My Presentation on Blogging at Baruch College

I was part of a panel today at the annual Baruch College Teaching and Technology Conference. My fellow panelists and I were there to talk about the hugely successful Blogs@Baruch project:

Since 2008, over 17,000 members of the Baruch College community have used Blogs@Baruch, the college’s WordPress platform. It’s used inside and outside of classes, and hosts a range of projects, program and group websites, and student journals and magazines. This panel represents a cross-section of current users of Blogs@Baruch, and we’ll show our work on the system and discuss how it has enhanced our ability to communicate with our classmates, colleagues, and the outside world.

Before the conference, I wrote out my presentation, something I do when I know that I won’t be using slides. Here is the text I prepared:

I’m Stephen Francoeur, a user experience librarian here at Baruch. Before getting started with Blogs@Baruch when it launched, I’d already been blogging elsewhere since 2003, primarily at my personal blog, Digital Reference. Today I want to talk about two ways that I’ve been using Blogs@Baruch: one for internal communication with my colleagues in the library and one in the courses that I teach.

In 2004, Louise Klusek, another librarian I work with, and I came up with the idea to create a blog to notify reference librarians about news they’d want to know, things like new databases our library just started subscribing to, changes to services and policies in the library, questions that were stumping some of us at the reference desk, etc. All the librarians who worked at various reference service points will encouraged to write posts and make comments (and many did over the years). In 2009, we switched over from using Blogger to Blogs@Baruch so that we’d have greater control over the look and feel of the blog and so that we could control its future (what if Google sold off Blogger some day to a company we didn’t want to work with).

We encouraged our colleagues to sign up for email notification of blog posts and showed them how to subscribe to the feed of posts and comments in a feed reader (including the one that is built into Microsoft Outlook, a program on the desktop of every librarian’s computer). Over the years, we found lots of our colleagues posting really helpful content. In the past year, we’ve seen the number of new posts go down somewhat, and I’m not sure why (but would like to know).

Over the past 10 years, I think we can safely say that these have been the advantages of using a blog for certain kinds of internal communication:

  • the messages as blog posts can be far richer than if they were transmitted simply as email messages (embedded videos, links, etc.)
  • searching for old posts is much easier on a blog than searching for old emails in Outlook
  • a number of times students have found our posts on their own and used them to solve problems they were having in their own search efforts
  • librarians at other colleges who help our students on our cooperative chat reference service know they can go to our blog to get news on databases that may be down or other timely information that only local librarians might know off the top of their heads
  • other librarians around the country have subscribed to our blog so they too can learn when a database has a new search interface or how to find some arcane piece of accounting information

Now I’d like to switch over to talk about how I’ve been using blogs in the credit courses I teach. I’ve refined how I’ve used them over the years and would like to mention what seems to work for me. It’s worth noting that my classes tend to be small (max of 25 students) and that nearly every class session features hands on activities in groups or individually, usually on the computers in the room.

The main ways I use my course blog are to have students write posts and comments as homework (this counts for almost a third of their grade). They are expected to write 5 posts and to write 10 comments on the posts of their classmates. They are free to write on any topic that relates in some meaningful way to the subject of the class.

The other use of the blog is to have students write a post at the end of class that is part of some in-class activity. If they are working in groups, then one person in each group writes the post while the others in the group look over that person’s shoulder and direct them.

And the other main use of the blog is a way for me to send out class announcements and do so in a way that are re-findable.

The benefits I’ve seen so far include:

  • creating a place for conversation for those students who are unwilling to speak up in class, even if I’m requiring it as part of their grade
  • I can more accurately assess what they’ve learned from in-class activities if I read all their posts written at the end of class (and it’s more efficient, because it takes less class time for them to all write a post then it would take to have each group or person report back verbally)
  • students are getting lots of opportunities for low-stakes writing in a medium that allows for a fair amount of creativity (links, embedded videos, images, etc.)

I should mention that the class I’ve taught for the past year, Information and Society, focuses a lot on exploring how communication tools have dramatically changed in the past decade because of the web. For many students, this is their first time blogging; by using the same tools we are discussing in class, they get a deeper understanding of the changes we are learning about.

Here are some practical tips I’ve found that help make the blogs successful in my class:

  • Blogging is part of their grade, and there is a specific quota about how many posts and comments
  • On the 2nd day of class, I have them all sign in for the first time, learn how to modify their screen names, write a first post (they write on “when I think of the library, I think about…”), and write a comment on someone else’s post
  • I set up JetPack so they can take advantage of the “subscribe to email notifications” feature

Every semester, there are always a few students who end up enthusiastically embracing blogging and write more posts and comments than are required. While I would love to see that happen with a greater percentage of students, I think it’s safe to assume that the current split follows the usual 80/20 rule we see elsewhere on the web (20 percent of the users account for 80 percent of the content).

At the end of the course, I always ask the students to discuss whether or not we should take the blog down or make it password protected. It’s a great opportunity to discuss what it means to be on the web, to weigh public vs. private personas. To my delight, the students always vote in favor of keeping the blogs up in perpetuity.

First Presentation on Summon

At the CUNY IT Conference last week, I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a panel about discovery services with a bunch of really great folks: Angela Sidman from the CUNY Office of Library Services, Nadaleen Templeman-Kluit from NYU, and Bruce Heterick from JSTOR. My presentation was focused on how our pilot of Summon has been going. This was the first time since we launched Summon in January of this year that I’ve been asked to do a presentation on it. It was really useful to take some time to think about what impact we’ve seen so far and what kind of an impact we hope to see in the coming years.

Here’s the presentation on Google Drive

And here are the notes for the slides:

Slide 1

  • I’m a user experience librarian at Baruch College; do a lot of usability testing of online resources and interface tweaking
  • Mike Waldman couldn’t be here today

Slide 2

  • Like all other CUNY schools, Baruch is a commuter school
  • we have a FTE of about 14,000
  • We’re primarily a business school
  • about 80% of our materials budget is spent on electronic resources (Serials, ebooks, datasets)

Slide 3

  • Like most colleges, Baruch saw the number of databases it subscribed to multiply quickly; reference and instruction required us to tell the students to first go here to search, then go here, then go here, etc.
  • In 2008, we tried to pull access to many of those databases together into a single search screen using a federated search service called 360 Search; we called the tool “Bearcat Search” and added it to our list of databases and gave it a special high visibility location with a large graphic; over the next few years, we found the interface slow, balky, wonky, and high maintenance
  • in 2012, we swapped out our 360 Search subscription for a Summon subscription (both are products from Serials Solutions); we kept the name and placement of the links to the service as before
  • As Angela noted earlier, discovery services like Summon let you add your own local metadata from things like your catalog, your institutional repository, your digital media collections, etc., to the central index provided by the vendor (that central index is pre-populated with a massive collection of records for articles and ebooks)
  • Because this is a Baruch-only pilot project, it didn’t make sense for us to add catalog records for Baruch items, as doing so would require large nightly exports from a catalog server that is shared across the whole CUNY library system
  • One interesting local set of records that we added are our LibGuides

Slide 4

  • before talking about the impact we’ve been seeing from Summon so far, let me just highlight some notable features of it; in general, the search we present is stripped down basic box, as unintimidating as your typical search engine

Slide 5

  • Results are returned very fast in Summon (maybe loading in only 1% of the time it would take a typical 360 Search to load)
  • Let’s take a closer look at the search results page for this search for “cognitive load theory”
  • You can see the articles found from our search here; the full text of these articles may be found in any one of our databases that offers full text, so a search here may lead you to a database from JSTOR, Oxford, EBSCO, ProQuest, Cambridge, Elsevier, etc.

Slide 6

  • One clever thing Summon does is recommend subject specific databases at the top of your search results pages
  • As of a few days ago, we can now tweak the way this database recommender system makes it suggestions
  • For those who worry that a discovery system might eclipse your specialized databases, this feature shows that it can complement and even spotlight resources your students and faculty didn’t even know about in the first place

Slide 7

  • On the left side of every search page is a way to filter by format type (articles, ebooks, etc.)

Slide 8

  • Also on the left is a way to filter by subject
  • One thing that we really like about Summon is speed with which results are returned after a facet is clicked
  • Usability testing I conducted earlier this year surprised me by showing me the opposite of something I’d had long assumed to be true. I’d always thought students ignored the facets and filters on the results page and focused exclusively on the list of results; instead, I saw that student instinctively used the facets to refine the search (no instruction was required!)

Slide 9

  • Another new feature this week is the “did you mean” feature that suggests a new query if it thinks you misspelled something

Slide 10

  • So lets look at that same search for “cognitive load theory” in a very popular database, one that many colleges have long had and that is intended to search across periodicals representing a wide spectrum of subjects: Academic Search Complete
  • Like most libraries, we’ve long gone with presenting the advanced search screen as the default; there is a basic one of course, but many librarians have long assumed that students need the advanced search screen even if those students didn’t know it

Slide 11

  • Summon’s search results page isn’t really that much of a departure from the typical library database
  • Summon’s interface is a bit cleaner, though; it would be interesting to test usage levels for the facets in Summon vs. those in a traditional database like this one
  • Note that in Summon, we found 56,000 items in our search; here in Academic Search Complete, only 206

Slide 12

  • So what are the key ways that Summon is affecting our library? Here is what we know
  • For reasons that are unclear, we’re seeing use of Bearcat Search much higher now that it’s powered by Summon and not 360 Search
  • On a monthly basis, we’re now seeing about 50% more search sessions in Summon than we had in 360 Search, and more than 200% searches being run
  • the speedier delivery of results in Summon mean users are more likely to do the kind of iterative searching they are used to doing in Google (average number of searches per session is 5 compared to 2 in 360 Search)
  • The redesign of our library that we are launching at the end of this year will feature a search box dead center on the home page and at the top of every internal page; we expect our stats will really explode after that

Slide 13

  • So we see the raw numbers going up but we don’t know yet who is using it and why
  • We hope that Summon will increase other things for us, too
  • Given the ease of using this tool, it serves underclassmen well and may make a better candidate for a database to use when teaching 1st year students how to search
  • Because the index in Summon is so huge and includes records in databases that we know rarely get used, it’s hoped that it’s leading students to e-content that had previously been little used
  • We also hope that the database recommender feature may be yet another way that we try to steer our students to specialized databases that they typically only think to use when a teacher or a friend recommends it
  • And finally, we hope that student satisfaction will go up as they find a tool that is easier and more pleasant to use that still taps deep in relevant content they need for their assignments

As I was digging into the statistics a bit while preparing my presentation, I realized I had a number of questions that I’d like to find answers for:

  • Do students use facets on the search results page more or less than they do in Summon? In my usability testing of Summon this spring, I was surprised by how often and easily students used the facets without any prompting from me. If they use facets more often in Summon than in other databases, why is that the case?
  • How can we find out if Summon is driving up access for full text journals that had previously been underutilized because the only way to find them previously was to use lesser known databases?
  • Do students find searching in Summon more or less satisfying than searching in our traditional article databases?
  • Is there a better way to present the recommended databases that frequently appear at the top of the search results pages?  Do students actually see these recommendations? What do they think of them? How often and when will they actually click through to the recommended database?
  • How do students feel that information from many of our business databases that feature specialized reports and data about companies, industries, etc. are unlikely to ever appear in search results pages of Summon (except as recommended databases)? If they are searching in Summon for data that is only found in specialized databases, are they more likely to give up and try their luck in Google or will they ask for help or see what other databases/tools we offer?

It looks like I could fill up the rest of my professional career as an academic librarian trying to answer all these questions. No time to get started like the present.

 

Teaching in a Paperless Classroom

Last fall, I taught one of the library’s three-credit courses again. I decided to teach it in a way that would use as little paper as possible by using a combination of Google Docs, WordPress, and LibGuides. I have been meaning to write about this for months now. This morning, I did a presentation at the Teaching and Technology Conference here at Baruch College at which I spoke about my little experiment. I’m presenting my slides here as a way of sharing how it worked out for me. When I prepared my slides in PowerPoint, I typed out a script for what I would say in the notes for the slides; if you download the PowerPoint or PDF version of my slides, you’ll be see what it was that I had intended to write as a lengthy post on this blog. If you just want to take a spin through the slides, you can find them embedded below.

Usability Testing Basics

The kind folks who run the Carterette Series Webinars for the Georgia Library Association invited me to do a presentation on usability testing basics. I just finished up an hour ago and wanted to share my slides as soon as possible. The webinar recording will be archived and freely available soon (check the archived sessions page). In the meanwhile, here are my slides:

If you want to see my slides with my notes, you can get the original PowerPoint slides, too.

During the presentation, I read aloud from a script we used this past January when we were testing a draft of the library website. Here’s that script:

Test Script

First of all, we’d like to thank you for coming. Before we get started, I’m going to start a recording here so that we can document this session. Please don’t worry, as this session will be kept private and you’ll remain anonymous.

[Test moderator hits CTRL-F8 on the laptop keyboard to start the audio and screen recording]

As I mentioned earlier, we’re in the process of redesigning the library web site. In order to make it as easy to use as possible, we’d like to get some input from the people who will be using it. And that’s where you come in. We’re going to ask you to perform a very simple exercise that will give us some great insight into how we can make this web site easier to use.

I want to make it clear that we’re testing the site, not you. You can’t do anything wrong here. We want to hear exactly what you think, so please don’t worry that you’re going to hurt our feelings. We want to improve it, so we need to know honestly what you think.

As we go along, I’m going to ask you to think out loud, to tell me what’s going through your mind.

If you have questions, just ask. I may not be able to answer them right away, since we’re interested in how people do when they don’t have someone sitting next to them, but I will try to answer any questions you still have when we’re done.

Do you have any questions before we begin?

[initial questions for the test subject]

Before we begin the exercise, I’d like to ask you a few quick questions:

What year are you in school?
Approximately how many times have you used the library web site? (sample responses: several times a day, once a day, once a week, once a month, less than once a month)
Can you give me a list of 3-4 things you would expect to find or be able to do on the library’s website?
What type of information or services have you looked for or used on the library web site?
Is there any information or services you have had trouble finding on the library site?

OK, great. We’re done with the questions and we can begin the exercise. Here’s how it works. First, I’m just going to ask you to look at the home page of the test library website and tell me what you think it is, what strikes you about it, and what you think you would click on first.

And again, as much as possible, it will help us if you can try to think out loud so we know what you’re thinking about.

[Test moderator opens browser to test page]

OK. Is there anything that interests you on this page that you might click on?

Before you click, can you tell me what you expect to find when you click on the link?

[after clicking] Did you find what you expected?

[Three main tasks that test subject will complete]

I’m going to ask you to try to complete some tasks using the test library site. Please keep in mind that some of the interior pages of the library site don’t have all the text or links that ultimately will. And as you can see from the library home page, there are some open spaces that we haven’t put content into yet.

[First task; make sure the browser is back to the home page]

OK, beginning at the library home page, pretend that you want to know what the hours are for the library next week. Where would you go to find that information?

[Second task]

Great. OK, now let’s say that you’ve checked out a book that is due back soon. You’d like to extend the loan period. Can you see a way to use the library site to help with that?

[Third task]

Great. Now let’s say that you want to find a textbook titled “Brief Calculus.” Can you see a way to do that?

Thank you so much for your time. Your help today is going to be fed right back into our redesign efforts.

[Test moderator presses CTRL F9 on the laptop keyboard to stop the audio and screen recording]

Please feel free to reuse this script without attribution.