36 Credit Hours - Starting to See Straight Again

In the two weeks since I posted last (sorry about that), I've taught 36 credit hours worth of information literacy sessions.

Nothing like teaching almost a full semester in two weeks, finishing an article for publication (see C&R Libraries News early for 2008), and sending off a few conference proposals to keep one busy. Not that I'm complaining.

The classes were great. I worked with 7 different sections of a English Composition on a research paper unit for the past two weeks. We've taught the unit before and I've written about the students reactions when we taught it back in the spring semester. It created some good discussion about video game violence and the impact it has on aggression for college students. While the research continues to point to short term increases in aggression for college student, the students debated how that aggression manifested itself.

How they handle and control their aggression was an interesting talking point. However they choose to manage their emotions, the discussion helped students on both sides of the issue see the shades of gray that is the research on violence and video games.

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Production

This concept falls in line with Gee’s Insider Principle, where “the learner is and insider, teacher, and producer (not just a `consumer`)” but goes beyond that. It is not simply being able to produce an end product, but to reshape and build the world itself. The example on the sides is of the upcoming PS3 game “Little Big Planet” where the player is given the tools to create a world or stage of their own design, populating it with whatever environments, obstacles, and physics they desire. The game provides an open canvas for the player to create, experiment, and adjust the game to individual taste. These worlds can be saved and shared with other players, creating a unique game experiences from every creation. Creating game content is nothing new, Real-time-strategy and First-person shooters have used map editors and modders have created whole new game experiences based on the original game’s engine, which create more investment and motivation from the player.

I used the example of “Little Big Planet” because the initial game itself is player created, not modified from it’s original intent. Production in our classrooms can and should be similar. Student created content, questions, or topics is not a distraction or diversion from the lesson’s original intent but essential to the comprehension and retention of the lesson’s objectives. On a surface level this includes using student questions and topics to shape the direction and focus of a lesson. If a concept not clear or students are struggling we spend more time to clarify. But peel that standard interaction back and how much content do students produce that shapes our information literacy sessions?

Now the easy answer is, of course they produce content they are finding sources, writing papers, giving presentations and many other projects based on the materials they find from an information literacy session. Is that really producing content that shapes their experience? They produce an end product required by their course, but do they have influence over it? Does that production happen in our library instruction or as a result of it?

Following the Production and “Insider” principles means letting the students create and shape the direction of the lesson within the bounds of the objectives. They could be the ones creating and sharing the examples for the class. They could be demonstrating how they located a specific resource of the quality or source required in the assignment. They become “teacher” as well as “student.” An example for this current semester was taught by a colleague of mine. We created a lesson where the students worked in groups to create incorrect APA citations in an attempt to stump not only the other groups, but the professor, librarian, and writing center – the “experts.” The students were empowered and motivated to create content and implicitly needed to not only understand APA basics, but the more obscure details in order to be able to explain their citation errors. It worked. There was laughter coming out of the classroom and the students wanted to stay longer to go through more citations.

Now how often can we say that?

Filling in the Gaps: Gee's 36 Principles

This month I've started (and will continue) to walk through the learning strategies that Gee has focused on in the required reading I used for my guest lecture. While the reading grabs most of the core learning principles (or combines them into broader concepts), there are a few that were not discussed specifically. Throughout the month, I'll highlight a few other of Gee's principles and how we should be using them in information literacy. And so my month of Gee continues...

Active, Critical Learning Principle- All aspects of the learning environment (including the ways in which the semiotic domain is designed and presented) are set up to encourage active and critical, not passive, learning.

It’s a basic learning principle. We learn best through doing. We want to get our students active, engaged, and involved in the practice, testing, and application of the material we are trying to teach. During my student teaching for my Teaching Masters active learning and critical thinking were stressed above all else. It should come as no surprise that games incorporate this since they require the player to actively take part in the action and decision making (at least most games do). I’ve talked about critical thinking in video games before (link) and information literacy and critical thinking go hand in hand.

The success of the application of active learning also includes when it is used. Librarians that teach in a lab may claim they are always using active learning because the students have time at the end to practice the process of research. While this is active, it is not as effective as it should be. Video games include active learning throughout the process; players are constantly doing. Video games (at least most) do not give you 30 – 40 minutes of a instruction before letting the player play. Granted some games do give lengthy tutorials but here brief instruction is immediately followed by practice and active learning. Library instruction would do well to model the tutorial model present in many games

Design Principle- Learning about and coming to appreciate design and design principles is core to the learning experience.

Pedagogically this is more important for us as librarians. Students are aware of lesson design and the experience, but the awareness often happens when there are problems. Students may not be able to define what makes the lesson work, but they can sure tell you when it doesn’t. Gameplay and game design are similar experiences for most players. They may not be able to tell you what “works” about a game, but they can sure tell when it falls apart. If our lessons and sessions are not incorporating good design our students and their learning will struggle to process.

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Agency

Gee describes “Agency” as a game creating a sense of ownership in the player. The player is now invested enough in the game that they care about and feel a sense of responsibility for what happens in the game. The sense of ownership and responsibility developed through “agency” also drives a player forward. That ownership makes them what to see a game through to the end (which could be 6, 12, 20, or 50+ hours).

What type of ownership would make a student see an assignment through a 20 hour process?

That is an unfair question to start off with. While that may be an ultimate goal, we can develop agency by starting much smaller. The screen shot in the slide is from the Xbox 360 game, Mass Effect. Mass Effect starts with a create-a-character, like many other games, but the sense of agency develops through series of choices that how the character and the game develops. It is this series of choices that creates the sense of ownership. The player and the student will not develop this immediately. The choices need to be continually offered and they need to be significant. The choices need to shape the class in both the direction and the discussion. Ownership can begin to grow with a question as simple as, “Where should we start?” The choices should continue throughout a lesson. “What search terms?” “Which source will you use?” The questions and choices are important for developing ownership in the student.

Asking questions is important, but it is essential for agency that the questions we ask are followed through on. Nothing will kill a sense of student ownership faster than judging something as the “wrong” answer. These are not questions that have a “right” answer. Granted some of the responses may not be the choices we want them to make or even will gain the best results, but those “not ideal” choices create learning opportunities. As I discussed with the “risk taking” concept we can look to these “dead ends” and poor sources as teaching opportunities. Create and facilitate a discussion on the results of these choices. Every choice creates a potential discussions and learning opportunities.

Over the course of the last year, I've worked on trying to incorporate developing ownership into lessons including an open ended research reviews (including reflection and student feedback for fall & spring semesters) and branching lectures where the students make the choice.

The question we, as librarians, need to continue to ask along with all these choices is, "Why?" Agency develops with meaningful choices and learning comes from understanding the ramifications of those choices.

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Interaction

Okay, so all games require some interaction with the player. Just as “engagement” assumes interaction with the students. The key for us as librarians and educators is the degree and integration of that interaction. This is not simply a time for questions or discussion and pedagogically we understand that.

The example of “Duck Amuck” for the Nintendo DS (pictured) is a good example of maximizing the interaction. A player draws events and items that are used, uses the microphone to “blow out” candles, closes the lid for Daffy to “look in the dark,” and a host of other mini game applications that make use of every input the DS has. The game uses these various inputs at every stage of the game requiring continued interaction from the player.

The continuous interaction through a variety of inputs (learning styles) is a wonderful goal, but can often be challenging for librarians faced with a one-shot session trying to cram all the “necessary” information in. Now I know that putting “necessary” in quotes may be put off some people, but I mean no disrespect. I’m guilty of filling a session with useful information. But with a high degree of interaction, the useful “necessary” information still comes through, but it does so in a student initiated shared experience, rather than a librarian one.

This is the challenge. It takes time to plan this level of integration and time to practice it… and one-shots make that challenging. Maybe this is where the “try and fail” mindset (link here) is important. It takes time faith, but the success can be great. Last semester, I took what would have been a basic database review & workday and turned it into a narrative with constant choices for the class that determine the direction at each step. The interaction was limited through discussion and a student response system, but the student’s interaction was required for each step and decision. The class resulted in an increased student experience. Their interaction with the material and each other resulted in students discussing and debating with each other about the search and evaluation process.

Now the lesson did take a couple hours to plan, map out, and create, but the payoff for the students was worth it. They stayed engaged in the class and the content because they saw a value in it but also had a say in it. Their interaction was genuine and integral to the class, not separated from the content. Designing classes like this is not always possible, but the effort is still beneficial for our students.

There is a variety of good literature out there on student engagement and interaction is only one piece of it. But when designing lessons incorporating that interaction is key. The more the students can push, poke, prod the content (and us) they will be more invested in the class and the material.

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Risk Taking

Gee’s also called this the “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle where learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered.

Ah, if only this could be the case with information literacy. This should be the case in our classrooms, labs, and campuses. We can create environments in our classrooms and at our reference desks, where students recognize that research is a messy process. Not passing the level or finding just the right material on the first try is natural. Students need to know they can take risks and fail within the research process. Now, granted those risks may not have the same impact as dying within a game, but the tension and frustration can be just as high. A student with a deadline or frustrated with a search feels just as much tension, if not more, than the gamer.

Creating this atmosphere is comes from both class structure and personal attitude. I’ve failed plenty of times in front of a class. When I started teaching information literacy a few years ago, I dropped canned searches for our instructions sessions. At the time it was done to increase the relevance of the material and engagement of the students. But what it has created is an atmosphere where failure is okay. Failure is a talking point. I welcome the unsuccessful search (unless it’s because I can’t spell and now the class knows). It provides the opportunity to talk about why searches fail or don’t get the desire results and how to adjust for additional searches. Failure in a search shows that the research process is messy and even libraries aren’t perfect. We try and fail just like them. I’ve seen it successful break down barriers for students asking for help. If I got stuck, and they got stuck, they are more willing to ask for help. Failure equalizes the power relationship.

Failure equalizes it, but it does not take power away from students. Creating an atmosphere and culture where failure is encourage doesn’t happen overnight. But it can happen and we should be modeling it in our classes and at the reference desk. Research is a messy process, taking risks, recovering from failure, learning, and risking again is an important information literacy skill. Failure is not always fun, and with “first page and done” search habits accepting failure can be too quickly judged.

Allowing students to take risks, fail, and modeling patience and learning through failure helps create successful information literate students.

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Identity

During my blogging vacation I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest speaker for an undergraduate Game Theory class on campus. My presentation was entitled, "Educational Games: Games that teach, not Preach." Here is the continuation of that application...

How do we create a sense of identity in information literacy and library instruction?

Do we have to since the identity is already created – it’s our students playing the role of our students. There is some identity already given when students walk into a classroom setting. They “are” invested because their success in the class/school is tied to their ability to succeed in the classroom and on an assignment. But is that enough?

Are our students invested in library research because they are passionate about their grade? Really? Who’s the lucky librarian with a class filled with these students? Library instruction, when there even is library instruction, can be met with a student attitude of “Just finish talking so I can go grab it off the internet.”

Can we create situations that invoke an investment from our students? Yes, but how? In the examples from the slides, the first game is Half – Life 2 where the player plays the role of Gordon Freeman, but most of the personality is derived from the players responses not game created reactions. Every player plays a little differently and attaches meaning based on those experiences. In a classroom setting, this type of identity comes from the students caring about their research and creating their own meaning for the assignment. We can help our students do this by showing meaning in their research, tying their research to a larger community, and help them see the significance of findings to their assignment.

The second example in the slide has the player playing the role of James Bond. The student becomes invested because they already care about the character or that there is a context created to grab the student and help them care. A little role-playing by the student. We can create a role for the student outside of just simply a student in class for an instruction session. I’ve done a PR class where the students “played” the role of agents at a PR firm and they were given portfolios on their “clients” to research on. It through the students into a different mindset for the research session, captured their attention, and even allowed for some creativity in their approach and presentation of material. Creating alternative roles or situations for our classes can help create a sense of identity for our students and increase their involvement in a class.

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Situated Meaning

During my blogging vacation I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest speaker for an undergraduate Game Theory class on campus. My presentation was entitled, "Educational Games: Games that teach, not Preach." Here is the continuation of that application...

Isn’t this the question we ask ourselves about the difference between stand alone library instruction classes and sessions embedded within an existing class?

If the skills we teach are not tied to meaningful context (class), how successfully will the students retain the skills?

This is not a new debate within academic librarians and I am not pretending to bring something new. The significance here is how connected game design is with educational design… and why it is worthwhile for us as educators to look at our instruction programs through the lens of a gamer.

When skills and concepts are taught outside the full game, there needs to be enough of a connection for students to see the application in the full game situation (as an uncontrolled environment). The examples shown in these two slides come from the Metal Gear Solid series and specifically the VR Missions. The VR missions exist both as a tutorial for the player to learn moves and strategies and as a challenge to demonstrate mastery over those skills in some of the more complicated scenarios. The VR missions give a player a safer environment to practice their initial skills and try out new strategies within a safe environment (the scenarios have no overall impact in the larger story driven game).

This example is relevant to us. It provides a safe environment in which to learn and practice skills but still connects the user to the larger application. The skills are not learned in a vacuum. The larger context is understood by the player/student. As we create information literacy sessions, this connection and context is important to keep in mind. The activities we design for our students, the skills and strategies they encounter, and their understanding of future applications depend on making this context meaningful. Most databases that our students have access to are filled with a great wealth of features for advanced users, but how many of these features will have a meaningful context attached and create situated meaning for our students?

Gee's Strategies & Information Literacy: Just in Time

During my blogging vacation I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest speaker for an undergraduate Game Theory class on campus. My presentation was entitled, "Educational Games: Games that teach, not Preach." I focused mainly on the work of James Paul Gee and Ian Bogost. The objective was to give the students a different framework to view game design through (Gee's learning strategies) and how games help players understand a real life topic (Bogost's persuasive games). Here are the readings the class used for both Gee and Bogost.

My plan over the next week or so is to walk through the content of the slides and discuss how these concepts fit information literacy and library instruction...

I’ve talked about the “just in time” principle earlier this fall when responding to the lack of it in one of our sessions. But this is a concept that all teaching librarians need to consider.

How many new skills are students introduced to before they have a chance to practice?

If we are not giving students a chance to apply the skills/strategies we are suggesting right away what is stopping us? What content is more important the helping cement a concept with direct application? We all learn more by doing and doing when it makes sense, not when it fits into the instructor’s flow – when it fits the students’. In a research class session where we may be introducing new or reviewing old databases or strategies we should provide opportunities to “try” those strategies out. Even if the “trying / testing” component is short, the continued engagement should be worth it. We are very mindful of this in our instruction, even to the point where the first time through a few sessions this fall felt disjointed. But after a session or two, the flow finds a rhythm and the students start to respond. They respond to the chance to try things out and still have continued guidance.

Does all the instruction happen up front with the student exploration and applying happening later?

If so why? It’s easier, sure. But is it more productive? We can comfortable toss our “knowledge” out there and then “turn ‘em loose” but what do we gain? We need to not only supply our students with successful strategies for research but also a context in order to successful apply those strategies in.