Tuesday, October 12, 2010

5 books, group selection, depression, suffering, and games

One of my favourite websites of late is FiveBooks. The premise of the site is simple: Every day an eminent writer, thinker, commentator, politician, academic chooses five books on their specialist subject.  It's a simple project done well and well worth reading.

In July, I read Jonathan Haidt's five book selections on Happiness and I ever since I've been expanding the connections that he's made into a wider frame of reference to include some thoughts I've been having about games.

But before I get into games, I want to highlight a particular passage from Jonathan's Haidti's interview where he casually drops some ideas that are largely heretical to current evolutionary thinking

The reason I have found this book so wise is that I am interested in the possibility that human beings are products of group level selection. That’s the idea that we evolved in part by groups competing with other groups. I’ve come to believe that we have a variety of mechanisms in our minds that allow us to temporarily become like bees in a hive, and these experiences of collective merger are among our most prized and important experiences.

I was first introduced to the idea of group selection by Harold Bloom's book, Global Brain:  The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. Bloom is not a scientist but an uninhibited free-thinker and I found his ideas fascinating and the lens of group selection a powerful one (while reserving judgment of whether such thinking is 'correct' or not). For example, he asks us to consider depression as a biological 'self-destruct mechanism' that can be triggered when an individual does not have strong ties to family or friends.

Now obviously this is a very powerful and dangerous idea and I think all of us know someone in our own circle of family and friends who have suffered from depression despite having strong social ties to people who love them. But I mention this concept only because I have recently read two different accounts of how the force of depression can be pushed back by encouraging the depressed person to become more social.  The first was this article in the Guardian that gives a brief summary of the book The Depression Cure: The Six-Step Programme to Beat Depression Without Drugs.

The second example is the account of Jane McGonigal's battle with a concussion that also included a bout of depression. In order to save herself from thoughts of suicide, Jane created a game called Superbetter for herself *and* her caretakers. The game worked.

There are several other ties between Jane McGonigal and some of her games and Jonathan's Haidti's book picks on happiness, with most obvious being the common interest in positive psychology. But to me, the most significant connection is that both researchers address the changing of mind to address human suffering: see Jonathan's book pick of the Dhammapada  and Jane's cookie-rolling manifesto : "When we're playing games, we're not suffering.".

In short, it's got me thinking along these lines: is the transformation that removes the drudgery of work in a game, similar to Buddhist transformation that removes suffering from pain?

I think I can find five books that suggests this is so. I've got two so far: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits and Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Let me know if you know other ones.

(cross-posted : New Jack Almanac. I'm going to combine all my blogs sometime eventually)

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  dictionary.com 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.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The other gaming platform war - LibraryThing, Wikipedia and The Zotero Commons

I’ve been investigating the spaces between and the spaces that overlap games and libraries as of late and while I have been doing so, I’ve been stumbling upon various forms of ‘library games’ and – of greater interest to myself – “research games”.  One such “research game” that has caught my attention is The Wikipedia Game.

During a lull in class, me and some classmates figured out a way to combine our favorite things: wasting time and Wikipedia. We invented a game where you try to find a certain item (for example, pancakes) the fastest, measured in either time or clicks. Here are the rules:
  • You cannot edit any pages
  • You must start from the home page (http://wikipedia.org/)
  • You cannot type anything. Everything must be done via mouse clicks.
  • You cannot use the categories, A-Z listings, etc
Here's a sample game, searching for "witchcraft."

Wikipedia > English Wikipedia > United States > Massachusetts > Salem > Salem Witch Trials > Witchcraft

I'm not sure whether the example above is the first incarnation of the game but it is not the last iteration. There is also The Wiki Game in which the word goals are auto-generated and there is a ticking clock that you compete against.  It appears that the same game has been ported into a $2 iPhone app.

Now I have to admit that I have entertained the thought of trying a similar game but using the an online public library catalogue (an OPAC to those in the profession) instead of Wikipedia, but it didn't take much visualization at all to come to the conclusion that such a  game would be difficult and not fun for most people.

The main reason why is that Wikipedia is an idea-space where there are multiple means of making connections between disparate concepts ("Your start page is: Sulfuric acid. You are looking for: Reality in Buddhism. Go!") Library catalogues can only make connections between authors and  Library of Congress Subject Headings which are few and not intuitive. And while making connections between actors is a bona fide fun thing to do, most books are written by a single author and so any connections are few and tenuous at best.

Of note, LibraryThing - which is very rich in its connections between authors, descriptions, and users - already is the platform of at least two games: CoverGuess and Another silly game part 67,

I feel a maxim coming on. Let's try this one:

Until your platform can support a game, it cannot be called social software.

Hmm. I'm not crazy about the maxim myself but rather than refine it, I want to continue this speculation of what an alternative idea-space game-platform could look like. Because I've been thinking about it for a while now. And would you believe that I think one of the best candidates is... footnotes?

Citations are what connect the ideas within various works together.  They make up the web in The Web of Science. They allow Google Scholars to Stand on the shoulders of giants.  And yet inexplicably, online footnotes are vanishing.

The beta version of Zotero 2.1 (available for download here) provides users of the Zotero citation management web service, an easier means of uploading primary documents into the Internet Archive using Zotero Commons. Perhaps future Zotero developments will make stronger and more plentiful connections between ideas and works. There's already one Zotero game out there but I would rather play The Wikipedia Game for now.