Academic libraries have long provided workshops that focus on research skills and tools to the community. Topics often include citation software or specific database search strategies. Increasingly, however, libraries are offering workshops on topics that some may consider untraditional or outside the natural home of the library. These topics include using R and other analysis packages, data visualization software, and GIS technology training, to name a few. Librarians are becoming trained as Data and Software Carpentry instructors in order to pull from their established lesson plans and become part of a larger instructional community. Librarians are also partnering with non-profit groups like Mozilla’s Science Lab to facilitate research and learning communities.
Traditional workshops have generally been conceived and executed by librarians in the library. Collaborating with outside groups like Software Carpentry (SWC) and Mozilla is a relatively new endeavor. As an example, certified trainers from SWC can come to campus and teach a topic from their course portfolio (e.g. using SQL, Python, R, Git). These workshops may or may not have a cost associated with them and are generally open to the campus community. From what I know, the library is typically the lead organizer of these events. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Librarians are often very aware of the research hurdles that faculty encounter, or what research skills aren’t being taught in the classroom to students (more on this later).
Librarians are helpers. If you have some biology knowledge, I find it useful to think of librarians as chaperone proteins, proteins that help other proteins get into their functional conformational shape. Librarians act in the same way, guiding and helping people to be more prepared to do effective research. We may not be altering their DNA, but we are helping them bend in new ways and take on different perspectives. When we see a skills gap, we think about how we can help. But workshops don’t just *spring* into being. They take a huge amount of planning and coordination. Librarians, on top of all the other things we do, pitch the idea to administration and other stakeholders on campus, coordinate the space, timing, refreshments, travel for the instructors (if they aren’t available in-house), registration, and advocate for the funding to pay for the event in order to make it free to the community. A recent listserv discussion regarding hosting SWC workshops resulted in consensus around a recommended minimum six week lead time. The workshops have all been hugely successful at the institutions responding on the list and there are even plans for future Library Carpentry events.
A colleague once said that everything that librarians do in instruction are things that the disciplinary faculty should be doing in the classroom anyway. That is, the research skills workshops, the use of a reference manager, searching databases, the data management best practices are all appropriately – and possibly more appropriately – taught in the classroom by the professor for the subject. While he is completely correct, that is most certainly not happening. We know this because faculty send their students to the library for help. They do this because they lack curricular time to cover any of these topics in depth and they lack professional development time to keep abreast of changes in certain research methods and technologies. And because these are all things that librarians should have expertise in. The beauty of our profession is that information is the coin of the realm for us, regardless of its form or subject. With minimal effort, we should be able to navigate information sources with precision and accuracy. This is one of the reasons why, time and again, the library is considered the intellectual center, the hub, or the heart of the university. Have an information need? We got you. Whether those information sources are in GitHub as code, spreadsheets as data, or databases as article surrogates, we should be able to chaperone our user through that process.
All of this is to the good, as far as I am concerned. Yet, I have a persistent niggle at the back of my mind that libraries are too often taking a passive posture. [Sidebar: I fully admit that this post is written from a place of feeling, of suspicions and anecdotes, and not from empirical data. Therefore, I am both uncomfortable writing it, yet unable to turn away from it.] My concern is that as libraries extend to take on these workshops because there is a need on campus for discipline-agnostic learning experiences, we (as a community) do so without really fomenting what the expectations and compensations of an academic library are, or should be. This is a natural extension of the “what types of positions should libraries provide/support?” question that seems to persist. How much of this response is based on the work of individuals volunteering to meet needs, stretching the work to fit into a job description or existing work loads, and ultimately putting user needs ahead of organizational health? I am not advocating that we ignore these needs; rather I am advocating that we integrate the support for these initiatives within the organization, that we systematize it, and that we own our expertise in it.
This brings me back to the idea of workshops and how we claim ownership of them. Are libraries providing these workshops only because no one else on campus is meeting the need? Or are we asserting our expertise in the domain of information/data shepherding and producing these workshops because the library is the best home for them, not a home by default? And if we are making this assertion, then have we positioned our people to be supported in the continual professional development that this demands? Have we set up mechanisms within the library and within the university for this work to be appropriately rewarded? The end result may be the same – say, providing workshops on R – but the motivation and framing of the service is important.
Information is our domain. We navigate its currents and ride its waves. It is ever changing and evolving, as we must be. And while we must be agile and nimble, we must also be institutionally supported and rewarded. I wonder if libraries can table the self-reflection and self-doubt regarding the appropriateness of our services (see everything ever written regarding libraries and data, digital humanities, digital scholarship, altmetrics, etc.) and instead advocate for the resourcing and recognition that our expertise warrants.
This summer Springshare released LibGuides 2.0, which is a complete revamp of the LibGuides system. Many libraries use LibGuides, either as course/research guides or in some cases as the entire library website, and so this is something that’s been on the mind of many librarians this summer, whichever side of LibGuides they usually see. The process of migrating is not too difficult, but the choices you make in planning the new interface can be challenging. As the librarians responsible for the migration, we will discuss our experience of planning and implementing the new LibGuides platform.
Making the Decision to Migrate
While migrating this summer was optional, Springshare will probably only support LibGuides 1 for another two years, and at Loyola we felt it was better to move sooner rather than later. Over the past few years there were perpetual LibGuides cleanup projects, and this seemed to be a good opportunity to finalize that work. At the same time, we wanted to experiment with new designs for the library’s website that would bring it in closer alignment with the university’s new brand as well as make the site responsive, and LibGuides seemed like the ideal place to experiment with some of those ideas. Several new features, revealed on Springshare’s blog, resonated with subject-area specialists which was another reason to push for a migration sooner than later. We also wanted to have it in place before the first day of classes, which gave us a few months to experiment.
The Reference and Electronic Resources librarian, Will Kent, as well as the Head of Reference, Niamh McGuigan, and the Digital Services Librarian, Margaret Heller, worked in concert to make decisions, as well as inviting all the other reference and instruction librarians (as well as anyone else who was interested) to participate in the process. There were a few ground rules the core team went by, however: we were migrating and the process was iterative, i.e. we weren’t waiting for perfection to launch.
Planning the Migration
During the migration planning process, the small team of three librarians worked together to create a timeline, report to the library staff on progress, solicit feedback on the system, and update the LibGuide policies to reflect the new changes and functions. As far as front-end migration went, we addressed large staff-wide meetings, provided updates, polled subject specialists on the progress, prepared our 400 databases for conversion to the new A-Z list, and demonstrated new features, and opened changes that they should be aware of. We would relay updates from Springshare and handle any troubleshooting questions as they happened.
Given the new features – new categories, new ways of searching, the A-Z database list, and other features, it was important for us to sit down, discuss standards, and update our content policies. The good news was that most of our content was in good shape for the migration. The process was swift and barring inevitable, tiny bugs went smoothly.
Our original timeline was to present the migration steps at our June monthly joint meeting of collections and reference staff, and give a timeline one month until the July meeting to complete the work. For various reasons this ended up stretching until mid-August, but we still launched the day before classes began. We are constantly in the process of updating guide types, adding new resources, and re-classifying boxes to adhere to our new policies.
Working on the Design
LibGuides 2.0 provides two basic templates, a left navigation menu and a top tabbed menu that looks similar to the original LibGuides (additional templates are available with the LibGuides CMS product). We had originally discussed using the left navigation box template and originally began a design based on this, but ultimately people felt more comfortable with the tabbed navigation.
For the initial prototype, Margaret worked off a template that we’d used before for Omeka. This mirrors the Loyola University Chicago template very closely. We kept all of the LibGuides standard template–i.e. 1-3 columns with the number of columns and sections within the column determined by the page creator, but added a few additional pieces in the header and footer, as well as making big changes to the tabs.
The first step in planning the design was to understand what customization happened in the template, and which in the header and footer which are entered separately in the admin UI. Margaret sketched out our vision for the site on the whiteboard wall to determine existing selectors and those that would need to be added, as well as get a sense of whether we would need to change the content section at all. In the interests of completing the project in a timely fashion, we determined that the bare minimum of customization to unify the research guides with the rest of the university websites would be the first priority.
For those still planning a redesign, the Code4Lib community has many suggestions on what to consider. The main thing to consider is that LibGuides 2.0 is based on the Bootstrap 3.0 framework, which Michael Schofield recently implored us to use responsibly. Other important considerations are the accessibility of the solution you pick, and use of white space.
The new LibGuides platform is responsive, but we needed to account for several items we added to the interface. We added a search box that would allow users to search the entire university website, as well as several new logos, so Margaret added a few media queries to adjust these features on a phone or tablet, as well as adjust the spacing of the custom footer.
Improving the Design
Our first design was ready to present to the subject librarians a month after the migration process started. It was based on the principle of matching the luc.edu pages closely (example), in which the navigation tabs across the top have unusual cutouts, and section titles are very large. No one was very happy with this result, however, as it made the typical LibGuides layout with multiple sections on a page unusable and the tabs not visible enough. While one approach would have been to change the navigation to left navigation menu and limit the number of sections, the majority of the subject librarians preferred to keep things closer to what they had been, with a view to moving toward a potential new layout in the future.
Once we determined a literal interpretation of the university website was not usable for our content, we found inspiration for the template body from another section of the university website that was aimed at presenting a lot of dynamic content with multiple sections, but kept the standard luc.edu header. This allowed us to create a page that was recognizably part of Loyola, but presented our LibGuides content in a much more usable form.
The other piece we borrowed from the university website was sticky tabs. This was an attempt to make the tabs more visible and usable based on what we knew from usability testing on the old platform and what users would already know from the university site. Because LibGuides is based on the Bootstrap framework, it was easy to drop this in using the Affix plugin (tutorial on how to use this)1. The tabs are translucent so they don’t obscure content as one scrolls down.
Our final result was much more popular with everyone. It has a subtle background color and border around each box with a section header that stands out but doesn’t overwhelm the content. The tabs are not at all like traditional LibGuides tabs, functioning somewhat more like regular header links.
Over the summer we were not able to conduct usability testing on the new interface due to the tight timeline, so the first step this fall is to integrate it into our regular usability testing schedule to make iterative changes based on user feedback. We also need to continue to audit the page to improve accessibility.
The research guides are one of the most used links on our website (anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 visits per month), so our top priority was to make sure the migration did not interfere with use – both in terms of patron access and content creation by the subject-area librarians. Thanks to our feedback sessions, good communication with Springshare, and reliable new platform, the migration went smoothly without interruption.
About our guest author: Will Kent is Reference/Instruction and Electronic Resources Librarian and subject specialist for Nursing and Chemistry at Loyola University Chicago. He received his MSLIS from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2011 with a certificate in Community Informatics.
Almost a year ago, GVSU Libraries launched LibraryQuest, our mobile quest-based game. It was designed to teach users about library spaces and services in a way that (we hoped) would be fun and engaging. The game was released “into the wild” in the last week of August, 2013, which is the beginning of our fall semester. It ran continuously until late November, shortly after midterms (we wanted to end early enough in the semester that we still had students on campus for post-game assessment efforts). For details on the early development of the game, take a look at my earlier ACRL TechConnect post. This article will focus on what happened after launch.
Running the Game
Once the app was released, we settled on a schedule that would put out between three to five new quests each month the game ran. Designing quests is very time intensive, and 3-5 a month was all we could manage with the man and woman power we had available. We also had short duration quests run at random intervals to encourage students to keep checking the app. Over the course of the game, we created about 30 quests total. Almost all quests were designed with a specific educational objective in mind, such as showing students how a specific library system worked or where something or someone was in the physical building. Quests were chiefly designed by our Digital Initiatives Librarian (me) with help and support from our implementation team and other staff in the library as needed.
For most of the quests, we developed quest write-up sheets like this one: Raiders of the Lost…Bin. The sheets detailed the name of the quest, points, educational objective, steps, completion codes, and any other information that defined the quest. These sheets proved invaluable whenever a staff member needed to know something about a quest, which was often. Even simple quests like the one above required a fair amount of cooperation and coordination. For the raiders quest, we needed a special cataloging record created, we had to tag several plastic crowns and get them into our automatic storage and retrieval system.
For every quest players completed, they earned points. For every thirty points they earned, they were entered once in a drawing to win an iPad. This was a major component of the game’s advertising, since we imagined it would be the biggest draw to play (and we may not have been right, as you’ll see). Once the game closed in November, we held the drawing, publicized the winner, and then commenced a round of post-game assessment.
Thank You for Playing: Post-Game Assessment
When the game wrapped in mid-November, we took some time to examine the statistics the game had collected. One of our very talented design students created a game dashboard that showed all the metrics collected by the game database in graphic form. The final tally of registered players came in at 397. That means 397 people downloaded the app and logged in at least once (in case you’re curious, the total enrollment of GVSU is 25,000 students). This number probably includes a few non-students (since anyone could download the app), but we did some passes throughout the life of the game to remove non-student players from the tally and so feel confident that the vast majority of registered players are students. During development, we set a goal of having at least 300 registered players, based mostly on the cost of the game and how much money we had spent on other outreach efforts. So we did, technically, meet that goal, but a closer examination of the numbers paints a more nuanced picture of student participation.
Of the registered players, 173 earned points, meaning they completed at least one quest. That means that 224 players downloaded the app and logged in at least once, but then failed to complete any quest content. Clearly, getting players to take the first step and get involved in the game was somehow problematic. There are any number of explanations for this, including encounters with technical problems that may have turned players off (the embedded QR code scanner was a problem throughout the life of the game), an unwillingness to travel to locations to do physical quests, or something else entirely. The maximum number of points you could earn was 625, which was attained by one person, although a few others came close. Players tended to cluster at the lower and middle of the point spectrum, which was entirely expected. Getting the maximum number of points required a high degree of dedication, since it meant paying very close attention to the app for all the temporary, randomly appearing quests.
In general, online-only quests were more popular than quests involving physical space, and were taken and completed more often. Of the top five most-completed quests, four are online-only. There are a number of possible explanations for this, including the observation offered by one of our survey recipients that possibly a lot of players were stationed at our downtown campus and didn’t want to travel to our Allendale campus, which is where most of the physical quests were located.
Finally, of our 397 registered users, only 60 registered in the second semester the game ran. The vast majority signed up soon after game launch, and registrations tapered off over time. This reinforced data we collected from other sources that suggested the game ran for too long and the pacing needed to be sped up.
In addition to data collected from the game itself, we also put out two surveys over the course of the game. The first was a mid-game survey that asked questions about quest design (what quests students liked or didn’t like, and why). Responses to this survey were bewilderingly contradictory. Students would cite a quest as their favorite, while others would cite the exact same quest as their least favorite (and often for the same reasons). The qualitative post-game evaluation we did provides some possible explanation for this (see below). The second survey was a simple post-game questionnaire that asked whether students had enjoyed the game, whether they’d learned something, and if this was something we should continue doing. We also asked if they had learned anything, and if so, what they had learned. 90% of the respondents to this survey indicated that they had learned something about the library, that they thought this was a good idea, and that it was something we should do again.
Finally, we offered players points and free coffee to come in to the library and spend 15-20 minutes talking to us about their experience playing the game. We kept questions short and simple to keep within the time window. We asked about overall impressions of the game, if the students would change anything, if they learned anything (and if so, what) and about what quests they liked or didn’t like and why. The general tone of the feedback was very positive. Students seemed intrigued by the idea and appreciated that the library was trying to teach in nontraditional, self-directed ways. When asked to sum up their overall impressions of the game, students said things like “Very well done, but could be improved upon”or “good but needs polish,” or my personal favorite: “an effective use of bribery to learn about the library.”
One of the things we asked people about was whether the game had changed how they thought about the library. They typically answered that it wasn’t so much that the game had changed how they thought about the library so much as it changed the way they thought about themselves in relation to it. They used words like “”aware,” “confident,” and “knowledgeable.” They felt like they knew more about what they could do here and what we could do for them. Their retention of some of the quest content was remarkable, including library-specific lingo and knowledge of specific procedures (like how to use the retrieval system and how document delivery worked).
Players noted a variety of problems with the game. Some were technical in nature. The game app takes a long time to load, likely because of the way the back-end is designed. Some of them didn’t like the facebook login. Stability on android devices was problematic (this is no surprise, as developing the android version was by far the more problematic part of developing the app). Other problems were nontechnical, including quest content that didn’t work or took too long (my own lack of experience designing quests is to blame), communication issues (there’s no way to let us know when quest content doesn’t work), the flow and pacing of new quests (more content faster), and marketing issues. These problems may in part account for the low on boarding numbers in terms of players that actually completed content.
They also had a variety of reasons for playing. While most cited the iPad grand prize as the major motivator, several of them said they wanted to learn about the library or were curious about the game, and that they thought it might be fun. This may explain differing reactions to the quest content survey that so confused me. People who just wanted to have fun were irked by quests that had an overt educational goal. Students who just wanted the iPad didn’t want to do lengthy or complex quests. Students who loved games for the fun wanted very hard quests that challenged them. This diversity of desire is something all game developers struggle to cope with, and it’s a challenge for designing popular games that appeal to a wide variety of people.
Where to Go from Here
Deciding whether or not Library Quest has been successful depends greatly on what angle you look at the results from. On one hand, the game absolutely taught people things. Students in the survey and interviews were able to list concrete things they knew how to do, often in detail and using terminology directly from the game. One student proudly showed us a book she had gotten from ILL, which she hadn’t known how to use before she played. On the other hand, the overall participation was low, especially when contrasted against the expense and staff time of creating and running the game. Looking only at the money spent (approximately $14,700), it’s easy to calculate an output of about $85 per student reached (173 with points) in development, prizes, and advertising. The challenge is creating engaging games that are appealing to a large number of students in a way that’s economical in terms of staff time and resources.
After looking at all of this data and talking to Yeti CGI, our development partners, we feel there is still a great deal for us to learn here, and the results are promising enough that we should continue to experiment. Both organizations feel there is still a great deal to learn about making games in physical space and that we’ve just scratched the surface of what we might be able to do. With the lessons we have learned from this round of the game, we are looking to completely redesign the way the game app works, as well as revise the game into a shorter, leaner experience that does not require as much content or run so long. In addition, we are seeking campus partners who would be interested in using the app in classes, as part of student life events, or in campus orientation. Even if these events don’t directly involve the library, we can learn from the experience how to design better quest content that the library can use. Embedding the app in smaller and more fixed events helps with marketing and cost issues.
Because the app design is so expensive, we are looking into the possibility of a research partnership with Yeti CGI. We could both benefit from learning more about how mobile gaming works in a physical space, and sharing those lessons would get us Yeti’s help rebuilding the app as well as working with us to figure out content creation and pacing, without another huge outlay of development capital. We are also looking at ways to turn the game development itself into an educational opportunity. By working with our campus mobile app development lab, we can provide opportunities for GVSU students to learn app design. Yeti is looking at making more of the game’s technical architecture open (for example, we are thinking about having all quest content marked up in XML) so that students can build custom interfaces and tools for the game.
Finally, we are looking at grants to support running and revising the game. Our initial advertising and incentives budgets were very low, and we are curious to see what would happen if we put significant resources into those areas. Would we see bigger numbers? Would other kinds of rewards in addition to the iPad (something asked for by students) entice players into completing more quest content? Understanding exactly how much money needs to be put into incentives and advertising can help quantify the total cost of running a large, open game for libraries, which would be valuable information for other libraries contemplating running large-scale games.
About our Guest Author:
Kyle Felker is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at Grand Valley State University Libraries, where he has worked since February of 2012. He is also a longtime gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @gwydion9.
Overture: We’ve Got a Theory
In April 2013 at the ACRL Conference in Indianapolis, IN, Char Booth, Lia Friedman, Adrienne Lai, and Alice Whiteside presented a panel entitled, “Love your library: Building goodwill from the inside out and the outside in” in which they highlighted examples of non-traditional marketing in academic libraries at Claremont, the University of California San Diego, Mount Holyoke, and North Carolina State University. The panelists freely encouraged audience members to recreate and adapt the ideas at other institutions, saying “Here is something that worked for us. Maybe it will work for you!” One of the ideas Alice shared was a food-themed citation help event she developed with colleagues Chrissa Godbout and Kathleen Norton at Mount Holyoke. John Jackson recreated the event at Whittier College a year later. From opposite coasts, we’ve joined forces here to discuss the development of the ExCITING Food workshop, its reiterations, and the importance of sharing ideas among academic library communities.
Borrowing each others’ ideas is common in our field, and the “Love your library” panel celebrated and encouraged this practice. When we “steal” each other’s trade secrets (with proper credit, of course), everyone benefits. The advantages of “open-sourcing” instructional programming is probably obvious to readers of TechConnect. The information literacy needs of most undergraduates, especially first-year students, are roughly the same in that they come to college with little to no experience with scholarly communication practices, limited knowledge of the breadth of information resources, and feel overwhelmed by the complex requirements (i.e. format, tone, structure, citations) of their assignments. Even accounting for the idiosyncrasies of each institution, librarians can quickly adapt events that were successful at other libraries to their own unique communities, saving time, reducing the stress of preparation, and ultimately fulfilling a recognized information need for their users by sharing successful attempts at “sneaky teaching” with the professional community at large.
In our experience, everyone benefits more if the first round of sharing isn’t the end of it. We have many methods and modes of learning about “stealable” ideas: professional literature, conference presentations, the Web, and word of mouth. Databases like PRIMO and LOEX Instructional Resources, personal blogs, Slideshare, and LibGuides all facilitate this type of sharing. More rare is the ability to provide public feedback on how one programming event succeeded or failed in a different context and how it was adapted. How can we more actively create an open-source mindset around instructional development? We hope this post is a step in that direction.
Going Through the Motions
Creating the Event at Mount Holyoke College
Alice: At Mount Holyoke College, we hatched the idea for ExCITING Food when the Dean of Students Office asked if the library could provide a workshop on citing sources during fall 2012 orientation. The planning group consisted of myself, Chrissa Godbout, Kathleen Norton, and our MLS intern Lilly Sundell-Thomas. We felt strongly that orientation, when new students are concerned with getting their bearings, meeting new friends, and struggling to stay afloat of the information overload, was the wrong time to discuss the ethical use of resources in their future research papers. That said, we appreciated that the Dean of Students Office turned to the library with this request, and we began to think about other ways to address this clearly identified need.
Historically we haven’t had great success with drop-in workshops in the library, and we knew we wanted to try something different. Our goal was to help students understand the why, when, and how of citing sources. For the greatest impact, we wanted to reach them at the point in the semester when they were thinking about their bibliographies. We hoped our “not-a-workshop” would be informative but also low-threshold and engaging. At Mount Holyoke, the surest path to engaging students usually involves food, and thus the brainstorming began. When we pitched the idea to our department head, he was skeptical: a fun drop-in citation help event? Persuaded by our enthusiasm, he fortunately agreed to support our modest budget of $50 for food. As we figured out the details, we ran the idea by our student workers and reached out to the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing (SAW) Center. The SAW Center agreed to join the effort, helping to advertise and staff the event.
One of the central ideas for ExCITING Food is citing the recipes for each snack provided; we used the snacks themselves to illustrate different citation styles, and we selected snacks to showcase a range of recipe sources (book, website, archival material, etc.). Mount Holyoke College has a strong sense of its own history, and everyone on campus knows about Mary Lyon, the school’s founder, and her vision for women’s education. The Archives have a few recipes written out in her own hand, including one for gingerbread, a variation on her molasses cake. This was a clear winner for ExCITING Food.
M. Lyon, ca. 1845, Molasses Cake with Plums, unpublished manuscript, Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections, South Hadley, MA.
After that, we got a little carried away with picking snacks that had a connection to MHC: the infamous “Chef Jeff” cookies from Dining Services, caramel corn with an image from the Archives of students shucking corn ca. 1917. We even wrote to the President’s office asking for a recipe; she graciously replied but misunderstood our intention, sending a favorite recipe for a hearty stew. Instead of stew, we went with a recipe from the library director for mulled cider (C. Patriquin, personal communication, Nov 16, 2012).
We chose to host ExCITING Food two weeks before exams, when many students were in the thick of working on final papers. We promoted the event via social media, posters, and personal emails to First Year Seminar faculty asking them to encourage their students to attend; SAW Center writing mentors, who are current students, distributed flyers and helped spread the word. Late in the afternoon on a Wednesday, we set up tables in the library atrium, a high traffic area in front of the main entrance, and wheeled out piles of handouts, platters of cookies, and crock pots full of mulled cider on book trucks. Our handouts included sample bibliographies (with the snack recipes) in different citation styles, RefWorks information, and DIY stickers (printed on mailing labels) with friendly URLs for the library’s Citing Guide and the SAW Center. Six librarians and two SAW Center writing mentors staffed the event, distributing snacks and handouts and answering questions.
Through the combination of thoughtful timing, delicious food, and a bit of silliness, we pulled off an extremely successful session. In one hour, we distributed handouts, snacks, and our elevator pitch to over a hundred students, provided 21 citation consultations, and received abundant positive feedback from students and from our partners in SAW.
Recreating the Event at Whittier College
John: Impressed by the creativity and accessibility of the outreach events presented during Alice’s ACRL 2013 session, I have since tried to reproduce many of the events in spirit if not in detail. In April 2014, Wardman Library hosted its iteration of the exCITING Food workshop in the week leading up to finals. The day before finals began was thought to be the best time as students were beginning to think about the requirements of their final projects but not yet overwhelmed by details and deadlines.
We promoted the event on the faculty and student email lists, our social media pages, via flyers and posters, and additionally contacted faculty who we knew had assigned bibliographies as final projects. We know that students and faculty struggle to manage the incredible amount of email they receive daily and so it was important to send frequent reminders via our (less intrusive) social media and to speak with teaching faculty directly about our plans, especially ways in which students could benefit from the information presented in our posters and handouts.
One of my primary goals for the event was to highlight the helpfulness and creativity of library staff. Accordingly, I asked each staff member to contribute a dish to the event. This was perhaps the greatest source of anxiety for me: acquiring staff buy-in to make and bring enough food to make the event successful. Wardman Library is staffed by 13 employees, many of whom are extremely busy during the final weeks of the semester (especially our circulation and media staff). I was hesitant to ask my colleagues to take time outside of work to locate an appropriate recipe (we needed to have enough variety in the sources) and make it on the designate day. However, my colleagues were incredibly supportive and we produced enough food to push the scheduled 2-hour event into a 4-hour one.
Originally, we planned to host the event outside the library in order to capture the portion of our student population that does not frequent the library on a regular basis, but coincidentally (and to our benefit) the southern California heat forced us to hold the event indoors. Instead, we held the workshop inside the library near an area that we thought would be unobtrusive and wouldn’t interfere with students trying to study for finals. To our surprise, the students were reluctant to approach the event, thinking it was invitation or RSVP only. So we waited for an appropriate moment and moved the event to a more central location, near the main stairwell between the library entrance and access to the bookstacks, one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the library. This turned out to immediately increase the number of students that approached the tables unreservedly.
At the event, we provided a number of dishes including a brownies recipe from Katharine Hepburn, cornbread from a late nineteenth century college cookbook, and cookies made from various websites to illustrate citing a material that lacks an author or publishing date.
Henderson, H. (2003, July 6). Straight Talk From Miss Hepburn: Plus the Actress’s Own Brownie Recipe. New York Times, p. CY9. New York, N.Y., United States.
Clayton, H. J. (1883). Clayton’s Quaker cook-book: being a practical treatise on the culinary art. San Francisco: Women’s Co-operative Printing Office.
Easy OREO Truffles. (n.d.). Allrecipes.com. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Easy-OREO-Truffles/Detail.aspx.
In addition to the food, we provided two-sided half-sheet handouts that contained the recipe for each dish on one side and how to cite it in MLA, APA, and Chicago style formats on the other side. We also created three 20 in. x 30 in. posters outlining the when, why, and how of citations and placed these behind the food table. We made sure at least one librarian and one additional staff member were present at the table at all times and encouraged all library staff to stop by during the event to meet and talk with students.
At the ACRL conference presentation, the panelists introduced the idea of “camogogy”: the combination of pedagogy and camouflage, or “sneaky teaching.” Ultimately, this was the spirit I endeavored to recreate at our iteration of the event and even went so far as to downplay the educational aspect of the workshop. Most surprising to me, however, was how little camouflage or “sneakiness” was required. The students loved the idea of citing recipes and seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of improving their own citations. A number of students returned later to ask specific questions about citing sources and, most importantly to me, identified librarians as being a resource for finalizing their bibliographies.
Once More, With Feeling: Future Adaptations
Alice: At Mount Holyoke, this event is on its way to becoming a library tradition. In November 2013 we hosted ExCITING Snacks, with essentially the same components as the first iteration and equal success. Our major change in the second year was that we simplified our snacks: just popcorn instead of caramel corn, cold cider instead of mulled cider. We also refined our publicity approach and were thrilled to get assistance from the Academic Deans Office, which sent an email blast to all first years, sophomores, and juniors about the event. Looking ahead, our favorite question is “Who else can we collaborate with?” While ExCITING Food is a fun event, the instructional component is very clear, and I think that has helped us find allies.
Learning about the details of Whittier College’s implementation of ExCITING Food has also helped us rethink our approach and consider new elements. Next time, we will definitely create large posters to help students identify at a glance what the event is about. While we haven’t yet explored taking ExCITING Food out of the library, this is now on our list as we brainstorm new ways to collaborate with offices across campus.
John: The success of our first attempt at the ExCITING Food workshop and the enthusiasm it generated among the faculty at Whittier College has all but guaranteed that we will attempt it again next year. However, there are certainly improvements to be made. For instance, we would like to be able to capture a “non-library” audience, students who do not regularly visit the library, and may consider moving the event to a more central location on campus. This could potentially open up opportunities for new collaborations with, say, catering services (if we decided to host the workshop near the student cafeteria) or the Center for Advising and Academic Success (if we wanted to host the workshop near the tutoring center). Additionally, we would like to find a way to involve faculty and student peer mentors, not only in promoting the event, but also in providing on-site help with creating citation (or even providing additional food!).
Where Do We Go From Here?
Talking about how we adapted an idea in this forum is the first step. What other ways can we publish, adapt, and improve instruction content as a community? Between 2006 and 2008, the Oregon Library Association’s Library Instruction Roundtable maintained a Library Instruction Wiki (since expired). Some academic faculty are using GitHub to post their class syllabus for other teachers to modify, fork, and utilize version control. Public librarians like Ben Bizzle of the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library use Dropbox to share marketing content with other librarians. And who among us has not used Google Drive to collaborate?
The tools for open-source development of instruction material exist: we simply need to make a concerted effort to develop this content on a large scale.
Booth, C., Friedman, L. Lai, A., & Whiteside, A. (2013, April). Love your library: Building goodwill from the inside out and the outside in. Panel presented at the meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Indianapolis, IN. (slides | recording)
About our Guest Authors:
Alice Whiteside is a Librarian & Instructional Technology Consultant at Mount Holyoke College. An active member of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA), she currently serves as chair of the Professional Development Committee-Education Subcommittee. Alice holds an MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a BA in Art History from Bard College.
John Jackson is the Reference & Instruction Librarian at the Wardman Library of Whittier College, a private liberal arts college outside Los Angeles. John holds an MLIS from San Jose State University and an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of Virginia.
Libraries and academic institutions have been flooded with mobile devices over the past few years. We lend iPads, rove on our reference shifts, write tutorials on connecting to wireless networks in a dozen different operating systems, and perhaps even preside over one-to-one student-to-device programs.
However, there still seems to be confusion over what exactly tablets are good for. Amidst all the hype, I feel like we’re throwing them at some problems without answering fundamental questions first. What problems do they solve? Why would one choose a tablet over another type of computer? Some of these answers are straightforward, obvious even. Tablets have good battery life, they’re easier to carry around campus all day, especially if they can save you a textbook or two. They have great cameras. Most come with intuitive sharing facilities, making it easy to distribute materials in class.
But sometimes the affordances of a touch interface aren’t enough. So we add an USB keyboard, we add a mouse, we put the tablet in a cover to protect its exposed screen. And pretty soon we’ve got ourselves a laptop. A laptop with unpluggable parts, but a laptop nonetheless.
So what are good uses for tablets in the classroom? In my eyes, they center around two things: mobility and multimedia.
Tablets are clearly more mobile than laptops, even the lightest of which tend to be heavier and simply not designed for use on the go. Walking around campus with a Macbook Air and flipping it open every time you need to talk a picture with the webcam is not as easy as using a tablet with a camera on the backside. Most tablet operating systems are also getting better at hands-free usage, responding to voice input with technology like Siri and Google Now.
The applications of mobility in an educational setting are manifold. Starting with the obvious, many libraries have “scavenger hunt” activities which involve moving about the library and learning about different collections, service points, and study areas. Even if you don’t use an app like SCVNGR to run the activity, having a device with geolocation and a camera makes it easy to move from point-to-point and document progress. Given how labyrinthine many academic libraries are, particularly those with large stacks, a tablet could really help make a scavenger hunt less intimidating and more engaging.
At a community college, many of our courses are vocational in nature. These courses do not typically involve sitting in a lecture hall listening to your instructor, they are naturally suited to hands-on work in the field. Courses as varied as auto mechanics, criminal justice, ecology, and nursing could all benefit from mobile devices. Even typical uses, which don’t utilize purchased apps or unique hardware, could be easier with a lightweight computer, such as taking notes and looking up reference materials online.
Students in an ecology course can research local flora, looking up plant species while they’re far from campus. Criminal justice majors can document and investigate a fake crime scene. Nurses can refer to and ask for feedback on their treatment plans while making their rounds. Those latter two examples point to further advantages of tablets: they have great audio-video recording facilities and make sharing content very easy. Beyond just being mobile, tablet devices can help students create multimedia projects and share them to social media. They’re better suited to demonstrating metaliteracy.
Tablet computers have their uses in education. They are not, however, a panacea. There are many problems which they do not solve, and some which they exacerbate.
One of the most common, traditional uses of computers in academia is to create research papers. Unfortunately, tablets aren’t great for writing and researching in large quantities. Can they produce research papers? Absolutely, but long-form writing is one of the situations where one begins to turn a tablet into a laptop by adding a keyboard. One fights the tablet’s form rather than working with it.
While there are plenty of word processing apps available, they may not always work well with a school’s learning environment. Our instructors, for instance, mostly require papers in .rtf or .doc formats, which are only readily available on Windows tablets. This isn’t the tablets’ fault, but the uneven pace of technological development in academia (some professors leaping wholesale into multimedia assignments, others sticking with decades-old file formats) disadvantages newer devices. Vendor databases are also variable in how well they support smaller screens and touch-based interfaces.1 Finally, actually submitting an assignment to a Learning Management System is often difficult on mobile devices. Our LMS, which is quite modern in most respects, does not allow web uploads in Mobile Safari or Android Browser. It does have apps for both iOS and Android, but the app was read-only until recently and even now permits submissions only with the assistance of Dropbox.2
In sum, research papers present numerous obstacle for tablet devices. While none are insurmountable, the devices simply aren’t intended to produce research papers, at least not as much as traditional (laptop and desktop) computers. This isn’t a killer issue, and one which will no doubt improve over time. But tablet devices also pose larger questions about technology and learning which we need to at least be thinking about.
Mobile operating systems are remarkably stable. It’s perhaps sad that the first thing that really impressed me about iOS is that it just kept running. Open apps, leave them open, whatever, it doesn’t matter. The OS churns on.
But this stability comes at the cost of a lot of customizability. The reason why my Linux laptop occasionally become erratic is because I’ve told it to. I’ve installed a development version of the kernel, I’ve entered contradictory window manager configurations, I’ve deleted all my hardware drivers somehow. I have the freedom to be foolish.
Such complete control over a device, in the right hands, can offer privacy, a privacy that might be otherwise impossible to obtain. With companies like Apple and Google being complicit with the NSA’s survelliance, this poses a problem to libraries and other privacy advocates. Do we offer access to devices that are known to report their actions back to a corporate or governmental body? Or do we let users boot up a Tails instance and stay private? While surveillance may be unavoidable, Cory Doctorow is right to point out that this is a human rights issue. In an age where we do almost everything on our computers, locked-down devices offer some assurances at the expense of others. They run stable operating systems, but limit our ability to verify they haven’t been tampered with.
Starting people on devices whose only applications come from a corporate-controlled “app store” sets a precedent. If this is how people are first introduced to computers, it’s how many will assume they work. Apple has already tried to port its app store to the desktop, including setting a default to allow only apps installed from it. This may seem, ultimately, like a trite complaint. But Doctorow is right to extrapolate to equipment like cochlear implants; what happens when we don’t control the firmware on devices embedded in our own bodies? If a device matters to you, you should care about controlling what’s installed on it.
“But Android is open source!” And indeed, it is, though that somehow hasn’t stopped it from relying on multiple app stores with subtly different offerings (Google Play vs. Amazon Appstore on the Kindle Fire…why are there two corporate-controlled app stores for the same OS?). I feel like Android has been an open source OS that’s easy to corporations to customize on the locked-down devices they sell, but not so easy for users to truly takeover. Still, there’s hope here. CyanogenMod is a non-corporate version of Android which gives users far greater control than is available on other mobile operating systems.
And rather recently, a CyanogenMod Installer appeared in the Google Play store, indicating that Google isn’t entirely opposed to giving users more freedom. Update: Google removed the CyanogenMod Installer app. So maybe they are opposed to giving users more freedom.
I also can’t help but wonder: are we limiting people by providing all-too-easy devices? I cringe as I ask the question, because it recalls the ludicrous “discovery layers make research too easy and it should be hard” argument. Humor me a bit longer, however.
Much of my hesitancy with easy, touch-based devices comes from my own history with computers, where the deeper I’ve delved the more rewarded I’ve felt. I love the command line, an interface even less beginner-friendly than graphical desktop operating systems. I love the keyboard, too. Some keyboard shortcuts and a little muscle memory make me faster than any elaborate set of swipes could be. In fact, the lack of keyboard shortcuts and a command line is a big reason why I’m not a regular tablet user.3 I’ve grown to rely on it so much that going without just doesn’t make sense to me.
The point is: sometimes these difficult-to-learn interfaces have enormous power hidden beneath them. We’re sacrificing something by moving to an easier option, one which doesn’t offer power users a way around its limitations. Then again, just because a user employs a tablet for one activity doesn’t mean they’ll eschew laptops or desktops for everything else.4 The issue is more when tablets are presented as a replacement for more powerful computers; it’s valuable to make users understand that, in some circumstances, the level of control and customizability of a desktop OS is essential.
The availability of apps is often cited as an advantage of mobile operating systems. But many apps offer no unique advantages over desktop computers; they perform the same functions but on a different device. Rather than monolithic desktop software packages like Microsoft Office or Creative Suite, consumers have a plethora of smaller, cheaper, more focused applications. The apps which do achieve things genuinely impossible or difficult on a desktop tend to engage with the two advantages of tablets I highlighted earlier, namely mobility (e.g. Foursquare, SCVNGR) and multimedia (video/audio recorders, from Vine to native Camera apps).
A recent LITA listserv discussion5 highlights the strawman “apps” argument. A few people noted the availability of apps on tablet computers, then proceeded to name a few common applications which are available on every major desktop operating system (not to mention free on the web). How does a dictionary or calculator suddenly become a competitive advantage when it’s on a tablet?
Take Evernote for example. Often cited as a must-have app, I feel like its primary appeal is solving a problem device ubiquity created. Taking notes and saving bits of content wasn’t much of a struggle before it involving syncing between so many devices. Evernote’s seamless cross-platform availability is what makes it so appealing, not that it reinvented annotation. Is it a great app for our modern age? Yes. Is it a killer app that makes you need an iPad? No. It’s an app you need if you have an iPad, not the other way around. Full disclosure: I never got into using Evernote, so this is an outsider’s take.
The distinction about which need comes first, tablet or app, is pivotal: mobile devices create needs even as they solve them. To return to keyboards again, why do we need them? To type on our tablets. Why did we need the tablets? So we can type everywhere we go. The cycle continues.
One metaphor that’s persisted since the dawn of graphical operating systems is that computer hard drives are like your filing cabinet: they have folders, inside those folders are files, files of different types.6 It’s very strange to me, having grown up thoroughly immersed in this metaphor, that mobile operating systems dispense with it. There are no more folders. There aren’t even files. There are only apps. The apps may conspire together, you may take a photo in one and edit it in another, but you may never interact with the photo itself outside of an app.
There is nothing essential about the filing cabinet metaphor. A different one could have become ubiquitous. It’s already verging on anachronism as digital “folders” overtake physical ones. So why do I feel like people should know what a folder is, and how to rename one, how to move it, how to organize one’s files? These are basic skills I instruct students on every day, yet perhaps they’ve simply grown unnecessary. Am I an old fogey for thinking that people need to understand file management? Does it matter anymore when we’ve outsourced our file systems to the cloud?
Tablets aren’t bad devices. They’re easy to pick up, so easy a baby can do it. Their touch interfaces are not only novel but in some cases simply brilliant. Problems arise when we consider the tablet as a full-featured replacement for our other computers. And maybe they can be, but those are the scenarios where we start fighting the nature of the machine itself (attaching a keyboard, jailbreaking or rooting the device).
I’m giving a presentation at my college soon and one slide is devoted to “The Access Rainbow” mentioned in Andrew Clement and Leslie Shade’s chapter in an old Community Informatics textbook.7 The rainbow is rather like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in that it works from base, material needs to more sophisticated, social ones. Once we have network infrastructure in place, we can get devices. Once we have devices, we can put software on them. Once we have software, we can work. Once we can work, we can build things, we can connect with each other, we can affect governance.
The problem is when our devices limit the colors of the rainbow that are even visible. The upper tiers of the rainbow, the tiers that really matter, are foreclosed. We cannot participate in the governance of information and communication technologies when we buy devices that only install the software which Apple or Google approves. And can we be fully digitally literate if we can’t experiment and break things on our devices? We can’t break things on an iPad; the iPad has outlet covers on all its electrical sockets when what we really need is a shock.
I worry I’ve already grown old and stodgy. “The kids with their touchy screens and electronic throat tattoos,” I mutter, madly typing abbreviations into a bash prompt. Will we be OK with easy devices? Do we need to break things, to change the permissions on a file, to code to be digitally literate? I don’t know.
- Responsive interfaces for databases is one area which has seen massive improvement over the last couple years and probably won’t be a concern too much longer. With web-scale discovery systems, many libraries are just now becoming able to abstract the differences between databases into a single search platform. Then the discovery system just needs to be responsive, rather than each of the dozens of different vendor interfaces. ↩
- So what if students need Dropbox, as long as it works? Well, forcing students into a particular cloud storage system is problematic. What if they prefer SpiderOak, Google Drive, SkyDrive, etc.? The lack of true file system access really hampers mobile devices in some situations, a point I’ll elaborate on further below. ↩
- One of the interesting aspects of Microsoft tablets is that they do come with a command line; you can swipe around all you want, but then open up PowerShell and mess with the Windows Registry to your heart’s content. It’s interesting and has great potential. I know Android also has some terminal simulator apps. ↩
- Hat-tip to fellow Tech Connect blogger Meghan Frazer for calling me out on this. ↩
- “Classroom iPads” on 11/1/13. It’s worth noting that plenty of people in this discussion touched on precisely the topic of this post, that the advantages of tablets seems to be misunderstood. ↩
- My wife points out that this isn’t a metaphor, that filesystems are literally that, filesystems. I can’t refute that claim. It’s either correct or an indication of just how ingrained the metaphor is. ↩
- Despite being from 1999, Community Informatics by Michael Gurstein is still incredibly relevant. It blew my mind during my first semester of library school and validated my decision to attend. It’s probably the best textbook I’ve ever read, which isn’t high praise but it is praise. ↩
Embedding the library in campus-wide orientations, as well as developing standalone library orientations, is often part of outreach and first year experience work. Reaching all students can be a challenge, so finding opportunities for better engaging campus helps to promote the library and increase student awareness. Using a mobile app for orientations can provide many benefits such as increasing interactivity and offering an asynchronous option for students to learn about the library on their own time. We have been trying out SCVNGR at the University of Arizona (UA) Libraries and are finding it is a more fun and engaging way to deliver orientations and instruction to students.
Why use game design for library orientations and instruction?
Game-based learning can be a good match for orientations, just as it can be for instruction (I have explored this before with ACRL TechConnect previously, looking at badges). Rather than just presenting a large amount of information to students or having them fill out a paper-based scavenger hunt activity, using something like SCVNGR can get students interacting more with the library in a way that offers more engagement in real time and with feedback. However, simply adding a layer of points and badges or other game mechanics to a non-game situation doesn’t automatically make it fun and engaging for students. In fact, doing this ineffectively can cause more harm than good (Nicholson, 2012). Finding a way to use the game design to motivate participants beyond simply acquiring points tends to be the common goal in using game design in orientations and instruction. Thinking of the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) principle from a students’ perspective can help, and in the game design we used at the University of Arizona with SCVNGR for a class orientation, we created activities based on common questions and concerns of students.
SCVNGR is a mobile app game for iPhone and Android where players can complete challenges in specific locations. Rather than getting clues and hints like in a traditional scavenger hunt, this game is more focused on activities within a location instead of finding the location. Although this takes some of the mystery away, it works very well for simply informing people about locations that are new to them and having them interact with the space.
Students need to physically be in the location for the app to work, where they use the location to search for “challenges” (single activities to complete) or “treks” (a series of single activities that make up the full experience for a location), and then complete the challenges or treks to earn points, badges, and recognition.
Some libraries have made their own mobile scavenger hunt activities without the aid of a paid app. For example, North Carolina State University uses the NCSU Libraries’ Mobile Scavenger Hunt, which is a combination of students recording responses in Evernote, real time interaction, and tracking by librarians. One of the reasons we went with SCVNGR, however, is because this sort of mobile orientation requires a good amount of librarian time and is synchronous, whereas SCVNGR does not require as much face-to-face librarian time and allows for asynchronous student participation. Although we do use more synchronous instruction for some of our classes, we also wanted to have the option for asynchronous activities, and in particular for the large-scale orientations where many different groups will come in at many different times. Although SCVNGR is not free for us, the app is free to students. They offer 24/7 support and other academic institutions offer insight and ideas in a community for universities.
Other academic libraries have used SCVNGR for orientations and even library instruction. A few examples are:
- University of California – San Diego uses SCVNGR for their orientations. They created a LibGuide specifically for their SCVNGR orientation where they also post the scoreboard and photos.
- Oregon State University uses SCVNGR for international student orientations to increase awareness and support the university initiative to increase the OSU international population from 5 to 10% of the student body.
- Boise State is using SCVNGR for instruction rather than a focus on orientations. They have provided information to students who then go on to create their own SCVNGR orientations as an assignment.
- University of California – Merced recently wrote about SCVNGR in their campus-wide orientations, incorporating other areas on campus into the library’s orientation. They decided to try out SCVNGR from UCSD’s positive feedback, but had some issues with student turnout and discuss possible reasons for this in the article.
How did the UA Libraries use SCVNGR?
Because a lot of instruction has moved online and there are so many students to reach, we are working on SCVNGR treks for both instruction and basic orientations at the University of Arizona (UA). We are in the process of setting up treks for large-scale campus orientations (New Student Orientation, UA Up Close for both parents and students, etc.) that take place during the summer, and we have tested SCVNGR out on a smaller scale as a pilot for individual classes. There tends to be greater success and engagement if the Trek is tied to something, such as a class assignment or a required portion of an orientation session that must be completed. One concern for an app-based activity is that not all students will have smartphones. This was alleviated by putting students into groups ahead of time, ensuring that at least one person in the group did have a device compatible to use SCVNGR. However, we do lend technology at the UA Libraries, and so if a group was without a smartphone or tablet, they would be able to check one out from the library.
We first piloted a trek on an American Indian Studies student success course (AIS197b). This course for freshmen introduces students to services on campus that will be useful to them while they are at the UA. Last year, we presented a quick information session on library services, and then had the students complete a scavenger hunt for a class grade (participation points) with pencil and paper throughout the library. Although they seemed glad to be able to get out and move around, it didn’t seem particularly fun and engaging. On top of that, every time the students got stuck or had a question, they had to come back to the main floor to find librarians and get help. In contrast, when students get an answer wrong in SCVNGR, feedback is programmed in to guide them to the correct information. And, because they don’t need clues to make it to the next step (they just go back and select the next challenge in the trek), they are able to continue without one mistake preventing them from moving on to the next activity. This semester, we first presented a brief instruction session (approximately 15-20 min) and then let students get started on SCVNGR.
You can see in the screenshot below how question design works, where you can select the location, how many points count toward the activity, type of activity (taking a photo, answering with text, or scanning a QR code), and then providing feedback. If a student answers a question incorrectly, as I mention above, they will receive feedback to help them in figuring out the correct answer. I really like that when students get answers right, they know instantly. This is positive reinforcement for them to continue.
The activities designed for students in this class were focused on photo and text-based challenges. We stayed away from QR codes because they can be finicky with some phones, and simply taking a picture of the QR code meets the challenge requirement for that option of activity. Our challenges included:
- Meet the reference desk (above): Students meet desk staff and ask how they can get in touch for reference assistance; answers are by text and students type in which method they think they would use the most: email, chat, phone, or in person.
- Prints for a day: Students find out about printing (a frequent question of new students), and text in how to pay for printing after finding the information at the Express Documents Center.
- Playing favorites: Students wander around the library and find their favorite study spot. Taking a picture completes the challenge, and all images are collected in the Trek’s statistics.
- Found in the stacks: After learning how to use the catalog (we provided a brief instruction session to this class before setting them loose), students search the catalog for books on a topic they are interested in, then locate the book on the shelf and take a picture. One student used this time to find books for another class and was really glad he got some practice.
- A room of one’s own: The UA Libraries implemented online study room reservations as of a year ago. In order to introduce this new option to students, this challenge had them use their smartphones to go to the mobile reservation page and find out what the maximum amount of hours study rooms can be reserved for and text that in.
SCVNGR worked great with this class for simple tasks, such as meeting people at the reference desk, finding a book, or taking a picture of a favorite study spot, but for tasks that might require more critical thinking or more intricate work, this would not be the best platform to use in that level of instruction. SCVNGR’s assessment options are limited for students to respond to questions or complete an activity. Texting in detailed answers or engaging in tasks like searching a database would be much harder to record. Likewise, because more instruction that is tied to critical thinking is not so much location-based (evaluating a source or exploring copyright issues, for example), and so it would be hard to tie these tasks and acquisition of skill to an actual location-based activity to track. One instance of this was with the Found in the Stacks challenge; students were supposed to search for a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelf, but there would be nothing stopping them from just finding a random book on the shelf and taking a picture of it to complete the challenge. SCVNGR provides a style guide to help in game design, and the overall understanding from this document is that simplicity is most effective for this platform.
Another feature that works well is being able to choose if the Trek is competitive or not, and also use “SmartRoute,” which is the ability to have challenges show up for participants based on distance and least-crowded areas. This is wonderful, particularly as students get sort of congested at certain points in a scavenger hunt: they all crowd around the same materials or locations simultaneously because they’re making the same progress through the activity. We chose to use SmartRoute for this class so they would be spread out during the game.
When trying to assess student effort and impact of the trek, you can look at stats and rankings. It’s possible to view specific student progress, all activity by all participants, and rankings organized by points.
Another feature is the ability to collect items submitted for challenges (particularly pictures). One of our challenges is for students to find their favorite study spot in the library and take a picture of it. This should be fun for them to think about and is fairly easy, and it helps us do some space assessment. It’s then possible to collect pictures like the following (student’s privacy protected via purple blob).
On the topic of privacy, students enter in their name to set up an account, but only their first name and first initial of their last name appear as their username. Although last names are then hidden, SCVNGR data is viewable by anyone who is within the geographical range to access the challenge: it is not closed to an institution. If students choose to take pictures of themselves, their identity may be revealed, but it is possible to maintain some privacy by not sharing images of specific individuals or sharing any personal information through text responses. On the flip side of not wanting to associate individual students with their specific activities, it gets trickier when an instructor plans to award points for student participation. In that case, it’s possible to request reports from SCVNGR for instructors so they can see how much and which students participated. In a large class of over 100 students, looking at the data can be messier, particularly if students have the same first name and last initial. Because of this issue, SCVNGR might be better used for large-scale orientations where participation does not need to be tracked, and small classes where instructors would be easily able to know who is who in the data for activity.
Both student and instructor feedback was very positive. Students seemed to be having fun, laughing, and were not getting stuck nearly as much as the previous year’s pencil-and-paper hunt. The instructor noted it seemed a lot more streamlined and engaging for the class. When students checked in with us at the end before heading out, they said they enjoyed the activity and although there were a couple of hiccups with the software and/or how we designed the trek, they said it was a good experience and they felt more comfortable with using the library.
Next time, I would be more careful about using text responses. I had gone down to our printing center to tell the current student worker what answers students in the class would be looking for so she could answer it for them, but they wound up speaking with someone else and getting different answers. Otherwise, the level of questions seemed appropriate for this class and it was a good way to pilot how SCVNGR works, if students might like it, and how long different types of questions take for bringing this to campus on a larger scale. I would also be cautious about using SCVNGR too heavily for instruction, since it doesn’t seem to have capabilities for more complex tasks or a great deal of critical thinking. It is more suited to basic instruction and getting students more comfortable in using the library.
- Ability to reach many students and asynchronously
- Anyone can complete challenges and treks; this is great for prospective students and families, community groups, and any programs doing outreach or partnerships outside of campus since a university login is not required.
- Can be coordinate with campus treks if other units have accounts or a university-wide license is purchased.
- WYSIWYG interface, no programming skills necessary
- Order of challenges in a trek can be assigned staggered so not everyone is competing for the same resources at the same time.
- Can collect useful data through users submitting photos and comments (for example, we can examine library space and student use by seeing where students’ favorite spots to study are).
- SCVNGR is not free to use, an annual fee applies (in the $900-range for a library-only license, which is not institution-wide).
- Privacy is a concern since anyone can see activity in a location; it’s not possible to close this to campus.
- When completing a trek, users do not get automatic prompts to proceed to the next challenge; instead, they must go back to the home location screen and choose the next challenge (this can get a little confusing for students).
- SCVNGR is more difficult to use with instruction, especially when looking to incorporate critical thinking and more complex activities
- Instructors might have a harder time figuring out how to grade participation because treks are open to anyone; only students’ first name and last initial appear, so if either a large class completes a trek for an assignment or if an orientation trek for the public is used, a special report must be requested from SCVNGR that the library could send to the instructor for grading purposes.
SCVNGR is a good way to increase awareness and get students and other groups comfortable in using the library. One of the main benefits is that it’s asynchronous, so a great deal of library staff time is not required to get people interacting with services, collections, and space. Although this platform is not perfect for more in-depth instruction, it does work at the basic orientation level, and students and the instructor in the course we piloted it on had a good experience.
Nicholson, S. (2012). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper Presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.
About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.
Gamification in libraries has become a topic of interest in the professional discourse, and one that ACRL TechConnect has covered in Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services and Why Gamify and What to Avoid in Gamification. Much of what has been written about badging systems in libraries pertains to gamifying library services. However, being an Instructional Services Librarian, I have been interested in tying gamification to library instruction.
When library skills are not always part of required learning outcomes or directly associated with particular classes, thinking more creatively about promotion and embeddedness of library tutorials prompted me to become interested in tying a badging system to the University of Arizona Libraries’ online learning objects. For a brief review on badges, they are visual representations of skills and achievements. They can be used with or instead of grades depending on the scenario and include details to support their credibility (criteria, issuer, evidence, currency).
Becoming a beta tester for Purdue’s Passport platform gives me the opportunity to better sketch out what our plans are and to test how gamification could work in this context. Passport, according to Purdue, is “A learning system that demonstrates academic achievement through customizable badges.” Through this platform, instructors can design instruction for badges to be associated with learning outcomes. Currently, Passport can only be used by applying to be a beta tester. As they improve the software, it should be available to more people and have greater integration (it currently connects with Mozilla Open Backpack and within the Purdue system).We are still comparing platforms and possibilities for the University of Arizona Libraries, and testing Passport has been the first step in figuring out what we want, what is available, and how we would like to design this form of instruction. I will share my impression of Passport and using badging technology for these purposes from my experience using the software.
Refresher on motivation
It’s important to understand how motivation works in relation to a points and badges system, while also having a clear goal in mind. I recently wrote a literature review on motivation in gamified learning scenarios as part of my work toward a second Master’s in Educational Technology. The general ideas to take away are the importance of employing game mechanics thoughtfully into your framework to avoid users’ relying solely on the scoring system, as well as focusing on the engagement aspects of gamification rather than using badges and points just for manipulation. Points should be used as a feedback mechanism rather than just promoting them as items to harvest.
Structure and scalability
Putting this into perspective for gamifying library instruction at the University of Arizona, we want to be sure student motivation is directed at developing research skills that can be visually demonstrated to instructors and future employers through badges, with points serving as feedback and further motivation. We are using the ACRL Information Literacy Standards as an outline for the badges we create; the Standards are not perfect, but they serve well as a map for conceptualizing research skills and are a way we can organize the content. Within each skill set or badge, activities for completion are multidimensional: students must engage in a variety of tasks, such as doing a tutorial, reading a related article or news story, and completing a quiz. We plan to allow for risk taking and failure — important aspects of game design — so students can re-try the material until they understand it (Gee, 2007).
As you can see in this screen capture, the badges corresponding to the ACRL Standards include: Research Initiator (Standard 1), Research Assailant (Standard 2), Research Investigator (Standard 3), and Research Warrior (Standard 4). As a note, I have not yet created a badge for Standard 5 or one to correspond with our orientations (also, all names you can see in any image I include are of my colleagues trying out the badges, and not of students). A great aspect of this platform is the ability to design your own badges with their WYSIWYG editor.
Because a major issue for us is scalability with limited FTE, we have to be cautious in which assessment methods we choose for approving badges. Since we would have a hard time offering meaningful, individualized feedback for every student who would complete these tasks, having something automatic is more ideal. Passport allows options for students to test their skills, with multiple-choice quizzes, uploading a document, and entering text. For our purposes, using multiple-choice quizzes with predetermined responses is currently the best method. If we develop specific badges for smaller courses on a case-by-case basis, it might be possible to accept written responses and more detailed work, but in trying to roll this out to campus-at-large, automated scoring is necessary.
Within each badge, also referred to as a challenge, there are tasks to complete. Finishing these tasks adds up to earning the badge. It’s essentially leveling up (which is progressing to the next level based on achievement); although the way Passport is designed, the students can complete the tasks in any order. Within the suite of badges, I have reinforced information and skills throughout so students must use previous skills learned for future success. In this screen capture, you can see the overall layout by task title.
When including tasks that require instructor approval (if students were to submit documents or write text), an instructor would click on each yellow box stating that approval is needed to determine if the student successfully completed the task and supply personalized feedback (image above). And you can see the breakdown of tasks under each challenge to review what was learned; this can serve as confirmation for outside parties of what kind of work each badge entailed (image below).
Once badges are earned, they can be displayed in a user’s Passport profile and Mozilla Open Badges. Here is an example of what a badge portfolio looks like:
Passport “classrooms” are closed and require a log in for earning badges (FERPA), but if students agree to connectivity with Mozilla’s Open Badges Backpack, achievements can then be shared with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other networks. Badges can also connect with e-portfolios and resumes (since it’s in Beta this functionality works best with Purdue platforms). This could be a great, additional motivator for students in helping them get jobs. From Project Information Literacy, we do know employers find new graduates are lacking research skills, so being able to present these skills as fulfilled to future employers can be useful for soon-to-be and recent graduates. The badges link back to more information, as mentioned, and employers can get more detail. Students can even make their submitted work publicly available so employers, instructors, and peers can see their efforts.
Whether or not it is possible to integrate Passport fully into our library website for students to access, using this tool has at least given me a way to essentially sketch out how our badging system will work. We can also try some user testing with students on these tasks to gauge motivation and instructional effectiveness. Having this system become campus-wide in collaboration with other units and departments would also aid in creating more meaning behind the badges; but in the meantime, tying this smaller scale layout to specific class instruction or non-disciplinary collaborations will be very useful.
Although some sources say gamification will be taking a huge nosedive by 2014 due to poor design and over-saturation, keeping tabs on other platforms available and how to best incorporate this technology into library instruction is where I will be looking this semester and beyond as we work on plans for rolling out a full badging system within the next couple of years. Making learning more experiential and creating choose-your-own adventure scenarios are effective in giving students ownership over their education. Using points and badges for manipulating users is certainly detrimental and should fall out of use in the near future, but using this framework in a positive manner for motivation and to support student learning can have beneficial effects for students, campus, and the library.
Dignan, A. (2012). Game Frame. New York: The Free Press.
Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press.
Because Play Matters: A game lab dedicated to transformative games and play for informal learning environments in the iSchool at Syracuse: http://becauseplaymatters.com/
Digital badges show students’ skills along with degree (Purdue News): http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2012/Q3/digital-badges-show-students-skills-along-with-degree.html
Gamification Research Network: http://gamification-research.org/
TL-DR: Where gamers and information collide: http://tl-dr.ca/
About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.
Librarians often use presentation slides to teach a class, run a workshop, or give a talk. Ideally you should be able to access the Internet easily at those places. But more often than not, you may find only spotty Internet signals. If you had planned on using your presentation slides stored in the cloud, no access to the Internet would mean no slides for your presentation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In this post, we will show you how to locally save your presentation slides on your iPad, so that you will be fully prepared to present without Internet access. You will only need a few tools, and the best of all, those tools are all freely available.
1. Haiku Deck – Make slides on the iPad
If your presentation slides do not require a lot of text, Haiku Deck is a nice iPad app for creating a complete set of slides without a computer. The Haiku Deck app allows you to create colorful presentation slides quickly by searching and browsing a number of CC-licensed images and photographs in Flickr and to add a few words to each slide. Once you select the images, Haiku Deck does the rest of work, inserting the references to each Flickr image you chose and creating a nice set of presentation slides.
You can play and present these slides directly from your iPad. Since Haiku Deck stores these slides locally, you need access to the Internet only while you are creating the slides using the images in Flickr through Haiku Deck. For presenting already-made slides, you do not need to be connected to the Internet. If you would like, you can also export the result as a PowerPoint file from Haiku Deck. This is useful if you want to make further changes to the slides using other software on your computer. But bear in mind that once exported as a PowerPoint file, the texts you placed using Haiku Deck are no longer editable. Below is an example that shows you how the slides made with Haiku Deck look like.
Note. Click the image itself in order to see the bigger version.
So next time when you get a last-minute instruction request from a teaching faculty member, consider spending 10-15 minutes to create a colorful and eye-catching set of slides with minimal text to have it accompany your classroom instruction or a short presentation all on your iPad.
2. SlideShark – Display slides on the iPad
SlideShark is a tool not so much for creating slides as for displaying the slides properly on the iPad (and also for the iPhone). In order to use SlideShark, you need to install the SlideShark app on your iPad first and then create an account. Once this is done, you can go to the SlideShark website (https://www.slideshark.com/) and log in. Here you can upload your presentation files in the MS PowerPoint format.
Once the file is uploaded to the SlideShark website, open the SlideShark app on your iPad and sync your app with the website by pressing the sync icon on top. This will display all the presentation files that have been uploaded to your SlideShark website account. Here, you can download and save a local copy of your presentation on your iPad. You will need the live Internet connection for this task. But once your presentation file is downloaded onto your SlideShark iPad app, you no longer need to be online in order to display and project those slides. While you are using your iPad to display your slides, you can also place your finger on the iPad screen which will be displayed on the projector as a laser pointer mark.
Last but not least, when you pack your iPad and run to your classroom or presentation room, don’t forget to take your adapter. In order to connect your iPad to a projector, you usually need a iPad-VGA adapter because most projectors have a VGA port. But different adapters are used for different ports on display devices. So find out in advance if the projector you will be using has a VGA, DVI, or a HDMI port. (Also remember that if you have an adapter that connects your Macbook with a projector, that adapter will not work for your iPad. That is a mini DVI-VGA adapter and won’t work with your iPad.)
4. Non-free option: Keynote
Haiku Deck and SlideShark are both free. But if you are willing to invest about ten dollars for convenience, another great presentation app is Keynote (currently $9.99 in Apple Store). While Haiku Deck is most useful for creating simple slides with a little bit of text, Keynote allows you to create more complicated slides on your iPad. If you use Keynote, you also don’t have to go through SlideShark for the off-line display of your presentation slides.
Creating presentations on the Keynote iPad app is simple and uses the same conventions and user-interface as the familiar Keynote application for OS X. Both versions of Keynote can share the same presentation files, although care should be taken to use 1024 x 768 screen resolution and standard Apple fonts and slide templates. iCloud may be used to sync presentations between iPads and other computers and users can download presentations to the iPad and present without Internet access.
The iPad version of Keynote has many features that make Keynote loved by its users. You can add media, tables, charts, and shapes into your presentation. Using Keynote, you can also display your slides to the audience on the attached projector while you view the same slides with a timer and notes on your iPad. (See the screenshots below.) For those with an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Keynote Remote app allows presenters to remotely control their slideshows without the need to stand at the podium or physically touch the iPad to advance their slides.
Do you have any useful tips for creating slides and presenting with an iPad? Share your ideas in the comments!
How do you orient students to to the library? Put them in a classroom and show them the website? Walk them around in a giant herd, pointing out the important spaces? That’s how we at North Carolina State University Libraries were doing it, too. And we were finding ourselves a little disappointed. Wouldn’t it be better, we thought, if we could get the students out into the library, actually engaging with staff, exploring the spaces, and discovering the collections themselves?
Background & Rationale
We had long felt that classroom-based library orientation had inherent flaws and we had tried several alternatives, including a scavenger hunt. Although the scavenger hunt was popular, it was not sustainable: it took a significant amount of work to hide paper clues around the library before each hunt and the activity could not be scaled up to meet the needs of over a hundred ENG 101 classes per semester. So, we focused our efforts on enhancing traditional classroom-based instruction and creating online tutorials.
In 2011, I held a focus group with several instructors in the First Year Writing Program, and the message was clear: they believed that students would benefit from more face-to-face library instruction and that instruction should be more active and engaging. This confirmed my gut feeling that, while online tutorials can be very effective at delivering content, they do not necessarily promote our “affective” goals of reducing library-related anxiety and fostering confidence in using the library’s collections and spaces. After classroom instruction, we distribute a short survey that asks students if they remain confused about how to find information, about whom to ask for help, about how to navigate the physical spaces of the library, or anything else. The most common response by far – from 44% of surveyed students – was that they still didn’t feel comfortable finding their way around our large library, which is in fact four merged buildings. We needed to develop an activity that would simultaneously teach students about our collections and services, introduce them to critical library staff, and help them learn their way around the library’s spaces.
It was with this feedback in mind that two colleagues — Adam Rogers and Adrienne Lai — and I revisited the idea of the scavenger hunt in March 2011. Since the last scavenger hunt attempt in 2010, mobile devices and the cloud based apps that run on them had become mainstream. If we could develop a scavenger hunt that relied on mobile technology, such as iPod Touches, and which didn’t rely on students finding paper clues throughout the library, we might be able to sustain and scale it.
We first investigated out-of-the-box scavenger hunt solutions such as SCVNGR and Scavenger Hunt With Friends, which were appealing in that they were self contained and provided automatic scoring. However, we did not have a budget for the project and discovered that the free versions could not meet our needs. Furthermore, apps that rely on GPS coordinates to display challenges and questions did not work reliably inside our building.
Ultimately, we decided we needed to come up with something ourselves that would allow students to submit answers to scavenger hunt questions “mobilely”, automatically calculate scores or allow us to score student answers rapidly, and enable us to display results and provide feedback at the end of the 50 minute activity. Our eventual solution made use of traditional approaches to scavenger hunts, in the form of paper maps and clue sheets, alongside novel cloud-based technologies such as Evernote and Google Docs.
The Scavenger Hunt in 50 Minutes
0:00-10:00: A class arrives at the library classroom and is greeted by a librarian, who introduces the activity and divides the group into 3-5 teams of about 4 students. Each team gets a packet with a list of 15 questions and an iPod Touch. The iPod Touches are already logged into Evernote accounts assigned to each team.
10:00-35:00: Teams disperse into the library to discover the answers to their 15 questions. Some questions require text-based answers; others prompt students to submit a photo. We ask them to introduce themselves to and take a photo with a librarian, to find a book in the stacks and take a photo of it as evidence, and to find the collection of circulating DVD’s, among other things. Each answer is submitted as an Evernote note. While students are exploring the library, a librarian monitors the teams’ Evernote accounts (which have been shared with our master account) and scoring their answers using a GoogleDocs spreadsheet. Meanwhile, another library staff member copies student photos into a PowerPoint document to run while students return at the end of the hunt.
35:00-50:00: At the end of 25 minutes, students return to the classroom, where a slideshow displays the photos they took, the correct answers to the questions, and a URL to a short survey about the activity. After all team members have returned, the librarians reveal the teams’ scores, declare a winning team, and distribute prizes.
The scavenger hunt has been very popular with both students and faculty. In the two semesters we have been offering the hunt (Fall 2011 and Spring 2012), we have facilitated over 90 hunts and reached over 1,600 students. 91% of surveyed students considered the activity fun and enjoyable, 93% said they learned something new about the library, and 95% indicated that they felt comfortable asking a staff member for help after having completed the activity. Instructors find the activity worthwhile as well. One ENG 101 faculty member wrote that the “activity engaged students… on a level that led to increased understanding, deeper learning, and almost complete recall of important library functions.”
Lessons Learned & Adjustments
After almost 100 scavenger hunts, we have learned how to optimize this activity for our target audiences. First we discovered that, for our institution, this scavenger hunt works best when scheduled for a class. Often, however, one instructor would schedule scavenger hunts for three consecutive sections of a class. In these cases, we learned to use only half our iPods for the first session. In the second session, while the second half of the iPods were in use, the first half would be refreshed and made ready for the last group of students.
In the very early scavenger hunts in Fall 2011, students reported lagginess with the iPods and occasional crashing of Evernote. However, since some critical iOS and Evernote updates, this has not been a problem.
Finally, after an unexpected website outage, we learned how dependent our activity was on the functionality of our website. We now keep an ‘emergency’ version of our scavenger hunt questions in case of another outage.
More details about implementing the NCSU Libraries Mobile Scavenger Hunt are available on the NCSU Libraries’ website.
About Our Guest Author: Anne Burke is Undergraduate Instruction & Outreach Librarian at NCSU Libraries. She holds an MSLIS from Syracuse University and an MA in Education from Manhattanville College. She like to explore new and exciting ways to teach students about information.
At the NCSU Libraries, my colleagues and I in the Research and Information Services department do a fair bit of instruction, especially to classes from the university’s First Year Writing Program. Some new initiatives and outreach have significantly increased our instruction load, to the point where it was getting more difficult for us to effectively cover all the sessions that were requested due to practical limits of our schedules. By way of a solution, we wanted to train some of our grad assistants, who (at the time of this writing) are all library/information science students from that school down the road, in the dark arts of basic library instruction, to help spread the instruction burden out a little.
This would work great, but there’s a secondary problem: since UNC is a good 40 minute drive away, our grad assistants tend to have very rigid schedules, which are fixed well in advance — so we can’t just alter our grad assistants’ schedules on short notice to have them cover a class. Meanwhile, instruction scheduling is very haphazard, due to wide variation in how course slots are configured in the weekly calendar, so it can be hard to predict when instruction requests are likely to be scheduled. What we need is a technique to maximize the likelihood that a grad student’s standing schedule will overlap with the timing of instruction requests that we do get — before the requests come in.
Searching for a Solution – Bar graph-based analysis
The obvious solution was to try to figure out when during the day and week we provided library instruction most frequently. If we could figure this out, we could work with our grad students to get their schedules to coincide with these busy periods.
Luckily, we had some accrued data on our instructional activity from previous semesters. This seemed like the obvious starting point: look at when we taught previously and see what days and times of day were most popular. The data consisted of about 80 instruction sessions given over the course of the prior two semesters; data included date, day of week, session start time, and a few other tidbits. The data was basically scraped by hand from the instruction records we maintain for annual reports; my colleague Anne Burke did the dirty work of collecting and cleaning the data, as well as the initial analysis.
Anne’s first pass at analyzing the data was to look each day of the week in terms of courses taught in the morning, afternoon, and evening. A bit of hand-counting and spreadsheet magic produced this:
This chart was somewhat helpful — certainly it’s clear that Monday, Tuesday and Thursday are our busiest days — but but it doesn’t provide a lot of clarity regarding times of day that are hot for instruction. Other than noting that Friday evening is a dead time (hardly a huge insight), we don’t really get a lot of new information on how the instruction sessions shake out throughout the week.
Let’s Get Visual – Heatmap-based visualization
The chart above gets the fundamentals right — since we’re designing weekly schedules for our grad assistants, it’s clear that the relevant dimensions are days of week and times of day. However, there are basically two problems with the stacked bar chart approach: (1) The resolution of the stacked bars — morning, afternoon and evening — is too coarse. We need to get more granular if we’re really going to see the times that are popular for instruction; (2) The stacked bar chart slices just don’t fit our mental model of a week. If we’re going to solve a calendaring problem, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to create a visualization that looks like a calendar?
What we need is a matrix — something where one dimension is the day of the week and the other dimension is the hour of the day (with proportional spacing) — just like a weekly planner. Then for any given hour, we need something to represent how “popular” that time slot is for instruction. It’d be great if we had some way for closely clustered but non-overlapping sessions to contribute “weight” to each other, since it’s not guaranteed that instruction session timing will coincide precisely.
When I thought about analyzing the data in these terms, the concept of a heatmap immediately came to mind. A heatmap is a tool commonly used to look for areas of density in spatial data. It’s often used for mapping click or eye-tracking data on websites, to develop an understanding of the areas of interest on the website. A heatmap’s density modeling works like this: each data point is mapped in two dimensions and displayed graphically as a circular “blob” with a small halo effect; in closely-packed data, the blobs overlap. Areas of overlap are drawn with more intense color, and the intensity effect is cumulative, so the regions with the most intense color correspond to the areas of highest density of points.
I had heatmaps on the brain since I had just used them extensively to analyze user interaction patterns with a touchscreen application that I had recently developed.
Part of my motivation for using heatmaps to solve our scheduling problem was simply to use the tools I had at hand: it seemed that it would be a simple matter to convert the instruction data into a form that would be amenable to modeling with the heatmap software I had access to. But in a lot of ways, a heatmap was a perfect tool: with a proper arrangement of the data, the heatmap’s ability to model intensity would highlight the parts of each day where the most instruction occurred, without having to worry too much about the precise timing of instruction sessions.
The heatmap generation tool that I had was a slightly modified version of the Heatmap PHP class from LabsMedia’s ClickHeat, an open-source tool for website click tracking. My modified version of the heatmap package takes in an array of (x,y) ordered pairs, corresponding to the locations of the data points to be mapped, and outputs a PNG file of the generated heatmap.
So here was the plan: I would convert each instruction session in the data to a set of (x,y) coordinates, with one coordinate representing day of week and the other representing time of day. Feeding these coordinates into the heatmap software would, I hoped, create five colorful swatches, one for each day of the week. The brightest regions in the swatches would represent the busiest times of the corresponding days.
Arbitrarily, I selected the y-coordinate to represent the day of the week. So I decided that any Monday slot, for instance, would be represented by some small (but nonzero) y-coordinate, with Tuesday represented by some greater y-coordinate, etc., with the intervals between consecutive days of the week equal. The main concern in assigning these y-coordinates was for the generated swatches to be far enough apart so that the heatmap “halo” around one day of the week would not interfere with its neighbors — we’re treating the days of the week independently. Then it was a simple matter of mapping time of day to the x-coordinate in a proportional manner. The graphic below shows the output from this process.
In this graphic, days of the week are represented by the horizontal rows of blobs, with Monday as the first row and Friday as the last. The leftmost extent of each row corresponds to approximately 8am, while the rightmost extent is about 7:30pm. The key in the upper left indicates (more or less) the number of overlapping data points in a given location. A bit of labeling helps to clarify things:
Right away, we get a good sense of the shape of the instruction week. This presentation reinforces the findings of the earlier chart: that Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday are busiest, and that Friday afternoon is basically dead. But we do see a few other interesting tidbits, which are visible to us specifically through the use of the heatmap:
- Monday, Tuesday and Thursday aren’t just busy, they’re consistently well-trafficked throughout the day.
- Friday is really quite slow throughout.
- There are a few interesting hotspots scattered here and there, notably first thing in the morning on Tuesday.
- Wednesday is quite sparse overall, except for two or three prominent afternoon/evening times.
- There is a block of late afternoon-early evening time-slots that are consistently busy in the first half of the week.
Using this information, we can take a much more informed approach to scheduling our graduate students, and hopefully be able to maximize their availability for instruction sessions.
“Better than it was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.” – Open questions and areas for improvement
As a proof of concept, this approach to analyzing our instruction data for the purposes of setting student schedules seems quite promising. We used our findings to inform our scheduling of graduate students this semester, but it’s hard to know whether our findings can even be validated: since this is the first semester where we’re actively assigning instruction to our graduate students, there’s no data available to compare this semester against, with respect to amount of grad student instruction performed. Nevertheless, it seems clear that knowledge of popular instruction times is a good guideline for grad student scheduling for this purpose.
There’s also plenty of work to be done as far as data collection and analysis is concerned. In particular:
- Data curation by hand is burdensome and inefficient. If we can automate the data collection process at all, we’ll be in a much better position to repeat this type of analysis in future semesters.
- The current data analysis completely ignores class session length, which is an important factor for scheduling (class times vary between 50 and 100 minutes). This data is recorded in our instruction spreadsheet, but there aren’t any set guidelines on how it’s entered — librarians entering their instruction data tend to round to the nearest quarter- or half-hour increment at their own preference, so a 50-minute class is sometimes listed as “.75 hours” and other times as “1 hour”. More accurate and consistent session time recording would allow us to reliably use session length in our analysis.
- To make the best use of session length in the analysis, I’ll have to learn a little bit more about PHP’s image generation libraries. The current approach is basically a plug-in adaptation of ClickHeat’s existing Heatmap class, which is only designed to handle “point” data. To modify the code to treat sessions as little line segments corresponding to their duration (rather than points that correspond to their start times) would require using image processing methods that are currently beyond my ken.
- A bit better knowledge of the image libraries would also allow me to add automatic labeling to the output file. You’ll notice the prominent use of “ish” to describe the hours dimension of the labeled heatmap above: this is because I had neither the inclination nor the patience to count pixels to determine where exactly the labels should go. With better knowledge of the image libraries I would be able to add graphical text labels directly to the generated heatmap, at precisely the correct location.
There are other fundamental questions that may be worth answering — or at least experimenting against — as well. For instance, in this analysis I used data about actual instruction sessions performed. But when lecturers request library sessions, they include two or three “preferred” dates, of which we pick the one that fits our librarian and room schedules best. For the purposes of analysis, it’s not entirely clear whether we should use the actual instruction data, which takes into account real space limitations but is also skewed by librarian availability; or whether we should look strictly at what lecturers are requesting, which might allow us to schedule our grad students in a way that could accommodate lecturers’ first choices better, but which might run us up against the library’s space limitations. In previous semesters, we didn’t store the data on the requests we received; this semester we’re doing that, so I’ll likely perform two analyses, one based on our actual instruction and one based on requests. Some insight might be gained by comparing the results of the two analyses, but it’s unclear what exactly the outcome will be.
Finally, it’s hard to predict how long-term trends in the data will affect our ability to plan for future semesters. It’s unclear whether prior semesters are a good indicator of future semesters, especially as lecturers move into and out of the First Year Writing Program, the source of the vast majority of our requests. We’ll get a better sense of this, presumably, as we perform more frequent analyses — it would also make sense to examine each semester separately to look for trends in instruction scheduling from semester to semester.
In any case, there’s plenty of experimenting left to do and plenty of improvements that we could make.
Reflections and Lessons Learned
There’s a few big points that I took away from this experience. A big one is simply that sometimes the right approach is a totally unexpected one. You can gain some interesting insights if you don’t limit yourself to the tools that are most familiar for a particular problem. Don’t be afraid to throw data at the wall and see what sticks.
Really, what we did in this case is not so different from creating separate histograms of instruction times for each day of the week, and comparing the histograms to each other. But using heatmaps gave us a couple of advantages over traditional histograms: first, our bin size is essentially infinitely narrow; because of the proximity effects of the heatmap calculation, nearby but non-overlapping data points still contribute weight to each other without us having to define bins as in a regular histogram. Second, histograms are typically drawn in two dimensions, which would make comparing them against each other rather a nuisance. In this case, our separate heatmap graphics for each day of the week are basically one-dimensional, which allows us to compare them side by side with little fuss. This technique could be used for side-by-side examinations of multiple sets of any histogram-like data for quick and intuitive at-a-glance comparison.
In particular, it’s important to remember — especially if your familiarity with heatmaps is already firmly entrenched in a spatial mapping context — that data doesn’t have to be spatial in order to be analyzed with heatmaps. This is really just an extension of the idea of graphical data analysis: A heatmap is just another way to look at arbitrary data represented graphically, not so different from a bar graph, pie chart, or scatter plot. Anything that you can express in two dimensions (or even just one), and where questions of frequency, density, proximity, etc., are relevant, can be analyzed using the heatmap approach.
A final point: as an analysis tool, the heatmap is really about getting a feel for how the data lies in aggregate, rather than getting a precise sense of where each point falls. Since the halo effect of a data point extends some distance away from the point, the limits of influence of that point on the final image are a bit fuzzy. If precision analysis is necessary, then heatmaps are not the right tool.
About our guest author: Andreas Orphanides is Librarian for Digital Technologies and Learning in the Research and Information Services department at NCSU Libraries. He holds an MSLS from UNC-Chapel Hill and a BA in mathematics from Oberlin College. His interests include instructional design, user interface development, devising technological solutions to problems in library instruction and public services, long walks on the beach, and kittens.