from the Library of Maura

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).

Tags: Uncategorized

Into the Field

October 15th, 2010 · 1 Comment

This year my research partner and I are expanding our qualitative study of student scholarly habits, so this semester I’m taking one RT day a week for fieldwork. We spent some time over the summer working on a preliminary analysis of last year’s data, and it’s great to get back to collecting data and interviewing students again. Though my field days can be long and tiring it’s completely fascinating to learn about students’ lives at school and beyond.

Last year I collected data at my own college (City Tech), but this year I’m working at another CUNY school: City College. I expected that the surroundings and students would be different — many of our programs at City Tech are unique in CUNY, and CCNY has grad students, while we don’t at City Tech. But I hadn’t anticipated the many other ways that fieldwork would be different this year.

In a sense I’m like a new student. I don’t know where anything is, though posting fliers to recruit students helped me start to internalize the layout of the college. CCNY has a much bigger campus than City Tech, so at the beginning of the semester I constantly underestimated the amount of time I needed to get from one place to another. Sometimes the cafeteria is so crowded that it’s hard to find a spot to eat lunch. I can’t ever seem to find an outlet to charge my phone and netbook when I need it. And until I scored a guest wifi password last week I was (guiltily) jockeying with students to use computers in the library (I have trouble typing lengthy emails on my phone).

Like many CUNY students, my commute is long: 1+ hrs each way, whether I come from home or from work. I need to carry what sometimes seems like a ridiculous amount of stuff: reading material for the commute, notebook, consent forms and instructions for students, disposable cameras (sometimes), voice recorder, netbook, stapler, tape, lunch, water, jacket (and–perish the thought–sometimes it rains, so add an umbrella to the list). A colleague in the library has graciously offered to let me stash my outerwear at her desk when I’m up at City, but it’s so different from last year, when I could meet students at my own desk.

As I’ve interviewed students I’ve found that I’m learning a lot from them that’s not only great project data but also immediately useful to me. Where are the best bathrooms in the NAC Building? What’s the quietest spot in the Cohen Library, esp. during the very crowded afternoon hours? What’s the best food in the cafeteria? Where are the working electrical outlets?

It’s interesting to consider my own experiences as project data. I’ve kept a research journal since last year so I can keep track of how things are going in the study. Last year it mostly included personal thoughts and notes about best practices for data collection method, but this year my journal could be an additional data source, too.

Tags: Uncategorized

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.

Tags: Uncategorized

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.)

Tags: Uncategorized

Bad News and Good News

May 3rd, 2010 · 6 Comments

Lately I’ve been thinking about how students, faculty, and librarians use academic libraries. It all started last month after the latest Ithaka Faculty Survey results were released. Many survey responses seem to indicate that faculty use of academic libraries is decreasing. Of course there was much discussion of the report all over the higher ed (the Chronicle and IHE) and library (ACRLog and Library Journal) bloglands.

I read these articles with interest but not surprise. In my past life when I was in graduate school for archaeology I was a heavy library user, but it was while working with my advisor that I learned about the major scholars in my field of specialty. I mined the bibliographies of the articles and books assigned for my courses, searched the library catalog for books, and browsed the stacks in the call number ranges for the subjects I researched. I belonged to the scholarly societies for archaeology and anthropology (and got their journals), and sometimes I browsed the table of contents in other relevant journals in the library’s current periodicals section. To be honest, I don’t think I ever consulted with a librarian at my university’s library the entire time I was in graduate school.

I suspect that my process from many years ago is not all that different from the ways faculty and graduate students do informational research today. It’s so much easier to use online indexes that I’m sure researchers search their specialized databases, but they do so with preexisting knowledge of their field, both the vocabulary of their subject matter and the major players in their discipline. However, as others have noted (e.g., William Badke’s comment on IHE), students approach information-based research for their coursework very differently. They don’t usually have deep knowledge of the disciplines and topics that they’re researching, and they don’t know the prominent scholars or publications. Many students, especially freshmen, are also unfamiliar with library databases and even physical libraries.

Since the faculty research process doesn’t necessarily include librarians, that’s likely one reason why faculty see the library more as an information storehouse and less as a location for academic consultation. But our students really do need help to learn to make sense of the information landscape and do research successfully. It can be difficult for experienced researchers–both faculty and librarians–to put ourselves back into the novice researcher mindset of our students. Information literacy instruction can help students learn to do information-based research for their courses and to begin to evolve into more advanced researchers.

Of course, there’s a huge variety of academic institutions, and variety in their libraries as well. I’m at a college library and coordinate our instruction and information literacy program, so working with students is always on my mind. But there’s also some good news out there as a counterpoint to the Ithaka study. Barbara Fister just published the results of her survey of academic administrators and found that they all value the library for a wide variety of reasons. And while many mentioned that academic libraries will continue to change and evolve in the future, none envisioned them disappearing.

Tags: Uncategorized

Another Satisfied Customer

March 21st, 2010 · 3 Comments

For a while now I’ve been thinking on a post about using WordPress for the course I’m teaching this semester, but have been too busy to get to it. Then this past week saw a post along the same lines from David Parry over at Prof Hacker, with extensive comments by CUNY’s own Joe Ugoretz, who has blogged about using WordPress in his online course this semester right here on the Commons. What could I possibly have to add to these great, detailed posts and comments?

Well, I’m here to give a plug for the humble old freely-hosted course site/blog on My course is fully face-to-face, so I don’t need many of the customizations that others use for their courses. And while I do admit to a bit of envy re: integrating gradebook functionality, especially, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well my course site has worked this semester. Importantly, it took a minimum of time and tech skills to set up, and is easy and fast to maintain. While it’s true that I had used WordPress before this semester, none of my students had, and they were expert bloggers after the very first class.

Why use the free version of WordPress? For me it mostly came down to economics: I didn’t want to shell out to buy a new domain. (I have a personal website and server space, but didn’t want to host something work-related on that domain.) I also didn’t want to spend the time on a custom WP install during the intersession. This is my first semester teaching a credit-bearing course in a while, and I had lots to do to prep the course in January.

My course site–LIB 1201 Research & Documentation for the Information Age–was set up in about an hour, not including creating the custom header graphic (and obsessing over which template to use). WordPress allows for both Posts (i.e., the traditional blog functionality) and Pages. My students are required to blog, so I left the Front Page of the site to use for their blog posts and announcements from me (tagged “announcements” so they can be found easily from the tag cloud on the sidebar). Then I created four Pages:

1. Syllabus: I made a traditional paper version of the syllabus to hand out on the first day, with the usual course requirements, policies, schedule, readings, etc. Everything from the syllabus except the readings is on this page. Bonus functionality: when the schedule has, inevitably, had to change a bit, I’ve been able to post updates.

2. Blogging Guidelines and 3. Assignments: Since their blog posts and comments are a fairly substantial part of their grade for the course (20%), I wanted to give my students detailed guidelines and a grading rubric. And while a brief description of all course assignments is on the syllabus, as the due date for each approaches I’ve posted more detailed information about each assignment, too.

4. Readings: This page lists all of the readings for the course. I am using a short textbook, but most of the readings are either freely available on the internet or accessible to students in our library’s subscription databases. Using the permalink feature in the databases I’m able to link to those articles directly from this page. I’m so pleased to be able to link to almost everything we’re reading this semester right from the course site (as opposed to the hours I spent in college waiting in line to buy coursepacks at the local copyshop).

This setup has worked swimmingly so far. I might change things around some next semester — maybe a dedicated announcements page would be handy? I’ve been adding links to websites we discuss in class to my delicious (tagged “lib1201”), which I’ve linked on the sidebar as “Additional Resources,” and maybe I could pipe the RSS feed for those links right into the site at some point. But for now I’m happy with my course site. And while I’m still using a plain old spreadsheet for their grades, I’ve subscribed to the course blog posts and comments in my feedreader, so I always know when my students submit their blogging homework.

Tags: Uncategorized

Digital, Analog

February 14th, 2010 · 2 Comments

This semester I’m teaching the first credit-bearing class in our library department: Research & Documentation for the Information Age. It’s been fantastic — while it’s a small class, the students are dedicated and we’ve had some great discussions so far about how information is produced and distributed.

One of the best things about teaching a semester length course (as opposed to single class sessions) is the luxurious amount of time we have to explore the landscape of information. I have the space to devote an entire class to traditional print media, another to digital text, another to non-text media, etc. I’ve also been able to do something I always want to do in the one-shots: bring in different examples of print media for discussion.

Over the past two weeks I’ve brought an academic journal, newspaper, popular magazine, trade journal, and three zines on different subjects (music, parenting and librarianship) to class. I’ve long felt that it’s confusing to undergraduates when they’re confronted with article databases in which everything looks the same. Even on the internet, it can be hard to read visual clues other than advertising (which can sometimes be very subtle, too). The differences between the content in different types of publications are much more obvious when you can hold and flip through them.

It was also amazing to learn how much my students appreciate the physical embodiment of these different media. Most of the students in my class are of traditional college age, the so-called “millennial” generation. While I don’t necessarily buy a lot of the digital natives hype (based on my own experiences as well as others’), the truth is that all of us, me included, are probably heavier users of digital media these days. One student lamented that he missed browsing in music stores for CDs, and other revealed that he didn’t like buying MP3s because there wasn’t anything physical with the purchase.

Next week we start talking about some big meaty information issues: ethics, privacy, access and preservation. I can’t wait to see what insights the students bring to those discussions.

Tags: Uncategorized

Interesting Info from the Interwebs

June 19th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I swear that this isn’t going to turn into Maura’s Copyright Blog, but a couple of copyright-ish things have crossed my desk(top) recently and it seemed selfish not to share:

1. A coalition of student groups across the U.S. recently released the Student Statement on The Right to Research. The statement asserts that “scholarly knowledge is part of the common wealth of humanity,” and argues for open access to scholarly research (as opposed to a subscription-based model for journal publishing). It’s great to see students involved in the open access movement. The footnotes on the statement feature lots of great reads, too.

2. I’m sure many have seen this already, but just in case not, here’s marketing guru Seth Godin’s rant against the high prices of college textbooks. A quick, punchy read (just like you’d expect from a marketer), and it’s hard to disagree with him, too. I’d add an admittedly obvious note to the list of impracticalities: when libraries buy textbooks (as we may do since it can be difficult for our students to afford them), we’re left with “expired” content when the next edition is published as well as the need to buy the new edition.

3. This week’s Information Week has an article about a recent paper out of the Harvard Business School that attempts to unpack the complexities of copyright protection and the entertainment industry. The authors suggest that, while sales have fallen over the past decade, the number of new works (music, film, books) being produced has actually risen, as have revenues from ancillary streams like concerts. Thus, they conclude that file-sharing “has not discouraged creative artists from producing new works.”

Tags: Uncategorized

What Teens Think

May 20th, 2009 · 3 Comments

I try to keep up with research and news on how teenagers use technology (or not), because of course today’s teens are tomorrow’s undergraduates, and it’s useful for me to have some knowledge of where they come from before they walk through the library doors.

I’m a big fan of danah boyd’s work on teens and social networking — her (Creative Commons-licensed!) dissertation (pdf link) is on my Summer Reading list this year. A couple of weeks ago she tweeted that she was about to head to Atlanta to do some fieldwork, and did anyone have any questions for the kids? I couldn’t resist and fired off an information literacy/media literacy question.

Last weekend boyd posted a few quick reflections on her blog about the questions she asked and how the teens had responded, and I was pleased to find that the question I’d asked made the cut! Apologies for the shameless self-promotion, but the Q&A and comments are really quite interesting (even without my question).

Tags: Uncategorized

And in Other News…

May 11th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Last week was a big one for higher ed tech and publishing news. As I’m sure everyone’s heard by now, Blackboard enveloped yet another of its competitors and Amazon released the new Kindle. I’m kind of happy about the first item — I tend to agree with the Twitter comments spotlighted on Inside Higher Ed that this move will only feed the anti-Blackboard fires. And while the new Kindle looks promising for textbooks, I admit to being a bit concerned about its high price, esp. for our students @ CUNY.

But the news that really grabbed my attention was the revelation that Elsevier published a fake journal, the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, financed by pharma giant Merck and devoted to shilling for Merck products. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

This news is depressing for many reasons, but the pedagogical implications are uppermost in my mind right now. One of my responsibilities as a library professor is to try and strengthen our students’ information literacy: finding sources for their coursework, evaluating and selecting the most appropriate sources, and using those sources ethically (think plagiarism + copyright). For many of their papers and projects students are required to use scholarly journal articles, and I try to spend as much time as I can in a library session unpacking the differences between scholarly journals and newspapers/magazines and explaining peer review. And in many ways fake journals, like high-profile plagiarism cases, just make it harder to convince students to value the scholarly literature for their coursework.

On the other hand, at least one librarian has pointed out that perhaps we can use this depressing revelation as a teachable moment. So I guess I’ll add it to the list of strange/scary-but-true cases that we can use to emphasize the importance of digging a little deeper, paying attention and critical thinking.

Tags: Uncategorized

Skip to toolbar