Another 1/4-baked idea – OER “virtual reference librarian”

This is another totally off-the-cuff not-well-thought-through idea (one wonders if I have any other kind!) but I do trust that smart folks out there will promptly tell me if it’s a terrible one, which is why I’m tossing it out here before I actually spend any more effort on it.

I want to put to the side ideological and theoretical debates around OER for a second because I am driven by a specific problem – it’s *my job* to help instructors and institutions in BC share online learning resources and in general to promote awareness of OER and their reuse. So I am always thinking of ways I might help people find useful resources.

Now I often make the mistake of thinking everyone is exactly like me, and so much of my effort has been in helping people help themselves. This often takes the form of technological interventions like teaching instructors how to grow their own PLN’s, or my work around client-side augmentation.

But a couple of things have given me pause to reconsider whether there are other ‘hands-on,’ ‘high touch’ approaches I should also be considering. One is the (disappointingly stillborn) Findanoerafrica twitter account that Dave Cormier setup at the Open Ed ’09 conference. The other was the experience last night of watching a friend wonder out loud on twitter about good resources on gardening for K-4 students, and within minutes seeing a fantastic reply from another friend and OER curator-type which seemed to exactly fit the bill.

So there could be no better example of informal learning networks “just sharing” than this, and I know enough about this network stuff to know that institutionalizing it can be the kiss of death, but both of these did make me wonder if there maybe isn’t some role for an “Ask the OER Virtual Librarian” service to help faculty new to the idea of finding and reusing open resources get off to a start. Maybe a twitter account or email address that would be easy to monitor as part of one’s normal workflow but that would allow a higher touch response. I suppose this is often the role for instructional designers, but in my experience not every faculty developing a course gets the chance to work with instructional designers (and certainly students don’t, and I wonder the extent to which *real* librarians avail themselves of OER versus more traditional sources.) So…

Is this a dumb idea? Would this be tantamount to admitting that OERs (as any sort of distinct thing) are a failure? (Certainly it would seem like acknowledging the current way of developing and sharing them might be.) Is “discoverability” even actually the problem with resources getting reused, or is it possible that the whole model is so flawed, so disconnected from how educators construct course materials, that it wouldn’t make any difference (and to be fair, it is important to distinguish OER aimed at educator reuse and OER aimed at student self-study). Please let me know. I like this idea simply because when I see this happen in my networks it brings me joy to observe, but it may be trying to squash the round peg of institutional roles into the square hole of personal networks. Wouldn’t be the first time… – SWL

17 thoughts on “Another 1/4-baked idea – OER “virtual reference librarian””

  1. An interesting idea – at least half-baked in my book. I actually find the academic librarians to be one of the most divided groups on many of the more progressive tech-ed ideas. The “real” librarians as you say are often the people who are absolutely way out front in looking for new solutions, in advocating for educational uses of new technologies, in pushing the envelope (substitute your own preferred cliche there) — or they are absolutely not interested in anything that looks different from the way their library operated 20 years ago. I don’t find too many who fall in the middle of that continuum.

    It could be that the service you describe would be most popular with some of these “real” librarians who are interested in learning more about OER but don’t have a great resource to mine. Sort of a twist on “teach a man to fish” (substitute your own preferred cliche there). Of course I could be wrong.

  2. Coincidentally, I have been considering similar issues today from two different angles. One, I’ve been asked to talk to my son’s fourth-grade class about blogging and to help the kids get set up. My first thought was “I know that I know a bunch of people who already know how to do this a whole lot better than I do, but I don’t think they all follow me on Twitter. I wish there was some way I could get my request out there in a more directed way.” I know there’s stuff that people have pulled together, but so far my searches have turned up posts on the dangers of exposing kids to the terrible internet. Not higher ed, I know, but it is a search for resources I can use to teach kids about blogging. So from a user perspective, I’d love a service like this.

    And the second angle is from the perspective of working on the upcoming 2010 Horizon Report, which talks about open content (as you know, being on the advisory board and all). It does seem to be true that one of the issues around open resources is finding them. Maybe it’s because I’m a tinkerer at heart, but I love being able to start with a resource someone else has made and then customize it for my own purposes. I’d do that more if it were easier to find stuff.

    Turn up the oven, leave the pan in longer — I think there’s something good baking here.

  3. I like this idea. I would add though that the librarians should be able to tap a huge curated repository as well…one of the issues I see with OER is that it’s disconnected, dispersed, difficult to find. If only someone did to OER like Google did to the internet.

  4. @barryd I can only speak for myself and my failings, but I feel like I’ve done a terrible job enlisting “real” librarians in my quest to spread awareness of OER. And I’ve tried.

    @rachel Glad this resonates, thanks for the encouragement. In the case of your specific problem (introducing 4th graders to blogging) while you may not have the specific people already in your network I’d suggest that given you’ve already taken the step of building *a* network, put it out there to them and let them help connect you with those folks. Ideally this is what everyone would do, which is why I even hesitated to bring up this idea, but it’s an attempt to bridge the gap between the reality of where most folks are at and their needs and my aims. To mangle Alan’s coinage it’s likely more “making fishsticks” than teaching fishing (did I get that right? I can’t recall it exactly) but sometimes people just want to eat.

    @joesphthibault I guess the point is that there IS already a huge number of both curated and non-curated ways to discover formal OER, but that in my experience these largely don’t get used. So definitely, such a person would b well versed in these sources and that would be part of their value, to be able to point people quickly to places and specific resources based on their individual needs, not just general ‘workshop-y’ type overviews of where resources can sometimes be found.

    Thanks for the feedback all. I will keep mulling it over. While it is something I’ve been charged with trying to foster and I will keep trying to think of ways to help, I also am conscious of both how large the problem is and how ineffective the solutions still can be. But I haven’t given up yet.

  5. I think you have identified a clear need. I also second your assertion that currently the search mechanisms may not be perfect, but should be good enough to allow for wider adoption of OER.

    I am not sure I would go so far as to designate a new class of professionals as OER Virtual Reference Librarians – but I can’t disagree that it would be good to know that OER’s are being utilized by existing reference librarians (and it would be great to get them creating sharable OER reference collections to give us a sense of how they do their thing)…

    In any event, your post prompts me to open up a new line of dialogue with some reference librarians here at UBC, I’d be interested in their thoughts.

  6. @brian I really appreciate this feedback. I am absolutely NOT trying to create a new class of professional; as I mostly seriously replied to @jstein on twitter, I was thinking of this more like something that would occupy maybe 1/64th of someone like my’s time (that does not look grammatical, oh well).

    Very interested to hear (and help with if I can) about any dialogue you manage to get going with ref librarians at UBC. I really appreciate your feedback – I think you know me well enough to know I now try to embrace “fast cheap and out of control” to as much as *I* can, and (no longer) try to force informal things into formal means. But this is an attempt to take a small human step towards new users; if it became any sort of overbrearing approach I’d be the first to run for the hills.

  7. This is very interesting, not the least because my job is to be one of those instructional designers.

    My office did a survey of faculty recently, to find what services they want from CELT (my unit). And of course we had all the stuff we wished they would have chosen (help integrating new methods of data visualization into the classroom, designing collaborative community engaged projects etc.)

    But the clear winner was “Help finding and integrating free online educational resources into your course”

    I mean it won by a huge margin, not even close.

    That said, it’s not like we are overwhelmed here with requests of that sort. In fact, we didn’t have one single one of these this semester (that is, any OER request that *orginated* from the faculty as an OER request — we do work OER into our other work with faculty).

    As much as we hate the just-in-time “customer service” model, we may have to build something that at least *looks like* a service model at the front end, even if it is more community based under the hood — because that’s the idiom they get.

    I’m going to talk to my boss about this today, see what we could pilot.

  8. Just to clarify the above, the really interesting thing is how many people said they wanted that, and how few people contact us for help.

    So there’s definitely something interesting going on here..

  9. I always quiver with nervousness when I think about approaching a librarian in real life (not, not for that reason…), so you may be on to something. Ease of access to the resource (without all that social baggage) may encourage some to utilize it.

    Sounds like this point-of-view may jive with the reluctance-to-act-despite-clear-desire that @Mike C cited above.

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  11. My own experience resonates with Scott’s reservation
    and Mike’s comment that

    Some educators want a complete package provided by a publisher while others want to develop their own way of engaging students with the material.

    In the space between those two extremes it would seem that there was ample room for a style of preparation which involved searching for and combining the best of what is available, and many of us think that is where we belong – but when push comes to shove we bifurcate and either go with a complete package or “roll our own” completely.

    Perhaps those of us who can’t live with the flaws we see in a ready-made publisher’s package also tend to judge OERs more harshly, and/or the work involved in selecting and incorporating the best OERs (even after “discovery”) is not sufficiently less than that of actually developing our own “perfect” alternatives.

  12. Sorry for the foolish use of angle brackets for quotes in the previous comment.
    By Scott’s reservation above, I meant “Is “discoverability” even actually the problem with resources getting reused”
    and by Mike’s comment I was referring to “the really interesting thing is how many people said they wanted that, and how few people contact us for help”

  13. Alan, really appreciate your comments as they reflect the realities instructors face. Too often well-meaning OER projects (and not just OER, ed tech in general) seem to be constructed in boardrooms divorced from these realities.

    One thought I’ve had for a long time is that it would be good to have some sort of heuristic about how much time you might spend searching for existing materials before you started rolling your own, based on a general idea of how long it takes to create such materials from scratch. e.g. for each one hour of material, it’s worth spending at least 10% of your up-front time searching for existing materials to re-use before diving into development yourself. Assuming rational behaviour (and I don’t think that’s always a sound assumption) it could serve as a starting point for discussion with faculty on their course development behaviour.

  14. @joseph – interesting! I don’t know that it is a fantastically long-term job prospect, it seems pretty ripe for disintermediation, but yes, this is very much like providing the expert search skills and higher touch/outreach that I am describing here.

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