Monday, 28 April 2014

5 Things Google needs to do to better (if it's to be taken more seriously in higher education)

Image used under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ©

At The University of Sheffield we have been using Google Apps for Education for about four years, and as many of my colleagues know I'm a big advocate of the technology giants move into education and collaboration, and have been for almost a decade. Like many of my peers I enjoy the benefits of using Forms for questionnaires and knowledge gathering, Docs for collaborative document writing, even penning a journal article via live Google Doc paper slams with two of my colleagues. I love the ease of meeting the very same people in a Hangout to work on the paper and donning the funny augmented fake moustaches at the same time. Yet there are a few things missing that would really turn this powerful suite of tools into a truly academic productivity suite.

Academic understanding
Most people I work with agree that Docs are great, their simplicity and ability for true synchronous collaboration is without doubt a winner. Docs are what the Web generation were waiting for whilst Microsoft were left sleeping with their tired, but trusted Office platform. Docs may not have all of the functionality that Word has, but that is changing thanks to a collection of new add-ons including thesaurus, table of contents and even a track changes tool that is almost taking Docs back to Word for those uncomfortable with the comments option. Yet one thing for academics is still missing and that is reference management software integration. For any higher education students, especially those taking Masters or PhD level studies and academic research staff the addition of a proper cite-while-you-write plug in would be a big step forward. Docs does have the EasyBib citation generator, but at present the application is limited to searching Google for either a title, ISBN, DOI, or Keyword. In addition it only has a very limited number of citation styles, which compared to the likes of Mendeley has thousands. Another option a colleague brought to my attention was the Google Add-on Paperpile which does have potential with its cite-while-you-write function. It isn't free, but at less than £30 a year probably worth investigation. To use Paperpile you need to export your Mendeley or Endnote, et al references and PDFs, whilst it works effortlessly in Chrome. Paperpile is a step in the right direction, but perhaps still feels too lightweight compared to the established reference management applications, time will tell. Applications used in academic research and teaching departments such as Endnote and RefWorks are capable of managing thousands of references easily. The issue isn’t about whether an add-on can insert references or import a few dozen but whether a large scale, structured collection of references can be inserted easily into an essay, journal paper or book and a bibliography be created in a variety of citation styles. Until such as Mendeley, Zotero or another reference management application resolves that issue, Docs will really only be fit for small articles and essays not systematic reviews or large scale reports. The reason for this is not down to such as Paperpile’s inability as it may well be capable of this, but academics need to see the tools they trust achieve this. If you have used Endnote for 20 years you need to know the next tool you move on to will be a step forward with minimum fuss. In addition students and academics would need to move away from Firefox and for some Internet Explorer as more of these tools appear within Chrome, that is still a hurdle many are not yet ready to take. Obviously as I have argued above not all of this is Google’s fault, but like their take on Social Media, their slowness on the uptake with regards to a real reference management solution means it could be some time before we see widespread serious academic use of Docs.

Google are renowned for providing real-time updates for their applications, often with little or no notice, which is understandable when you have tools that are used by millions of people and for free. Yet on occasions Google misjudge these changes to the point where it can cause uncertainty and frustration amongst its users. Take Google Reader for example, a much used and loved tool for staying abreast of websites and resources via RSS. It was particularly useful for academics to stay abreast of new journal articles and blogs, yet Google killed it off much to the delight of competitors such as Feedly who gained new subscribers in their millions almost overnight.
One potential switch off was an indication of their failure to understand how universities were using their software when they announced they would close the appointment slots function within Google Calendar. For those unaware, appointments were useful in a multitude of ways in education, from tutors allocating slots for their students to support staff, such as librarians doing the same and allowing students and staff to sign up for one-to-one sessions. These would then be added automatically to the student’s own calendar to prevent them from forgetting what they had signed up for. It was a great exercise in preventing time wastage as it did not rely on students to jot down the appointment in a notebook only to forget it.
As a result many in the academic community and beyond voiced their annoyance at such a decision which Google eventually reversed, so at least they saw the error of their ways, it’s just a concern they could do something similar again.
Google do not get everything right, look at how slow they reacted to the growth of Social Media and how Google Wave bombed in its attempt to change how we handled communication and networks, yet for every big failure they have had multiple successes. The hope is that they learn from the mistakes of Wave and know when to manoeuvre a u-turn with the likes of appointment slots.

Privacy and settings
This is not in relation to Google’s attitude to privacy in general as that is a different topic which could stretch for pages, but how Google run Hangouts On Air. Again at my university we were lucky to get Google Apps and one of the tools with most potential is Google Hangouts. Hangouts are superb for student support, project meetings and general catch ups. When the On Air functionality was turned on we saw this as a great way to deliver live webinars and run such as open days for our department. Sadly unlike publishing a video to YouTube, the privacy settings were no where to be seen, so you could not make your on air hangout private as it sat in a public lobby. Anyone who has ever been into a public Web lobby will know that it can be open to abuse and trolling. So our first first attempts at Hangouts On Air were slightly uncomfortable as various strangers came in and posted dubious comments. There were no options to make the Hangout private via a password which could be shared with attendees or schedule the Hangout so that attendees had a URL they could copy and paste in advance. It all felt too open, and therefore potentially unsafe, so my institution decided to turn off this function. Ideally Hangout On Air should have the option of private hosting via invite only, like a professional Webinar where you can see exactly who is in your lobby and preferably be able to orchestrate invites and kick off bad attendees. Once these issues are refined Hangouts On Air would be a brilliant addition to the academic’s collection of tools for teaching, instruction, collaboration and communication.

Better Offline
From my experience the one thing that really puts academics and students off from using Google Apps is their restricted functionality for working offline. I have a Chromebook and have conducted most of my work for the last five years in the Cloud, I know there are certain things I can do like create my own personal hotspots should WiFi not be available or simply have some papers with me to read in the event of a WiFi-free train journey. Yet for many students and academics they still travel around with USB sticks or use desktop based software such as Microsoft Office, also for other reasons as previously mentioned other than the Cloud not being accessible.
In recent years Google Docs have almost taken a step backwards with a nod to Microsoft with offline version of documents in Drive and such as track changes as an add on. Yet offline email and documents is still not really taking off for many Google App users as they have been used to moving in one direction, that being totally cloud based. Yet as I have experienced WiFi is not consistent or fast enough in many places in the UK, whilst open and free WiFi locations are not always the safest place to work on a sensitive document due to the risks of being hacked or spied on. The move towards Dropbox style functionality of Drive has been a good one, but still there needs to be more fluidity and ease to the switch between offline and on-line and between various platforms. Obviously this is something Google is working on and getting better at as there are now more options, although offline editing in IOS and Android still appears to be unavailable, whilst you can only use offline in the Chrome browser. The nature of Google is to be on-line, and in the future that is where we will all be working, but until WiFi networks become faster and more reliable, Google will have to try harder to be offline as well as on-line in their attempt to win over more students and academics.

A Connected World

Google has build and collected a diverse and growing toolbox of useful tools that have changed the way many work in academia for ever. For many there is no going back to Outlook, Word or PowerPoint, yet despite the uniformity and ease that Google Apps afford the user there is still one thing missing. Anyone who has ever used project management tools such as Huddle or SharePoint or at our own institution a tool called uSpace created by Jive will understand the feeling of working within a bubble. That all of the tools within the wider package all feel enclosed. This is by no means a statement saying SharePoint and uSpace are better than Google Apps as they are not, by a long chalk. Yet for Google to really step into the education arena they need to have the feel of a virtual learning environment (VLE) or project management suite like Huddle. There is no question that the majority of Google Apps work work together and most have small learning curves, if you learn Docs you've almost learned Blogger, if you can use Blogger you’re not far off from mastering Sites. Even though at my institution the Apps sit safely behind a password and are all accessible from one menu that includes Groups, Contacts, Maps, Blogger, YouTube amongst others, there is still an air of desperateness about them. Yes you can embed a video in a blog, you can add a Doc to a Site, it all works very well it all connects and embeds nicely. Yet you cannot see the collections of docs, groups and videos in one place such as you can in our VLE. The benefits are simple that you can group discussions, documents, blogs in one place and view them at a glance with one big overview. Of course you can do this to some extent with Sites, or embed Apps within your VLE but if it was that simple we would be seeing more examples of it, whilst it just feels a bit unwieldy and a workaround. Whether Google’s game-plan is to create a VLE to rival such as Blackboard I don’t know, or they might even consider buying a VLE and drop in the suite wholesale. Google Apps for Education is without doubt a powerful collection of tools, and as anyone who has used them will know they do not rest on their laurels. The set of tools will continue to grow and advance and by addressing these five issues they will see a huge uptake in their usage in academia.


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

App Swap Breakfasts

Back in January I was lucky to speak at the UICSA Event 'Changing Landscapes' at The Edge in Sheffield about ScHARR Bite Size. At the time I was in the process of handing ScHARR Bite Size - which I'd run for over three years to the ScHARR Staff Development Group' and was wondering about a follow on series I could investigate. At the conference I saw a brilliant presentation by Fiona MacNeill, Joyce Webber and Betheny Hewitt University of Brighton on App Swap Breakfasts.

App Swap Breakfasts are as you imagine a gathering based around breakfast time to talk and swap useful Apps. I thought this was a great idea and one we could replicate at The University of Sheffield. My thoughts were, although the Brighton model is based around teaching and learning, but it could be extended to every facet of the academic community to include research, communication and collaboration, why not, as there are so many useful apps out there and so little time to properly investigate them.

From my own personal experience I know many colleagues had tablet and smartphones and were only using a small number of apps beyond the core ones of email, Web browser, calendar and document viewer. I myself only use a small number of the few dozen productivity and professional apps on my iPad. The idea is also re-enforced by personal experience in that I was encouraged by my colleague Claire Beecroft to use the Turnitin App to undertake some essay marking rather than on my PC. Claire spent five minutes showing me the various tools within Turnitin, the marking rubric, the audio feedback and just how easy it was to navigate and leave comments and notes. So instead of sitting at my desk amongst the usual distractions of people coming into my office, checking emails and the Web, I was able to settle down in a chair and mark my essays in comfort. So all it took was for a colleague to sit down with me for five minutes, something I'm all too aware of in my role as trying to get others to adapt to new technologies and ways of working. So hopefully we can achieve what Brighton have done with this brilliant idea and share those apps we find useful that others aren't aware of, or have installed but not tried over an early morning coffee and croissant. What's not to like?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

New Scoping Review on LIS Practitioners and Research

                                          Image source: Chris Guy, used under this Creative Commons Licence

Last year Andrew Booth and I were the happy recipients of the LIRG Research Scan Award; I blogged about this here. I am pleased to report that the research has been published as an article in the Library and Information Research Journal.

Our review focused on the recent literature concerning LIS practitioners and their relationship with research. We characterised practitioners’ relationship with research in three ways: as consumers of research, conducting their own research and working in collaboration with academics. In order to create a richer picture of this relationship we included more informal types of evidence, identified through sources such as newsletters, discussion lists and conference websites.

The review addressed the key questions from the award brief:

•      What kind of research is relevant to LIS practitioners?
•      What do practitioners understand by “research” and how do they use it?
•      What are the barriers and facilitators to using research in practice?

We were also able to address the additional questions:

•      What kind of research do practitioners undertake?
•      What is the status of practitioner / academic collaboration in research?

The research scan provided only a snapshot of current activity on the research / practice nexus, but implications at a practitioner, organisational and strategic level are presented.

The full paper is available here

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Lights, Camera, Instruction! - Why making movies for your library should not cost the earth

We all know about the power of YouTube, we have all seen it, that way of getting information, humour and marketing amongst other things across the globe in seconds. We see polished film trailers alongside home-made videos of children and animals falling down, whilst the real hidden gem of YouTube and other such platforms is that they teach you useful things, and this is a key part of a librarian’s role: how to search a database?, how to appraise information?, how to use a piece of software?, how to stay safe online?, so on and so forth.

So why are so few library and information services out there using such platforms as YouTube or nicer, less trolled platforms like Vimeo? There are several issues for libraries and information services and they can be broken down into these key areas:
Time, Money, Content, Audience, Knowhow, Technology and Confidence.

Before we address these issues there are also two strands of video we need to look at: pieces to camera video and screencasts. Most instructional videos will be recorded as screencasts, whilst more confident members of the library community will deliver a piece to camera. Screencasts require less preparation as you do not need good lighting, someone to hold the camera or to worry about people walking into shot. That said, you can record pieces to camera quite simply using your smartphone these days and have them published online within minutes.

The evidence- although not immediately apparent to those of us who have grown up watching a textual based Web dominate for so long- is that video is now becoming the dominant medium on the Web. As said earlier we have seen a multitude of videos go viral featuring talented cats, Gangnam dances and smiling babies, and given that library and information videos are not likely to knock these off their perch they are no doubt valuable to those who care. In 2011 Cisco predicted that video would make up over 50% of all consumer Internet traffic by 2012, and would make up for over 70% of all mobile data traffic by 2016. So what about those earlier concerns, how can we best tackle them? There is no silver bullet or one size fits all solution to this, but at least I can try to alleviate your fears.

Of course, time is very precious for library and information professionals, everyone needs your help and support and therefore your time. Yet how many times in your working week do you get the same enquiry? How often have you thought to yourself ‘Google it’?. Without wanting to sound like you should outsource such enquiries, you could use video to maximise the time you can spend on more complex enquiries.
Make instructional screencast videos using free software like the superb Screencast-o-matic or the Windows standard Live Movie Maker or even get your service to invest in better packages with quality editing options like Camtasia. By making videos that show your users how to search a database or renew a book you are not making yourself detached or redundant, you are freeing up more time for other problems that need solving and opening your service up to home-based users. There will always be enquiries that will require face to face communication and support, your users will always want your help.

Money for libraries has been a very sensitive topic in recent years and we know they are under increasing pressure to make do with less resources. Making videos feels like a big thing, that it could be expensive, that it will eat up money better spent elsewhere. Yet video is good money spent elsewhere if you use it correctly. Nevertheless there are plenty of free things you can do to make screencasts and videos for your service. Firstly use the camera on your smartphone to record a welcome video for your service or just to announce yourself. If you are an outreach and liaison librarian you can simply reach out to users by making a little film saying hello and what you can do to help. Make a video walking around your library showing the various resources you have at hand. Obviously these will not be Oscar-winning recordings, but as long as the sound is clear and you have good lighting you can make something quite effective. Myself and my colleague Claire Beecroft have made video trailers for conference presentations using our phone, it is simple, quick and effective.
Here is one we recorded for Internet Librarian International 2012 about using video:

Video Saved the Library Star - Internet Librarian International 2012 Promo from ScHARR Library on Vimeo.

You can make screencasts using simple tools like Screenr and Screencast-O-Matic for free and then download them to edit with various free editing packages starting with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie on the Mac. You will find dozens of good quality free video editing tools on the Web by searching around, obviously they are limited compared to professional packages such as Adobe Premiere and Sony Vegas but will still help polish and produce your video.

I have touched on some of the ways you can use video to create content for your library and information service, but the reality is that much of it depends on your confidence and imagination. There are dozens of innovative and humorous library videos from the United States. The video Librarian Lays Down the Law, although fictitious and humourous is about the Dewey catalogue system and has had over 180,000 views.

A good place to start is to think about any processes and enquiries you get on a regular basis- if you maintain a list of FAQs start there. Once you have identified a few, think about how you can script them into short instructional videos and start recording  them. The main three things to remember is that you do not have to capture the recording first time, that you need to capture the audio clearly and that your video needs to be kept short, ideally less than three minutes. Think about what your service offers and turn it into a promotional video, even consider having a colleague present a live tour of your library. You can make videos explaining anything from how you use self service machines to copyright legislation. Once you have started collating content you can build collections and channels within such platforms such as YouTube, it can help filter content that is most relevant to your users.

For anyone working in front-line services you will always know who your customers are, whether they be students, members of the public, children, doctors, academics or others. Try to break down the services you offer to them, what communications do you currently use? If you are you using Social Media, think about the channels you can use to get your content to your clients. The good news is that there are plenty of free outlets to host your content on, especially YouTube and Vimeo, whilst getting into the communities is made easier if you know of any online groups you can post your content on. Use Facebook and Twitter to promote your videos to a wide audience. Your video does not have to be watched thousands of times, just a few dozen times can reap rewards for your service as it helps your users and builds the profile of your organisation.

Know-how, Technology and Confidence
These are very much part and parcel of helping build a video profile for your library and information service. Hopefully this short article will have demystified and encouraged some people to go out and attempt to make their first videos. The key thing you need to remember is that you can have several attempts at making a video, it does not have to be perfect first time. If you are happy with your first attempt move on and make another one. Videos can date very quickly, as with traditional learning resources so do not get too hung up on it being totally perfect. If you wanted an example of the kind of videos you could try looking at the ScHARR Library YouTube Channel I set up in 2009 - and there are countless other videos online that can also inspire your own.

Technology can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. As I touched on earlier, start simple, use your smartphone and simple screencasting software like Screencast-O-Matic and editing software like Windows Live Movie Maker. Don’t underestimate the quality of video you can produce with free tools and tools you already have.

If you can identify some funding even better, £1000 could go a long way and guy you a simple video camera, tripod and external microphone for capturing better quality audio. You can purchase a copy of Camtasia for around £200 and make your videos even better with titles, music and nice edits. As for getting your video recordings up and running you will find several tutorials on how to capture video and edit it on YouTube, so try not to lose precious time reading manuals if there is a quicker and more effective option online.

By taking these steps forward you will find your confidence increases naturally and more ideas about what you can record can be applied. Obviously remembering some key points along the way:

  1. Your audio needs to be clear
  2. Your video should be as short as it reasonably can be- aim for under 3 mins
  3. Your use of images/music must be compliant withcopyright law

There are growing numbers of Creative Commons licensed music and images you can apply to your videos for no charge depending on the correct attribution. Google ‘CC Search’ for access to this fantastic resource.

The evidence is clear that video has become the dominant medium on the Web. We may have millions of pages of text, but the hours of video online is staggering and given the growing evidence our of shortening attention spans even more important.
YouTube recently reported that one hour of content is uploaded per second. so it is a good time to start using video within your library and information service- regardless of the setting there is so much that video can do- the possibilities are endless!

Software for screencasting

Software for video editing

Useful phone Apps to make videos, take images and share socially.

Music and image resources for your videos

ScHARR Library YouTube page

Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2011–2016

YouTube Launches OneHourPerSecond to Visualize how much Video is Uploaded each Second

This article was originally published in the February issue of the MmIT Journal Volume 40. Issue 1
You can subscribe to the journal by going here:

Friday, 11 April 2014

Citation, citation, citation! Is learning bibliographic styles a relevant skill for the modern student?

At ScHARR Library we run a program of online information skills training which includes coverage of the reference management tool Mendeley ( One of the many useful features of Mendeley is its ability to plug into Microsoft Word, allowing students to "cite while they write", meaning that their citations and reference list are generated for them automatically, without them having to type them in by hand. This is a feature that is also integrated into some other key reference management software products. I have heard some people argue that allowing students to automatically produce their citations and bibliographies is wrong, and that learning a specific referencing style is a vital skill for them to develop.

It's a moot point, but one that I'm inclined to dissagree with.  While I don't think for one second that students don't need far more help than they currently get in understanding the importance of citing and referencing source material consistently, appropriately and correctly, learning a particular referencing style is to my mind unnecessary, and irrelevant.

While we hope that many of our students will go on to be published in the academic literature, the vast majority of academic journals use their own anachronistic referencing styles which the students will simply have to learn again in order to reference their work appropriately for that particular journal.

The best analogy I can draw here is that of the spellcheck function which we now all take for granted in most wordprocessing software.  When marking an assignment, I have often seen teachers comment to a student that they have clearly not used the spellcheck function and should have done so before submitting their work. A generation or so ago we would have been advising them to do this the hard way and get out the dictionary, and some might still argue that for students who don't have English as a first language, using a dictionary to correct their spelling might be more helpful to their acquisition of the English language. However we generally now accept that it's fine for students to use spellcheck functionality, and indeed it is expected.

I think exactly the same case can be made for referencing and citing. I don't think students learn anything about the reasons for citing source material from learning by rote which section of the reference needs to be in italics and which in capitals or parentheses. In an academic environment where plagiarism is still a major source of concern I think that if we spent more time teaching them about why they need to cite and reference and less on how to "dot the i's and cross the t's", so to speak, we would be doing our students a huge favour.

Posted by Claire