Thursday, 2 April 2015

Measuring weight with a ruler: MOOCs

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) may have been ridiculously over-hyped and may or may not be game-changers in academia. To be honest I'm not that much fussed by the commentary one way or another, I like them and find them useful.

I have a confession, though: I've never yet finished one.

I'm one of the statistics that people pick up on to demonstrate "the failure" of MOOCs — the apparent high drop-out rate and relatively low number of students getting the appropriate bits of paper at the end of the course.

So why am I a drop out? Not because the courses aren't useful and interesting. The ones I've signed up for over the years have been instructive, informative, challenging and all that. I've read the materials and seen the videos. I've learned new stuff, found ideas I can apply elsewhere, heard interesting discussions and arguments. I've got wanted I wanted from each course, and nearly always a bit more besides. I just haven't felt the need to get the bit of paper at the end. If I want to take an examination, if I want to get a certificate, I'll do so. But I didn't want to and, thank Heaven, I didn't have to. Which suited me fine and thank you very much.

The educational industry's turning institutions into qualification mills concerned with league tables and rankings based on the confusion between quantitative metrication and qualitative outcomes is relatively new in the scheme of things. In part I see MOOCs as redressing the balance slightly: allowing the sharing of academic learning for its own sake rather than as part of a Fordian production line of qualifications.

Using completion figures to demonstrate the apparent failure of MOOCs is a failure of statistics: applying an inappropriate measurement to a situation and deriving an answer to a different question. In this case I'd argue that the value to the student lies in the exchange of knowledge more than in the attainment of qualification, which is a different species of outcome entirely that needs a different type of measurement for meaningful analysis and conclusion.

Similarly, in the library world, we need to be careful with our metrics. I've said it before and I dare say I'll drone on about it on my deathbed: just because a particular set of statistics has been used for years it doesn't mean they're necessarily all that important in assessing value. It could just be that that was the easiest (or even the only) thing that could be measured. The really important thing, always, has to be the value to the person at the receiving end. And that is never measurable by the passive aggregation of throughput stats.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

In the end there is no "In the end"

Projects and events are finite but, unless you're a journeyman project manager or an events manager, they have to live in the context of the organisation or service that they serve. As such they are episodes in a longer serial narrative rather than stand-alone short stories.

There are a number of ways in which these episodes are embedded in the narrative. The past is part of the backdrop and rationale for the activity. The activity itself is — for good or ill — a landmark in the narrative but this is static. The resources employed and delivered are identified in the business case and in the lessons learned process but these only provide the potential for the future narrative, they don't impel it.

So what does get the narrative moving?

"What happens next?"

  • What happens next? = continuous service improvement
  • What happens next? = business case for future projects
  • What happens next? = sustainable service delivery

If your organisational reaction to a project or event is to push it into the drawer marked "History" you're losing the benefit of experience and you have to wonder why on earth you bothered in the first place. Similarly, if it doesn't evoke a "what happens next?" response perhaps you shouldn't have done it in the first place.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Some more stray thoughts about online catalogues

There was an article in today's Guardian about the Dyslexie font which is designed to be bottom-heavy to help people with Dyslexia: the idea is that the asymmetry of the characters makes it harder for them to dance about for the reader. Coincidentally, a conversation I'd had with somebody last weekend had set me thinking about how a library could present appropriate parts of its stock to dyslexic readers.A gallery display of book covers is an obvious format but wouldn't it be nice to have the accompanying text for that section of the catalogue in a Dyslexia-friendly font? I expect it's do-able; it would be interesting to see someone give it a go.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

QR and literacy campaigns

Project-Q in the Netherlands is a nice, simple example of the use of QR codes to support a literacy campaign. I know QR codes are old hat and ho-hum to some but as a cheap and easy way to add a few more strings to a bow they're pretty useful and I don't understand why we keep on not using them.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"Not another bloody review!"

Some interesting stuff coming out about the Sieghart Review of English publish library services, including this one in The Bookseller. The general tone of the analysis sounds pretty good and some of the suggestions mentioned would be very encouraging if ever acted upon. We'll wait and see if and when the review gets published.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Words and pictures

November is Picture Book Month, one of very many international initiatives for encouraging reading and literacy. Some of these are set up formally by organisations like CILIP, The Reading Agency and the ALA while others, like this, emerge from informal association and get a momentum of their own.

Picture books are great and even in these austere times we have lots of them in our libraries. The combination of words and pictures helps young readers to associate words with ideas. The pictures encourage "Can you see..." and "I wonder what..."and the "What do you think happens next?" questions that make sharing a story such fun. And the artwork is often brilliant. So I like picture books.

I always puzzled — still do, in fact — about librarians' antipathy to comics. We were brought up reading comics; my dad reckons comics taught him how to read and I was one of those horribly precocious little kids who read "The Bash Street Kids" before I ever saw the cover of a "Janet and John" reader. And yet the only comic you ever saw in the library when I was a kid was "Look and Learn." All those stories with pictures and their captioned narrative links and speech bubbles to tell you who's talking were somehow "not quite the thing." Later on when I started working with and in libraries I saw the same thing. The two biggest selling children's books every year were The Guinness Book of Records and The Beano Book and while we bought the first by the bucket load if anybody ever donated a copy of The Beano Book or any other comic annual it went straight into book sale. One of my friends tried to slip some into one of the collections he was managing and was told very firmly that: "We don't buy annuals." Given that the accession shelves were groaning with expensive yearbooks destined for the reference library he wasn't best chuffed at this.

We do have comics in the library these days but they're either dressed up as "graphic novels" or put somewhere in the 741s amongst the non-fiction. Personally, I think there's a distinct difference between a collection of comic and a graphic novel. It's not necessarily the format or the genre, it's the structure of the storytelling. One's not better than the other, they're just different, albeit very close relations. It's lovely to see graphic novels in libraries and I'm all for the study of graphic arts; I just wish we could also celebrate comics without having to sneak them in by disguise.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Stray thoughts on the library catalogue

This is a frustrating time for me, I admit: we're in the process of recommissioning our OPAC and I can see all sorts of possibilities with the new version but I have to take a few steps back because it's somebody else's baby. A couple of years ago my rĂ´le changed from library systems development to more general corporate systems management and support so it's my job to make sure the system underlying the OPAC works but the development work is somebody else's to do and I have to be careful to get in the way.

I'll jot stuff down on here once in a while just to get ideas out of my system.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Project Gutenberg catalogue records

A belated tip of the hat to Steve Thomas at the University of Adelaide for providing MARC records for Project Gutenberg titles. This is immensely useful and helps us add some real depth to the online elements of our catalogue with very little effort on our part (and nothing but admiration for the colossal amount of effort that people have put in to make this project such an incredibly important, useful and entertaining resource).

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Doorbells of despair

Back in the old days, Oh Best Beloved, when your parents were still young and didn't have mortgages, I used to work with council one-stop-shops. At one place I worked the need for a separate customer services service was self-evident as everything about the corporate culture and customer journeys screamed out that it couldn't keep the public far enough away for its own comfort. Its council offices had the nearest I have seen to a moat filled with crocodiles that could be practicable in a 20th Century building.

The most frequent customers were council housing tenants, or hopeful tenants-to-be. The customer experience was painful. They had to:
  • Know that they had to go to the council offices for a particular service and not one of nineteen other offices scattered around the town;
  • Know which floor to go to;
  • Know that when they got out of the lift at that floor they had to turn right and go through the big, wooden, unmarked door;
  • Know that once inside the reception room (not a lot bigger than a telephone booth) they had to ring the appropriate door bell for assistance;
  • Know which of the six doorbells on the wall to use, which wasn't obvious as they were hand-labelled with the names (or even initials) of the housing teams, not their function.
If you picked the wrong doorbell you were tutted at and left to your own devices to have another guess.

I'd hoped those days were long gone but looking round at public service web sites I begin to wonder. The vogue now is for pages to be stripped down bare save for a small number of icons taking you to the services you are most likely to want.

I have a few issues with the more extreme instances of this:
  • Where's the information telling the user who you are and what you do? Not a mission statement (God help us!) but a simple narrative explanation of your function. Don't assume that because you know then so does everyone else.
  • Where's the support? What if these icons and labels mean nothing to me? What do I do? Who do I ask for help?
  • Who says these are the services I am most likely to want? You don't know me, you don't know what I want.
  • Who says these are the services that the average user is most likely to want? Customer insight might be able to tell you which of the existing options the customer is most likely to find and use but that isn't necessarily the same as "want." Is a page popular because it is useful or because it's easily accessible (or least-inaccessible)?
  • Beyond the metrics, who determines which services are promoted? Is it the comms team? Is it the web team? Is it the service? Is somebody waiting for the research to demonstrate a demand for resources that have effectively been hidden?
But most of all, whenever I see one of these web sites I have to ask myself: have we really gone back to the customer having to guess which doorbell to ring for attention?

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Net neutrality: why worry?

Net neutrality is a topic creating quite a lot of heat at the moment, due to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's taking a look at the topic and scaring people silly in the process with the implication that there'd be the development of a two-tiered internet with them as can pay going down the line at a premium rate and the rest crawling along as best can. (CNET provides as good a summary as any.)

So what? It's a fuss in a foreign land, isn't it?

Sadly not. It'll affect us however much we may imagine or hope that it wouldn't.

So what would be the effect and why should we care?

The way I see it, the nearest practical model for how the post-net neutrality world would look is cable television. Back in the day when cable TV first came out it was full of all sorts of community engagement. There were local and hyperlocal channels; there was space for the esoteric, the informative and the downright baffling. Much of it was done on the cheap and looked it.Then there were years of consolidation and corporate buyings-up and now I could watch NCIS and CSI: Miami simultaneously on six different channels; or endless hours watching folks in nowhere towns somewhere in America shouting at each other for no apparent reason; an interminable churn of mid-Atlantic reality wannabees being vile to one another; and a carousel of Westminster Village news feeds. None of it is local. All of it is peddling the same corporate narrative. News or features about anything within a hundred miles of where I live is limited to the local half-hour news programmes on weekdays and the ten minutes where the skateboarding ducks used to be after the weekend news.

I quite liked the Internet when it was like the Wild West. We can't go back to those days but that doesn't mean it has to become just another adjumct to the Wall Street Journal.