into every day. Win win win!


[from here]

Animated GIFs
This one took me by surprise. I’ve been paying more attention to tumblr lately, since it’s just such a radically different approach to online community and communication than I’m used to, and I keep seeing all these wicked animated gifs there. Animated gifs used to be the poor mans video, and the poor web designer’s idea of cute, interesting content, but these things are works of art. We can have video on demand whenever we want now, so this is more targeted, more subtle. Bringing a tiny bit of movement to an otherwise still picture, capturing a single moment in a still. We haven’t integrated this trend into the library yet, but I’m working on it. Simple, low key, and really cool. No more rotating mail or under construction signs, oh no. These are reminiscent of Harry Potter-esque moving images. A touch of motion in a still space. Amazing.

What’s the next thing to get an overhaul, cursor trails? MIDIs? Banner ads? What?

My Current Inspiration: Starbucks

My Current Inspiration: Starbucks

At the moment, the thing I’m drawing the most inspiration from is, oddly, Starbucks. Well, perhaps not oddly at all. Starbucks clearly puts a lot of effort into making their shops places people want to return to. That’s not really all that different from libraries, though the public relations and innovation budget Starbucks allocates to the process is far and away greater than any library’s. In fact, I’m not sure too many libraries would even set aside money or time to even think the way Starbucks does. A profit motive certainly alters the way you proceed. Generally that idea make me a bit queasy, but some of the things I see going on at Starbucks have forced me to put my anti-capitalist streak aside and really learn from what Starbucks is doing.

The core of what’s inspiring me is these cards. These “Pick of the Week” cards. Have you seen them? There’s a new one every Tuesday, sitting by the cash. They’re business-card sized, feature a band on the front, and instructions and an iTunes redeem code on the back. Each card equals an iTunes download. I’ve been picking them up for a few months now, and holding on to these cards thinking about what this means for libraries. It’s a genius thing they’re doing there: if they want me to drop in at least once a week, they’re doing a good job by tempting me with free music. I know every Tuesday I will find a new song, and I get to pick it up and stick it in my pocket. Something that lives exclusively digitally becomes something I can pick up and hold, study as I wait in line.

Of course, free music is not really free: someone’s paying for it, and I’m paying for it with my time and attention. I understand it, in principle: Starbucks is selling its atmosphere, not its coffee, and giving away music a team has vetted chosen, letting me take a bit of the Starbucks atmosphere with me, is smart. It’s constructing Starbucks locations not just as places to pick up a drink, but as hubs of a certain kind of culture and exchange. Starbucks is far deeper into the music business than seems rational on the surface, and I think that’s very interesting.

So my interest in these cards keeps growing. I love these bloody cards.

The manager at our library’s Starbucks tells me that at some locations, the wi-fi network is set up to let you download whatever music is currently playing. That is bloody genius. GENIUS.

Now: as an academic library with campus-wide wireless, and with material that we’ve already paid for, I’m intrigued. The problem we have currently isn’t getting things for students to access, it’s connecting students to the material we already have. That being true, we could presumably give stuff away with cards as well. Articles? E-books? Why not? E-book of the week? Article database of the week? Cool research highlight of the week? Faculty recommended articles, maybe, those articles that bend your brain? (Immediately I imagined a card for Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”, or the preface to Edward Said’s Orientalism, among others. Maybe some citation guides? I dunno, the opportunities are endless.

That was one idea, but as I pick up these cards every Tuesday I keep thinking of new things I could do with these cards.

The other one intersects with something I’m planning to do this year: introduce cool web apps, software and tech tools to students. Tech Tip of the Week? Why not? Rather than a code, I could put up a URL and a QR code. Image on the front, name of the web app, some limited instructions on the back. Then I could link it to some more information about how/why the thing might be useful. Google Docs, Zoho, Mibbit, tinychat, that awesome new aim video chat (how ridiculously awesome is this?), Evernote, dropbox, aviary, the list goes on and on. Cool things students should know about. I can time them to come out when that particular web app will be most useful. Keep them in a neat little holder by the loans desk, or at the registrar’s office, or wherever. Distribute them to the departments. Something you can pick up, look at, hold in your hand, that expands online into a larger thing. Something that connects you to this tool that will be useful to you.

Still thinking about those cards.

We do a lot of faculty support for courseware (it’s kind of our bread and butter around here). Every year we look at what we’ve done before and throw most of it out, saving only the approaches and techniques that were the most useful. We threw out the lecture method; we threw out sitting in a lab. We threw out stacks of manuals. In our redesigned approach to teaching faculty how to use courseware, we’ve ended up with a more petting zoo style of experience, where instructors need to actively participate and make decisions about what they need. They talk to us. They move around the room, looking at different features. They talk to each other. Get ideas. We brought back a bit of paper with a one-page tip sheet per tool/function we were highlighting. These are extremely popular. People feel good walking away with something relevant, something they chose to pick up. But why a whole piece of paper? Maybe we can condense our tip sheets (how to do very very specific things) into cards. Beautiful design. Extremely short instructions on how to do this thing (3-5 steps), QR code, URL. We can hand them out when people ask us a question; you get an answer and something in hand. And we can distribute them to others to hand out. If you get it, you can pass it on when someone you know encounters the same question.

Cards. These simple little cards from Starbucks! It’s not the cards that are so sexy, really, it’s the idea that you get a bit of digital information, a gateway into something bigger, in something you can hold in your hand. Stick in your wallet. Stick in your pocket. A little thing, it makes it seem approachable. Simple. Not a sea of words of “click here” and “go there”. One, two, three, you’re done. Small space.

Starbucks and their cards. It started as a minor bit of musing, but now I can’t stop myself considering more possibilities every Tuesday when I pick up a new one.

Compassion

Compassion

I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.

Project Management for Librarians: Stakeholder Analysis

Project Management for Librarians: Stakeholder Analysis

I have a Stakeholder Analysis spreadsheet, but it’s very very simple and I’m considering revamping it based on what I’ve recently discovered. Once I have something that works, I’ll share it. Currently, it looks something like this: (column 1) Name, (column 2) Role, (column 3) Interest in Project. You can probably make this yourself, use Google Docs to make it easier to share.

What’s a stakeholder? It’s anyone who has a stake in your project. Who are people who are going to be involved in your project? Who’s your project team? Who’s your project manager? Who are the people you will go to for sign off at various stages along the way? In my experience, these are the easiest questions to answer, but I’ve seen over and over how people fail to answer these basic questions. So let’s get that out of the way.

You need a project manager. The project manager is the one who usually creates and updates these documents I’m sharing (though not alone, and not necessarily, those are tasks that can be shared). The project manager schedules the meetings and keeps an eye on the timeline. Personally, I’m a hyper-creative type, and I love having a good project manager. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders to have someone else take care of the little details. Project management tasks are organizational, primarily, making sure the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed, so to speak. But having a project management role doesn’t mean you can’t also be wildly creative; you just schedule the time to do it. Wild creativity has an important role in any project, and as the project manager you can build time for it into the schedule of the project. The crazy blue sky phase comes at the beginning, and once the project is set up, you’re welcome to engage in it. While the project manager has a leadership role, it’s not an authoritarian one. Just time- and goal-management.

You also have gatekeepers. These are the people who do have an authoritarian role in your project, the ones who will look at your proposed solutions and say yay or nay, the ones who authorize other people’s time and any budget you may have. You really can’t get started at all without knowing who your gatekeepers are. In my world, the chief librarian is always the primary gatekeeper, since we are all her resources, essentially. But I usually have other gatekeepers who are more deeply involved in the project, who make decisions in the chief librarian’s stead. That might be an associate chief librarian, or a unit manager. For me determining who this person is is pretty paramount. Without knowing who this person is, I don’t know who to ask about starting the project in the first place. My gatekeepers have so far never been on my project team, however. They don’t attend our checkin meetings. We bring our solutions to the gatekeeper when we’re good and ready.

Your project team are the people who have allotted time to do work on this project. That work might be intellectual, not code or otherwise. I have done projects entirely on my own, and to be honest with you I hate it. Sure, I have all the control over my time and commitments, but I find it deflating not to have a team to bounce ideas off. Your project team are the people you turn to, the people who share the work with, meet with regularly, and share ideas with. The team agrees to the solution before you bring it to a gatekeeper.

Some of the key things to think about with each of these stakeholders are: how do they see their role in the project? How do you see it? What kind of commitment are you expecting from them, and do they expect from you? What are the best ways to communicate with them? Usually (in an academic context, at least) these people are the ones you see every day. How often do you want to meet with the project team? I’ve been involved in projects where we checked in daily. (My favourite projects are like this, but I’m a pathological sharer.) You might have a quick checkin meeting weekly, or every other week: to me, the best checkins are short, informal, and serve to keep everyone engaged and on the same page. Personally I look forward to these meetings, but only if everyone understands them in the same spirit I do. So it’s good to have a conversation about that from the start. If you want to have a weekly checkin (good idea), book them upfront. Be honest about the time commitment you’re asking from your team. It doesn’t serve anyone to pretend a project is very simple and requires all most no time at all and then try to sneak meetings in where you can. That doesn’t serve the project, and it short-changes everyone involved. Book the meetings, keep them short and on topic, and make them useful.

You meet with your gatekeepers in a more formal way, but I’ll get to that further when I get through the documents and talk a bit more about the process of working with them.

So these are your local main players: your team, the ones who have cleared part of their schedule for the project. Your gatekeepers, who approved investigating the project, and to whom you bring updates at various stages (more on the stages and the gate meetings later). That’s all fine and good, and, in my experience, the easy part.

The harder part is determining the rest of your stakeholders, the nebulous others who may or may not be all that easy to meet with. I’m speaking now from the point of view of an academic librarian. We have tons of stakeholders for any project we undertake, and I’ve discovered recently that it would do me well to consider and then constantly reconsider exactly who all my stakeholders are, and whether they are being properly and effectively communicated to.

For example: one of my projects in the last 8 months has been managing a major courseware upgrade. We didn’t do the technical upgrade ourselves, but our job was to learn how to use all the new tools, create support documents, design a new training program for faculty, answer faculty questions, communicate the change to the campus (faculty, staff and students), and make sure the changes don’t come as a surprise to anyone. So who are the stakeholders?

First there was our team: me and two of my colleagues. Our gatekeepers: my supervisor, and my colleagues’ supervisor. But obviously that’s not it. The range of further stakeholders was huge. Our faculty (all of them). Our departmental staff. The departmental chairs. The dean. TAs. The entire entire student body. The registrar’s office. Student Life. Further: the librarians, who interact with faculty every day. Our circulation staff, who answer basic student courseware questions, they need to be in the know too. Our reference staff, who answer advanced student questions. The technical staff who actually do the work on the servers: they’re invested in our work as well.

The reason I can’t share any documents on this subject is that I have a single one, and as you can see, I clearly have two major kinds of stakeholders: the ones you talk to every day, who know about your project, agreed to participate, and are pretty easily kept in the know, and then this other group that includes all the people who will be affected by the decisions that we make, who are unlikely to be direct participants in the group. But I need to think about them as stakeholders. How am I going to communicate to them? How are they going to communicate back to me? What are their needs from my project, and how am I planning to address them?

What I’ve learned recently, the revelation I’ve had about stakeholder analysis, is that I need to revisit this list often, and revisit whether or not I am meeting their immediate communication needs. Certain of these groups tends to get little attention, when in reality they are some of my closest allies in getting my work done well. I fear at times that I have neglected the rest of the librarians to the point that they don’t feel involved in the project, while in reality they are a liaison to the faculty and an understanding of this project is kind of critical to both them and me. That’s a mistake, and one I don’t want to repeat again. We tend to live in silos, and a searching stakeholder analysis is a process you can use to break them down. Any of these groups, say, the departmental chairs, may not initially see themselves as a stakeholder in my project. (That’s not the case at my institution, however, but it could happen.) I don’t have to use this language, or tell them they have a specific commitment to me and my project, but what I can do is commit to keeping them informed and taking their feedback. In our case, that meant attending a chair’s meeting and detailing our plan, accepting feedback or questions at any time, and keeping them informed of our progress. It also meant offering specific services and materials to that group. I never said the world “stakeholder”. It’s more of a reminder to me, and the team, that these people are important and we should treat them that way.

I’ve never encountered a group to whom I have offered a formal information vehicle to that has been unhappy to receive it.

At first, I understood a stakeholder analysis as a list of project team members. But now, I understand that it’s far more than that, and I schedule in points in my projects to revisit my stakeholders and consider who I am leaving out, who I could better inform, what communication tools I could use to better inform them. It might be a phone call, or a group skype meeting, or a public blog tracking the progress of the project. And that is what I now consider to be a thorough stakeholder analysis.

To do this effectively, you might need to talk to third parties and explain your project, see if they think you’ve missed anyone. I’ve been involved in projects where people we didn’t think to include provided valuable insight we should have considered earlier.

All failures are at their heart communication failures; a stakeholder analysis is how you determine, and put in writing, exactly who you need to communicate to, how, and why.

Project Management for Librarians: Risk Assessment

Project Management for Librarians: Risk Assessment

[Download the risk assessment document template]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDEnh1hJKkQ&fs=1&hl=en_US]

Risk assessment is clearly an art I haven’t entirely mastered yet, but even at my novice stage it’s helpful, primarily because it gets you thinking about what you’ll do in the case of an imminent failure. It puts the possibility of failure on the table, and forces you to talk it over with your supervisor, your stakeholders, and your team. Even when you don’t anticipate the particular risk you end up facing, you’ve probably brainstormed enough mitigating and contingent actions that it won’t take you long to construct a new one on the fly. It also introduces the tools and language to kill your project when it’s limping toward failure, since you have built in all the parachute points at an early stage.

I had to shelve the project the model risk assessment in the video was written for in the face of a risk I did not anticipate. It’s still not a failure; it’s just shelved until the risk event is past. The team were grateful when I raised the issue and suggested shelving it, because it saved everyone the pain of a public flop. No hard feelings! These things happen! We will regroup at a later date!

Download this tool and use it; make a better video than I did!

Project Management for Librarians: Scope

Project Management for Librarians: Scope

[Download the Scope Document Template]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QP6PF96m374&fs=1&hl=en_US]

In sum: a scope document can be your best friend. It’s a great touchstone for your first big meeting with your team and your stakeholders, because there is no document that helps clarify a project more than a scope doc does. I’ve had the experience a number of times now where a project really comes together in that first meeting poring over the scope doc and deciding what stays and what goes. It prompts a lot of conversation and encourages a lot of clarity. When you all agree on the content of your scope doc, you’ve got a good grounding to move forward with your project, and a good sense of what will define success and failure.

Of course, a scope doc changes along the way at first. More about that a bit later.

Project Management for Librarians: Charter

Project Management for Librarians: Charter

[Download the blank Charter document template]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcZA2rPQnPE&fs=1&hl=en_US]

In sum: you create a charter document when you first have the idea for something. It’s a very simple document that you fill out and hand to the person who authorizes the time/resources you need for your project. I never use these documents instead of talking to people though; I talk to everyone before I write the document, and also when I pass it off. The document is like a cheatsheet about the idea, the paper version of the conversation you’re having. But a charter document is open and simple enough that you aren’t locking yourself into any one solution yet. It’s just saying: hey, here’s a problem I want to address. If you’re me and incapable of keeping any bright ideas to yourself, you are probably saying way more about what you want to do with this project in person than you are in paper. But at least you’re all acknowledging that yes, you’re going to spend some time thinking about this thing, and we all agree that it’s a good idea.

If you’re concerned about being called on your use of your time, you can modify this document to include a signature area. You can get someone to physically sign off on you investigating a project. At the very very start, this is the document they would be signing off on.

A charter document is a one-off. It just gets you started on the project. The end project might look very very different than the charter, but that’s okay. We can address any changes in the project in future documents, like the scope and alternatives. But more on that later.

Project Management for Librarians Series

Project Management for Librarians Series

At Internet Librarian in Monterey, Calfornia, I attended some sessions about failure. I’m a fan of sharing failures, as difficult as they are to share, so I looked forward to these. What I learned from attending them is that librarians in certain industries (academic and public, I suspect) aren’t really equipped with methods and processes to address and manage failure (or success, really). I know this particularly well because I didn’t have those methods and processes in my first couple of years either, but I was lucky enough to get a supervisor who does. She has been coaching me on project management principles ever since. I’m not exactly an expert, especially since my brain doesn’t naturally work for extended planning and organization, but I’ve worked very hard to grasp these ideas and make sense of them in my context, so I’m at least comfortable speaking about them at length.

Last night I joined the Libpunk collective’s podcast to chat about failure, and was reminded once again how desperately librarians need this process. Honestly, I sleep so much better working this way. So I’ve decided to share what I know.

To do this, I’m going to share a series of documents, along with some explanations of how to use them.

You may be wondering why the whole of my obsession with project management appears to focus on documents. I found this odd at first too. But think of it this way: the documents are a concrete version of verbal communication. Once these ideas and warnings are in paper, they are visible to everyone involved in your project and are much harder to forget or ignore. I’ve have argued that all (or at least most) failures in libraries are in fact communication failures. Documents like these are a way of taking your communication and putting it in paper form. It’s an externalized form of communication that you can refer back to and get agreement on.

The documents are also a great way to force your brain to think about your project in very concrete terms (probably the hardest part for me). They ask you to fit elements of your project in boxes that will help you keep the whole project in line, and will help you understand when and if your project is heading toward failure. They also provide the language that you need to get agreement on critical issues and deadlines, which really helps when you need to call the whole thing off or sing a victory hymn. I find it also makes the whole process official and solid, so even if a project doesn’t make it out of the early planning stages, it’s still an awesome thing that you did that ought to fit on your activity report and demonstrates great learning.

So while I’m going to talk a lot about documents as part of communicating this process, I’m really just talking about effective, consistent and constant communication.

And I say this as a person who is not naturally a planner or organizer. Working this way, with a very specific framework, has allowed me to be way more creative, oddly enough. It roots my process and lets me go off on wild tangents without burning up any of the key goal posts around me. Having a place where my creativity and crazy ideas fit and make sense (and are totally useful!) is extremely freeing.

First I will share and describe each of the documents. Then I will explain the stages you go through with them to move your project from glimmer of an idea to completion.

Documents

2515 Futurology: The Role of the Library in 500 years (according to me)

2515 Futurology: The Role of the Library in 500 years (according to me)

I’ve recently returned from Internet Librarian in Monterey, where one of the evening sessions had a series of prominent thinkers in librarianship considering what libraries will look like in 2515. Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to predict the future 5 years out let alone 500 years. 500 years is actually impossible. But I want to give it a try anyway.

500 years ago, the printing press was still revolutionizing Europe; we’re 7 years from the 500th anniversary of the year Martin Luther nailed his theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg, which started the first ideological revolution fueled by the European printing press. If we imagine we are at just such a point, where a piece of technology is going to start a cascade that impacts every element of our society and culture, it’s clear just how impossible it is to predict 500 years into the future. The people complaining about information overload because of the volume of new books being produced were probably not anticipating the internet. But I think we can nod in their direction and remember that the moral crises of the moment will probably sound ridiculous in 500 years.

The key part I felt was missing from the predictions at Internet Librarian was the absence of the impact of the inevitable environmental and economic apocalypse that would likely occur between then and now. In 500 years we will have no more fossil fuels and will probably have exhausted all the key precious metals currently employed in high-tech manufacturing, so a computing culture based on better plastics and faster chips is probably unlikely. In a world where the fossil fuel economy crashes, there are two options: either we swap out fossil fuels for something cheaper and better and life continues on largely the same way (seems unlikely, given how little progress anyone has made thus far), or lifestyles change radically.

In the crash, I would expect that we largely cease to travel nearly as much as we currently do. There is a movement now toward rehabilitating large suburban areas built based on a car culture into walkable, livable spaces. If we lose access to cheap fossil fuels, and then lose fossil fuel altogether, I would expect that movement to grow and fundamentally alter the way we relate to our neighbourhoods and regions. Perhaps our highways would turn into long strips of farms. More walking, more biking, better public transit, more focus on local communities and getting what you need within a smaller radius. I would expect (relatively) cheap and accessible air travel to end, at least temporarily. Potentially, the costs of personal communication technology might rise as well. Remember: no more easy plastics. Our current disposable computing culture is based on cheap, easy plastic. Presumably computing devices could be made from recycled materials, but I would expect the cost of the devices to rise in any case. Would this create a second digital divide?

Of course, if we go through any length of time fighting over the remaining fossil fuels, there will be bloodshed. I would expect key civilizations to fall. I don’t imagine the world 500 years from now would be dominated by the English and the Americans. England would probably be mostly if not entirely underwater, as would large swaths of the United States. Potentially, the west’s focus on desktop/laptop computing would make it less agile. Europe, Africa and Asia are far better placed with their mobile technologies. Most of Africa skipped the hardwired internet infrastructure and went straight to wireless mobile; does that make them better suited when the crash inevitably comes and our hardwired infrastructure fails? Along with a shift in the dominant global cultures will come new metaphors and means of making sense of the world. This will also alter the way we think about and use technologies, and libraries.

Our increasing resistance to antibiotics, not to mention the rise of nonsensical distrust of vaccinations in the western world, will likely mean the return of certain terrible illnesses. In the next 500 years, I would expect to see first world countries contend with diseases long thought cured, managed or gone. We are a culture obsessed with cleanliness to such a level that we have encouraged a number of autoimmune disorders that I expect will only get worse. Doubtless we will discover a way to create stronger antibiotics, but I think the turn in that tide will come when we return to a more symbiotic relationship with our internal parasites and stop thinking of ourselves as so set apart from the natural world. I probably don’t need to mention our frankly terrible food culture and heartless animal/fish farming. Hopefully the radical drop in our populations due to illness, war, famine and infection will allow us the space to rethink how we manage our food resources.

In spite all this devastation in the picture, I expect it will all be history in 500 years. 500 years is a pretty long time for humans, so I would expect that we’d found a way to work through it in that time, primarily through altered expectations, cultural shift, and technological advances.

If this is the backdrop, where do libraries fit in? Clearly, a changed focus on the local over the global, or neighbourhoods over suburbs, means the library becomes, as it once was, a staple in the community. What are they offering? Is it books? It might be. Paper books are a more renewable resource than the technology that supports ebooks, certainly. I don’t have any doubt that the book (the novel, let’s say, even the monograph) will still be around as a concept, regardless of its form. We like long form content, we have always liked long form content. I would expect to see books get a lot longer, too. 1000 page books might be the norm, easily. If you look around you’ll see precious few thin books on shelves at the bookstore. Word processing has made it easier to write really long books and still edit and share them prior to publication. I expect our interfaces will only get easier and easier to use, resulting in longer and longer novels. Human minds seem to be nourished on stories; that’s been true for longer than 500 years (more like 3000, identifiably), so I don’t imagine our need for stories will vanish. Maybe the need will only increase, particularly because I think a turn will come where the values built into the humanities will rise.

That sounds crazy, because right now no one wants to fund the humanities anymore. The sciences are where its at, right? The more seamless our technologies get, the more story and metaphor will become the crucial factor in adoption and use. That’s something I learned more about at Internet Librarian, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time as well. You can have all the technology in the world, but until the imaginative capacity is there to alter your culture to account for its use, you don’t progress. Technology can be a kind of driver, but you need story-inclined minds to make sense of it enough for the culture to absorb it in a rational way. That tendency is getting more obvious now, but it will probably become even more clear. Thought-leaders (sense-makers) can have technical skills, of course, in the same way that dancers need to know how to walk. In 500 years, I would expect that we live in a more deliberately metaphorical and ideas-driven world. This science-focus is, in my opinion, a short-term blip spurred on by the long industrial revolution. It will have tapered off long before we reach 2515. That doesn’t mean that technological innovation stops; only that its dominance as the only thing worth funding will end.

If we see internet content creation as a base, I would expect in 500 years that everyone creates and consumes content. Everyone is an artist, a novelist, a creator of some kind. As the need for specific technical skills vanishes, more and more people can enter into artistic realms. For instance: it takes tremendous knowledge, skill and finances to build, say, a bridge or a building. With virtual tools, I can build a building or a bridge any time I want, using building blocks and expanses of virtual space. For someone with no skills in architecture, I can still spend hours creating buildings.

But the virtual is different, right? I would expect that divide to crumble, especially once we determine how to manage a sustainable computing culture. Without the plastics, maybe we would be forced to take the next step and leave these clunky interfaces altogether. At IL someone said we would be curators of screens; either we provide them or people bring their own. I think in 500 years there will be no more screens. There will only be content.

I don’t know how this happens. It’s hard to imagine and it sounds impossible, but put yourself in Gutenberg’s shoes or in Martin Luther’s and try to imagine the 21st century. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but I feel sure we probably will. I doubt it’s an implant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we use our biological knowledge to create some sort of virus or bacteria that will turn our optical/sensory nervous system into a dumb terminal for the scads of data we create. I would expect our future to be overlaid not just with the kinds of information we now have access to, but with whole other levels of creation piled into the physical space itself. What we think of as “information overload” volumes of data will be laughably quaint. You can see the beginnings of how this would happen with collaborative geotagging and GPS and crowdsourcing. I think what we have now is the thinnest base level of where it will go.

There will be no more sitting at a desk in front of a computer. The idea of a computer will be something kids go to museums to understand. In the distant future, I would expect what we think of as the internet to be just part of the walls, the furniture, ourselves. It informs us instantly all the time. We communicate with it by shifting ourselves through the space, not by forcing ourselves into a place to use a set of tools. I imagine we would return to physical objects (like a telephone handset or a typewriter) as cues and indicators; touch this, hold it this way, and the system responds. The difference between software and physical objects becomes invisible; demonstrated intent is the way you launch an application. We have touchscreens; the future would have gestures writ large.

I would expect the publishing industry to collapse. There is too much creation, independent novels and artists, to sustain it in its present form. We don’t need a publishing industry to publish and distribute, so these would cease to be key elements of the industry. However, in spite of the fact that our cities are coated with graffiti, we still go to art galleries; the publishing industry will die but be reborn, potentially as a refining service, or as a referral and recommendation service. With all creation and all information so easy to generate and find, the value third parties like “publishers” can bring is with advice, support, networks, and recommendation. These are crucial and probably lucrative roles. It would be the publishing industry, but with the actual publishing part excised. It will probably become one of the strongest industries, employing a far larger proportion of the population than it does currently.

And this brings us back to libraries. If I’m right and we ensure a series of technological and economic blows, the library may indeed become the only place where most people can access information and communication tools. We would need to expand our roles as access providers, expanding our computing services rather than restricting them. If computers suddenly become insanely expensive, public libraries in particular will need to fill a need we haven’t had to fill in the west since the 80s and early 90s. If it goes the other way and computing becomes insanely cheap, possibly with biodegradable computers, we might do the opposite; reduce computing facilities, but provide tons of free and fast access with a focus on supporting user generated content. Maybe we provide tools for creation, storage of digital media, in general support the voices of our patrons on the world stage.

By the time we adjust to a world with different energy sources and radically different economic models, with massive user-generated content of all kinds, search is long dead; context is what people need. Libraries, then, can act as filters. In some ways I think libraries can become totally ubiquitous civic services, providing support to neighbourhoods by filtering content based on where their patrons are at any given time. Rather than typing a search term, you would shift your physical self into a space that indicates the content you’re looking for. For instance: in a university, you might go to the history department to begin a “search” for history material. You might move toward a particular office to get closer to certain kinds of information, and that information is constantly refined by the person behind that door. Better yet, we take that universe of information and put it in a room where your shifting motion helps flip between topics and refine your process. Once again the university library is a global playhouse granting patrons access to the entire world of information from the start to the present. We often talk about the value of place, the library as a place. I think, built well, the library as place would become the entryway to all information in one room. It would remain a valuable location not because its the only place to access that information, but because it’s the easiest way to do so.

Keyword searches are the mode of the day currently; but they aren’t easy, and with increasing forms of content, they will become rapidly unwieldy. This isn’t how people think, no matter how popular google is; everyone still prefers to get recommendations from people they know and trust than to perform a cold call search. Right now classification systems are antiquated and increasingly not useful; I would expect their usefulness to return in the future because where you go in the “stacks” would filter the content you see, would make it resolve into its context. Merge your catalogue with your physical space; we already do this. This is exactly what the library was meant to be; a single repository of all information, ordered in a way that makes sense. In this world, that single repository would be dynamic, fundamentally cloud-based and terminal-free. Book-free, probably. Virtual but highly physical.

Libraries would retain their role, not because it’s the only place to find the content, but its the only way it appears in a rational, browseable, clear way, with exactly the context each individual patron needs. A librarian would be a refiner of context rather than a content selector. We would create roles for our patrons the way we do for usability study, refine those roles based on a huge series of factors, and help individuals to create the library in the image they need, based on who they are today, and help that role to shift and change along with the patron. And we help take information about others (anonymized, or not; there is prestige in being a good filter) and apply it in interesting ways. We would be a constantly-shifting collection of contexts, switchable, alterable, reorderable on the fly. There would be much more information, created by many more people; but it would be so easy to sift through it that the idea of searching would almost unthinkable. Searching would again become a highly-prized skill, because most people will not be required to do it. At that point, librarians can make a bid win back search and be the go-to people when someone needs to actually search for something rather than just find it through thoughtful context. Reference desks would be beehives of activity. (Though: possibly bees would be extinct. Pity, that.)

In the days when long-distance travel becomes prohibitively expensive, we might make ourselves communication hubs, creating spaces where our patrons can interact with others at a distance but still have the feeling that they are sharing physical space. Maybe we will transform our spaces into conference areas. In academic context, this make perfect sense: we would become local venues for every academic conference of interest to our faculty and students. We would foster community both locally and globally. Our faculty would probably attend more conferences than ever before, interact more, share more. We would archive not just the papers but the experience of the conference for others to revisit. Hopefully we would take over the “publishing” side of academic communication altogether, fostering academic sharing in more ways than one. Once long-distance travel becomes easy again, many might prefer the library as a communication hub, and attending virtually might be the new old-school way to interact with a conference. They would become far more frequent. Conference papers might overtake journal articles, but we would present each of them as though they are individual items in our collection, with peer review and context (and a thousand other variables) modifying how prominent they are.

At Internet Librarian, most people seem to despair a bit at the idea of a long-term future for the library. I’m really not in that camp, obviously. I believe that the traditional role of the library is still very much up for grabs in the future, more so than this blip of time we’re currently occupying. But as long as librarians think of libraries primarily as information storehouses rather than context-generators, and as themselves as “human search engines” rather personal, thoughtful and tech-savvy guides through a sea of available information, we will struggle to remain relevant. If we consider our true mission, underneath the formats and methods, I think we’ll find that the world always needs libraries. We just need to keep altering ourselves so that we keep meeting the same needs as the world changes.

iPhone: week one

iPhone: week one

For all my tech-geekery, I’ve never had a smartphone. There hasn’t been a really good reason for this, aside from a vague attempt at fiscal responsibility and the reality that I spend my life essentially in one of two wifi zones (home, work). I figured I didn’t really need a truly mobile device that connected to the internet. Couldn’t I have my (short) commute time away from it? It just never seemed that important. I’ve been following the developments, and while never anti-smartphone, I’ve just never been a good phone person. (At least: not since I was 16 and on the phone constantly.) There are so many other interesting ways to communicate: talking on on the phone just seemed like the least imaginative. I don’t have a home phone, and my work voicemail is something I have to remind myself to check.

The internet is, largely, my passion in life: communication, productivity, creative thinking with internet tech, that’s what I do for a living. It’s also something I enjoy in my off-time; I’m genuinely interested in web innovation, and my explorations and thinking don’t stop when I leave the office. I understand the app revolution, and while I’m on the side that believes the apps are probably only temporarily in power and the mobile web will probably take over, I’m intrigued by the apps and the interesting things developers and users are doing with them. So you’d think I’d have been on this smartphone thing ages ago, but no.

In spite of my obvious interest in all things online, it wouldn’t be fair to classify my web experiences as addictive or compulsive. I’m absolutely okay with pulling the plug at pretty much any time. I can take a long road trip without the internet, and I don’t miss it. I love to read, I love to talk to people, I love to sit and think and muse. Contrary to the “information overload” debate (which I think is code for “I procrastinate and the internet makes it too easy”), I don’t find my connection to the internet either overwhelming or demanding. It’s a give and take. If I don’t want to pay attention, I don’t. When I want it to entertain me, or confuse me, or engage me and make me think in new ways, it does. So while I thought the smartphone thing was pretty cool and clearly an intriguing and useful development, I didn’t actually have one of my own.

Until last week, that is. I finally got on the bandwagon. And I’ve been diving in head first. No holds barred, no panic about the 3G useage. Not in the first week, at least. I gave myself permission to be gluttonous with it, to roll around in it and see how it felt.

The only times prior to now that I thought I’d like to have a smartphone is when I’m out to dinner. Not because my dining companions have been sub par, but because I have an ongoing fascination with food history. I like to know how the composition on my plate came to be, and what historical events I can credit for it. This is easy with things like potatoes and tomatoes (“New World”, obviously), but garlic, carrots (did you know medieval Europeans ate not the orange root, but only the green tops of carrots?), bean sprouts, onions, cows, pigs, chickens, saffron, pepper, etc. It’s really the only time I’ve felt the lack of the internet. I want to look up some historical details at very odd times. I figured a smartphone would be helpful for that. (I can’t really carry around a comprehensive food history book everywhere I go, can I.) Filling specific information needs: in spite of my own certainty that search is basically dead, in the back of my head I figured this is how I would use a smartphone. I was not right.

But it’s been different than I expected. First, and most obvious, I suddenly always know when I have email. I bet people hate that. Email is my second least favourite means of communication, so putting it at the front of the line has mixed results. As I said, I’m reasonably good at not feeling pressure to look at anything when I don’t want to, but the thing pings when I get new email, and it makes me curious. But even in the first week, I don’t look every time. I didn’t stop my conversation with my mother when I heard it ping. I did, however, answer a question from an instructor while on the Go train back home on Saturday. If you want to be distracted, access to the internet via smartphone will certainly act as a decent distraction.

My best experience with it so far as been a trip to my home town, Guelph. It’s early October, and suddenly this week autumn appeared in full colour. If you’ve never experienced a southern Ontario fall, you’re missing something great. The cool temperatures at night mixed with the remaining warm days turns out a crazy quilt of colour across the landscape. It’s only when there’s enough cold that you get the firey reds and deep oranges. We’re in a banner year here, and on the bus on the way to Guelph I saw this awe-inspiring riot of colour out the window. Purple brush along the side of the road, a scintillating blue sky, red, orange, yellow and green leaves on the trees; this is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be living. The kind of thing I want to share, just out of the sheer unbelievability of it. It’s incredibly ephemeral, these fall colours, so capturing them and sharing them has additional appeal.

So this phone I had in my hand, it has a camera. This was actually my first experience using it. And I discovered quite by accident that I could snap a picture and then post it to twitter with a matter of a few swipes of a finger. So there I was, first on the bus, then walking down Gordon St. in Guelph, 22 degree weather, the sun warm on my skin, and while I was away from home, away from my computer, I was sharing my delight in the beauty around me, capturing it and sharing it effortlessly. It was one of those days when I felt like I could hardly believe the intensity of what I was seeing, but I was able to share it, record it, all as part of the experience. I’m not a great photographer: mostly I leave the camera alone and just experience my life without documenting it. But sometimes, documenting it is part of the experience, adds to it. So, in my 30 minute walk from the University of Guelph and my sister’s house, I shared the colours around me and saw the responses from my friends and colleagues far and wide. I was no less on the street, no less engaged. But I was also interacting with the world via the internet. I loved it. I was in two places at once. I had voices in my head. I was connected in two places. It reminded me of Snow Crash.

I’m sure this is no revelation for anyone who’s already had a smartphone all this time, so mea culpa. I was aware of the sort of ambient/ubiquitous computing, I just hadn’t had the chance to experiment with it myself yet, to see what it really feels like. I think the interface is still a bit clunky, too limiting, but the touch screen is getting closer to effortless. What’s wonderful about it is its seamlessness; picture to twitter, responses, all so easy to see and engage with. And engaging online isn’t even really drawing me away from my real life experience. It’s just a part of it. I’m not thinking about cables or connections or keyboards. Technology is getting to be close to invisible, just present and available.

As I sat on the train, reading fiction online, leaving comments, checking out links on Twitter, reading educause research, answering work email, I realized that I would never be bored again.

I read someone’s response to the iPad a few months ago where he returned his iPad for this very reason: the threat of never feeling bored again. Boredom as critical experience, necessary experience. I can understand that, but of course it’s all in the decisions that you opt to make. We are invariably drawn to the shininess of instant gratification via the internet, of course. But even that can get boring, eventually. You do reach a point where you’ve read it all for the moment, and you’ll have to wait for more to appear in the little niche of reading that you do. Does that force you to branch out, find more and more interesting things? That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Does it allow you to avoid reflecting, being with yourself in a place?

One of the very early criticisms directed at the iPad was that it was a device for consumers, on which information is merely consumed, not created. That jarred me, as it felt untrue and frankly a bit elitist. Creation doesn’t just mean writing software or hacks. Creation can be writing, or drawing, or singing, or sharing reactions and thoughts. but I see now with both the iPhone and the iPad, that this criticism is both true and false. It’s true that these devices make it very easy to consume content created by others; it’s easier to browse and read than it is to write, for instance. The keyboard is pretty great, but it’s not as easy to use as the one attached to my laptop. But what I choose to browse/read/consume is still my choice; just because it’s on an iPad doesn’t mean that it’s all commercial content, not while the web is as relatively free and easy to access as it is. Most of my reading on these devices is not sponsored and not created by mainstream media. I’m not just reading the New York Times. I’m reading blogs and archives, primarily. And why are we so anti “consumer”? We need to consume the creations of others as part of a healthy dialogue, after all; there is a level of pop consumption that’s a good thing. Neither of these devices is as simple as a TV or a radio where there is a clear creator and a clear consumer. I am also a creator on these devices, a sharer of experiences, of thoughts and ideas. My experience walking down the street in Guelph on a beautiful day was a case in point; I was clearly a creator, sharing what I saw, engaging with others. That’s not a passive experience. Sitting on the train reading someone’s review of a movie, or a fictional take an on old idea; I’m consuming as well. In places where I couldn’t do so before.

It feels like there are fewer spaces in my life. The level of connection I’m currently experiencing seems to make my days blend together into one long back-and-forth with any number of people. Is this less downtime? Downtime transformed into time spent in this otherworld of communication and information? Am I reflecting less?

I started with a bang, so I guess it remains to be seen how much I keep at it. Will it get old? Will I return to my former habits, with less time testing the limits of my devices? It remains to be seen.

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

My acquisition of an iPad resulted in me reading my first ever ebook (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel) followed promptly by my second (Holly Black’s White Cat). Having learned that I enjoy reading ebooks via ibooks, I discovered the collection of free ebooks available on the platform via project Gutenberg. So, I finally read through a few Arthur Conan Doyle books, some Daniel Defoe, and others. Now, reading books written prior to the 20th century isn’t exactly a novel experience for me. My first degree is in English. I took Renaissance literature, I’ve read Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress and Canterbury Tales and Pride and Prejudice and all those books you read when you do a degree in English. I discovered my love of Daniel Defoe reading Roxana and Moll Flanders. I know very well how many great books are out there.

But this time around, reading them next to modern books on a hypermodern platform, I’m noticing something odd about them. They seem slightly flat. That seems unfair, why would these books feel flat? I thought maybe it had something to do with current expectations of character building. I thought, maybe vie just become accustomed to reaching a particular level of intimacy with a character that wasn’t the fashion before now. But then unpacking that a bit more, I thought it was actually just what mascarades as the illusion of intimacy with a character.

In a 19th century novel, we are fairly intimately enmeshed in the lives of the protagonist. We follow them everywhere. We know most of everything that they do. But somehow that didn’t feel like enough to me. Following them around, hearing all their conversations, accompanying them to meals, it just doesn’t feel like enough.

So then I started to think about all the current fiction I’ve been reading, and what’s going on in the, that’s so different.

For a start, current novels stick to a structure for more tightly. I read a lot of YA, fantasy and science fiction, and these genres all adhere to a pretty strict narrative structure. A protagonist with a mission, a story with a powerful beginning, lots of action in the middle to hold your attention, enemies that have at least some life breathed into them, a crashing, satisfying conclusion. I can’t read anything written in the last 10 years without being hyperaware of now word processing has shaped it. Easy editing, storage, searching, sharing, the relative ease of writing incredible volume that still hangs together as a complete story arc; I don’t imagine any of this would have been so easy and routine without access to a simple word processor. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien and how there’s just no way the detour with Tom Bombadil would have made it past an editor today. And I know he edited a lot, but I don’t think The Lord Of The Rings would have been quite the same book if J.R.R. Had had access to a MacBook and a copy of Scrivener. For nor, it would have been even longer.

But it isn’t only that. I also realized, reading Conan Doyle and Cassie Clare at roughly the same time, that we have very few stories without a Sixth Sense sort of twist to them. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story vie read in the past 10 years that doesn’t have some kind of ancient twist in the latter middle or end of the story. Not just a twist, see, actually a secret hidden in the past of the character that makes everything they’ve done all along suddenly appear in a different light. It not enough anymore to just have a plot; I also need this huge, revealing understory to cast a pall over everything else. I’m used to getting two stories for every story I read. And somehow this dual story surprise is what makes the characters feel more open to me. We don’t just go through a series of events together, which I think has largely been enough to make a good, immersive novel until relatively recently. I also expect to be let into a whole other internal drama, with secrets, betrayals, alternate identities, and shifts so massive there is no going back.

In Harry Potter, we have the relatively simple story of the boy who is a wizard, off to wizarding school; but of course there is the understory about his dead parents and all of their choices and relationships, all of which is in the past but coexists and underscores the progression of the narrative. Couldn’t we have done without it? Would it have seemed even thinner if it had just been a story about the here and now, like Holmes and Watson? Moriarty isn’t revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ long lost twin brother, tangled in feelings of rejection and jealousy of his brother’s familial support and ability to avoid turning to the dark side. Nor is Moriarty Holmes’ father.

I think my expectation of this deeper explanation, revealed fairly late into a narrative but hinted at along the way, is what makes stories without them feel thin, more surface. I have no idea really why Sauron is so evil in The Lord of the Rings. He just is. Just like Moriarty. Defoe’s Roxana is a sexy criminal, for no apparent reason other than that is simply who she is. Without the big reveal and subsequent rethinking of the entire sequence of events toward the end of the story, I feel as though there’s a sizable chunk of the story left to the imagination. No wonder everyone questions Watson’s devotion to the confirmed bachelor Holmes; we’re used to the other shoe eventually dropping, and if it doesn’t, we’re left to find it and reveal it ourselves.

I love these stories with the twists in them. They’re extremely satisfying. I’ve just never noticed until now that the twists have the effect of simulating a new level of intimacy with the characters and the story, perhaps because I the reader learn something alongside the protagonist. We become confidants rather than merely storyteller and audience. But I think it is illusion, and a powerful one. Can’t an old school narrative filled with descriptions of actions and decisions tell you just as much about a character as learning an old family secret? By all rights, shouldn’t it tell us more?

The Portal Speaks: Our Latest Stop Motion/Animated Feature

The Portal Speaks: Our Latest Stop Motion/Animated Feature

September is always a cruel month when you provide support to courseware at a University. A ton of new users, a ton more use of the system, people doing cooler and more difficult things, systems that are more interactive than ever…it all means things tend to slow down. This September has not been our worst by any means, but everyone is used to systems working perfectly and being perfectly fast, so Lauren and I created this:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfhF4eSMo9k&fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0]

It was a great experiment in mixing stop motion with animation. The whole thing took about two hours from start to finish. We shot it with the lights off in my office. Easy! Our key message was this: everyone, and I mean everyone, is doing their best on this. All your issues are being heard and strategies are in place. Since we created and posted this, new hardware was bought and installed. I fear people imagine that those working deep in the systems don’t know/care/worry about how things work for students and instructors. We know exactly how much they do care, so we really wanted to communicate that.

Plus: making videos is fun.

iPad reflections

iPad reflections

I am writing this post from my new iPad. I’ve been waiting for this moment for some time…I have had high hopes. Here are the pros and the cons.

Pros
It’s remarkably easy to use. Any interface works well only if the symbols in use resonate deeply with the user. Apple has the advantage of many years of symbol generation in it’s favour. I’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit without having to turn to a manual.

Others have commented on how awesome it feels to interact with the web using your fingers instead of a mouse; the immediacy of it, the intimacy…it’s like meeting the web in the flesh for the first time. Intimacy like that with places and content is extremely powerful. I can’t see being satisfied with less having experienced it.

Typing is okay. It autocorrects a lot, but it has to. Most of the time it’s right. It pit all your apostrophes and capitals in, which should clean up a great dal of grammar on the Internet.

Mail is stunning. I don’t even know what makes it so beautiful, but it is. So is the calendar. I get a little shiver imaging that my activities will be documented in such an elegant way. So far I’m only viewing,so I can’t speak to it’s functionality. Apple appears to be appealing to the secret aesthete in us; the style and slickness makes you feel like you’re transcending some kind of hitherto unknown class boundary. I admire and appreciate their attempt to surround me with prettiness.

Cons
It never once occurred to me that the ipad’s web browser (safari) would struggle with google docs. Google docs is my word processor of choice, and since it’s a app, I presumed I would have no trouble at all composing docs on an iPad. But no: I can view but not edit google docs on the iPad. I’d really like to know why. Does docs rely on flash? I was under the impression that it didn’t. Is it’s functionality deliberately disabled, and by which party? My guess is that apple is responsible, not google, but this like like picking one parent over another. I’ve been a Mac user since 1997 and I become more of a google fan by the day. Why apple makes the products I’d rather spend the day with my fingers on, google makes the functionality I need. So I hope safari gets it’s act together. In the meantime I’m making do with a very slick app called Office2 HD, which is beautiful. But I believe that the future is in the mobile web, not locked away in apps. If google comes up with a rival device that ties seamlessly into it’s apps package, I may be lured away from apple products.

iBooks. The reading interface is quite lovely, but I’ve never seem a more poorly organized collection of fiction. Books for young adults are listed in the children’s section. Beyond basic author, title and rough genre, I can’t dig though the collection in any comfortable or interesting way. And the bookshelf display is far too simple for the eventual cluttered collection any book loving reader will accumulate. It looks very much slapped together with no serious thought about categorizing fiction.

Lack of flash? Doesn’t bother me in the slightest. YouTube looks fantastic embedded on a page or otherwise.

Thus I find myself partly pleased and impressed, and partly unexpectedly disappointed.

Orientation Video, 2010

Orientation Video, 2010

I’ve been making Blackboard orientation videos for first year students for several years now. The idea is actually to provide a bit of a service to the faculty; many instructors aren’t comfortable providing any “intro” for their students, so the first idea was to box up the sort of information I would give if I went into a class to help ease first year students into the system. The concept has clearly evolved since those early days.

Here’s our orientation video for this term, made using the stop motion function on our (relatively) new HD camera. All props to Lauren Di Monte for that fantastic idea! Complete with captions, thanks to our awesome student employee, Lorena. Go team Blackboard!

If you watch the right hand corner, you can see our mobile shelving doing its thing a couple of times.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDZ6mLqzrWw&fs=1&hl=en_US&hd=1]

This video took about five hours to create, from start to finish. We did two takes; the first one took about 45 minutes and resulted in about a minute of video. The second took an hour and resulted in this minute and a half. We were entranced by how white chalk glowed on the chalkboard in the light of the projector.

Blackboard on a blackboard, eh? Aren’t we clever!