Hacking Away: Activity and Expectations at Museums and Libraries

A few weeks ago I participated at a Civic Hack day event at the Adler Planetarium here in Chicago (where I volunteer with teen groups). Civic Hack Day is a nation-wide event that lets groups come together and spend the day using technology to work on solutions to social problems. The event I was at had teams working on everything from ways to reach out to LGBT youth in Chicago to teen groups working on improving school culture.

Civic Hacking and hackathons in general definitely seem to be gaining steam – they’re happening at museums, at universities, at tech companies. And I really like the spirit of them – you work collaboratively, you share big ideas, you tackle problems, you use technology.

The traditional museum-going experience

That hacking spirit fits really well with museums and libraries, in their current form. Though, traditionally, museums weren’t really seen as active places. You went to an august cultural institution like a museum to look at things hanging on the wall, to look at things under glass cases. Museums have definitely taken the whole participatory, active experience thing and ran with it; you can still look but you can also play and make and, well, do.

When I worked at a museum, and people inquired about what I did for a living, the reaction I got from those asking was generally some sort of exclamation of “cool” or “fun.” When I tell people I work at a library, I often get something more along the lines of “do you like to read?”  Libraries are definitely changing and evolving, but stereotypes are stubborn and there can be a disconnect between what I actually do at my job (mostly teaching!) and what a lot of people think when they hear a word like librarian or library (it’s a bit of a marketing fail and Leslie Knope’s propaganda isn’t helping matters, of course).

But while libraries are embracing newer opportunities like maker spaces and hackathons and digital media labs and information commons and other cool, active learning opportunities, the fact is that libraries have always been active places, in a way. Libraries have always been places of intellectual creation, problem-solving, research (an active process of making something new), and learning – but these things are often cast as passive pursuits in contrast to the revolution of making and doing and hacking.  (Check out this great blog post by Lane Wilkinson over at Sense and Reference for more on this concept – Lane discusses knowledge creation and how libraries have always been places of learning.)

Museums, it seems to me, have managed to make clear their shift in purpose, from more passive absorption of information to more active experiences; libraries seem to have an issue with descriptive marketing sometimes and don’t always make clear, to a broader audience, what they do now and what they’ve been doing for a while in terms of active learning.

There are new and exciting developments in making and hacking and working with technology, and I think that hackathons, makerspaces, and the like can provide great and valuable experiences for visitors at museums and libraries.  But libraries in particular could also use these active, tech-oriented events as a platform to demonstrate how they’ve been doing a lot of active things for a long time by reframing the conversation. 

A hackathon involves using technology but it also involves collaboration, research, discovery, and sharing – things that aren’t specific to tech-oriented events, things that involve active learning, and things that have been happening at places like libraries for a while, albeit it in different forms. After all, if a civic hack event encourages people to look at social problems with a new angle, then that spirit can apply to the institution hosting such an event.


Credit Where Credit is Due: Teaching About Plagiarism and Online Culture

I regularly teach an Avoiding Plagiarism class at the library where I work – something a lot of academic librarians do (it’s one of those learning-about-research gaps we leapt to fill en masse, it seems). I do the usual spiel about how plagiarism is bad (trying to not sound like Mr. Mackey from South Park when doing so), why we cite sources, how you can cite sources properly, tips of paraphrasing, etc. But most of the content I cover is related to the omnipresent research paper. There can be serious consequences for plagiarizing in college and it’s a content area that many of my students aren’t really aware of when they arrive on campus.

I really like teaching my plagiarism classes – we play games like “cite it or not”, do group paraphrasing activities, and talk about real world examples (and I rather shamefully become quite gleeful when another notable person becomes embroiled in a plagiarism scandal – Rand Paul was a goldmine, let me tell you). It’s pretty fun.

But I always feel like there’s an elephant in the room, though I’m often the only person aware of it – what about plagiarism in online environments? And as much as I know my students are at an academic institution where they have to write old school research papers, I also feel quite strongly about teaching them about the wide world of the internet – copyright debates, online etiquette, proper use of hyperlinks, how to attribute sources on a blog, why people get mad on Tumblr when they aren’t credited for a GIF set. Some days I feel like internet culture is the most valuable thing I can teach them about (which might be more of a “me” issue than one of the profession, but I do often ask – what are educators, particularly librarians, teaching kids about technology and how can we do more?).

At any rate, places like Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map touch some upon issues of sharing, privacy, collaborating, etc. And the blog-sphere erupts periodically often with discussions about good attribution practices (see the 2012 curator’s code and the ensuing debate) and what constitutes plagiarism online. Places like Tech Dirt keep up a steady stream of, often infuriating, news about problems with copyright and patents and how problematic laws affect ordinary individuals online. Part of being an information literate individual means, in ACRL’s opinion (though those ACRL standards are currently being revised) as well as mine, being able to understand the ethics of information and how it’s shared and that entails, in my opinion, understanding the debates surrounding how we share and consume information online as well.

And this means, to me, that I can, and maybe even should, to do more to inform my students about information ethics in environments like Twitter rather than just the confines of the academic research paper. Information literacy doesn’t begin and end with the research paper, and neither should my instruction.

For next semester, I hope to revamp my plagiarism classes to include more about internet culture. Is anyone doing this type of education in their classroom? Share below!

Backseat Driving

I first heard the phrase “let someone drive” in relation to using a computer, and not actually driving a car, during an adventurous period in my life when I worked briefly at a tech company doing… techy things. (Needless to say I soon headed off to library school and was a happy camper). I found the phrase somewhat odd at the time, but I find it somewhat profound now, oddly enough. Letting someone drive is about control – being confident and comfortable enough to let someone else take over.

I’ve started hearing the phrase more and more in relation to teaching – let students drive! We can learn so much from them! As trendy as it is, and as unpopular as it might be to confess the opposite, I think that many educators, myself included, really struggle with handing the keys over to our students. But why is this?

First off, it can be terrifying to fly without a net – leaving a neatly planned lesson/activity/lecture behind and veering off script into discussion-land (which I’m generally fine with) or, even worse, student-led-demo-ville (a particularly harrowing experience in a library research skills session where you are working with things like wacky databases) can lead to the unexpected, the chaotic, and the disastrous. Suddenly nothing is going as you envisioned! You’ve lost control! The inmates have taken over the asylum and they’re doing everything wrong!

This leads me to my second point/concern – worrying about a loss of control is really a worry about two things – your end destination and the route you take to get there. Letting someone else drive can mean sacrificing your vision for how you’re going to reach a certain goal, and, in an education environment where you’re worried about learning goals and outcomes and the need to prove that you’ve actually reached your destination, relinquishing control can be alarming.

And finally, the reluctance to hand the keys over can also be a reflection on how we see ourselves and how we see our students. A lot of teachers (definitely including myself here) have a bit of a showboat quality. When we can’t do our lesson it can be disappointing – we were all set to go on! We were going to dazzle! And, even worse than the audience being deprived of our brilliance is this – the understudy might stink.

Thinking about letting students drive got me thinking about driver’s ed and how it’s portrayed (stay with me here). It’s a pretty common trope to see a teen in a TV or a film have a driver’s ed disaster – like Cher in Clueless. Those adults were right to not let those kids drive! The kids are a menace! Maybe we too sometimes think that our students can’t handle “driving.”

That cyclist really did, like, come out of nowhere. But she, like, offered to leave a note, so it’s cool.

Having the confidence to let go, having the faith in our ability to guide our students, and believing in our students’ ability to rise to the occasion doesn’t always come easy. It’s something I’m really working on in my own teaching – I feel fortunate to have a good foundation in this, having come from a museum education background which emphasized hands-on and discovery learning, but it’s still sometimes scary/exhilarating/hard to turn things over to my students. Check out below for some ways I’m trying to let my students drive, beyond my usual open class discussion!, and chime in the comment section with your own ideas.

Letting Students Drive: Some Ideas

  1.  Student run search session: I tell students what I need help finding (typically something like information on a current event or even a new pair of jeans or a puppy). They take the wheel and work together in groups to find what I need. We talk about what they did and why they did it. Then we regroup and go again, this time with a more academic topic. Standing back and letting them make mistakes or do things inefficiently can be really difficult, but the experience can open up great conversations and give students something concrete to refer back to once we start going through (together this time) optimal ways to conduct research. It’s basically taking some inquiry based learning principles and engineering ideas about iteration, where it’s okay to make mistakes, and running with them in a non-science environment.
  2. Student developed rubrics: This idea of student self-assessment (which I plan to blog about more later) is discussed by, among others, the great Buffy Hamilton. A type of self-assessment could be where students actually write their own rubrics to assess their research skills. Doing something like this can help students be invested in what they’re working on and letting them compare their own criteria with one of my rubrics can open up great conversations.
  3. Polling sessions: Using something like Poll Everywhere or even Google Forms, students tell me what they want to hear about. I deliver. As much as I might think, but they need to know about such and such!, I also think, in certain instructional scenarios, like orientations or an in-class research workshop, it can be useful to let students play a role in determining the content I cover. Plus, it’s really nice not having to prep a lesson plan in advance. Letting students drive = timesaver.

Flip It!: Some Thoughts on Flipped Classrooms

As an instruction librarian, and as a museum educator, I’ve never had a traditional classroom – instead I’ve had classroom visits, time carved out for after-school programs, all-day camps, outreach events, drop-in workshops, etc. Given my lack of a traditional classroom, I find things like flipped classrooms intriguing. A flipped classroom is essentially where students view/read/otherwise consume lecture content outside of class and do homework, activities, or otherwise more hands-on work in class. By partnering with a classroom teacher students could, for instance, watch a quick lecture before attending a museum field trip workshop or complete some online quizzes before attending a one-shot library workshop.

Flipped Classroom graphic from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.

Flipped Classroom Resources:

  • Check out this great rundown on flipped classrooms from the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • For some ideas on using flipped models in the library, check out this ACRL article by Candice Benjes-Small and Katelyn Tucker.
  • The PBS NewsHour also has a good report on how some schools are trying out flipped methods.

One place that does a really nice job of outlining the potential benefits of the flipped model is Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Their Flipping the Classrooms guide says that a flipped model accomplishes the following:

students gain first exposure prior to class – This can really be key, especially when you are having to inform students about a lot of complex information in a very short period of time, such as during an introduction to research session at a library or an after-school robotics workshop where you have to get through a lot of complex technical material in a brief period (if the second example sounds a tad specific it’s because it’s something I’ve taught before!).

Incentive to prepare for class – I’d imagine this could be engrained in students over time, if they keep showing up unprepared; though students are notorious for not reading ahead of time so I’m not entirely sure that they would be incentivized by something like video lectures either.

Method for assessment – Pre class quizzes and worksheets certainly ensure that students watch the video lectures; I haven’t had as much experience with this element of the flip model but I’d like to try it out more in the future; though I have to balance it out with the more informal education I do, or education that’s in partnership with a classroom or faculty instructor – my ability to administer “homework” is limited

In class activities that focus on higher cognitive skills – This is something I can really get behind. I like the flip model because it actually hits a number of different learning styles. Video lectures for those inclined to watch and listen; activities for those who prefer more hand’s on learning; group work and one on one time in the classroom to provide a variety of experiences.

But as much as I’m a huge proponent, and attempted practitioner, of the flipped model, I do think that there is something to be said for a classroom lecture, or a lecture that embeds discussion elements in it, something you can lose with an outside-of-class, video lecture format. And having a class activity can mean that students can fall through the cracks. I’ve been the lead teacher in a class of 20-odd 4th and 5th graders before and it’s hard to touch base with every person when they’re all, say, building Lego robots and asking random questions every 5 seconds. The same is true for library workshops where every student working on a different project; though college kids are generally less insistent than 10-year-olds when it comes to having their questions answered at least.

One thing I’ve tried in the past with younger kids (not yet at the college level) is an “expert” model, where students volunteered to be the “expert” on a certain topic. For instance, in my robotics classes a student who had built on a light sensor before was our expert. Kids have to talk to an expert or a peer before they come ask me, which is a way for them to learn from each other and a way for me to cut down on the amount of eager questions I’m fielding from excited and often hyper 10-year-olds at any given moment during activity time.

I’ll probably be writing more about adventures in flipped teaching in the future – overall I think it’s a neat model that can be really flexible and beneficial to a lot of different learning styles and classroom situations.

The House Hunters Decision-Making Model

Ennui cat expresses ennui

Sartre famously commented on how awful free will and choice can be (“I am condemned to be free” – so melodramatic, dude).

But it’s really true – having all the options open to you can be paralyzing, just as having none can be frustrating. And this is why I think something like House Hunter’s (the HGTV show where people select a house from three options) is kind of genius, and definitely appealing.  The show is rigged. But, frankly, I think that’s part of the charm. The people on that show (which I often watch in order to mock – seriously, people, you can change paint. It’s not a deal breaker.) only have three choices. Only three! And while they do the requisite agonizing over which to pick at the end, while dramatic countdown music plays, and one member of the couple sagely notes “we, like, have to make a decision,” it’s only between three things (and not even that given that the show is rigged).

Can you imagine going through life and only having to pick among three options instead of like, the 800 cars on the Carfax website, or the 10 pairs of ambiguously named jeans at the Gap, or the innumerable life decisions that are rarely divided neatly into three distinct options?

House Hunters is like a baby pool of decision-making. And I think that’s something that can actually be highly beneficial to students learning a new skill, like researching. Educators who do things like teach essay writing to younger students have figured this one out – it’s why we give the kids templates and outlines to use. We provide baby steps along the way to writing a full-fledged essay. We limit the number of decisions for students to make as they start writing. For some reason, college students are often expected to leap right in to research, from picking their own topic to finding their own sources. What I’d like to do is promote everything but the research paper assignments (see the example from the UT Libraries) or at least closed circuit activities, so to speak.

For instance, in introductory research classes, I often give students articles on a contemporary topic (I used the Keystone Pipeline debate recently) to use in an evaluation activity. The articles I select all cover distinct political views and, like the houses on House Hunters which are always neatly categorized as “fixer upper” or “great kitchen”, the articles I pre-select fit a variety of distinct needs and provide an opportunity to test out evaluation and decision-making skills without overwhelming my students with options.

As much as I like students to think and discover and experiment for themselves, I think that sometimes you need to take more of a House Hunters approach, particularly with things like early research skills, and set up scenarios for students to work within before unleashing them into the wide world of unlimited choice.

Insert GIF Here

Apparently, some researchers at MIT are trying to turn GIFs into a language.

If you’ve been on BuzzFeed, Tumblr, or, well, the Internet, you’re probably already well aware of how GIFs function as a language. This post is even using GIFs to express emotions (so meta!).

But this project from MIT uses Mechanical Turk-like human labor to help quantify and categorize GIFs.

Volunteers can head over to the GIFGIF site and select which GIF best expresses a certain emotion. It’s worth a visit just to see the array of GIFs that the denizens of the Internet have created (who knew Futurama GIFs were so prevalent?).

Aside from being a cool project, I think that thinking of GIFs as a language and as a powerful (and fun) tool for self-expression can really open up some neat possibilities in the classroom. Having students do a GIF storytelling version of a project, or a GIF version of a book or a play can teach visual literacy skills, summary skills (GIFs are inherently an economical form of expression), and creative thinking.

This project can also be a great way to spark classroom discussion on how computers work, what visual search engines are all about, and how the Internet is changing how we communicate. Plus, the time you kill on Tumblr and BuzzFeed can now be written off as “lesson planning.” Win/win!


The Problem Solving Snail

The wonder that is the problem solving snail was introduced to me as a joke a few years ago. I was working at a grant-funded museum tech outreach program and the lead teacher designed a brief survey for the students (5th grade girls) to take for assessment purposes. A lot of the questions asked the girls about STEM ideas, their attitudes towards science, etc. And one question showed the students an image of a the engineering design process, kind of like this great one (albeit sans labels) from The Works Museum:


The girls had to identify this image as an engineering design process –  something we’d discussed in class the previous week, when we’d talked about how engineers work and the steps we go through to solve problems. One of the ridiculous choices the lead teacher came up with for this survey question was the “problem solving snail” and the term stuck. The other teachers in the class and I ran with the term and it became a running joke.

But I think the problem solving snail might be more profound than we originally thought. I teach research skills now more than engineering lessons (I must say I’m sad about that on occasion!). And the research process really has a lot in common with this problem solving or design process used by engineers.

In fact, this research cycle image I made for a first-year research guide was largely inspired by problem solving and design process cycles I’d seen in my museum educator days.


Whether it’s science, engineering, inventing, humanities research, or whatever, the process of identifying and solving a problem is pretty similar. For me, there are two major lessons to take away from an engineering approach to problem solving. The first is the term problem solving itself. I really think that research, at the academic level especially but also for younger students, would do well to be explicitly cast as a way to solve problems. College students, in my experience, can often experience a disconnect between their assignments and the real world (insert academia joke of your choice here). Research, to students, can feel tedious (it often is) and difficult (yep). Casting it in terms of solving a problem can help ground the more abstract ideas of research in practicalities and “real” world concerns.

The other major takeaway I have from an engineering approach to problem solving is actually my friend, the problem solving snail. A snail is, of course, slow. It makes incremental process. You might worry it’s never going to get anywhere. And problem solving (and research) is exactly like this. Research is slow, it’s iterative, it might seem stagnant. But it can really get important things done, even though the process itself can feel cumbersome.

I think the problem solving snail might become my mascot for future lessons, whether I’m teaching younger kids about STEM or older kids about academic research. If you want to learn more about the problem solving and the design process, check out this great site from the PBS Kids Design Squad, where they walk you through each step of the design process and provide resources and activity ideas.