May 2016 Site of the Month

MLA Play

Authors:  Mary Hanlin and Denise Woetzel

Institution:  J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Richmond, VA

Interviewees:  Mary Hanlin and Denise Woetzel
Interviewer:  Jennifer Sharkey

Description (provided by the authors):

MLA Play consists of four lessons that guide the student to a better understanding of the essential patterns and formatting standards used in MLA format. The tutorial in its entirety doesn’t typically take more than a half an hour to do, and after successful completion students can submit their name and email address which is forwarded on to their professor. Although there are dozens of online MLA tutorials, this tutorial is unique in that it focuses on helping students understand the pattern by explaining the reasoning behind the word order. This tutorial aims not simply to show MLA, but also to help students really understand the “what” and the “why” of MLA. Also, the tutorial explains MLA in a direct and accessible manner.

Interviewer’s note:  This tutorial is based on the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

Q:  Tell us about the process you used to determine the need for the tutorial. In particular, why did you focus on citing and specifically the MLA style?

A:  Libraries like to re-invent the wheel, often unnecessarily so. However, sometimes libraries legitimately create the same content in a new or institutionally fitting manner. Although there are dozens of MLA tutorials out there, we felt there was nothing that viably fulfilled the need of our students. Because of the overdependence of citation tools like EasyBib, students often simply input information, often in the wrong spots, and get citations wrong. They lack the ability to know when a citation is incorrect because they have not been taught to understand MLA format on a basic level. We wanted our students to understand the basic logic and structure of MLA format.

Additionally, we noticed that many colleagues were using an outside website where students had to put the MLA citations together in the right order. The website itself, however, had not been updated in several years. Some of the information was wrong, and the content was dated. When we learned that our colleagues were using that site, we thought, “We can do something similar, but more up-to- date.”

Therefore, in the summer of 2015, Reynolds Library’s Digital Initiatives and Information Literacy committees discussed the need to develop a citation tutorial for our student population, especially for our distance learning students. Committee members agreed that Reynolds librarians spend much time assisting students in citing their sources and most Reynolds research assignments require that students use MLA style.

Q:  On the tutorial web page, MLA Play is referred to as one tutorial or a game with four lessons. What made you decide to take that approach?

A:  We consider the game more as one tutorial with four sub-lessons. The lessons all build upon one another and reinforce some of the key logic to MLA format. We wanted the lessons to be somewhat repetitive so that students begin to better understand the underlying logic of MLA format – for example, that titles of the overall source go in italics, and that titles of the internal source go in quotes, etc. However, we didn’t want the lessons to be so long that the students become bored with what they were doing. This is an assignment that can easily be completed in a half hour while also reinforcing the main ideas of MLA.

Q:  You used a variety of technologies/programming to develop this suite of tutorials such as Adobe Go-Live, MS Visual InterDev, Dreamweaver, and Java scripts (specifically jQuery). Why did you select these specific technologies? Did this require any specialized training?

A:  We used essentially one technology, jQuery, which is probably the most important JavaScript library ever developed. These days, the most robust development seems to be new JavaScript frameworks for libraries. There’s Angular JS and Node JS and Ember JS and on and on and on. I sometimes feel there’s a pressure in the library (albeit small pressure) coding world to learn a new language or script or library without having an actual utility of use in mind. However, I stayed with jQuery when developing this game. When I wrote this game, I was still a somewhat new coder (about 2.5 years) so jQuery was the first thing I learned, and later on, I wanted to learn it more deeply.

This project in part came about because I knew jQuery could be used to make something like MLA Play, but I didn’t know all of the code to make it work. At the beginning, it was a lot of thinking and trial and error. But the good thing about code is that the tutorials are all the same coding logic. So, I only had to get the code right for the first tutorial, and then it was smooth sailing from there.

Like most librarians, I acquired an MLS with very little education in programing or web development. I got into web development, frankly, because there was a critical need for it. Libraries have websites, and library websites should be developed and administered by librarians, not outside administrators. The really awesome thing about coding, as frustrating as it can be, is anyone can learn it. It takes time. It takes humility. It takes asking for help. It takes some hair pulling. But, in the long run it can be incredibly validating and worthwhile.

Q:  During the design and development of the tutorial, what type of input and feedback did you solicit? Were there specific individuals or groups you targeted?

A:  Throughout the process, committee members discussed developing an interactive tutorial that would engage students. Librarians had reviewed several drag-and- drop citation tutorials and liked the idea of incorporating this feature into the MLA Play tutorial. Feedback was regularly solicited from members of both the Digital Initiatives and Information Literacy committees. Mary was the primary person who facilitated this input. Committee members offered suggestions for improvement and alerted her to any bugs and grammatical errors that needed to be fixed.

Q:  Have you received any feedback from students, faculty, staff, and/or coworkers on the completed version? What strategies are you using to get the word out? What about assessment?

A:  Library staff love the tutorial! Since this is a new tutorial, we still need to develop a plan for marketing it to both faculty and students. Even though we are not working with any specific faculty or courses, we expect these activities in the tutorial will work especially well as an extra credit assignment for our English classes. Also, the assessment plan is still in development.

Q:  In the pop-up at the beginning of the tutorial, there is a note that the game does not work on mobile devices. With increased emphasis on responsive web design, is this something you plan to address in future iterations of the game?

A:  Although the library website as a whole is responsive because it is important to provide students that sort of mobile access, this game cannot be because there are some specific coding attributes (multiple AP divs) that cannot be responsive. According to Google Analytics, less than 5% of users enter our website on a mobile device. Only a fraction of that 5% actually navigate to the MLA game on a mobile device. Therefore, we’re talking about fewer than 10 people a month. For me, the decision not to develop a mobile game was easy when I saw that data. To develop a mobile framework, I’d have to use a completely different set of coding – and frankly coding that I don’t know how to do. If there is an immense need for a mobile counterpart, or if the data indicates that a massive number of students are coming to the page through mobile devices, then yes, we’ll develop a mobile version. But for now, the need or lack thereof informed the decision.

Q:  What recommendations or advice could you provide for someone who might want to embark on a similar project?

A:  Once you’ve established the need for a certain web tutorial or interactive content, don’t think that it cannot be done just because you don’t yet know how it can be done. When it comes to creating online content, there is always a solution.

If you are a librarian in a small library, such as Reynolds Library, the most important thing is for one librarian to make the decision to learn code and create web-based content. In other words, take responsibility for the things you don’t yet know how to do because libraries desperately need coders and webmasters who are a part of the library, not the overarching institution. A lot of projects, especially technical and web-based projects, are nixed because there is no one in the library who knows how to do it and they don’t have time to do it.

The good news is that beneath the surface there is a lot more support than you realize. Code4Lib is a tremendous library coding community. Around your state, there are always colleagues who have incredible coding skills and are happy to help you. Regarding time, if coding is something that you really want to commit to, sit down with your supervisor and explain how mitigating it is for no one in the library to have the ability to code. As librarians, we can no longer get by with basic technology skills. We have to commit to becoming a profession that learns, develops and ultimately shares code.

May 2016 Site of the Month