Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries


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Information Whirlwind

Last night I had a really incredible instruction session! What made it so successful? I can’t discount the virtue of 100 minute instruction sessions, for one thing. I tried a new active learning exercise. And I took an unusual tactic — I overwhelmed them. And it worked, it really did! I don’t think it will work every time, but in this case, a rousing success

It was a senior seminar, with an unusually surly bunch of students, and one student laid down the gauntlet in the first five minutes of class, asking about why they always have to come to library sessions and stating that he never learns anything new and always zones out. I explained each session is customized to the level and needs of each course, and other than some basic orienting stuff, different things should be covered in every class he attends. And I challenged him back, stating he was going to learn new things from me.

I had a handout/outline, and I planned on showing them advanced techniques in searching WorldCat and planned on making sure they knew their way to all the hidden places of great delight on the webpage (subject pages, Periodical title search, online encyclopedias…). I was also planning to introduce them to Google Scholar by way of having them read an article in The Nation and having them identify the four books, articles, and government sources obliquely referred to in the first four paragraphs and then talking about how to extract that information and locate the reports etc. using Google Scholar.

I did all of those things. But I did it as a sort of a whirlwind, covering why Google wastes their time, using (online) encyclopedias, bibliographic mining, reading citations, finding known sources, not limiting to full text, article linking from database to database to ILL, extracting information from their casual reading to library resources, using Google Scholar, citing forward.. It was really exciting, I could see the importance and the excitement of this breaking through their ennui. They were madly taking notes, which almost never happens, and making connections and asking questions. Every time we landed back on the Serials Solutions linking page I could see the cycle coming back to them. Because, this whirlwind repeated the same information over and over a few times, and the second time they perked up and the third time they energized. They got it! It’s hard. It’s complicated. It’s going to take time. But research can actually be exciting.

I think my favorite part, though, is the way that 2.0 technologies* came into play in this session. The article I used? Crossed my path from a Twitter friend explaining ‘super delegates’. The prof wanted me to cover citation management techniques, which is hard because we don’t support EndNote or RefWorks. So, I asked the students about Firefox use (75% used it), and explained plugins and Zotero. I asked if any of them use social bookmarking, and only one had heard of it, so I explained how del.icio.us and Furl work, and work differently, and explained tagging. I explained how to use email as a citation management system. And they got it, they got why they needed to care about citation management, because they had a vision of how overwhelming the various search tools could be. But they weren’t overwhelmed so much as jazzed, and they had an exciting time in the library and left thinking that librarians may be allies in their quest for the right resources.

Now I just have to figure out why such a clearly wrong approach worked so darn well. Because I would really like to inspire that kind of energy every time I set foot in the classroom!

* our students (and our faculty) are generally not as Net Savvy as the millennials buzz might lead one to believe. That new report about how the Google Generation isn’t really all that aware or excellent online? We knew that at my library. We are constantly humbled by how few of our students are participating online beyond IM and Facebook. Which makes this victory that much the sweeter.

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