Wednesday, October 06, 2010

When an imploring librarian is not enough

So last month I had a doozy of a library research class.  It was a 3 hour class about "library research" to about 100 second year undergraduate students and it wasn't tied to a particular assignment, a particular course, or even a particular discipline. Furthermore, the primary instructors for this particular program promptly exited the room as soon as the majority of students had signed in. Not exactly win conditions.

But I survived and the students survived. Some parts of the class went better than expected. Other parts I wished I could do over. And the class both reinforced and challenged my ideas about research, habits and tool use. Here's what happened.

This particular class was held in a large lecture hall and students were instructed to bring their laptops with them. Those without laptops were to share with those around them. I didn't pay that close attention to the few students that came without laptops but I strongly suspect that they, at best, only watched their seatmates work through the class exercises. Laptops are simply too personal to hand over to strangers. Unless its made explicit that students must have laptops for classwork then I think the school does bare some responsibility of having laptops to lend out on a short term use. But the matter of equity of access aside, I much prefer that students use their laptops rather than placing them all into a computer lab. What better way to simulate a research experience than using the actual research tool that the student uses everyday?

After I introduced myself and our co-op student (who kindly joined me to help out with questions from the students) I briefly told the students what I hoped to cover in the class and then started off with a quick five minute activity. I asked them to find a paper written by a University of Windsor professor and to raise their hand when they did. As they raised their hands, I would walk over the student, look at their screens and ask how they found the paper.

Most of the students answered "Google". A considerable number of students used the search box on the University of Windsor web site and searched the word, "paper" or a variation of that word. Only one student that I visited in that five minutes used a library indexing tool to find a paper.

After the five minutes was up, I gave brief synopsis of what I had seen and I make no explicit value judgment of which way was the "right way" to find a research paper. I wanted to send a strong signal that I was more interested in how they really did their research rather than set them up for praise them if they used library resources. I simply reported back that most people used Google and the Google-powered search engine on the University of Windsor website to find a paper.

I then asked the room this question: "How is doing scholarly research different from your everyday searching with Google?"

I think this is an important question. We know that students "search" multiple times a day in their everyday life and in most cases, they are largely successful and confident in their searching abilities. Unless we clearly ask students to confront the possibility that things could be done differently, they won't even consider changing their practice.

Now in this particular class, I had a problem. The first person gave a thorough and correct answer: "scholarly research involves using peer reviewed sources that has most likely been published." There's nothing like a correct answer to nip discussion in the bud. I've had similar discussions in classes that have meandered in all sorts of great territory, like the non-commercial nature of scholarly communication, the use of the scientific method and statistical analysis, what indicates expertise in a field, the acknowledgment of bias... but in this class, I wasn't able to catch a spark and I caught myself doing most of the talking. Luckily, I had prepared an escape route.

I asked the class, can you trust everything found by the library?

After a muted response of  "most times" and "meh", I explained that they absolutely shouldn't everything trust that they find in the library because I, as a librarian, had added to the collection such titles as Yes To Human Cloning!

That book is by the Raelian cult and they are my new favourite research example because they touch all sorts of disciplinary ground: science, UFSs, religion, media manipulation, sexuality, and Canadian Content, to boot. And, even better, the kids these days know nothing about these weirdos.

So I let the class know that this was a book from a cult called the Raelians and pointed out that the book is just two books down the shelf from one of the most important "real" books about cloning). I told them that the library had books about intelligent design and books about evolution. And while on this theme of healthy skepticism, we went to Wikipedia to learn more about the Raelians. We looked at the History tab on the page to see the level of discussion this topic was generating and to see if there was any tell-tale signs of Raelian influence on the page. I then asked the students to find newspaper articles to confirm the information found in the page.

And even though I navigated on my own screen to the library's newspaper page and suggested that they try to use these sources for this mini-assignment, the majority of students still defaulted to using Google and Google News where they found some newspaper articles and reprints of newspaper articles in blog posts. This has happened to me before. I once led a class about scholarly visual arts resources and even after immediately showing what fine tools we had, the majority of the class used for their research assignment. It throws me off every time. Their online habits are too strong to be broken by the imploring of a librarian to change.

And yet I persist because I'm not sure what else to do. I then used the same method to introduce tools to find journal articles on the topic: ask them to use the tool they would normally use for an in-class assignment, show them the advantages to using Google Scholar instead of Google, and then show them the advantages of using library-paid scholarly tools instead of Google.  At the end of this part of the class, I'm quite sure I have converted many of the students to using Google Scholar instead of Google but I don't have same confidence that I have made a convincing case for what we provide from the library.

But later in the class, I accidentally stumbled on a way where I actually had students ask me if there was something better than Google Scholar was available. 

In the second hour of the class, I introduced RefWorks and Zotero to the students and gave them a mini-assignment to create a bibliography that they would then have to share with someone else. I didn't teach them how to use the tools - I just pointed to the screencasts that both citation management products provide and wandered around to help out the students who were stuck. And I would like to note that the students *loved* these tools. At first, at least...

And that's when it happened. Students starting importing articles from Google Scholar into their bibliographies and noticed that many authors and other key bits of information were missing. I told these students that at this point they had a choice: they could either correct the citations manually, or they could use a library-provided tool like Web of Science that would do a better job of the citation information.  And it was only then that I saw real and genuine interest in using library subscription products for their research needs. For better metadata, no less.

I'm still working through ideas about how tool choice and habit influence how students learn, both within and out of higher education.

And you are reading this because my own habit is to write out my thoughts in a post as I work out difficult ideas. I implore you to do the same.


Dorothea said...

The non-commercial nature of scholarly publishing? In what universe?

Mita said...

In my defense, in this particular context I was talking to the students about the influence of third-party advertising but your point is well taken.

Stephen Francoeur said...

Wow, I didn't see what was coming in that anecdote: they saw the value in library resources when they realized they would work better with RefWorks and Zotero. That's fascinating!

Jason said...

Awesome, Mita. I'm citing this post in my Zotero book.