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.

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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.

On Facebook

If you want to get librarians talking, mention Facebook. Some hate it, some ban it, some dismiss it, some adore it. And me? In the past two years, I’ve been almost all of the above. 

I didn’t join Facebook when I was in grad school because it seemed a place for the undergrads. Though my similarly-ancient library school friends and I were perfectly happy to intermingle with undergrads while waiting in long lines on cold mornings for basketball tickets, Facebook was their turf. Undergrads confirmed this anecdotally.

Things changed when I went to work at Duke University Libraries. A colleague had arranged for a panel of undergraduates to talk to us about their use of technology. As was inevitable, we found students asking for services we already provided. Finally, in frustration, one student said, “Can’t you put that on Facebook?” He was using Facebook to organize his life, and he expected things he needed to be there. I followed up and asked him what he thought about librarians on Facebook, and he replied that his professors were already there, so librarians were also welcome.  

I got the message and started an account soon after and kept it professional. My address was my office; my contact information my work email and phone number. I used Facebook to connect with honors students writing theses as well as first year students who were in my one-shot instruction sessions. I even ended up meeting one student for coffee when he saw my profile and noted we had a mutual interest in East Africa, where he had just spent a semester abroad (that’s right – he read my profile and got in touch with me). I also used Facebook to connect with other librarians and especially my library school colleagues. 

I proselytized: at an area library conference, I gave a talk on how I was using Facebook to connect with students and how other librarians might do the same. I commented that we couldn’t be “tourists,” a term I first heard used by Fred Stutzman to describe people who set up social network accounts but never use them. I insisted we needed to engage with these networks authentically, and even if we didn’t connect with students, we’d understand better how students used technology, essential for any public services librarian. 

I took my own advice to heart. I realized that I was using Facebook more for my own social networking than for work. When I moved to Egypt, my personal use increased. What better way to stay connected with distant friends than to play virtual Scrabulous? Of course, it helped that old friends were joining in droves.

The more I used Facebook for myself, the less I wanted to connect with students. So, I did the previously unthinkable: I shut down my profile using the most restrictive privacy settings and started friending only folks I actually know and ignoring friend requests from students. I don’t use Facebook just like students do (for example, I rarely have events scheduled there), but I do use it to keep up with my friends, for entertainment, for communication, for fun. My college-aged cousin is coming to visit me in Egypt in a few weeks, and all our communication about her upcoming trip has taken place on Facebook. It’s become essential.  

Of course, there are some outreach possibilities for my library. I set up a page for the AUC Library, and we’ve attracted over 215 fans, some of whom have added their own photos of the library. AUC students seem even more enthusiastic about Facebook than American students. 

A dear friend and colleague once told me that librarians arriving anywhere is a sure sign something is destined to become unhip. I’m inclined to believe her (after all, she is a friend of mine on Facebook). But I’m not concerned since I’m there not so much as a librarian but as a user. Two years ago, I wasn’t even on Facebook. Now, I’m there every day, often multiple times a day, and I’m so enmeshed that I find myself frustrated that there are people I know who aren’t on Facebook.

Indeed, I find myself thinking about students on Facebook they way they might think about librarians: it’s okay that they’re there; I just don’t want to see them. 

Blackboardwalla

I’m not a big fan of proprietary course management software. I’ve been a student and librarian with Blackboard, and now a teacher and librarian with WebCT (though we’re switching to Blackboard this fall). None of these experiences has been overwhelmingly positive. Last year a colleague and I decided that Blackboard is Web 2.0 for instructors but remains miserably 1.0 for students.

In any case, now you can laugh at some Blackboard frustrations with Blackboardwalla, a mash-up of Blackboard and Bollywood from the blog metamedia. Hat tip to the Chronicle Wired Campus.

Required library classes

Each semester here at the American University in Cairo, I teach at least two sections of LALT 101, a required no-credit one-hour/weekly information literacy class. Some students do exempt out of the course via an exam, but most undergraduates take it.

I really enjoy working with the same group of students all semester. It’s a nice change from seeing students only at the ref desk, in one-shots, or around campus.

What’s tough, though, is trying to teach research skills outside of the context of a real information need. My supervisor and colleague Nancy and I talk about this constantly. What can we do so that when students need to research for another class, they consider databases we’ve talked about in LALT 101? Much of our effort is spent attempting to create situations where students feel they have a research need, in hopes that they might really learn something.

Many instruction librarians struggle with how best to teach important critical thinking and research skills. And no one seems to have a great answer.

At AUC this is particularly challenging as most of our students are not coming out of high schools with American-style libraries. Like typical American undergrads, they’re on Facebook and Googling their hearts away, but also like American undergrads, their web savvy is no indication of research savvy.

But until they really need research, how will they learn to do it? I’d be interested to hear how other librarians are tackling this.