Thursday, December 26, 2013

My Response to Average is Over: Threats and Opportunities for School Librarians

After several months of number one on my To Read list, I finally finished Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowan. It’s a fantastically thought-provoking and challenging read.  After speeding through many fiction books as part of my Lariat Committee duties, it was nice to ponder some well-written and lucid non-fiction. I found myself pausing and reflecting every few pages and had lots of thoughts worth sharing, about raising my own daughter and also regarding the library profession. Here I will concentrate on those related to the library profession.

The first fact worth mentioning is that Cowan doesn’t even mention libraries or librarians once in the entire book. However, he addresses many issues regarding the future of learning, education, and science that have deep implications for those of us that work in school or academic libraries.
Cowan describes himself as a libertarian and conservative and criticizes institutionalized education on grounds of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. At the same time he questions the value of formal education, he exalts individual learners that have discipline and passion for learning. These learners who capitalize on freely available education opportunities on the Internet and understand how to use powerful computing resources to amplify their power, will be the high earners of the future. 

High achievers will need to function in an environment that his fast evolving, where the speed of data gathering and analysis will outpace the rate at which findings can be published and disseminated. Conventional fields of knowledge will not have experts. Rather, there will be a need for those that understand how to interpret and explain findings of supercomputer data output.
Let’s dissect this from a library point of view from three angles: Resources/Access, Instruction and 

  • According to Cowan, Information and Knowledge will be mostly free. If he is correct, a traditional function of libraries, providing information resources would be not as important, certainly not important enough to provide justification for the existence of library. This means at least one of several things, namely:
  • ·         Libraries will need to add value and context to their electronic resources. This is not usually a function of school libraries. However, local communities desire information of value to the population and this is something a library provide. Subscription resources would not be important. Indeed the entire business model of subscription databases may become obsolete.
  • ·         Cowan’s vision of free and cheap entertainment for the 85 percent of the population suffering from lower incomes seems like an obvious opportunity for libraries. Viewing book as one of many entertainment options, and assuming that writers and publishers continue to hold to the pay per book model (as opposed to the free/donation model musicians are now experimenting with), providing books online and in print will continue to be a vital function for libraries. There is no guarantee that is the case however.
  • ·         Mobile internet access will be available to nearly the entire population via low cost devices and telecommunications. The library won’t be able to justify itself on grounds of equitable access to Internet resources.

So, with little to cling to on access to information issues, libraries will need to evolve and focus on an Instructional role.

  • ·       Cowan believes that some of the best quality education resources will soon be available for free on the Internet. The non-elite colleges and expensive for profit online universities are under threat from this trend toward free education.
  • ·       With the proliferation of free education options, the public will need help figuring out the best options for them. Young people will need plenty of guidance and coaching to take full advantage of online options and librarians can play a vital function in matching students to learning opportunities. This is a function librarians can play today. It’s a simple matter of participating in the free online education revolution, developing an expertise and sharing with others.
  • ·         Skills such as discipline, focus and discerning good information from bad will be even more critical now and in the future and it is obvious we must explicitly teach and promote these skills in novel ways including….
  • ·         Gamification. Cowan is a proponent of learning via games and libraries simply must get into the game by hosting and promoting games that develop vital skills


Since the future of school libraries is presently under threat, and many trends are not in our favor, advocacy is super-critical. Advocacy at State Legislatures is not as important as at the local level and national level.  Advocacy within our schools and Districts is most important, but becoming more involved in Education Reform efforts at the National level is also very important, but that’s a whole other discussion!

Local level advocacy must be connected to our instructional efforts or educational programs. Our advocacy must address the challenges of “Average is Over” by simply being part of the discussion. Even though we are not mentioned in the first Edition of Cowan’s book, librarians can be a part of the national discussion of this book and make it into the 2nd edition or sequel!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lariat Adult Fiction-YA Recommendations

This year I began a two-year appointment on the Lariat Adult Fiction Committee of the Texas Library Association. It's a great, albeit challenging assignment. While the free books (much needed for my library) are an incentive, it's also intellectually rewarding to read and process so many diverse literary works. While not all my votes for selections, positive or negative were on the winning side, I nevertheless believe that the book list we generated is very good.

Since I serve a Young Adult population, I thought it would be helpful to create a list of Lariat books from this year's list that would also be suitable and interesting for teen readers. The full Lariat Fiction list for the Winter 2013 will soon be published on the TLA Website.

My list of recommendation for teens appears below:

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
This coming-of-age Fantasy saga has enough action to engage fans of the Hunger Games. Sure to appeal to fans of Tamora Pierce and other YA fantasy writers.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Based on a true story of a condemned woman, Agnes, sentence to death and sent to live her last days on an isolated farm. Young readers will be moved by the plight of Agnes who must pay the ultimate price for a youthful mistake.

Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
This madcap detective caper written by J K Rowling under a male pen name has the same playful prose that made Harry Potter a smashing success. Set in present-day London with host of colorful and dysfunctional celebrity characters, savvy teens are sure to recognize parallels to our own media-saturated reality.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Also a TAYSHAS selection for teen readers, this story of a first-year college student is guaranteed to appeal to teens who read and write fan fiction.  It’s also a story full of warmth and humor with enough wisdom to recommend it to any college-bound high school girl.

Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
An epic historical romance set in early colonial South Africa. Ambitious female readers will find the adventures of main character Frances compelling. The gritty and morally complicated landscape of the S. African Diamond mines provides a vivid backdrop for the story.

House Girl by Tara Conklin
A dual-period story set in the present day and Antebellum Virginia. It’s a story of slavery and prospects for intergenerational justice. Idealistic teens that are interested in legal careers will find this story especially compelling and those interested in African-American history via stories such as The Help and The Butler will surely enjoy this one.

Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neal Gaiman
Neal Gaiaman’s work is popular with teens and this fantastic fable will not disappoint his fans.

Murder as Fine Art by David Morrell
Reminiscent of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, this book has many shocking and sensational plot elements that will appeal to teens. Thomas De Qunicey, author of Confessions of an Opium Eater appears as a compelling drug-addicted anti-hero and the plot is sufficiently fast-paced and suspenseful to keep even reluctant teen readers turning the pages.

Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
An unreliable narrator working as a typist for the interrogation unit of the New York Police Department of the prohibition era provides a fascinating look at a time period of interest to many teens. The story is one of many plot twists and mystery to keep readers hooked.

Taken by Michael Totten
A slender volume with plenty of plot-twists and suspense, this story will appeal to even reluctant teen-readers. The scenario of the author imagining his own kidnapping and escape also explores historical topics that will interest teens, including the abduction of Patty Hearst and the September 11th attacks.

Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes

Teen fans of Nicholas Sparks and Lurlene McDaniel and other stories of love laced with tragedy and loss ill enjoy this story of romance between Will, once a passionately athletic young man, but now severely paralyzed and his nurse Louisa.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Using character and acting to raise awareness of pretense and marketing on social media

I had the opportunity to co-teach a lesson on character in a Theater Arts class and it was a pretty interesting experience. The goals of the 90 minute session were:

  1. To have students explore their character by attempting to Tweet in character
  2. To raise awareness of nuance, marketing and manipulative behaviors that occur on Twitter and other social media
  3. To promote savvy social-media behaviors, even if that does mean 'acting'
The lesson structure was as follows:

  1. Begin with survey about social media use
  2. Presentation: Analysis of Taylor Swift's Twitter account
  3. Tweet-a-Character assignment: compose 10 Tweets using character (previous lesson was character analysis)
  4. Peer Analysis of Tweet-a-Character
  5. Closing reflection including short post-survey
In addition to fitting into the class, I used this lesson as a research study.  

The pre-activity survey revealed the following:

  • Of the 103 participants, 73% said that they do follow actors/actresses, politicians, musicians, and other celebrities on Twitter, Instagram or Social Media
  • Of those that follow musicians, actors, etc, students tended to agree that they were more likely to go to a movie or download a song if they followed an artist on Twitter or Instagram
After the presentation and role-playing activity, 37% of respondents were less likely to believe in celebrities online profiles, seeing them as more commercial in nature.  The vast majority of respondents, over 60%, continued to believe that some celebrities are more authentic than others, believing that others are genuine and not driven only for sales or fame.

I'm still processing the data and reflecting on the activity, but I do think it was a worthwhile exercise, one that is worth more time over and above the 90 minutes I gave it. Any interested reader may request the lesson. I will send all 4 files. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

My Evolving Thinking on Educating about Information in Social Media

Today I had the opportunity to present another talk about Twitter in Education. The Plano-Richardson Library Expo proved to be an excellent place to give such a talk because of the perfectly topical Keynote address by Lee Raine of the Pew Internet Research Center.

Mr. Raine expressed one of the central ideas of my talk so-well, calling Information "another skin,"
that is that information one gathers and disseminates online is part of a social identity for many people, particularly teens. This very deep idea is one I have wrestled with recently and I have tried to use the concept to design Information Literacy instruction. Some of those ideas, in their infant/idea stage are presented here in this slideshow.

Since my last presentation on Information Literacy with Easy Bib, I have had the benefit of teaching classes, trying out some new lessons, addressing conspiracy theories, information bubbles and confirmation bias. The goal is to challenge students to own up to their biases and fight against the universal human tendency to discover and present information that conforms to one's pre-existing beliefs and/or social identity.

Challenging students this way without judging their identities and beliefs is the main difference of my new approach. Previously, I may have come across as too judgmental towards people that present conspiracy theories. I believe librarians must adapt to teaching students this way instead of simply demanding that students use databases and peer-reviewed sources. The messaging is much more complicated and the investment in lesson planning much greater, but I truly believe it to be the better way developing the vital life skill of sorting out good information from bad information.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Twitter and Truth: More questions than answers

A few weeks ago I had the honor of presenting a Webinar for the Easy Bib Summer PD Series. This presentation was a real stretch for me. I have spent enough time on Twitter to feel comfortable and I have done considerable research on Twitter as an instructional and informational tool and even some practice teaching with Twitter and about Twitter. However, given the complexity of the subject, I think my presentation, as given is at best a starting point, for myself as well as my audience.

The focus of Twitter in the Classroom, was on Twitter as an information source. My central point is that people are increasingly getting information via social media and are more influenced by peers in the Twitterverse than by traditionally published material. Opinions and perspectives are formed online by interactions with others and the posting of influential individuals, some of whom are actual experts but mostly by self-appointed 'experts,' who may or may not be passing on correct information. To me, it's obvious that librarians need to be a part of the conversation on and about social media, or risk becoming irrelevant as information professionals.

So who am I? I'm really another self-appointed expert with some experience, but by no means a genuine expert. I can say, I've done much reflecting and additional learning about this massive subject and read some contrary viewpoints such as this one by Molly McHugh.

Ms. McHugh is an informed skeptic that is mostly dismissive of Twitter as an information source. I agree with many of her points, especially the fact that information on Twitter is largely suspect because it is contaminated by commercial interest and public relations.

Nevertheless, my point is that as educators we need to train our young people to recognize self-promotion and sensationalism in its natural context and be able to sift through it to glean useful insights. In my talk, I was primarily concerned with conspiracy theories, because they are prevalent on social media, while traditional library information sources generally do not publish conspiracy theories as fact.

Training young people to recognize conspiracy theories is, in my view, vital to the preservation of democracy. That's actually a relatively straightforward process, but one I feel librarians are neglecting. And what are we as librarians if we're not concerned about the role of information in preserving democracy?

What's more complicated is addressing the whole notion of 'who is an expert?' and utilizing experts' perspectives in online research. While I can't claim to know where all this social media is taking us, I know that Twitter has dramatically altered publishing and the overall information ecosystem for better and worse. Let's pay attention.

Here's the recording of my Webinar.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reflections on #NTAC13-New Tech Schools Annual Conference New Orleans

After missing NTAC 2012 due to the birth of my daughter, I felt a need to make up for lost time regarding my New Tech schools background knowledge. In particular, since I am stepping into the role of literacy coordinator this year, my number one priority for the conference was freshening up my skills in that department.

After years of cultivating an image as a 'techie' librarian, this new 'literacy' title is both a homecoming and a fresh identity. The main reason for my new professional focus is my disillusionment with education technology. When I adopted the techie label, I truly believed that tech integration was the number one need for reaching students and facilitating learning. Now, I just see technology as a tool, not a panacea. It's become part of everyday life and the education landscape for better or worse, and its something we education professionals must understand and adapt our instruction accordingly. The big downside of ubiquitous tech and constant online connection is that most students let the cloud serve as their brain. As a result, I see a decline in inquisitiveness, weaker problem solving skills, and lower attention spans for literacy tasks, which brings me to the rest of the story.

The best thing about conferences, is meeting people that practice in the same field. NTAC is full of great people and I met many literacy coordinators and English Teachers that helped me prepare for the role. However, I was very sad (and a bit worried) to discover few Library/Media Specialists in the sessions. In my 3 days at NTAC, only one person I met was a fellow librarian and this was in a session about using books for building bridges. She was the presenter of that session, and I found it to be among the most enjoyable of the conference.

In other sessions about literacy, I learned some terrific classroom strategies for developing thinking and writing skills related to literacy. However, I couldn't help feel that something was missing.

What traditional librarians (ideally) bring to the table is an orientation toward reading promotion as well as a focus on information literacy instruction. Literacy Tasks as defined by the New Tech Network are generally focused on writing. While literacy and writing are strongly connected and the practices I see employed by literacy coordinators are sound and effective, I see a lack of an emphasis on information literacy, which is basically the ability to locate information and determine whether of not it is reliable information. Information literacy is an umbrella term for a giant subset of skills that includes many New Tech outcomes such as critical thinking, real-world tasks, persistence, work-ethic, and much more.

If we truly want our students to thrive in the complex information universe of the Internet, we will have to demand more of them. This means asking students to locate reliable information on their own and use the information in a practical way. This goes beyond 'text dependent questions' and other literacy strategies.

Information Literacy instruction and PBL are certainly a natural fit. However, there are no easy answers and simple strategies. The best way forward in my view is the bring more of us librarians into the collaborative process of project design! The starting point for this collaborative process is on literacy; the fundamental questions being:

1. How to we get our students to read more and read more complicated and diverse text?
2. How can we wean them off their Googling and scrolling habits?
3. How can we coach students to be skeptical and critical about the information they encounter online?

Of course these questions are by no means the end of the discussion, but I believe we need to ask them when talking literacy tasks.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Social Media Scorecards: an idea for teaching Digital Citizenship

Up until now, this blog has only been about my evolving thinking on Education, Libraries and Technology. It's an exercise in clarifying my own thoughts and seeking out like minded individuals or comments from those that may not agree with me.

This post is different in that I have crossed over to promoting a product that I am selling on Teachers Pay Teachers.  Life circumstances have caused me to seek entrepreneurial outlets to bring in a little extra money. Don't get me wrong, I'm not selling a product that I do not believe in. So here it first sales pitch.

Most schools when talking to students about cyber-safety and digital citizenship do just The talks may be done by a police officer and teacher or school administrator, but the main purpose is to attempt to steer students away from obviously risky behaviors such as meeting strangers online or sexting, etc. There is no evidence that merely talking to students is at all effective and most students will simply tune out the lecture, thinking that this clueless adult wants them to stay offline entirely, which is of course not an option for most teens and young adults.

My previous post advocates using Google+ EDU to create an enclosed online environment where adults and other students serve as role-models for desirable online behaviors and build community via social media. This is an ideal situation where the school is embedding the teaching of digital citizenship in it instructional program. Most schools aren't there yet, so I am proposing a middle way which is a conversation starter called an Online Profile Scorecard.

Currently I have written scorecards for Facebook as well as Echo, which is a system I use as an educator in the New Tech Network. The Echo profile is free and may be downloaded to get an idea what the scorecard concept is about. The Facebook Scorecard is currently on sale for only $2.00, which a retail price of $3.00. I would appreciate if you viewed and rated these products.

The scorecard is meant to be read aloud in and discussed in a free-form manner in a class setting. If done correctly, it's a humorous lesson that lets students know you are aware of the complex interplay between online and offline lives that all young adults wrestle with these days. There are no easy answers in this world, but there are some basic behaviors we want to encourage:

  • Friendliness
  • Kindness
  • Honesty
  • Awareness of a larger world beyond peer groups
  • Following accepted social norms online as well as offline
  • Healthy self-image that is expressed online
  • A focus on the future, not just the present
Note that this set of priorities largely ignores the emphasis on self-destructive behaviors such as sexting and seeking out relationships with strangers.

As an educator, one thing I have noticed is that teens that are often pleasant, well-mannered in person, wish to cultivate a 'bad' image online to gain peer approval. This is off course a huge problem in these times when online image is very important in job-seeking and college admissions. If anything, students should try to be 'bad' offline instead of faking it online. 

 Obviously the Scorecard is no cure-all, but it is more likely to produce a dialog with students that may get us as educators begin the process of encouraging positive online behaviors. It's important to realize that the scores on the scorecard are arbitrary and some students may argue with them. That's part of the dialog.

So if you know of anyone that wants to devote a little instructional time towards opening this dialog with students instead of merely lecturing them, give the Scorecards a try. If you know a teacher or administrator that has a need for this product, please send them the link. Thank you for reading.