Online Northwest post-mortem

I presented on Friday at Online Northwest, a regional Pacific Northwest conference for libraries and technology. It was my first time at the conference, although when I worked in Oregon it was always on my radar. It’s a relatively small conference, a single day and about a hundred and fifty attendees (?), but the sessions were interesting and it was a nice change from the madhouse of ALA.

My presentation was on creating online library tutorials using Macromedia Captivate, since this is a topic that’s currently near (if not always dear) to my heart. I came prepared to talk briefly about the software itself, mostly to ground the conversation in something concrete, but more interested in talking about those more amorphous “soft” skills and processes that surround a successful, sustainable tutorial project. It seemed to me that the software, which is available for a thirty-day free full download, was going to be less interesting as a topic of extended discussion, since people could try it out on their own any time, and some people were probably already using it. I was wrong.

In retrospect, I should have seen this coming: people are generally interested in the concrete than the abstract, and seeing how software works is more concrete than talking about how a given institution might handle the time, resource, skill, and vision hurdles of an emerging online instruction program. People had concrete questions about how much the software cost, how it worked, whether you could do x or y with the editing suite, how long it took to create a good tutorial, etc.–and they weren’t shy about asking.

I was happy to reshape the talk on the fly to spend more time on these kinds of concerns, but near the end of the hour I found myself declining questions and rushing through my slides to get to what I’m most interested in–culture change, buy-in, and project management. Maybe everyone else already has these issues sewn up at their institution, but I feel like these are the big issues for me, and they’re the ones I find hard to source in library literature. We have a strong literature of collaboration with faculty, but so far I haven’t really been able to find much about fomenting culture change in the library itself. (And by extension, in related instructional units.) I may need to look more into management literature, since these are sort of management issues, albeit horizontal ones. But all that aside, I found it interesting and amusing and sort of troubling that although the real point of my talk (explicitly, from the outset) was that I think we need to think critically about these so-called “soft” issues of support, vision, sustainability, and buy-in, most people at the presentation were more interested in how to make the software roll over. Either everyone else is way ahead of me on this, or we’re loading one more thing onto our plates that we’re not well prepared to support in the long term.

All that said, the feedback I got on the session was positive and the general consensus (repeated over and over) was that we needed more time. One hour, with lots of time for questions and discussion, just wasn’t enough to cover all the bases. A few folks suggested a half-day preconference or workshop on the topic, and I think that’s a great idea. It would be interesting to see if someone could pull together a workshop like this with computers for all attendees, using the free thirty-day download of the software. I’d have welcomed a session like that when I started out. It would have cut my learning curve way down, and given me a ready group of colleagues to contact in case of future need. Definitely worth considering–though I’d have to think about who might sponsor this sort of thing, and whether it might go better online or in person.

I collected names and emails of attendees who were interested in being on an informal Captivate email list, since I’m always trying to build community around online library instruction. And I had to sit on my hands during Anne-Marie Deitering’s session on web 2.0, because she showed some great social software tools that made me feel like there’s GOT to be a better way to do online library instruction–static, proprietary software like Captivate feels so clunky next to the new mashups and sites we’re seeing on Tech Crunch every day now…

Link to Anne-Marie’s presentation slides coming soon; this post brought to you by the free wifi at the Eugene airport, and I can’t find my handouts at the moment…

Millennials and Technology. Or not.

That post title is misleading, because I’m not really that interested in millennials and technology at the moment…I’m more interested in the fact that everyone seems so interested in them. In academic libraries, there’s so much talk about the technology that kids use nowadays, and about how we have to keep up and “meet them where they are,” and I’m just not sure it’s all pointed in quite the right direction.

I mean, I have no objection to using new technology when I can get my hands on it, and I do think that younger people tend (in general) to adopt earlier. A lot of the new technologies we’re talking about are leisure-oriented (or at least they start out that way, or at least we think of them that way–leisure and work are getting blurry), and kids usually have more time for that stuff. So by all means, we should pay attention to the new gadgets kids are using, but only because we should pay attention to everything they’re doing. Because they’re kid, and we’re adults, and as the attentive parent or place-of-parent generation, that’s one of our most basic responsibilities. Pay attention to them.

I’ve been having an email conversation with Anne-Marie Deitering at OSU about these general ideas–the push in higher ed to chase after new technologies in the belief that they’re the key to the next generation. All my disclaimers in place, I actually think technology isn’t the issue. I think the issue is a bigger one, of our shared values and commitments as a society.

For instance, there’s a related conversation going on about how technology may be affecting this new generation’s ability to learn. Quite a few people have floated the idea that new technologies such as IM, cell phones, email, etc. have stunted young people’s ability to concentrate and reflect, and fundamentally changed their learning style to one of multitasking and superficial memorization, rather than deep understanding. I find that an interesting leap, given what we know about how public school education has changed in this country over the last twenty or thirty years. We know that substantial cuts have been made to education and social programs funding (federally, and in many or most states) starting in the 1980s, and we know that a new approach to K-12 education, based on what some might call questionable standards, has been implemented. We’ve all read or heard about the pressures on schools to meet uniform “achievement” standards that may have little or nothing to do with the students’ actual needs. We all know that pressure is uncompromisingly fiscal. If students don’t do well on standardized tests, schools can lose their funding.

This alone–shrinking resources and a shift to a dubious teaching and learning model–seems to me to be a fruitful starting place for a conversation about why the students we’re now seeing (the ones who went to school during this period) may be more inclined to want quick answers and easy memorization than reflection and true learning. In this conversation, technology seems to me to be a side issue. Yes, technology is changing, and yes our students are using it. But I can’t see blaming technology for changes in learning patterns when we have so many bigger fish to fry.

In fact, I tend to see student curiosity about, facility with, and adoption of new technology as a positive sign. It means they’re open to new things, they’re engaged, they’re thinking. Despite the bureaucratization of the public school system, they’re still in there, asking questions about stuff. Good for them.

Now we just have to get some radical trust (TM) going in our relationships with them, so we can shift their attention from their Wiis to the deeper learning experiences we have to offer. Maybe we can start by making our learning spaces–virtual and physical–more welcoming. We have our work cut out for us.