At the Ref Desk (7/22/14): Word of the day: 'exabytes'. Can't wait for the flashdrive. [more...]

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On the Nature of Train Wrecks

Submitted by Leo Klein on Tue, 3/26/13 (10:02am)

Matt Enis from Library Journal writes about the 'Fail4Lib pre-conference workshop' at this year's Code4Lib Conference where people talked about failed or problematic projects and the lessons they learned.

As I wrote in comments to the piece, I find the greatest cause of failed projects to be those based on received wisdom. Let’s call it, the ‘Wrong Bandwagon Effect’. Some mis-identified trend is taken up and you can’t argue against it because "everyone knows" -- i.e. received wisdom -- that it's the way of the future. Everyone knows! Only "everyone" never seems to include the end-user. But that doesn't matter since before you know it, yet another mis-identified trend pops up and nothing says 'cutting edge' like jumping from one of these trends to the other. (Classic example.)

This isn't an argument against innovation. Rather it's an argument against not doing one's homework, of coasting along without anyone ever looking back and asking, what's the record for that guru so far?

UPDATE (3/28/2013): Here's an even better, not to mention more contemporary example ...

New Web Design for UIC's Office of Academic & Enrollment Services (AES).

Submitted by Leo Klein on Thu, 7/19/12 (6:58pm)

I'm kind of pooped having spent a fun morning at Dominican University with the "Chicagoland Drupal in Libraries" group. I then hustled back to UIC (thanks Gwen for the lift!) where I had the usual list of web editing chores. I also had enough time to upload this baby:

http://admissions.uic.edu

This marks the final phase of a redesign that I've been working on since the beginning of the year -- spurred on by two requirements:

  1. fresh new look
  2. gots to work on mobile

Happily, 'responsive web design' came along right at the time I was tackling this project. (What's 'responsive design' you ask? When looking at the above page, slowly make the window more narrow. Then go back out. That's responsive design.)

Anyway, I still had to do the 'landing pages'. This one, the Admissions page, is the first of four.

But back to my itinerary: At around 5:15pm, I left UIC and headed over to DePaul for a couple of hours of 'Fun @ the Reference Desk'. It was a relatively quiet night. In Summer, Reference closes an hour earlier (i.e. at 8pm instead of 9pm) so I made it back home before 9pm.

In any case, as I said, long day -- productive just the same.

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Rumors of RSS's Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sun, 5/22/11 (11:23pm)

RSS Logo I have a confession to make: I'm becoming somewhat concerned by the direction that people perceive such things as social networking and mobile computing to be heading. This perception seems to lack any perspective as to how we got to where we are and how the lessons of the past are likely to inform developments in the future. Instead what we're treated to are assumptions about the characteristics of technologies that we all agree are still in their relative infancy.

I think I'll write more about this in a later post (or possible article) but one example is the rather hasty postmortem people are ascribing to RSS. Scott Karp touches on this in a post called "How to Fix RSS Redux".

Now it's probably true that fewer people use RSS feed readers and hence fewer people directly access RSS feeds, but that's just one use of RSS. Equally as important at least to my mind is syndication. I mean, who cares how many social networks there are -- my first question is always, how can I hook my feed into them? Since that's currently performed through RSS, it's hard to imagine it going out of style anytime soon.

I guess the important point is that while many now depend on Facebook or Twitter for things they used to get through RSS feed readers, this doesn't completely nullify the other uses that RSS may have. People claiming otherwise may simply be unaware of these alternative uses.

Techno-Infatuation Disorder (TID)

Submitted by Leo Klein on Wed, 2/9/11 (5:38pm)

So let's say the iPad Fairy™ comes down and gives everyone at your school a free iPad. Miracle, right?

Well, apparently not at Stanford's School of Medicine. As an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education explains:

But when Stanford's School of Medicine lent iPads to all new students last August, a curious thing happened: Many didn't like using them in class.... In most classes, half the students had stopped using their iPads only a few weeks into the term.

How's this possible? Didn't they hear their own Assoc. Dean Charles Prober describe these same students as "extremely tech-savvy" in a press release earlier in the year:

Because the population of new students is extremely tech-savvy, it makes sense to teach them through the use of the electronic devices they're familiar with, Prober said, adding, "We can either say, 'That's silly. They have to learn the old-fashioned way.' Or we embrace where they are."

Yup, 'embrace where they are'! That's the spirit!

Only they didn't. And you're entitled to ask where exactly 'they' -- in this case the extremely tech-savvy incoming class -- where exactly 'they' are.

Well, wouldn't you know, Stanford provides us with an answer! Every year the University conducts a survey of incoming students as to their computer use and in 2009, for example, they found that "90% have a Windows or Mac laptop".

So basically an overwhelming majority of students already have a computing device. It's called a laptop.

Of course the notion that a laptop might be more useful to students in college than an iPad, even in this day and age, never seems to dawn on the administrators. Instead they seem to be afflicted with a serious case of 'techno-infatuation disorder' or 'TID' for short. This is where the desire to be seen buying the latest tech gizmo overrides any consideration of whether the intended audience might actually want to use it.

Now if the administrators at Stanford's Medical School truly believed their students were 'extremely tech savvy', they might have left the decision of what to bring into the classroom up to the students themselves. But again, we're talking techno-infatuation disorder here and considerations such as what our users might actually want fade in comparison to what we might want for them.

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Humanities -- the Salvation of Technology?

Submitted by Leo Klein on Mon, 7/26/10 (9:19am)

Friend of mine from my undergrad days. Being an English major, it's nice to read reaffirmations such as this one by Daniel Paul O'Donnell in The Edmonton Journal, called 'Humanities, Not Science, Key to New Web Frontier':

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Is Steve Jobs a Role Model for Librarians?

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sat, 5/1/10 (8:08pm)

steve-jobs-ipad-apple-ap.jpg I'm hijacking the title of an editorial in the latest issue of Journal of Academic Librarianship because I believe it illustrates a problem rather than a solution to our approach as librarians to technology.

In the piece, the author describes two approaches to meeting user needs:

...[To] wait for someone to tell you what they want (which assumes they know their needs and the solution possibilities clearly) or to know your customer and the solution possibilities well enough to provide a useful solution that would likely never have occurred to them.

So which, according to the author, should we pick? Why the latter, of course, which the author calls "opportunity-driven" and characteristic of Steve Jobs:

As trained information specialists who are also dealing daily, upfront and personal, with the changing information environment, I believe we are particularly well positioned to develop the insights and perspectives that allow us to see opportunities and possibilities that are not as clear or as obvious to our patrons.

The obvious, almost classic problem with this approach is that it moves the focus from our users to ourselves and while that might make for applause lines at library confabs where we're basically talking to ourselves, it risks ending up with solutions more suited (surprise, surprise) to our own needs rather than to those of our poor 'benighted' users.

The fact is, the library doesn't exist in a vacuum. Sure, we're in the information business but so are a lot of others. When our users come to us, they don't want a "19th-century library" as the author jokes. They want everything online and easy to find -- just like they've come to expect on every other site that seeks to attract their business.

To do this, we don't have to reinvent the experience. We don't need Steve Jobs even if we could afford him. All we need is to do our homework, to keep the focus always on our users, seeing what they prefer and how they prefer to work, melding our own wares to their requirements. Our users have already told us what they want. It's in the usage statistics of the most popular websites. Now all we need are librarians smart enough and sharp enough to listen to what they're saying.

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The Joys of Content Management - In the Business of Dramatic Improvement

Submitted by Leo Klein on Wed, 3/31/10 (12:28pm)

The best definition of a trade or skill that I can think of is being able, through your 'expertise', to make a significant improvement either in people's lives or in how they get things done. This applies to many things; it even applies to Content Management.

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Real-Time Web: It's More Than Just Twitter

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sun, 8/30/09 (12:18pm)

I liked the article in BusinessWeek on the 'Real-Time Web'. It being BusinessWeek, they naturally devoted a significant portion to speculation on how to make money from this emerging trend and I had to laugh at the illusive precision of there being "at least $5 billion to be made on the real-time Web". What, just $5 billion?

Anyway, to give them their due, they correctly identify the trend:

History Repeats Itself as U of I's Global Campus Goes Belly Up

Submitted by Leo Klein on Thu, 5/21/09 (10:19pm)

NYUonline (2001):

New York University is closing down its for-profit electronic learning operation, NYUonline, and moving some of its curriculum and staff into its School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

U of I Global Campus (2009):

[University of Illinois] trustees meeting in Chicago voted to follow a faculty task force plan to scrap much of the current version of Global Campus.

NYUonline (2002):

In two and a half years of operation, NYUonline received nearly $25 million from the university, but enrollment remained anemic at best: just 500 students at its peak.

U of I Global Campus (2009):

The $10 million program had only attracted about 360 students as of last month.

NYUOnline (2001):

The university blames last month's closure of the distance-learning company, called NYUonline, on the economy.

U of I Global Campus (2009):

...[Prof. Nick Burbules] said, a global recession has changed conditions under which the older initiative was established.

NYUonline (2001):

"I believe that the value of our work -- some of which will continue to be carried on by the university, and some non-academic portions of which may be acquired by third parties -- will become even clearer with time," [NYUonline CEO Gordon] Macomber said in the release.

U of I Global Campus (2009):

Burbules said the 2.0 model draws from the UI's experience with the initiative. "I think what is driving this process is the belief that the mission of expanding the online offerings is important," he said. "I give [U of I President White] full credit for inspiring this work, and I personally believe it is the future of higher education."

Note, there were significant differences between the programs, though stated goals tended to shift over time. Nevertheless, what the two shared was an inability by the people in charge to truly understand what the technology was capable of and what it wasn't. Decision-makers themselves had no strong background in online content development for higher education. This lack of background made it hard to evaluate alternative strategies. Instead of identifying successful initiatives already in place and extending those, they chose to concoct their schemes out of whole cloth.

The outcome should come as no surprise.

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When Design Kills

Submitted by Leo Klein on Sun, 11/16/08 (10:07pm)

I had a very pleasurable time at the Garfield Park Conservatory on Chicago's West Side several weeks ago. Finding it however included a mishap due in part to this extremely poorly constructed map which I found while wandering around looking for directions.

You can see a larger version of the entire billboard here -- plus a close-up of the map itself.

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