The future of Big Te(a)ch

Last week, my place of work announced that the university campus was going to be primarily online for the upcoming fall semester. From my understanding, the qualifier of primarily is being used because there are some professional programs that have compulsory in-person components such as in clinical nursing.

Replicating hands-on or lab components of classes are a particular challenge in the present moment. How do you replace what an anatomy class might mean to a medical student? When you are training students to do work in a chemistry lab, what do you do when you no longer have a lab to work in?

I have taken my fair share of lab courses and, to be honest, I recall many of them were stressful. I always felt the pressure of being on the clock and having to finish a series of steps towards an outcome that was unclear to me. To be honest, young me would have preferred the option of watching a lab instructor with a go-pro strapped to their forehead, going through the experiment on my behalf.

But watching another person complete a jigsaw puzzle is not the same as doing the jigsaw puzzle yourself.

How can we create rich, online or at-home experiences with choice and agency?

One answer is, The Future of Big Tech.

It’s not the future you think I mean. I’m referring to the 10 minute game The Future of Big Tech which available as pay-as-you-can from Coney’s Pop-Up Playhouse [from the menu, click on : 2+ Players > The Future of Big Tech]

Coney is a UK-based interactive theatre group whose work I’ve been casually following for some years now. I’ve only recently started exploring their online options. This past weekend, I played Big Tech Future with my kids and I really appreciated the opportunity to have a conversation of what the experience meant to them afterwards.

screenshot from The Future of Big Tech

I’m being vague here because I really don’t want to spoil the experience as it is one that you really should try. But if you are feeling apprehensive about putting on your headphones and diving in, I will tell you a bit of what you can expect.

Once you choose your character, you will hear a short description of who you are and how you live in a particular future. You will pick up a phone call and during the call, you will be given choices to make. There are no loud or sudden disturbing noises during the call and the game ends in under ten minutes.

The voice acting is very good. I’m adding it as evidence in my ‘augmented experiences are better than virtual ones‘ file.

I’m so impressed how much this game achieves in such a short time. I also appreciate that the designers recognized that by dividing the experience into two, the game creates an easy entry into conversation afterwards, as each participant will want to ask the other for their side of the story.

It truly belongs on a syllabi.

It’s time to cut the CRAAP

I do not have a good understanding of what academic librarians are currently teaching students in regards to evaluating information they find on the Internet. Rather than read the literature, I searched for the word CRAAP in my custom Google Search Engine for Ontario Academic Libraries. I found that many libraries – including my own place of work – advocate the use of the CRAAP checklist-approach to evaluating information found online.

I have never been particularly enthusiastic about the CRAAP checklist approach to evaluating information and I know that I’m not the only librarian who feels this way. But until recently, if you had asked me what I would suggest as an alternative, I would have struggled to articulate the structure of what to replace it.

As my last series of posts can attest, I have been recently creating creative-commons licensed learning objects with H5P through eCampus Ontario. I am doing so because in these unprecedented times much of the teaching on the university campus has transitioned to asynchronous online learning and as such, I believe that my teaching should transition as well.

This week, I made this short presentation introducing the reader to two methods that I think should replace the use of the CRAAP checklist.

This presentation introduces the reader to the COR (Civic Online Reasoning) Curriculum and the SIFT Method. Both are comprised of a short series of steps to help the reader separate fact from fiction on the Internet. Both methods are built from the strategies employed by professional fact-checkers.

Mike Caulfield, who created and advocates for the SIFT method, has explained why the CRAAP checklist is insufficient in these two interviews that are best read in full: “Getting Beyond the CRAAP Test: A Conversation with Mike Caulfield” and “Truth Is in the Network” from Project Information Literacy.

I also found his post, A Short History of CRAAP as particularly enlightening. My jaw dropped a bit at this particular connection:

So when the web came into being, library staff, tasked with teaching students web literacy, began to teach students how to use collection development criteria they had learned in library science programs. The first example of this I know of is Tate & Alexander’s 1996 paper which outlines a lesson plan using the “traditional evaluation criteria of accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage.” ….

… So let’s keep that in mind as we consider what to do in the future: contrary to public belief we did teach students online information literacy. It’s just that we taught them methodologies that were developed to decide whether to purchase reference sets for libraries

A Short History of CRAAP

Perhaps this is the reason why librarians have such a hard time letting go of this particular approach.

The Librarian as DJ

On Saturday night I had a Zoom call with a friend of mine from high school. My friend prefaced our chat with a warning that she was going to keep the conversation short because video calls are exhausting. I heartily agreed. During this call, my daughter and her son would grace our screens and through them, excitedly shared what game-spaces in Roblox they go to play and hangout in, with their friends.

This difference between exhaustion and joy struck me. I didn’t think it was because of any particular characteristic of our respective generations, but I couldn’t entirely place why the reactions were so very different. But then on Sunday morning, during the time in which I dedicate to my longreads collected from a week’s worth of tweets and newsletters, I found an answer that made a lot sense to me.

That essay was Home Screens by Drew Austin from the web publication, Real Life. After I finished, I promptly took to twitter to share my recommendation for everyone to read it. Here’s a passage from it, dedicated to Zoom:

Pure economic exchanges can relocate to screen interactions with a minimal loss of fidelity, but encounters meant to be less instrumental are proving harder to sustain without the texture of physical space. Most of the apps we use for interaction simply unbundle an informational component from the scene of social contact. This was sufficient under ordinary circumstances, when messaging and video conferencing apps merely complemented in-person exchanges. But now those tools leave users wanting more, failing to substitute the richness and depth that interaction in physical space could otherwise provide.

Consider, for example, the video-conferencing platform Zoom. During the quarantine’s first few weeks, it emerged as a flexible (albeit insecure) tool for conducting interactions that could no longer happen face to face, rapidly expanding beyond its established domain of business meetings to accommodate gatherings ranging from happy hours to dinner parties to dates. But rather than providing support for adjacent activities, as an app like Slack does for office work, Zoom replaces those activities altogether. In other words, users experience Zoom more as a stultified form of virtual reality than an augmented one, because it feels as though there is very little off-screen reality available to augment right now.

Drew Austin, Home Screens, Real Life, April 27th, 2020

I’m writing about this essay on this blog rather than my more technology focused outlet, because I want to start exploring this understanding that there is something fundamentally different between ‘virtual libraries’ and ‘augmented libraries’.

In Home Screens, Austin draws on one of my favourite written works from last year:

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell makes an eloquent case for the importance of place as a site of non-transactional human relations. As an example, she describes how, for many, public transportation is “the last non-transactional space in which we are regularly thrown together with a diverse set of strangers, all of whom have different destinations for different reasons.” She goes on to summarize Louis Althusser’s contention that true societies can emerge only within spatial constraints, where individuals live in bounded proximity without the ability to easily disperse. In such settings, individuals have no choice but to encounter one another repeatedly and establish durable connections based upon a firmer foundation than the exchange value those relationships promise. This represents a quite different logic than that of an app that enables hiring random (and often unseen) strangers to perform tasks for us at a social distance.

Another non-transactional space in which residents are regularly thrown together with a diverse set of strangers, all of whom have different ‘destinations’ for different reasons, is the library.

I don’t mean to spoil the concluding passages of Joanne McNeil’s Lurking: How a Person Became a User, but I can’t ignore the connection that I see here:

Librarians are what the internet is aching for — people on task to care about the past, with respect to the past and also to what it shall bequeath to the future. There needs to be rituals in place online to treat people — users — with dignity, both for the living and the dead. For to speak of the humanity of internet users is to recognize the impermanence, the mortality of that humanity.

Everyone is welcome in a library just for being. A person in a library is a person: homeless or not, hurting or not. My dream for the internet, as a final form, is a civic and independent body, where all people are welcomed and respected, guided by principles of justice, rights, and human dignity. For this, users would express care in return, with a sense of purpose and responsibility to the digital spaces organized with these values. With the internet routing through a planet that is the origin of more than a hundred billion lives, such a project means information in abundance. Segmenting and clustering users and history into communities, rather than mass-purpose platforms, would be an integral component to this ideal internet in its cycles of maintenance and renewal.

Joanne McNail, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, 2020.

I have added the above to my file of technology writers who suggest that the future of the internet needs librarians and the public library become an ISP.

I haven’t been a public librarian in over twenty years now, so I am going to limit the following thoughts on augmented vs virtual library space in an academic library context.

First, let us consider that more students come to the library to study rather than to actively engage with library-provided materials, print or otherwise. Does this suggest that the academic library has a responsibility to provide online study space for students?

I think the answer might be yes — but not yet. I don’t believe academic libraries can provide online spaces for students to share what they’re learning in the current state of teaching and assessment in the University. Let us remember that it wasn’t that long ago when Canadian Universities equated creating virtual study spaces on Facebook with cheating. Let us be aware that not enough has changed since 2009, and that some faculty are quite happy to hold students under constant surveillance rather than risk a drop in ‘academic vigor’.

The most notable experiment in creating the library as a virtual space were the Libraries of Second Life. In the current moment, the virtual spaces where people gather are within Minecraft, Fortnite, Roblox, and Animal Crossing.

But let’s not think of virtual spaces. Let’s not try to reimagine the library through an Oculus Rift. Let’s try to start with something a little manageable. Something a little more humane.

Let’s take a psychogeographic approach, as suggested by my colleague Devon Mordell:

With our ability to roam the physical environment necessarily compromised, our platforms – Netflix, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, etc. etc. – have taken on an even greater significance as the sites of our work and leisure. But how do we inhabit them in psychogeographic terms, as virtual spaces that shape our behaviours and emotions? Is it possible to find alternative paths to the passive consumption modalities that a data-driven culture industry expects of us? Can we amble through our platforms in ways unforeseen by their designers? And understand their infrastructures better through our experiments and investigations?

Ergo, a psychogeographical approach to platform studies as a means to engage with these infrastructures in novel ways (please note: I am not a licensed psychogeographer).

Tactics for resisting platform passivity, Devon Mordell, 2020

It delights me to no end that Devon published the above as I was writing the draft of this post because I also want to speculate that perhaps we should investigate sound as a platform (please note: I am a licensed psychogeographer).

What if every library offered its own version of lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to? [explainer]

What if your librarian was also your DJ? What could a campus-scaled call-in show sound-like? Would you feel less alone if the DJ gave you a shout-out?

Personality Testing using H5P

We don’t all play games the same way. One useful means by which we can categorize types of players by their style of play is through the use of Bartle Types, named after Richard Bartle who formed the characterizations from observing participants playing MUDs:

So, labelling the four player types abstracted, we get: achievers, explorers, socialisers and killers. An easy way to remember these is to consider suits in a conventional pack of cards: achievers are Diamonds (they’re always seeking treasure); explorers are Spades (they dig around for information); socialisers are Hearts (they empathise with other players); killers are Clubs (they hit people with them).

Hearts, clubs, diamonds, spades: players who suit MUDS“, Richard Bartles

I’m not aware of any system that categorizes university students by their behaviours and motivations and this, I think, is for the best. It is useful to remember that there will always be a percentage of students who are in the process of trying to create or discover their own motivations and personal identity, especially when we are working with young people.

I’ve been engaging in this line of thinking because I noticed that the H5P Framework offers a format called ‘Personality Quiz’ and I’ve been trying to imagine how it can be used in an educational context.

I don’t think I have properly articulated why I’ve become so intrigued by H5P. I only became aware of the H5P Framework once it was made available through eCampus Ontario for Ontario educators in the university and college some months ago. Once I learned that the HTML5 based framework allowed for both accessible and lightweight learning objects (slide presentations, quizzes, simple puzzles) that could be embedded in systems such as Blackboard, WordPress, and Drupal, I invested in the time to learn more. I’m particularly impressed that most of the items I’ve found in both Laurier’s and eCampus Ontario’s catalogues have been licenced openly to encourage re-use.

Here’s a presentation I created using the framework earlier this week:

For the last three weeks, I’ve been spending some time playing around with the formats of H5P, as previous posts in the ludo series can attest.

From the exploration I’ve done this week, I believe that by labeling the H5P format a ‘Personality Quiz’, we might be overlooking that we could use this mechanic to weigh imperfect answers and present the most compelling choice after a series of questions. This might prove to be a more efficient means of guiding a user to a particular answer rather than presenting a large number of binary choices in which every answer is a single end-node of a decision tree.

For example, in a library context we present to the user a list of different databases they might want to use when they perform research. In my place of work, each librarian chooses a subset of options and lists them on a single page, often separated into groups. Here’s the list of resources that I’ve put together as the liaison librarian for UWindsor’s School of Environmental Science:

I try not to overwhelm the reader with too many choices and have opted to group the options from most specific to more general and then added some options for tools from related disciplines at the bottom of the page. This layout requires the reader to review the entire page of options before making a choice.

But what if I also presented the choices via a quiz to make this decision-making more palatable?

Screen capture of behind the scenes…

This is clearly not going to be as fun as a Buzzfeed Quiz, but it may be a better means to convey to the reader why there are so many available options and that some options may be better for some specific purposes than others. If you have any advice or experiences with this quiz – good or bad – please leave a comment and let me know.

I’m still interested in exploring further and trying other tools of Interactive Fiction to help a reader or researcher navigate through their research journey. I am working on an idea that I hope to showcase in the near future. I’m not going to tell you exactly what I’m hoping to achieve but I will let you know that it is going to be themed around the idea of the manifesto.