Tech Doesn’t Change Research Habits, but MOOCs May Yet Change Teaching | The Digital Shift 2013

LJ Columnists Barbara Fister and Michael Stephens discussed improving student understanding of how information is created and stored, as well as ways to keep students engaged with MOOCs during their presentations for The Digital Shift: Reinventing Libraries last week.

Barbara Fister Presentation atPressured to measure their value to students and faculty in ways that can be easily tracked and conveyed to administrators, academic libraries too often fall into the trap of teaching their patrons to be better consumers of library materials and services. This approach may help students on an assignment by assignment basis, but it omits other important aspects of learning that librarians should be focused on—such as improving student understanding of how information is created, stored, and communicated. This was a key theme of the “Teaching Privacy” presentation by Barbara Fister, librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College (MN), during The Digital Shift: Reinventing Libraries, an all-day online event hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal. Fister was joined during the day’s first instruction-themed session by Debbie Swartz, Library Technology Facilitator for the Mesquite (TX) Independent School District, and Michael Stephens, Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. It was the first of two series of presentations on instruction in libraries.

The need for this type of teaching has changed little during the past 15 years, despite advances in technology, Fister said.

“Technology, it would seem, is the great change agent at work in libraries in recent decades,” she said. “Way back in 1998, when we were working on a strategic plan for my library, the word ‘technology’ came up constantly. What changes would we see? Were we prepared? Could we possibly keep up? But when we held focus groups with faculty, that wasn’t what they cared about. As one professor put it—and this made a huge impact on the way I think about these things—he said, ‘It’s not about technology, it’s about pedagogy.’ For him, the greatest challenge and the greatest role the library could play was to help students learn and to help faculty teach in a world that is changing around us.”

Similarly, in 1990, a few years prior to Internet usage becoming common for students, Fister interviewed library users about their research processes. A dozen years later, she repeated the survey, thinking that technology would have fundamentally changed how students address research projects.

“What I learned was, it really hadn’t,” she said. “They faced exactly the same challenges—finding a focus, understanding context, making good choices among sources, finding their own voice as researchers.”

Simple changes in the way librarians explain certain concepts could help students address these challenges while expanding their understanding of information and research, she said. For example, citing Doug Downs, assistant professor of rhetoric and composition in the Department of English at Montana State University, Fister suggested that librarians describe sources as “people talking to other people.” Instilling the concept that scholarship is an ongoing conversation between researchers helps make it clear to students that their writing is also part of a larger conversation.

“If we make slight changes to the way we talk about what happens in libraries—just the speech we use, words we use, the phrases we use—I think it will help give students a different view of how knowledge works.”

Success with MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been a hot topic during the past two years. Advocates praise their potential, arguing that they could help democratize higher education by enabling thousands of people to sign up for free or low-cost courses online. Detractors point to significant, double-digit dropout rates of most MOOCs, and question how teachers can effectively evaluate the performance of hundreds or even thousands of students.

At San Jose State University’s online School of Library and Information Science, Assistant Professor Michael Stephens, along with lecturer Kyle Jones, recently debuted “The Hyperlinked Library MOOC” based on an emerging technologies course that Stephens has taught for several years. By using a WordPress-based site with a suite of open-source plug ins called BuddyPress, and limiting enrollment to 400 students, the MOOC has managed to build a thriving social network.

Stephens said that he and the course developers did not want to recreate “that MOOC that maybe some of you have taken, where you watch a video, you read something, and you take a test, and then the next day, you do the same thing…. We’ve taken the best of Learning 2.0 and aligned it with opportunities for large-scale learning.”

The platform aims to encourage “play” and experimentation with the ideas being taught and embraces Henry Jenkins’ concept of Connected Learning, Stephens said.

“We come together in a course for a shared purpose—exploring the Hyperlinked Library model. We are production-centered. We are not giving quizzes, we’re not giving tests. Our students are writing an emerging technology plan, a social media policy guideline statement, and they’re writing a community engagement plan…. They post these things and get feedback from other members of the MOOC.”

The participatory and networked nature of the course has managed to keep most of the registrants highly engaged through the early stages of the new course, Stephens said.

In a later presentation, Raymond Pun, reference and research services librarian for New York University, Shanghai, discussed a successful MOOC that he launched while working at the New York Public Library in “NYPL’s Sinology 101: A Case Study in Public Library MOOC Creation.”

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