More on sharing instruction materials: github and the unix philosophy

ollowing up on yesterday’s request that instruction librarians share their teaching materials for the time-lacking and thinly-spread among us, ProfHacker has a post this morning on sharing syllabi via github, a social coding repository. The author of the post, Mark Sample, highlights the collaborative culture of open source and his desire to replicate that culture in scholarship:

Last month at the annual Computers and Writing Conference, I participated on a roundtable about the role of computational literacy in the field—and in the humanities more generally. One of the points I made during the wide-ranging discussion (and on the backchannel as well) is that world of software development can provide humanists with “actionable metaphors.” I had in mind the collaborative nature of open source code, as well as the necessary emphasis in programming on revision, both exemplified by the code sharing platform GitHub.

While github’s text-only requirement places a significant restriction on the type of material that can be uploaded (it is, after all, meant for code not instructional materials), the philosophy behind sites like github provides a useful model for sharing within our profession, namely:

  1. To make your materials as accessible as possible, store them in flat files.
  2. To make your materials as flexible as possible, keep them small…
  3. … and keep them modular (break them up into chunks).
  4. Focus each module on doing one thing well.

If these four points sound familiar, you may have read Mike Gancarz’s Linux and the Unix Philosophy. The unix philosophy, which serves as a foundation for github’s success, can be ported to libraries as well, especially regarding the creation and sharing of instruction materials and instructional design.

Platform builders rule the online world

hould academic libraries focus on building their own platforms or work to integrate into existing/future educational platforms? From “Revenge of the Underpaid Professors” in today’s Chronicle:

“Will Udemy eventually be the place where tens of millions of college students and teachers come together? I have no idea. The company is not the only one with these ambitions. Everyone in Silicon Valley is consumed with the idea of building platforms. Facebook is a platform for social interaction. eBay is a platform for auctions. Craigslist is a platform for localized financial transactions. iTunes is a platform for buying and selling music. Amazon is a platform for buying and selling all kinds of things. The platform builders rule the online world.”

If the future landscape of higher education will be a maze of online courses and personalized virtual spaces, is the library a player or provider? Priest or cathedral? Guide-on-the-side or sage-[building]-the-stage? While I don’t think these new platforms will radically change professors’ pay (though, they may indeed change the social standing of some extraordinary teachers), they do present new challenges for libraries, esp. regarding the form that our services will take in these communities.

As a side note, if someone would like to begin raising VC funds to develop a platform service for academic libraries that brings librarians and individual students/researchers together across institutional boundaries… I’m in. Who knows: we might just find a way to give all those unemployed MLIS graduates a job. =)

Using social networks for research: an ebrary study

ebrary recently published the 2011 results of their second Global Student E-book Survey, which includes a special addendum on student use of social media in academic research. Of those who responded, 41.3% said they use social media for research or study purposes. When asked why not, students gave a variety of answers, including: social media is for fun; the information is unreliable; not applicable to non-group research; a distraction. Other interesting results:

    • Over 69% said they were “likely” or “very likely” to use social media it to connect with other students with similar academic interests.
    • More than half (57.1%) said they were ”likely” or “very likely” to pose research questions to peers, but fewer than half (33.1%) were ”likely” or “very likely” to pose research questions to librarians.
    • When asked about the use of social media sites for specific purposes (question 26), Facebook was used for most activities, except “pos[ing] a research question to your librarian.”

Question 28 is particularly illuminating (“What research capabilities would you like to see in a social media site?”) and provides some direction for IHEs developing or enhancing their course management systems. Based on my reading of the data (and in conjunction with results from question 25), here are four recommendations:

    1. Develop systems that allow students to create groups based on academic (or pseudo-academic) interests. (This can also be an opportunity for librarians to connect with students).
    2. Develop systems that allow students to pull data to/from other social networks but that keep those networks separate (e.g. share an article from CMS to Twitter or vice versa with showing my Twitter handle or CMS ID).
    3. Develop systems with a variety of collaboration tools, esp. file sharing and documents editing.
    4. Links to features in other electronic resources: e.g. TOC notifications, impact factors of articles, saved searches, bookmarks.

I’m not opposed to course management systems and, in fact, find them to be quite useful for organizing coursework and connecting users in a class. Given that the majority of research happens in digital spaces, it makes sense for IHEs to create platforms that allow seamless transitions between research and collaboration. ebrary’s survey seems to indicate that popular social networks fall short of providing users with collaborative research space. We have an opportunity, here, people.

It’s for my research, I swear!

This probably isn’t new to any librarian who’s been in collection development for some time, but it was new (and strange) to me. Last week, a discussion about student book requests erupted on the LES listserv (the Literatures in English section of ACRL). An academic librarian from a university in Illinois received a book purchase request from someone claiming to be a student. The email read as follows:

Dear [Librarian],

I am wondering: is there a way for students to request the acquisition of new books, or is this left entirely to the library staff (or faculty)? Specifically, I would like to know whether the library plans to order _Old Age, Masculinity, and Early Modern Drama: Comic Elders on the Italian and Shakespearean Stage_, by Anthony Ellis (Ashgate, ISBN 978-0-7546-6578-6).  I am interested in both Shakespeare/early drama and the study of old age. This book also appears to have a gender-studies focus, which could interest some people here as well. Thank you in advance for your time.

Sincerely,

[name]

The requested book would not be an unusual purchase for an academic library collection. What is suspicious, to me, is the language of the email. The author uses the word “acquisitions” and differentiates between library staff and faculty, indicating that they are more familiar with academic libraries than the average student (undergrad or graduate). The student also mentions the publisher, something that, in my experience, rarely happens unless the user submits a book request through a web form. It’s all a bit too formulaic.

Well, as soon as this email went out over the LES listserv, other librarians immediately responded (on the weekend no less!) indicating that they had received an identical email (or a subtle variation) from someone claiming to be a student but using a non-university email address. Most decided not to purchase the item for that reason alone. Some librarians followed up with the student of the same name at their university. No surprise: the student didn’t know anything about the request.

Apparently, someone is grabbing a student’s name from a university directory, creating a bogus email address, and emailing librarians. But to what end? Not for money, I would think. Academic publishing is not a high profit enterprise for individual authors (unless it’s a textbook). For the prestige? But then what would it matter to a single author if X number of libraries purchased their book? There’s only a snowball’s chance in hell that someone will serendipitously come across it, unless it’s mentioned in the professional literature. Rather than scam acquisitions departments, it would make much more sense to scam book reviewers. Get the word out. Academic publishing is all about the conversation: if you want prestige, you have to get people to talk about your book, not just buy it.

Ashgate is a reputable publisher and it would seem beneath them to resort to these type of tactics. I know nothing of the author of this book. So I won’t make any assumptions about who is behind it, but it does bring up a few interesting reminders:

  1. University email addresses. While there has been some debate over whether university domain emails addresses should still be required for all students, this is one situation where having the @school.edu handle would cut down on fraud. (Though, the same could be accomplished with a university ID)
  2. Collection development policy. As I said, the book is not out of character for an academic library collection, but having a clearly defined collection development policy that outlines preferred subjects, publishers, vendors, and consortia agreements would help younger librarians decide whether or not to make a firm order.
  3. Collaboration. As a result of the Illinois librarian emailing the listserv (and others chiming in with similar data), other libraries are more informed about fraudulent (and let’s be honest, kinda sleazy) marketing practices. Including… [thumbs up to chest]… this guy. Some people are shocked when I tell them I participate in listservs (“the 90s called…”), but some continue to offer great resources and a tight community of librarians.

The lesson here, I think, is to make sure what you order for your collection is a good fit for your institution. And, if you want to get people to buy your book, bribe students to email librarians from their own .edu addresses. 😉