Saturday, June 25, 2011

Encyclopedias versus Wikipedia

Yes I am one of those people who have been trying to point kids to almost any source but Wikipedia.  I am realizing now that I been fighting battles where there really should be no war at all.

Over the past five years as a teacher-librarian at a K to 5 school I have been discouraging students from using Wikipedia because I lack confidence in their ability to evaluate the reliability of the information.  I have also been a bit biased towards using books over web-based sources for research projects in general with the exception of using World Book Online and Culturegram. My thinking has been to steer students towards resources of more limited scope and usually better readability. I have always believed this makes for more productive research with less time spent going off on tangents and getting buried in avalanche of information. I offer the students the opportunity to engage in web-based research after they have exhausted the aforementioned resources.  Usually because of time constraints students don't end up with a large amount of time left over for web based research.

Over the past few years I am becoming more aware of the flaws in my approach especially in regards to grade 4 and 5 students.  I have pointed students to World Book Online to explore their topics in preparation for inquiry research.  Often the information can be quite limited so they don't get enough background to inspire a truly thoughtful inquiry. As a result they don't ask insightful questions or get really jazzed by their research because they have not adequately explored their topic.  I realize that I may have my checklist of  information sources backwards.  Wikipedia and some more general web browsing is a perfect exploratory activity.  Wikipedia articles are often longer and have more cross references than World Book Online. Students can get a better idea of what interests them about their topic and the breadth it could have. 

I realize that there is much wisdom in first harnessing Wikipedia for its sheer scope.  Yes, everyone uses Wikipedia so why not make sure they use it well as a starting point rather than an endpoint for research. Wikipedia can be used to inspire curiosity and better research.  If students are properly informed about how Wikipedia is created their information appetite will not be quenched by Wikipedia but rather it will be whetted. The very fact that  Wikipedia is not authoritative is perfect motivation to seek out additional sources to confirm or refute what Wikipedia states. Yes use Wikipedia and then see if you can prove or disprove the accuracy of what you have read.  If its wrong you could be the first to correct it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Reference Materials

For our course we are to read from our recommended text Achieving Information Literacy.  When I began the course I assumed this was an optional text that we could supplement with other readings.  I found that I have misjudged this and the book is required reading.  I did order it but it has not arrived as of yet and I fear with the rotating postal strikes it may arrive well after the course is complete.

From my reading the of the discussions I have gained some ideas of what the reading has contained and have learned much from the postings that were made. 

Jody Brummund cited that 70 to 85 percent of a school library collection should consist of nonfiction sources.  She observed that her school's collection was closer to 50 percent.  I would say from casual observation that most elementary school libraries would tend towards levels of even higher than 50 percent fiction  this division with the percentage of nonfiction rising in middle and secondary school libraries. In my main library collection only about 40 percent is non fiction.  I will need to investigate the thinking behind this further but I have intuitively felt that my collection was lacking in balance but if the figure of 70 percent is truly what we are to aim for I will need to learn more.  I suppose that I have been more consistent at culling the nonfiction section and that the size of our fiction collection is large for the size of our school. It has been easier to source funding for fiction purchases in the past because teachers have demanded it much like the experience Susan Roberts has had in her school library.  It shows the importance of having collection development policies that all staff understand to avoid too great of an imbalance developing especially in the fiction versus non fiction tug-of-war.

As to funding levels, I know that my library does not meet the minimum standard in terms of funding per student and despite this I know that my school is doing well compared to others.  Through grants, book fairs and other fund raising I average $5,000 to $6,500 a  year for book purchases for a school population of just under 300 students.  According to the standards mentioned in Achieving Information Literacy I need at least $7500 a year to maintain my collection.  I can attest to the fact that these minimum funding figures are accurate.  I can just barely maintain the average age of my non fiction collection at 13 to 14 years of age with my current level of funding but this is a battle of attrition in which I weeding at slightly faster rate than than I am replacing.

As far as the age of my reference collection it is a real embarassment.  My library stats show it to average at 20 years of age.  This is mainly due to a collection of older dictionaries, and older books of quotations and two animal and science encyclopedia that look brand new but are dated 1991.  I certainly need to just weed these out. Up to this point I was too concerned with the size of the reference section.  It is better to have 30 or 40 reference volumes that are up-to-date than having 100 that are just taking up space. I do have World Book Online and a subscription to Culturegram which makes my reference section a bit more roboust then it first appears.

Periodicals have always been a struggle.  I cancelled all my periodical subscriptions for about two years to get a handle on expenses to develop some pent up demand.  I now have about 8 to 10 subscriptions. This would appear to be lip service to periodicals more than anything else.

As far as DVDs are concerned we have been hoping for more of a district solution such as video streaming as mentioned by a few others in our discussions.  I find that teachers are often looking for shorter clips of video to re-enforce or introduce concepts rather than a full 20 to 60 minute video packed full of information they may not need.  Unfortunately youtube and teacher tube is now the default for videos. I do find it refreshing though that teachers are looking to search for video content to address specific learning outcomes as opposed to more generic "filler."  I think this where the demand and usefulness of video streaming will grow because of the ability to search for content within larger packages of video content.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Alberta's Online Reference Centre for Schools

Alberta’s Online Reference Centre presents a robust selection of reference resources. I think it represents a core of what most teacher-librarians are familiar with in terms of subscription services and that they believe should be made freely available to their patrons.

I very much appreciate the clear indication of the grade levels for which each resource is appropriate. However, if the page were to get much longer I would suggest dividing it into pages that split into elementary, middle, and high school reference resources and even subdivide according to subject area. The Victoria School District has an eResources on their district website which neatly keeps all resources and links on one screen. The subject headings may not necessarily be clear or intuitive for all users but the overall model works. The Victoria School District page has a much wider scope of electronic learning resources as opposed to just reference but it may be a layout that Alberta might consider.

I am not quite clear on what the mandate or scope of the Alberta Online Reference Centre page is. If it is to restrict itself to provide convenient access to provincially purchased subscription based reference/database services then I think it is fairly complete in regards to what I know is available for purchase (my knowledge is not wide in this area). I am a little surprised not to see a link to the French edition of World Book Online. I would also question if Bookflix and Teaching with Books would fit under the category of reference. They are both excellent resources but would seem to expand into the area of electronic learning resources (Bookflix can also be seen as electronic books as well). If the online reference centre had as its mandate to make more books freely available then subscriptions like Bookflix, such as Tumblebooks, could be added. I still believe this is really outside the reference category.

If I could add to the already admirable Online Resource Centre (assuming more monies were available to add such resources) I would add an online video streaming service with curriculum related video content. It would seem that the reference resources on this site albeit electronic are still heavily text based.

I am ignorant on what is available as a subscription purchase in terms of reference in areas of science and mathematics. If there are resources available for purchase in these areas, the reference centre could be made comprehensive through their addition and more resources in the areas of music, languages, physical education (food and health) and the trades.

Overall, the Alberta’s Online Resource Centre is what all provinces should aspire too. It makes great sense economically and administratively to have a standard set of reference resources available in all schools so as to provide equitable access to information. It is merely a continuation of the thinking that pushed to have all libraries in Canada connected to the Internet.

Selection Tools and School Libraries: What Canadian Teacher-Librarians Need

I think the biggest problem facing school libraries in regard to selection tools is their accessibility. There are many useful sources and reviews available but most rely solely on sharing this information in a chronological format. The latest books and resources are reviewed in in the latest publication or post. If I don't keep up (and no one possibly can) with all the websites and print resources I will miss some very good recommendations and perhaps worse yet miss a heads up on resources to avoid.

As a librarian building a collection, especially when I am looking at my nonfiction and reference collection, I often am looking at filling deficits or updating. I want to search for recommendations by topic, subject or resource type. I certainly want to look for new publications but I certainly do not want to be constrained to just the current publication year or even the last two years. The biggest problem I have is that I need to browse a wide number of publications and reviews just in the hope of finding something that matches my need. Each resource is often fairly limited in scope and size and thus requires one to consult many resources. This is far too time consuming.

Canadian teacher-librarians need more robust searchable databases that pulls together the wide array of selection tools. Novelist does this very well. This database is accessible by subject, genre, author, and reading level. From my limited use of this resource I would like to see reviews from a wider number of sources. It also should be a resource that is promoted more agressively and be bundled in with larger district or province wide subscriptions.

I am thinking we should be developing Novelist or tools like it with with capabilities like Follet's Titlewave. With Titlewave I can search by subject, author, item type approximate reading or interest level and by publication date and a myriad of other data types. When I find an item (among the million available) that matches my need I can also read the reviews that are available from a number of reputable sources (and a few biased ones). Certainly, fairly comprehensive databases that are not based on inventory of books that a retailer wants to sell, but rather a database of reviews tailored to the needs of Canadian librarians, and teacher-librarians is technically feasible as Novelist shows. The ability to catalogue the reviews does entail costs and the use of these reviews also requires some compensation to other publications in which they first appeared. I believe these costs still can be covered by a fairly modest subscription fee especially if whole districts and whole provinces sign on. As Anne stated in a later post, the cost of not having good selection tools is in the long run much more expensive for cash strapped libraries.

Personal Bias Towards Print Resources

Despite what I wrote in my previous post about the losing battle of print versus electronic resources, I still have a print bias when it comes to reference resources for students.  I find them better structured and more readable for my K to 5 patrons than most electronic resources. I find just the tactile experience with the physical book actually focuses students much more readily than reading off a computer screen. There are also many less distractions and opportunities to go off on tangents.  A cross reference link in an electronic resource or a link to an image, video or audio clip is guaranteed to sidetrack a student from getting to the relevant text.

Even though I am biased in favour of print resources, the very act of my attempting to reference a print resource has often had the opposite affect on my students.  I will try to find a print resource and often not be able to locate the information that they seek and then go to the electronic resource as the next step. Students see the time as wasted.  They know that an electronic reference search will alway give a result so why bother with the "wild goose chase." It is difficult to change perceptions that a general search on Google is not the exact equivalent (student believe it is superior) to more specialized reference searches using a print resource or specialized electronic database. In the face of this opposition, I think my energies would be better spent defending and promoting reliable and trustworthy electronic resources and databases as well as teaching website evaluation skills rather than cajoling students to always begin with print resources first.

Print and/or Electronic Reference Materials

In the fourth lesson of this course I was asked to reflect on whether those of us who are supporting both print and electronic reference resources are fighting a losing battle and how do student preferences for electronic resources affect my purchasing.

I do think that attempts to support both print and electronic resources are a losing battle but the reasons for the battle loss are not straight out student preference. Cost and accessibility are also significant issues. A subscription to World Book Online provides much more value than purchasing the print version.  I can have an entire school all at once (24/7, both at school and at home) having access to three versions of the encyclopedia (Kid,Student and Advanced) as well as an online atlas and dictionary for an entire year for less than the cost of purchasing one set of World Book Student Encyclopedias. The low annual subscription cost is due to bulk purchasing licencing agreements through our school district. The ability to have a set of encyclopedias in the hands of every student via the electronic version  is an incredible boon to learning. It is rare that just one student needs access to an encyclopedia-it is often a large group.  Teachers won't consider suggesting a student use an encyclopedia unless it is possible for all students to access one at the same time.

The additional value of having this reference data linked to other articles and web resources as well as video and audio makes the print version pale in comparison.  It is only with the very young learners in grades one and two that a print resource can be more time effective and useful. Young students often can get lost in the complex interface of an online source and cannot read or follow the text as easily. This argument is moot if I cannot afford multiple sets of encyclopedias to provide reasonable access. 

The rate at which much of the information changes in our encyclopedias is increasing and our tolerance as a society for even slightly date information is less and less because of the ubiquity of electronic resources. And as a small aside, I am not sure from an environmental perspective we can justify purchasing printed reference works that need to be discarded long before they have physically worn out.  More electronic resources means less trees cut down.

For the aforementioned reasons I only purchase a single set of print encyclopedias and a few dictionaries and atlases and rely electronic reference subscriptions.  Perhaps if I had greater funds available, I would keep a larger print collection but resources are so limited that I cannot afford or justify both. In two or three years time when it comes time to replace my print set (which has been mostly used by me) I will be hard pressed to justify its purchase.