Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Mental Models, Taxonomies & Windows of Weltanschuuangs

[Note: "Weltanschauung" is the correct spelling, not "Weltanschuuang". Thanks to Yee Fuang for pointing it out. But I've decided to leave it, misspellings, warts and all - Ivan. 26 Aug 04]

Just read a blog post by Yee Fuang, the latest addition to my list of 'Asian Liblogarians'. She's thinking about Mental Models. Her blog got me thinking too -- seems that libraries have not truly explored what hypertext and Internet-technology-in-general can really do to make the organisation of information more personalised. Take for instance the way librarians build a "librarian's mental model of a book", i.e. what we call 'Biblographic Access Points' -- Title, Author, Subject, Publisher, ISBN etc. Users have no choice but to conform to what we decide are the access points to information.

I have a feeling that most libraries, in building taxonomies, are doing what the Chinese say, "Change soup but not the medicine", i.e. we may be doing things to same way.

Some people have suggested that with today's technology, we should allow users to build their own Access Points to information. I came across an excellent blog on this but can't remember where is it (damn!). Anyway, it sounds logical, doesn't it? We each have different "mental models" in how we make sense of information and the world at large. Libraries should build "information taxonomies", but allow end-users to search for information the way they see it, according to their 'Weltangschuuangs' (i.e. world-views).

Let's use the term "Relationships" as an example:
Women = "Long term" + "Companionship" + "Marriage"
Men = "How to score, big time"*
(*hey, come on it's true ain't it?)

So should any librarian wonder why people are turning away from libraries and plunging into the Internet? Could it be that the appeal of the Internet is that there is no 'right' way to seek information? That no one will notice that you are not searching for it the 'correct way'?

Speaking of 'correctness', I have to qualify that I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to "Taxonomies" and "Mental Models". So flame me, correct me, teach me :)

Oops -- a 'Tangential Thought' moment here (i.e. where I digress and ramble):
(1) Perhaps that's why I'm hooked on blogs. It doesn't matter that I'm reading someone's biased view of politics, or a teenager expressing his/ her angst. It all adds to my understanding of how other people view the world, a "Window to their Weltangschuuangs", their Mental Models of things that matter to them.

(2) The word "Taxonomy" is defined as the "scientific process of classifying living things". Hmm... 'Information' as a 'Living Organism'? I'm sure there's an article out there about this.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Writing Reviews: What are we really afraid of?

Here's an interesting blog by Michael McGrorty on "Reviewing Books". It's informative and subtly funny too (like many of the blogs I like). A statement in the 5th para caught my attention: "You don’t find a lot of enthusiasm these days among librarians for writing reviews." It struck a chord because I thought this problem existing only in NLB. Now I know we are not alone.

Michael suggests that writing reviews is "a lost art, gone to the same musty resting place as the card catalog and the Silence Rule." I think for NLB, it's not permanently lost. It was probably side-tracked for a while.

NLB probably needs to do what it has been doing so well for the past 8 years: Re-inventing.

The card catalog hasn't really gone away. It's now online and we're better off because of it. Silence is still part of library etiquette but since we know we can't stop every single person from talking, NLB created a Quiet Reading Room for the upgraded libraries (where readers would help us enforce the Quiet Reading rule). So it's the same for the "lost art" of writing book reviews. NLB has to reinvent it.

Mind you I'm no expert in writing reviews. My problem is that when I'm conscious of what I have to write, I feel pressured and tend to spend days refining the draft. Frankly, it's tiring work and I end up dreading to write. So that's why I started Raw Notes, where I could deliberately write anything I want and not feel pressurised into conforming to the requirements of "good reviews".

I want to make my "notes" (not reviews) personal. Forget about being correct and objective etc. It's ok for the occasional typo and grammatical mistake. I just want to enjoy writing and reflecting on what I've read. So far, the experiment is working for me. I've never been so productive where writing is concerned. And I find that there's a ripple effect - the more I enjoy commenting on the stuff I read, the more stuff I find myself reading, and widely too.

Be Personal . Be 'Incorrect'.
Blog it. Flame it.
Be Unafraid.

That's my suggestion for reinventing the way we write and publish book reviews. I'm sure my more creative colleagues will have more brilliant ideas.

Michael has a few suggestions worth noting (comments in [ ] are my own):
* If you have a ‘new books’ section post the review near there, in close proximity to the book. [Makes sense to me!]

* Don’t hesitate to tack copies up at the ends of the stacks where the book would be found. [I like this. That's where readers would need the reviews. Brilliant ideas are often simple ones. ]

* A nice trick is to tuck in a copy inside the book itself, or to hang one from the shelf where the book rests, just like the bookstores do. [Did I mention that brilliant ideas are often simple ones? Micheal, I couldn't have said it better.]

* Put a copy at the reference desk so that the staff can pore over it in those few moments when there isn’t a rush of people to serve. [Yes, don't forget that internal customers are customers too. And if yet another customer asks the "Where's the toilet?" question, point it out but also hand them the review and say, "Here's something to keep you occupied. And feel free to recycle."]

* Be sure to send a copy to the editor of your local paper, especially if you live in a small town. You might end up writing a review column for the paper. [And make a career out of it... it's not as far fetched as it sounds. Singapore is pretty small. In many ways, we are a small town. ]

* Some libraries have book reviewing circles which function very much like book clubs, with the obvious exception that the members produce reviews of the book they’ve all read. This is a great idea if you can coordinate the activity so as to make the review coincide with new releases. Another project you might undertake is to put together a staff-patron reviewing group.
[Sounds like a lot of work, but I read somewhere that if something is easy to do, it's probably not worth doing.]

* But if you end up soldiering on alone in your task, don’t feel bad. A true reviewer establishes a relationship with a book that is unmatched by anybody other than its writer. You have that, and your understanding, for compensation. [I think that's why librarians don't want to write anymore. The fear of not being read at all is worse that being criticised. I learnt in my IRC days that being ignored is infinitely worse than being flamed.]

This last point is important. Now I'm getting really philosophical here - the key is to not worry about it. I know from my experience that the less I worry about writing, the better my writing seems to be - at least to me anyway. And that's ok, because I should write for myself first. I'm often my worse critic.

Even if someone says "Ivan, your review sucks", I'd say "At least you're reading it. Thanks for your time. BTW, you might want to look up books on "Improving your EQ". I can recommend you some really great titles!"

My PLS librarian colleagues are re-discovering the joys (and pains) of writing reviews. Their work is improving everyday. Right now, they've a regular column in The Straits Times, Singapore's main English broadsheet. The reviews are on books relating to Personal Finance. In recent months, we've since received requests from one or two publications asking us for reviews. And a few authors have asked our folks to review their books. My colleagues are complaining about different things now - they say they have no time to write (or read, in order to write). It's a problem, but a good problem.

I don't know how my librarian colleagues would react to Michael McGrorty's article. I sent them the URL and I hope they read it. Doesn't matter if they don't agree with Michael's suggestions on promoting books using reviews. I do hope they find comfort that they're not alone in being hesitant about writing reviews.

Times like this I reflect on Yoda's Words of Wisdom: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Beyond Gimmicks: Tablet PC trial in Crescent Girls’ Secondary

CNA (31 Jul 04) reports that 300 students from Crescent Girls' Secondary "will no longer need to lug heavy textbooks to school". The trial to use Tablet PCs started some 4 weeks ago, allowing students to have "lessons on the move - in the class, in the garden or even at home". I'm thinking of the movie Dead Poet's Society, where Robin Williams threw away the textbooks and conducted classes under a tree.

The report also says that with the Tablet PCs, students can "learn anywhere, any place and any time, transforming the way students learn in school." The students seem to find it a boon. One student said they can do their “homework, projects and everything" - I'm betting the "everything" refers to IRC and Blogging as well (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Several thoughts upon reading the CNA report:

Thought #1 - Technology is both the key Enabler and Disabler.
While the potential benefits of equipment like the Tablet PC are vast, there are also the accompanying problems. Consider this scenario:

Teacher: "Ok Class, please boot up your Tablet and open up the document I emailed last night."
Student1: "Teacher, my battery has gone flat."
Teacher: "I thought I reminded you all to charge your battery before coming out to the field? Ok, you sit with Ling over there."
Student2: "Teacher, my Tablet crashed!"
Teacher: "Where is your backup? No backup? I thought I'd reminded you all about saving your work every 5 minutes?"
Student2: "But Mrs Wu said that we only need to save every 10minutes..."
Student3: (Close to tears) "Sir, I dropped my Tablet! My mother is going to cane me!"
[15 minutes later]
Teacher: "OK OK, those who need to share the Tablet PC, please do so. We have to get to the lesson proper. Now everyone will... William and Boon Keng! What are you doing?"
Student4 & 5: (In unison) "Nothing Sir!"
Teacher: "What nothing?! What is this? You two are doing IRC when you should be paying attention!?"
Student4: "But Sir, I was just asking Boon Keng how to copy and paste the document into my blog."
Teacher: "... I... I don't care. You have to pay attention. No one is allowed to do anything else. If you are not paying attention, you won't know what is going on."
Student6: "Teacher! Michael is assessing the Mediacorp website!"
Student7: "I am not! This is the Discovery Channel lah, stupid!"
Student6: "You then stupid! You smell too!"
Student8: "Yah teacher, it's very hot out here. I want to go back to the computer lab. Here no aircon."
Teacher: "That's it! I give up!!! I am going to tell Principal Tang that this class will stick with books and remain in class for the rest of the year! Why did they try this experiment anyway? I told them it wouldn't work, but Noooooo, they wouldn't listen..."

The above is just tongue-in-cheek. But some of the problems are already happenning in classes that have used computers during lesson time. I'm no anti-technologist. My point for the ramble is that with everything in this world, every Plus has a Minus, a Yin & Yang, Light & Dark.

We learn in basic physics that "For every action, there is a equal and opposite reaction". For such experiments to be successful, schools need to anticipate and pre-empt those potential Negatives. Not all would be eliminated. The thing is to ensure there are more Positives than Negatives at the end of the day. BTW, here’s an interesting blog by Shel on the issue of power supply.

Thought #2 – What’s are the REAL critical success factors?
It's clear to me that students love this because it's gimmicky. The real test will come when the novelty aspect wears off. Then it's just another piece of machine. I've not used a Tablet PC but I understand that one key feature is that it accepts handwritten notes. My experience with a Palm PDA is that while handwritten input (as opposed to keyboard) is convenient, the handwriting recognition isn't as fast as input via keyboard, or writing by hand on paper.

So content and teaching methods will be the real critical success factors. Teachers need to modify their teaching strategies to really benefit from the technology. Otherwise, the benefits from using IT will not be very significant. I'm not alone in this view, which brings me to Thought#3.

Thought #3 – What were the lessons learnt from the 1999 eduPAD experiment?
Prior to the Crescent Girls' experiement, there was a similar trial by Dunman Secondary School - EduPAD - in Sept 1999. Unlike the Tablet PC, which was a commercial product, the eduPAD was a customised device targeted specifically for schools for use in teaching and learning.

It was supposed to bridge the gap between a low-cost Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and the notebook or desktop computer. It too, was all about “learning anytime, anywhere”. The idea was to “shrink text books to the size of postage stamp sized chips, which students can then slot into the EduPAD, enabling them to review textbooks page by page whilst studying at home.

This was an ambitious R&D project, involving the (1) Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) which mooted the idea for the eduPAD and provided pedagogical support; (2) Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL) which offered the technological expertise for the software; (3) CET which designed the hardware; (4) local publishers to contribute to the content; (5) the school who provided the users (teachers and students).

In mid 2000, I spoke to some folks from CET, as well as one or two teachers from Dunearn High. My personal take on the trial was that the proverbial Achilles Heel in the project was CONTENT. The hardware was great for its time – it allowed the ability to store worksheets, assignments and handwritten notes, and access the Internet. But without content, the effectiveness of the trial was limited.

I also suspect (but did not verified) that the project did not really have any significant impact on exam results. Although this may not have been a goal of the project, it would still be the ultimate benchmark by most teachers and parents. With loaded teaching assignments, not all teachers would welcome the R&D nature of such trials. On top of that, they have to think of different teaching approaches in addition to their existing workload with other classes not in the trial.

Parents might also ask, “How has this improved my child’s exam grades? If I have to pay extra for the gadget, I’d rather go back to using textbooks and the tried-and-tested ways of classroom-based teaching.”

Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot when it comes to exams. Indeed, the title of the NIE/ NTU study is also telling, for it says “Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning”. The benefits of IT applications in schools have yet to be rigorously measured.

The findings from a NIE/ NTU study (2001)- Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning - concluded that the “introduction of electronic devices per se into the classroom would not bring improvement in teaching and learning automatically. Teachers and students need to modify their teaching/learning strategies and make full use of the opportunities provided by such a device to do things otherwise not possible." I also notice the paper was careful to say "perceived benefits".

Thought #4 – Why do want to do this at all?
The recurrent theme for such IT experiments in schools is that it will eliminate the need for school bags and textbooks (this was the same thing they said about digital content replacing books and libraries at least 10 years ago, and that hasn't happened).

Other espoused objectives include:
  • “… bringing a new dimension to the growing popularity and importance of distance learning education" Alberta Canada
  • "Preparation of the youth to be able to succeed in the information society of the 21st century" Slovak Republic
  • “… for engaged learning, the deepening of school-business collaboration and, most broadly, the nurturing of a culture of innovation and enterprise across the education system.” Singapore

My thinking is, perhaps, shallower - the key question ought to be: "How will the Tablet PC - or equivalent - make a student a better person in the broad sense of the word?"

Thought #5 – But try we must!
To quote the MOE Minister's 1999 press release:
“What the school or classroom of the future will look like is still very much anybody's guess. What we can say is that it is unlikely to settle on any one model. More probable, a variety of models will emerge, responding to different needs and learning aptitudes and leveraging on different technologies and resources.”

So Singapore will have to continue to try, to learn from successes and failures. And try again.
Why am I so interested in such projecys? Simple answer:
Libraries => Used for learning & research => Taking notes => How can libraries anticipate and support future trends?

Tablet PCs and/ or its application in education:

For a broad discussion on the applications of Tablet PC, with comments from Bill Gates (Microsoft), Chiaki Itoh (Fujitsu), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), Atsutoshi Nishida (Toshiba), Kazuhiko Kobayashi (NEC), Stan Shih (Acer), and James Chu (ViewSonic) - Tablet PC Launch Press Conference - New York, Nov 2002.

The NIE/ NTU findings on an evaluation of a proto-type hand-held electronic device - Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning
From the abstract:
"... At the end of the trial period through a survey and focus group interviews the benefits of this innovative device as perceived by the teachers and students were determined. Both the teachers and students expressed a positive attitude towards the use of an electronic device to enhance teaching and learning. However, they also pointed out that the barrier to the use of eduPAD device in the classrooms resulted mainly from technical problems, such as slow speed of loading and accessing time to the Internet. The students also said that the instructional approaches used in eduPAD classrooms were largely the same as those found in traditional classroom. The findings suggest that introduction of electronic devices per se into the classroom would not bring improvement in teaching and learning automatically. Teachers and students need to modify their teaching/learning strategies and make full use of the opportunities provided by such a device to do things otherwise not possible."

For current product and industry developments on Tablet PCs - Table PC News (from Tablet PC Magazine).