Rebooting infolit, the BATTLE DECKS way

This is quite a long post because I'm very excited about all this... Here's the super-short version: I decided to completely redesign my academic skills teaching. It went really well. Feedback was great. The students took part in Battledecks competitions, which was awesome. I learned certain things along the way. I think there's room for rethinking our approach to infolit.


I do quite a lot of external talks and workshops, and much to my relief the feedback is generally better than I could hope for. What's more, I really enjoy them. I also do a fair amount of academic skills teaching as part of my job, and the feedback is just okay. And I don't particularly enjoy it a lot of the time - I enjoy the interaction with students, but I can't get worked up about the sessions, they feel a bit dull for all concerned.

Last academic year was my first as an Academic Liaison Librarian, and although I'd done information literacy sessions before I wasn't sufficiently confident to do more than take my predecessors' induction teaching materials, and try and make them my own. This time around though, I wanted to see if it was possible to do something different. I basically wanted to approach this presentation like I would an external one, and see if the students could get more out of it.

The biggest problem I have with teaching academic skills to undergrads is that the subject matter is boring. It really is dull. And a lot of it probably not that useful either; maybe to one or two students, but not most of them. I wrote a whole book without once using advanced search techniques for example (some would say it shows :) ) so why would a 1st year realistically want to know about them? For infolit teaching my process used to go like this: look at all the stuff I have to tell them about the library, and then work through it as unboringly as possible. For external workshops my process goes like this: think what is most useful and interesting to the audience, then try and present it in an engaging way so it stays with them.

These are definitely distinct approaches. Thinking about what is most useful to the audience may well involve not actually talking about 'library' stuff nearly as much. But if the students get more out of it, is that really a problem?

The plan

  • Tell them about all sorts of things - some of them directly Library related, and some of them more generally information related
  • Brand it like I would an external presentation - so rather than 'Library session' or whatever, I titled it '6 really useful things to make your academic life easier' (classic marketing tactics - sell the benefits of the session not the features, and stick a number on the front so it feels focussed)
  • I created the slides like I would for an external presentation - ie I tried quite hard to make it nice, and didn't use any kind of template
  • No workbook - instructions on the slides, and embed the slides where they can find them later for all the links etc
  • Introduce Battledecks to end the session. Battledecks is something that happens in US Library conferences, where participants battle against each other, presenting on slides they've never seen before, which move on automatically after a certain amount of time (usually 15 or 20 seconds per slide). I've also seen it done here as part of Betta Kultcha sessions. Earlier in the year I tried it with some slightly drunk librarians at an SLA event as a way of summarising the session - what better way to reinforce the key points then to get someone else to do it? Better than me droning on about the same stuff all over again. Plus it's always quite hilarious, seeing people improvise over slides which are often just tenuous visual metaphors for the subject matter...
  • (In this instance, our local cinema City Screen had given us some free student memberships to use as prizes in the Battledecks. I'm now thinking about local business I could contact about providing prizes for my other departments in the future. I offered each winner 4 student memberships - worth £100 in total, it has free tickets, money off at the bar etc - so they could give some to their friends. Having a desirable prize definitely helped ensure we had volunteers! We used an applauseometer to decide the winners in the session, and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to feel bad having been brave enough to volunteer so I declared each session a draw and gave both participants the full first prize...) .

The stroke of luck

I was only planning to do this with the Department of Film, Theatre and Television because I was banking on there being enough performers in each class for there to be Battledecks volunteers. TFTV are a fantastic department and very supportive of what I try and do with them, and the head of department Andrew Higson has been extremely helpful in trying to further embed info lit. This year I did my usual 15 minutes as part of the general induction talk, to tell them about the Library and the services we offer (using the interactive map prezi with lots of our new videos embedded in it) and got the actual PC lab session moved back to Week 4, when the students aren't drowning in new information, and have been set assignments so realise they'll actually have use for the Library.

The stroke of luck came when Andrew invited me to do another 15 minutes in one of his lectures, the day before my PC lab sessions. It meant I could get all the not-overly-exciting-but-absolutely-neccessary stuff about finding resources off reading lists out the way then, and focus on more non-library stuff the next day.

The session

The session (the same thing repeated three times to get all the first years in) went really well - it felt quite good at the time but the feedback suggested it was very good. Here's the slides I used (which, incidentally just got featured on the Slideshare homepage - spreading the word for infolit!):

Battledecks was AWESOME! What I really like about it, just like at the SLA event, was that although it was hilarious and there were times when the presenter literally had no idea what the slide meant (until a member of the audience shouted out 'Duck Duck Go!' or whatever...), it was actually a really, really good summary of the session. It showed they'd really listened, they picked up on the key points and they fed them back to their peers. So much more effective than me summarising. And because it's the last thing we did and by far the best part of the session, it meant everyone left feeling happy (and gave good feedback!).

The feedback

The best part of this was the feedback. I compared it to an equivalent set of sessions from the previous year and in terms of rating it from 1 (outstanding) to 5 (terrible - there were no  4s and 5s  in either year hence they don't appear below) there was a huge improvement:

Feedback showing an improvement of around 30% in most areas

This was great (not Judge Business School great but better than I am used to!) but I know from filling in those sorts of forms myself how easy it is to just tick numbers, so I was more interested in the comments.

Some of them referred to how the session had cleared up specific problems they'd been having, which was great. One referred to the 'excellent academic insight'. One person said 'I used to hate PowerPoint; you made me love it' (!), lots said it was either great or perfect, and one person ticked the box to say there was 'too much' covered in the session but then left comments in capitals that said 'BEST PRESENTATIONS EVER! PERFECT. THANKS FOR EVERYTHING'... There were lots of smiley faces, a few nice comments about me, and a third of them took the time to answer the 'what could be improved about the session?' question to specifically say that it couldn't be better (one person wrote: Not physically possible!). It was overwhelmingly better than my (distinctly underwhelming) feedback last year.

What was also interesting was that in answer to a question about what they found most useful, by far the majority replied that the stuff on SubjectGuides and JSTOR etc was the most useful (and none of them picked it as the least useful) - so smuggling in the Library stuff amid some more glamorous stuff elsewhere obviously didn't diminish its impact, in fact I'd argue it probably increased it.

Conclusions and changes

As you can tell I'm really chuffed about this. I enjoyed the fact that the students actually got more out of the session. I enjoyed the chance to talk about what I was interested in. I enjoyed actually applying the stuff I do / learn externally to my day-job (something my previous employer when unable to imagine was possible, but my current employer are very supportive of). And just as an aside, a colleague of mine tried this whole idea with Archaeology students and they really liked it too - proving that you don't need a great prize and a room full of budding actors to get battle decks volunteers...

When I do it again I'll be making some changes based on the feedback - in fact the slidedeck above is the 2nd version with some of this already taken into account. Someone suggested more funny clues for the battle-decks (hence Jay-Z is in there, rather than the JSTOR logo as used to be the case...) and someone else said they'd like to have seen some kind of information finding competition earlier in the session. I'd love to make it more interactive prior to the big battle decks finish, certainly. (The most common suggestion for improving the session was 'free chocolate', by the way...) I still don't think I'm very good at getting the balance right between talk, discussion and hands-on exercises so I'd like to improve how that works generally.  But basically, it was fun! I'd genuinely recommend Battle decks to anyone - feel free to steal my slides if you'd like a starting point...

If you have suggestions on how to make sessions like these more interactive, or you've revamped your own infolit and the students have responded well, let me know in a comment!

- thewikiman

NPC2010: That was the day that was

Chris Rhodes and I presenting at NPC2010 Wow.

There's probably going to be a whole spate of conference reports on CILIP's New Professionals Conference but I can't resist adding my own. What a day! It was absolutely ace. It's tempting to talk about things coming full circle etc, with this being the second ever NPC, and last year's inaugural one being what pushed me over the edge into the world of blogging, and me helping organise this one and delivering a workshop on blogging etc. But I'm still inspired by Biddy Fisher's closing speech, and am desperate to follow through on all the optimism in the room and make stuff happen, so perhaps a circle is the wrong analogy as that suggests either coming to a halt where you started, or going round again... Maybe coming full circle in the same way a shot-put goes full circle before being launched off into the field. :)

Things that inspired me

Even though I was gutted to miss three of the presentation that ran concurrently with my own workshop, I still got loads out of the stuff I did get to see. I really liked Eleni Zazani's presentation on bridging the gap between employability and employment. I was sat next to Nicolás Robinson Garcia during that bit, and was once again struck by how awesome it is that people can present eloquently in a second language  - I'd say I was jealous, but the over-riding emotion is disappointment that like so many Brits I am rubbish at languages. I've got no excuses. (In fact, I was the first kid in any of my French Teacher's classes ever to get below a 'C' at GSCE French  - apologies, Mrs Cousins!) Anyway, two things in particular I really liked - firstly her earthquake analogy. She was comparing the current job market with an earthquake situation (she's Greek and has apparently been in a few!) and at first I thought it was just a simple pun on the fact that things were a bit unstable. But then she continued and explained that rigid structures fall during earthquakes, whereas flexible ones are able to move during them and then wobble back into place once the earthquake is over - and must we be able to be flexible in this economic down-turn, and be ready to re-assume our places once it is through. I liked that. The other thing I liked was that when she was talking about feeding the fire of your enthusiasm, she mentioned remembering why you wanted to be an Information Professional and keeping that at the front of your mind, rather than the back. Great advice.

Awen Clement's talk on unleashing your professional edge was brilliant, and very nearly won the prize (just two votes separated the first two papers, and everyone had a sizeable stack of voting slips on their pile when we were totalling them up, which is fantastic really) - it was properly inspiring stuff and full of practical things to take away with you. I particularly liked how much the melting pot of previous non-library jobs she'd done had ununexpectedly (or perhas expectedly) fed into her current role and made her better equipped to perform it. That, to me, is related to the argument against librarianship as an under-grad degree - with it most commonly being a Masters, I feel you get valuable life-experience and experience of different disciplines that can feed in to the way you do your job.

I loved hearing about what public libraries get up to, via Ann Donovan and Rachel Edwards. It struck me just what a completely different world it is to the academic one I inhabit. It's almost like a different profession - the resourcefulness and skills they were talking about are not ones I possess.

I also really enjoyed Laura and Lindsay's talk on Cataloguing and Classification. Their argument was that we should not forget the traditional skills that underpin modern librarianship, which is very important to remember and sometimes gets lost in the breathless rush towards 2.0 uptopia. Social media is after all mainly about communication, and communication is a means to and end not an end in itself. What they were saying about cataloguing being an important skill for everyone no matter what their role (more or less) really hit home - having resented every minute of the cat & class module at Northumbria on my MSc (until I realised there were right and wrong answers, so it was possible to get more than 90% for a module and push my overall mark up to a Commendation) I actually found it incredibly useful just last week, when creating metadata for digital objects. Metadata is basically what makes the Internet work for users, and is incredibly valuable. So, yay for its creators.

Most inspiring of all, though, were Biddy Fisher's closing words (Biddy being the current CILIP president). I found myself grinning from ear-to-ear throughout - she was obviously inspired by what she'd seen, and inspired us in return and gave us confidence that we could not only succeed and go places but also bend CILIP to reflect our needs in the future. She said she was sure there were future CILIP presidents in the room, and I found myself wondering how many were on my row - I could think of two potentially (and there were only two people on my row...), the point being that her faith in us gave me faith in myself and in us as a group of peers, and it pushed my ambition right up. It was proper inspiration. (I just can't believe I literally stumbled into this profession, and that it would turn out to be so consuming and involving and generally great...)

Things I learned personally (this bit is quite narcissistic, feel free to skip it...)

Being on the organising committee is stressful! I don't get stressed that easily but I was definitely on edge for this event. Even though I had the least to do of the proper organisers by far (and owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to Stella Wisdom for all the unsung hero stuff she did on the day) you just feel a sense of responsibility for the whole thing, as opposed to last year where I could just worry about my own paper. You sit there just desperate for it to go well. But it did! So that's okay.

Meeting people off twitter is ace! I knew that anyway, but I'd never met the twitterati on such a massive scale before and it was great fun. Big up the #oxfordlibrarymafia massive. :)

I still haven't really got the hang of small-scale presentations. For whatever reason, I find it easier to present to a big room than a small room. My workshop went okay, I think - I'll have to read the feedback forms to find out what people thought of it because I wasn't sure. It certainly went down well online though, apparently finding it's way onto Slideshare's homepage as the most tweeted presentation on the net (and Woodsiegirl's earnt a similar accolade on Facebook - we think Slideshare might just be broken or something!) despite some issues with my future-tweeting reversing the order of some tweets... I was very surprised to find myself running out of time (we started late, which didn't help) so it all felt a bit rushed and unbalanced, but I hope the delegates got something out of it. I put too much time into the materials preparation though - that much work would be completely unsustainable if I did public speaking on a proper regular basis.

So the workshop felt slightly difficult, but the LISNPN launch presentation with Chris Rhodes (more on LISNPN next time) felt really easy. I think it might come down to the fact that I'm naturally a fairly reserved person and quite laid-back, with a fairly quiet voice, who normally gravitates towards the observing end of the participation spectrum - I like to sit back and take things in on the edge, rather than being in the middle of the circle. So the gap between that and what is needed for a large-scale presentation is quite big and perhaps therefore easier to define and to leap - clearly being quiet and reserved doesn't work in a room full of 100 people, so you have to step up and become a performer, amplifying your voice literally and your communication style metaphorically. I know what I have to do there, so I can do it. Small scale presentations to a room with far fewer people is a lot less of a step up than that, yet still my normal 'talking to people' style of communicating doesn't work - there's a balance there somewhere in the middle, which I'm yet to achieve. Something to work on, anyway.

I heart Chris Rhodes (more than ever). Presenting with Chris was brilliant fun, I had a blast. We had so many other duties between us we had basically zero preparation - we got as far as dividing the slides up, but had no run through, no notes, and no real idea what the other one of us was going to say. Liking your co-presenter enough to insult each other with impunity is a great benefit to a relaxed presentation, I think! It was in fact the only time I felt completely relaxed in the whole day - it was the only presentation with not much riding on it in a way, as the others were either competing for the best paper prize, or opening the day, or running the day like (CDG Past President) Maria Cotera's bits, or closing and summing up the day. Chris and I just got to enjoy ourselves for 10 minutes.

Thanks so much to everyone who has signed up to LISNPN by the way; about 25 people have gone straight home and created their accounts just since Chris and I spoke less than 24hrs ago, so we're now up to 77 members - that's a great start!

Things to ponder for next year and the future

First of all, we ARE going to have some battledecks action! Chris and I will be participating in it, any other volunteers? It's an ALA thing, where protagonists are given a topic and a slide deck they've never seen before AS THEY GO UP ON STAGE, then have 4 or 5 minutes to present on the fly. It will be mint! You can see videos via Bobbi Newman's blog.

[Dear ALA, please don't sue us for stealing your fun ideas!]

Should we do the conference over two days? I was looking through the twitter stream from the conference (or see here for a nice bit of analysis of the #npc2010 tweets), and noticed Lex Rigby suggesting it would have been good to have had it over two days and with more workshops. Speaking as someone who missed three presentations I really wanted to see (including Bronagh's winning effort - congrats Bronagh!) because I was in a workshop, I think that's actually a great idea - we could have workshops on day 1, and presentations on day 2. People could pay a reduced rate to come to just one of the days, or full whack to come to both. What do people reckon to that idea? Would it be worth doing, or too logistically difficult or prohibitively expensive with an extra hotel night etc? Would love to hear what you think in the comments.

"We need more men!" Initially when Maria said in her summing up about needing more men, I thought it was just a personal plea from her. But she actually meant the conference needed more men.. And it's true, the vast majority were female. Of course the library profession is predominantly female (although I bet that percentage is not reflected in the percentage of Library Directors and Assistant Directors who are male; there seems to be loads of them, but that's a debate for another day) but still, would be nice to see some greater representation of the other half of the species next year. I read something in the Observer on Sunday about how female graduates are getting a lot more jobs than males because males are complacent and 'generally hopeless'. Three people from my organisation came to the conference as delegates, and they were all female - I hope the men don't feel complacent about continuing professional development, or generally 'too cool' to engage with conferences like ours. Anyway.

How do we keep energising this cohort when they're no longer 'New' Professionals?

Perhaps I'm getting carried away by the euphoria of it all going well and meeting so many lovely people, but it really felt like a special group of Information Professionals who could make things happen in the future. I was honoured and thrilled to be with so many forward-thinking, dynamic peers. But quite a few of them, myself included, are close to exceeding the 'five year' CILIP definition of what constitutes a New Professional. And quite rightly, we should soon start to make way for the next generation to keep the progress flowing, the innovation coming, and the ideas fresh. But still, collectively we do have a lot of great people with great ideas - we need to continue to bring together this particular cohort (and adding to it) past the point when we're all 6+ years into our library careers. We won't be classed as senior professionals for ages - so we need to come up with some umbrella which we can continue to congregate under, and be energised by, at events like this. Any thoughts on this?

Anyway, the short version of this very long post is: NPC2010 was ruddy marvelous. :)