Student blogs

As I mentioned earlier, students in LALT 101 are blogging their assignments this semester. While several students opted to shut down their blogs to all but their classmates and me, several others left theirs open to the world. Students aren’t required to use anything other than the standard WordPress template and certainly aren’t expected to blog anything other than LALT 101 homework. But some have gone above and beyond.

First, a basic blog.

Now, some with more personality.

One student was so pleased with his customized blog header–a photo of him wearing his signature shoes–that he came to class early to show me.

A few students have actually blogged on their blogs (imagine!).

One student answers the questions with a bit of extra personality.

And several others have played with different WordPress themes.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the class and lesson plans, and the questions these students are answering, check out the LALT 101 wiki.


Student blogging

There are real challenges in teaching a required information literacy class to college freshmen, but we keep trying to make our class, LALT 101, more relevant and interesting to our students.

Through last spring, students took weekly quizzes through WebCT. It made for easy (read: automatic) grading for the instructors, and it helped students prep for their midterms and finals. Students could take each quiz multiple times, so ostensibly they learned the topics being covered.

Each class session included group searching activities, so, again, ostensibly the students were learning through doing.

But it didn’t feel like enough. After ten class sessions, we weren’t always confident students could do much more than find their way to Academic Search Complete. Yet we seemed to have an inherent conflict between creating meaningful assignments and limiting instructor grading time. In the past, limiting grading time was given higher priority (and, I should add, not unreasonably given the many other responsibilities of librarians who teach LALT 101).

But somehow last August, just days before the beginning of the new semester, in chaos of our move to AUC’s new campus, I managed to convince my colleagues to give student blogging a try. We re-wrote our syllabus and lesson plans to incorporate blogging assignments into the curriculum, deleted our old quizzes from Blackboard, and dove in.

There were moments last fall when I thought our blog project was going to be an absolute disaster–in large part because I underestimated librarians’ comfort with learning, using, and teaching WordPress–and indeed some instructors were miserable about blogging through much of the already-chaotic semester.

It was looking like we’d abandon blogging and incorporate student assignments into Blackboard discussion groups. But then we asked students to blog answers to a couple of simple questions:

  1. What did you like about blogging through WordPress?
  2. What didn’t you like about blogging through WordPress?

Here are some of the comments we received (with spelling and grammatical errors intact–please remember these are non-native speakers):

Bolgging through wordpress was easy and simple. It was not complicated.

Blogging through wordpress made the whole experience much more interesting for me because it helped me acknowledge the fact that I can get anything I want to get across to a large group of audience.

I really liked WordPress. I don’t think i faced any problems using it.

I did not know that it is so that easy.

Blogging through WordPress gave me a new insight to the idea of blogs and how people generally discuss topics online, which is something far more serious than when I discuss anything on facebook for example, as a hobby.

what i liked about wordpress is that it is something new and i felt that it is more professional. moreover you dont have to worry about whether the professor got it or not you just do your work put it there and they will see it.

This was my first time to make my own blog, actually. I found the entire experience rather interesting in fact. What striked me most about it was the idea that you can use it as your own personal magazine, you can write articles, add pictures and even links to other web pages.

what I like about blogging through WordPress is the idea of applying what we have taken in class on a network that join us as a clas with our instructor. ANd I liked learning how to create a blog for myself

Students were overwhelmingly, if not universally, positive. In particular many instructors were surprised by how much student liked blogging. And this encouraged many instructors to reconsider the value in blogging.

Blogging is a big deal in Egypt. This spring an AUC graduate student blogger was actually jailed following some of his political activities. Other political bloggers have seemingly disappeared. Yet our undergraduates seem to have little exposure to blogs beyond what they’ve been taught about them (“blogs are personal diaries online”).

Blogging their homework–no matter how dull they find the actual assignment–connects them to the web beyond Facebook. And, it seems to help them learn.

Google strategies in library databases = FAIL

Like many students everywhere, AUC students are inclined to use Google or Google Scholar for their academic research. Like many students, they attempt library database searches with natural language like they’d use in Google. Perhaps because English is their second language, they seem to have a harder time learning the lesson of finding keywords and synonyms. Persistence is not their forte.

Along these same lines, my colleague made an important but terrible discovery last week in a library instruction one-shot.

When you search Google, you probably don’t browse results past page one. At least not usually. Because after page one, the results are usually increasingly junky… or irrelevant, to use the proper terminology.

Well, apparently, many AUC students take the same approach in library databases, assuming, incorrectly, that page two and beyond will be irrelevant. So if they get 20 results in Academic Search Complete, they only scan the first page, missing, quite possibly, some excellent, if slightly older, results on page two.

Has anyone else noticed students doing this? Or did everyone else already know about this? It’s not something I observed of students in the US.

It’s great my colleague discovered this… but it’s yet another barrier for students in learning how to use library databases.

Why not use Google?

Classes started at AUC two weeks ago, but we’re just starting our first real session next week, in part because of an exemption exam and in part because of some construction delays on our new campus. In any case, as I prepare to teach two sections of our semester-long library class, I find myself wondering how I’ll convince students of the value of library resources.

Just today I’ve been doing some of my very own research, on canine seizures (a topic that, unfortunately, has become of great interest to me in the past few days). Right now I have an article printed out that I’ll read more carefully later. You know how I found it? This morning I googled dog seizures. I dismissed the first result. This article? It was the second result.

I did some evaluation almost unconsciously: I read through several paragraphs and took note of where it agreed with what little I already knew from my vet; considered its lack of currency (1995); noted the in-text citations; and glanced through the bibliography. But I did not research the article’s author, consult a library database, or even look at the URL.

So I did exactly what we tell our students not to do: google something and use one of the first few hits. Of course, I’m a librarian with a decent sense for what’s credible and what’s not. But I’m no expert in veterinary studies, and this article could be total bunk. But more than seeming credible, it answered all the questions I had, with an overview of the topic, explanation of symptoms and diagnoses, and a list of pharmaceutical and alternative treatments. In short, it gave me exactly what I wanted.

This week, if my students are feeling bold, they might ask me, “Why not Google?”

Ultimately, sometimes the most practical answer to this question may be, “Because your teacher says.”

How about you? What’s your best answer?


My university, the American University in Cairo, is moving to a new campus for the fall semester. The old campus is in downtown Cairo, near the Egyptian Museum and close to the Nile River. The new campus is in (the euphemistically named) New Cairo, east of downtown and in area that was all desert just a few years ago.

The city is apparently trying to push development outside of town. AUC’s new 260-acre campus will be just one of several large universities in New Cairo. The campus’s new amenities include on-campus student housing and athletic facilities, previously unavailable downtown. 

This is a particularly significant move for the library, whose old facility was a 30-year old building bursting at the seams. The new library is centered around a learning commons and is attempting some new reference service models (more on that in a future post). The learning commons should be a perfect fit for AUC students, most of whom are Egyptian, and who seem to thrive on group work and interaction. 

We’re also gaining classroom space. Instead of one lab with outdated machines, we’ll have two large labs with updated equipment, as well as other smaller labs around the building. 

The library is finalizing its move. The books are already on the new campus. Offices and computers are moving next week.

Now that I’m back from my summer leave, I expect to be spending some time settling into the new library. Many of my colleagues, especially those who have spent entire careers at AUC’s downtown campus, are frazzled. I knew about this move when I accepted my offer to start at AUC last fall, so I’m eager for our new facility.

I’m also prepared to laugh at the inevitable debacles.

Library instruction in MLS programs

Last week at the ACRLog, StevenB shared results of a survey of what librarians might like to see in an LS Academic Libraries class. Instruction was high on the list. According to StevenB,

Those items that received the highest percentage of “essential” ranking were information literacy, instruction and higher education industry.

I’m not surprised, and commented as such in response to StevenB’s post. I suspect other librarians feel the same was as I do: it’s not so much that we think instruction should be included in a class on Academic Libraries, but that it should be included somewhere, anywhere in the MLS curriculum. (It is in some programs, I know.)

I attended the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s a great program according to the rankings, and I loved being in library school at my undergraduate alma mater. But that program is not keeping pace with what today’s librarians are doing at work.

When I was at SILS a few years ago, most students were LS and interested in academic libraries and archives, especially public services, but about half the faculty were IS. Perhaps that explains why user education was relegated to summer school, and taught by faculty for whom it wasn’t a primary interest. But aside from the particular quirks of SILS, I suspect library instruction isn’t getting proper emphasis in MLS programs across the country.

LS programs typically teach core issues of librarianship: reference, cataloging, management, and collection development, and then students may focus by taking specialized reference classes, archives, children’s literature, or databases and web design, for example.

But, I would argue that instruction itself is becoming a core area (and certainly not one to teach only in the summer). Just as every librarian should know something about the catalog, every librarian also should know something about teaching patrons to use library resources. Search tools are becoming more complex and bad information is everywhere. A good librarian can not only organize or retrieve this information, but can teach a patron how to weed through it herself.

As it stands now, libraries are full of very competent people and some pretty awful teachers.

Creating an information need

As I wrote about in an earlier post, each semester I teach two to three sections of a required library class here at AUC.

The class seems like a great opportunity for students to engage with library resources. We have about 13 hours with them… a dream compared to 50-minute one shots.

The problem, however, is that it’s hard for anyone to learn about resources outside of the context of a real information need. But how do you create a scenario where students are invested? At least in one-shot sessions, students have a paper coming up and know they need to research eventually.

Last fall, my colleagues and I decided to re-vamp the course for the spring semester. The class would be focused on students’ individually chosen research topics, with the hope that they’d be more engaged. Also, researching the same subject in a variety of databases could make the distinctions between those databases all the more apparent.

This worked, sorta. Some students got it: they came up with interesting, appropriate topics and used the semester to research them. They learned about stereotypes of Arabs as they related to the portrayal of terrorists; they learned about how marketers target young children; and they learned about how teenagers can benefit from the practice of yoga.

Others, not so much. As their teacher, I take the blame for this. I didn’t spend much time in class refining students’ research topics, so several students had topics that were entirely too broad (i.e. global warming, Italy).

Perhaps not surprisingly, some students who were really invested in their topic learned a lot and excelled regardless of the topic.

Interestingly, on my earlier other post, Jeff Pomerantz made a suggestion to do something very like this based on his experience teaching a class to information science students. I think this idea will work, but we need to spend time helping students craft better research topics.

My colleague Nancy encouraged her students to come up with a research topic along the lines of this: the effect of ______ on ______. This clicked with her class and helped them focus.

We have some more ideas for this fall, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post. I’d be interested to hear from other librarians how they are tackling similar classes.