from the Library of Maura

Working on Wikipedia

February 4th, 2014 · 1 Comment

Last weekend I found myself in a room chock full of 30+ students, teachers, and other interested feminists with laptops at the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. As the organizers introduced the event and its goals, several participants with relevant expertise (historians, art scholars) identified themselves and volunteered their assistance. I’m not an art historian, but I raised my hand anyway and came clean as an academic librarian, offering to help with research questions if folks had them.

And then I got perhaps the most amazingly gratifying response ever, as the whole room made an audible “Oooooooh!” sound at the mention of the word “librarian.” True story! (and one that’s kept me smiling for days)

With that auspicious beginning to my first ever Wikipedia edit-a-thon I was primed to have a great time, and the event did not disappoint. Edit-a-thons were happening on February 1st all over the world: I chose to go to the session at the Brooklyn Museum, held in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in a room adjacent to The Dinner Party (how’s that for inspiration?).

While I’ve been a heavy user of Wikipedia for years and refer to it often in my research and information literacy instruction with City Tech students, I’d never edited Wikipedia before last weekend. I came in feeling a bit nervous about my n00b status and wondering about the cliquish-ness of the frequent-editors in the Wikipedia community, as I’m well aware of the under-representation of new voices and especially women on the site. But I think I might be hooked now — it was a huge thrill to contribute to the site, and I’m happy to report that my (small) edits have persisted even to today.

A couple of takeaways for me:

OMG yes, it’s so very clear that our students should be contributing to Wikipedia. I felt this way even before going to the edit-a-thon, but I feel even more strongly about it now. It might be tricky to add Wikipedia editing/content creation to the credit-bearing course we teach at my library, as the content we cover include the information landscape and issues like access to information, intellectual property, and information ethics — all concepts that are likely to be heavily-covered (and possibly contested) in Wikipedia. But I’m going to keep thinking on a way to try, because it seems so much better to have the content that students create available for others to use. And I’m delighted that the graduate students in the course I’m co-teaching with Michael Mandiberg, Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Core 2, will have the chance to edit Wikipedia this semester.

Time: working on Wikipedia takes time, which can be in short supply. Time to research, time to cite, time to write. The organizers of the edit-a-thon had compiled a list of Wikipedia entries that needed work and I chose to work on the entry for Aebbe the Younger, an Abbess in Dark Age Scotland (later sainted) who apparently convinced her fellow nuns to disfigure their faces as Vikings were poised to attack the monastery, thus avoiding rape (though the Vikings did set fire to the monastery and all reportedly perished). Back in the day when I was an archaeologist my research (for a time) centered on the Iron Age through Medieval British Isles, so this entry piqued my interest. But I’d forgotten how little is really known about this time period, even in this area which is relatively rich in historical documentation. I spent most of my edit-a-thon time last Saturday doing research on the open internet as well as in library databases, but found little in the way of new information. I was able to add a couple of citations, and I have copious notes and intend to go back and flesh out the entry more, as well as tidy up/add citations to a couple of other references to Aebbe in other Wikipedia entries. But sometimes an entry is short because there’s just not that much information out there, unfortunately.

Even despite these challenges, the edit-a-thon convinced me to do more editing in Wikipedia in the future. So I count that as a win, and I’m looking forward to getting back to Aebbe’s entry as soon as I can.

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We Make the Game By Playing

March 22nd, 2012 · No Comments

Recently we were at housewarming party for our friends and one of their son’s games caught my eye: Rivers, Roads, and Rails. It’s a simple matching game consisting of cardboard tiles each depicting a combination of a river, road, or rail segment. Players start with 7 tiles and go ‘round placing tiles to match the segments on the floor. The instructions in the box were sketchy, so we added that if a player can’t place a tile, draw from the facedown pile, place it if you can, and keep it in your hand if not. The game is physically lovely as well: the cardboard tiles are thick and sturdy, and the illustrations are pretty and whimsical.

Interestingly, we couldn’t convince any of the kids at the party, aged 2-10, to play the game with us, so gameplay involved 5 of us, all adults. And a rollicking good time was had by all: we found ourselves telling little stories about the segments and associated pictures on the tiles, and ended up being more interested in the possibility of connecting every tile to the board than of someone winning (we had decided that the first person to place all tiles in their hand was the winner).

One aspect of Rivers, Roads, and Rails that I really enjoyed is that the game board is created in the process of gameplay. Carcassonne, one of my favorite board games, uses the same mechanic: players draw tiles with segments of cities, roads, and fields, then place their pieces (called meeples) to claim features, each with different point values. The game ends when the last tile is placed and whomever has racked up the most points is the winner. It’s a fantastic game: the basics are easy enough to grasp to make it fun for beginners, but there’s also real strategy possible which keeps more experienced players engaged.

But what does any of this have to do with the library? I’ve been thinking lately about ways to incorporate more games and game mechanics into my library and information literacy instruction, and speculating on the possibilities for games that could help our students with their research assignments. Because the mechanic described above, which I like to think of as “we make the board by playing” (a riff on the title of a book designed for first year experience coursework called College: We Make the Road by Walking), is so interesting to me, I’ve found myself considering how to use it in research instruction.

In some ways the experience of building a game space as you play the game is very similar to the process of doing research for an assignment: you begin with some parameters (taking your turn or coming up with a research topic), you take an action (draw a tile, start your search [engine]), you figure out what to do with what you get (place your tile, use or reject your search results), and then you adjust accordingly the next time around. In a tile matching game the landscape shifts with every turn, just as it does in the research process as topics broaden or narrow, and the iterative nature of research means that the sources we find mold and change our topics, which feeds back into how and where we search for sources.

It’s all very well to point out the similarities between the research process and a tile matching game, but how can we actually use that to help students learn how to do research? I’m not convinced that creating a game to teach research competencies that is itself separate from students’ research needs, most often determined by the requirements of the research projects assigned in their courses, is the best way to proceed. But I wonder whether the research journal connects well with the tile matching mechanic?

Sometimes students are required to keep a journal of their research process, which they may have to hand in along with their research paper, presentation, or project. At its best the research journal forms a kind of story of the journey students take as they do research: the hesitant beginnings, wrong turns, forks in the road, unexpected shortcuts, and (hopefully) the successful outcome of completing the research needed to finish their project. And we hope that students find it useful to reflect on their own research process, and that they begin to understand the iterative nature of research, that it’s not just a straight line from point A to point B. What if we asked students to create a game that tells the story of their research rather than keeping a research journal? Would students achieve the same goals of recording and reflecting that they do with a traditional research journal? I’m not sure, but I’m considering giving it a try the next time I teach my department’s research and documentation course (and I’ll report back if I do).

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Still in the Game

June 24th, 2010 · 1 Comment

A few weeks ago I was disappointed to have to miss the CUNY Games Network‘s final meeting of the year. Sounds like Frank Crocco’s Gaming Your Syllabus workshop and Andrew Boyarsky’s demo of his game Who Wants to Save the Planet were both fun and useful.

I wasn’t completely ignoring games on June 4th, though. I spent the day at the annual program of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) New England Library Instruction Group (NELIG) up in Connecticut. The NELIG conference was devoted specifically to library instruction and information literacy, and I heard lots of great presentations (I wrote up some of the highlights here). Keynoter John Palfrey (Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School and co-author of Born Digital) shared a very interesting piece of game-related info: their research revealed that gaming is one thread that connects and joins teens across socioeconomic statuses.

But the main reason I headed up to the conference is that I was a presenter. I spoke about a low-tech classroom game I’ve been developing and implementing over the past semester called Quality Counts, which is designed to help students learn how to evaluate internet sources. I was tickled to learn afterward that my talk was liveblogged (and my slides are available here).

Of course the inspiration for this game came from a CUNY Games Network meeting, and it was great to have the chance to discuss the group as well as my game. After my presentation I chatted with several folks who wanted to learn more about us (and who seemed a bit envious, to be honest!). One of the things I find most inspiring about Games Network meetings is the opportunity to connect with other faculty and staff across the university to discuss using games in teaching and learning. I never fail to come away from our meetings with fresh ideas for my own teaching.

So while I was sad to miss the meeting, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak about my game and about the CUNY Games Network. And I’m looking forward to getting back to our meetings again in the fall.

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This is Not a Library Skills Course

May 28th, 2010 · 9 Comments

The information landscape has changed dramatically in the past two decades. It sounds hackneyed and idealistic, but the ability to research and use information in a critical, well-considered way is a life skill that’s increasingly valuable. Our students need to be able to deal with these changes and navigate information resources, even (especially!) those students who aren’t going on to graduate school.

Information literacy is the term used by librarians and others in higher ed to describe these competencies. We teach information literacy to students in many different settings: at the Reference Desk, in one-on-one appointments, via online tutorials and guides, and in “one-shot” library workshops, to name just a few. While there is evidence that these instructional strategies are useful for students, many librarians feel frustrated that our interactions don’t afford us enough time to address much more than the most basic information skills.

There is another way: the information literacy course. With the luxury of a full semester of classes, instructors can work with students to explore the lifecycle of information in depth. Questions for framing the course might include:

  • Where does information come from, how is it produced, and by whom?
  • Why are some information sources privileged and respected while others are not?
  • How can we negotiate complex information issues like access, preservation, privacy, and ethical use?
  • How is information organized (and who does the organizing)?
  • How can we develop strategies for searching and finding relevant information?
  • Why do we evaluate the quality of information? Should we?
  • What are the reasons for documentation and dissemination of information?
  • What role does information play in our lives, in college and beyond?
  • What is the future of information?

This is not a library skills class. We do not spend 15 weeks teaching undergraduates how to act like librarians. Yes, we teach students how to use the online library catalog and databases, but that’s far from our primary goal. In these courses we have the time to encourage thoughtful engagement by students with a wide variety of information and media, as both content producers and consumers.

What could an information literacy course look like? I taught one recently, and during the course we:

– Contrasted publishing in traditional print media like newspapers, magazines, books and scholarly journals, with digital publishing in all forms, from text to audiovisual media.

– Examined and experimented with the opportunities and challenges of participatory media through our interactions both in class and on our course blog, which was openly available on the internet.

– Used our discussion of complex information issues to shape each student’s development of a topic to explore in depth via a research proposal, annotated bibliography, and research paper.

– Investigated the mechanics of information organization in print and digital media, both human-generated and machine-based systems, and experimented with tagging as a classification tool for our course content.

– Applied our knowledge of classification systems to create strategies for searching various information sources successfully. One student remarked that she knew she’d found the most appropriate keywords to use to search for information when she discovered an article on nearly her exact research topic.

– Obtained information on students’ research topics from scholarly, journalistic, and general internet sources, analyzed this information, and presented the results in a research paper.

– Collaborated in pairs to synthesize the results of each student’s research topic, and used an online publishing tool to share the findings. Students chose wikis and blogs for this project and used these spaces in ways that exceeded the requirements of the assignment, for example, to communicate with each other and share notes and resources while the project was in progress.

– Analyzed and documented the process of working on the collaborative project, and presented both the project and documentation to the rest of the class for discussion.

The library doesn’t hold a monopoly on information literacy, of course. Similar work to what’s covered in this course happens in other courses and other departments as well. But information literacy competencies must develop and strengthen over time, and a course can provide our students with a solid foundation on which to build. An information literacy course can help our students hack the new information landscape and prepare for the future.

(Submitted to Hacking the Academy.)

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