Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Counterintuitive digital media assignments

Over the last week in my new first-year undergraduate course, Media Fluency for the Digital Age, my students have been wrestling with a very counterintuitive digital media assignment, and I think it's worth exploring why these members of the "born digital" generation found this assignment so difficult — and so rewarding.

Here's the challenge they were given:
Finding information that's not online.  Find an article (research journal article, analytic newspaper article, serious magazine article, or scholarly book chapter) that is on the topic of the Internet or new media, but not available (at least, not to you) on the Internet, and acquire a digital copy of that article.  In a one-page, single-spaced write-up, document the steps you took to (a) find the article, (b) ensure that it was not available to you online, and (c) find out how to get it offline, (d) digitize it, (e) use optical character recognition software to make your text searchable, and (f) save the file to MyWebSpace and give your TA permission to view it. Paste the full URL of your file at the end of your write-up.
A little background might help contextualize this assignment.  Over the past few weeks we'd been exploring the standard sorts of topics that you might expect in a course like this: how search tools like Google work behind the scenes, how reference sources like Wikipedia are produced through collaborative human and algorithmic labor, how marketers and advertisers try to reach the users of these information resources through search engine optimization and behavioral tracking, and how issues have emerged over balancing private-profit intellectual property claims with public-good fair use or Creative Commons systems.  Over the course of our lectures, discussions, and readings on these topics, students work in collaborative groups to build their own weblogs on some topic dealing with "media fluency," posting ideas and trying to build audience, while promoting their work on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.  It's all conducted through a "blended" course format which combines in-person instructor contact with online, out-of-class mentored activities.

So now, a little more than halfway through the class, students are asked to turn their digital expertise and expectations upside-down: to use online search tools specifically for the purpose of figuring out what's not available to them with the click of a mouse, and to go through the process themselves of making a portion of that non-digitized world available in the network realm for future use.

The student reflections that came back from this assignment really surprised and pleased me.  First of all, students found this to be the most difficult assignment in the course yet, expressing much more apprehension than they did when I asked them to explore other new online tools, such as blogs, ad blockers, cloud documents, and even the Web of Knowledge database:
"this process made me feel like I was a cave man.  I'm not sure if it was the requirement to use slightly older technology, such as a scanner, or books, for that matter, but I found this process much more difficult than I find most online or digital assignments." 
"I have become accustomed to trying to find things for free online when researching for projects, and this assignment wanted me to do the opposite.  I thought this seemed crazy, and so did the guy who helped me at the library.  He said no student has ever asked for help with finding material that was not available on the Internet." 
Second, as I had hoped, but had not mentioned in the assignment itself, most students turned to human assistance for this assignment, or what one student referred to as "the old fashioned technique, or search engine, if you will, of asking a librarian":
"Once I got to the library, I realized I had absolutely no idea how to use our library system -- which was very embarrassing.  I found a reference desk in the library and explained the assignment to a librarian, hoping she could help me.  She assisted me in finding a book that was not available online, and then taught me how to use the stacks to locate the book.  This aspect of the assignment was quite rewarding because it helped me acquire skills I will use for the remainder of my college experience."
"we discovered that most articles from the 1990s and later are online.  Determined, we worked backwards.  Finally, we came across an article that was not online anywhere." 
 "The first librarian I asked literally laughed out loud.  She couldn't believe that I was asking such a ridiculous question."
What most students eventually came up with was either (a) a chapter of an edited volume on new media that was published before the mid-1990s (where the book was held by the library but was not available on Google Books or the Amazon Kindle store); or (b) a journal article on the topic of new media that was published in the early 1980s (where the journal print run was held by the library but had never been digitized by the publisher).  (In fact, one clue to my students that the resource was only available in print and not online was whether or not it came up as a physical resale item on eBay!) Either way, this meant a venture into the library stacks, a geography with which most of my students were startlingly unfamiliar:
"The next thing I knew, I was wandering deep into the stacks of Memorial Library alone in the dark.  At first it was scary, but then I realized how many fascinating books our school has that I never knew about.  Before I even began looking for the book I was searching for, I started picking up random books.  Some dated as far back as 1865.  I was amazed with what our libraries offer."
The OCR step was also challenging for students, in a way I didn't suspect.  Our university is well-stocked with computer labs which make full software packages available for free to students, including the Adobe Creative Suite, which includes the full version of Adobe Acrobat, which includes an OCR module.  But many students were not aware of this, and did not turn to their nearest computer lab, or to the DoIT help desk, for assistance with finding an OCR solution.  Instead, several attempted to download their own random OCR software, and were often frustrated by the limitations of these trial versions (only OCRing one page, for example).  Others managed to find a free cloud service which allowed them to upload the image and get an OCR'd text file returned to them, but were dismayed by the poor quality of the results.  Even the library scanners which provide OCR directly proved difficult to use.  As one student reported,
"It turns out, there are many different kinds of scanners in the library, which the librarians and myself were clearly unaware of.  The technical assistant [who the librarian called in to help] pointed me to a different scanner with a touch screen explaining step-by-step instructions to convert my text into a searchable PDF."
The last step, posting to MyWebSpace, was the only step where we gave the students explicit step-by-step instructions.  Not surprisingly, they reported no difficulty with this step.  That's a shame, I think; I now suspect if they had been forced to seek out the MyWebSpace instructions on their own, they would have had a richer learning experience.  Even so, most of my students reported that they had never used MyWebSpace before (or even heard of it) and some even indicated that they might use it again in the future.

So was the assignment a success?  Yes.  Besides introducing them to a whole series of physical and virtual information tools on campus at once, there were several spin-off benefits.  A number of students commented that this assignment made them consider all of the work that it takes, behind the scenes, to deliver the seemingly friction-free flow of internet information to them with their daily Google searches and Wikipedia browsings:
"It is because of processes like this that so much information can be obtained online, but at the same time many people forget all of the hard work that makes the Internet what it is today and function properly."
"I think this process shows how technological processes are extremely difficult to those [who] have never done them."   
As a scholar who researches the history and geography of "information labor," I was delighted to see this insight emerge from the assignment.

Other students seemed to discover that the world of print was not only still in existence, but potentially useful as well:
"This assignment has showed that there is an abundance of useful information out there that is not on the Internet." 
"I thought that everything was digitized these days and that no one relied solely on print anymore." 
It's one step away from this insight to involving students in a discussion of the long history, and ongoing relevance, of "print culture" in global society.

Another student expressed surprise and concern that an out-of-date, early-1990s book on "the Internet" was nevertheless not legally in the public domain:

"I think that even though this book was only published in 1993, 18 years ago, and nowhere near the 1923 cutoff for books that anyone can access for free, it should fall into the same category as the almost 100-year-old books because the information is, for the most part, useless. [...]  There is no reason for anyone to buy this book anymore and no reason why it shouldn't be available to anyone who might want to read it online."

This insight nicely operationalized the "fair use" and "public domain" discussion we had conducted in class just the week before.

Finally, a number of students commented on how they never, never wanted to rely on physical information again:
 "From now on I truly will appreciate the access to information I have through the Internet." 
"in doing this assignment, it made me appreciate how lucky I am to have not only the internet at my disposal, but the machines to put print into the digital world."
Even for these digital enthusiasts, this little exercise proved to be a highly effective "digital divide" lesson, by starting from the "wired" side of the digital divide and forcing students to experience the "offline" world of information and communication.

I'll be doing it again next year, for certain.


  1. Working in a software company that creates discovery layers for public libraries, I really liked the assignment. I think you could add a final step to the assignment, asking the students how they would make their digitized document retrievable for other users. This would require some sort of cataloging, adding meta-data, etc. Which is kind of what they asked 'human assistance' with.

    Great teaching!
    Robin, Amsterdam (NL)

    1. I agree, adding a final metadata/access component is a great idea -- Thanks!

  2. As a librarian who works for a startup that's trying to make more books available as Creative-Commons-licensed ebooks (, I pretty much couldn't love this story more :). Have tweeted it out to all my library friends -- I hope the ones in reference & instruction will get a lot of mileage out of this. (Speaking of things that are and aren't available online, thanks for putting your syllabus & materials up! Would love to do an assignment like this should I ever be teaching library school students. Any chance your materials are licensed for reuse?)

    1. Yep, that's why I make my course web sites public and "crawlable" by search engines, rather than hiding them behind courseware systems -- so others might build on anything there. Feel free to reuse and adapt the assignment. A quick nod to UW-Madison would be a kindness.

  3. I LOVE THIS SO MUCH that I may steal it for 644. :)

  4. What a fascinating assignment! (And one that makes me "feel my age."

    As a writer and someone who has worked in libraries and as a researcher for a quiz show, I have all the research skills these students lacked (Ah! the fun of reading microfilms and microfiche!). So I am well aware of the vast amounts of knowledge that have not yet been digitized. And because of that, it makes me sad that some of the students don't want to venture into non-digital research again.

  5. I find the biggest success being that students realize that Copyrights often go well beyond their utility. Even more so in the rapidly evolving tech era. I hope we can impart this perspective to sufficient kids, and they improve the law some day. Hey, I *can* be hopeful!

  6. barbara fister11:46 AM

    Thanks for this, and for putting your syllabus online. I find it fascinating that so many of your readings are print-based, not links to online sources, but the idea of finding information off line is so surprising to students. I wonder how they conceptualize the difference? Assigned readings are a school thing, not a real-life thing? A kind of information you are given but would never normally find on your own because it's unfindable?

  7. Olivier Galibert6:33 AM

    I was wondering, was there a way for a student, given the time they had, to correctly complete the assignment without violating current copyright law?


    1. I appreciate that question. I structured the entire assignment to fall squarely under the Fair Use provisions of current copyright law, as I understand them.

    2. Olivier Galibert6:45 AM

      Makes sense. Workable fair use is something that is sorely missing for the european version of the current copyright niceties.

  8. Anonymous8:27 AM

    I found this article to be very spirit lifting! As a new library/media/technology administrator in a public school district, I am assaulted by other educational and non-educational individuals who believe that there is no longer a use for the old fashioned library. I use current technologies, own a Kindle, and read hardcopy books, all which contribute to my ability to find, use, and enjoy information for pleasure and work. Convincing others that the libraries of today are not the libraries of last century, can be very difficult. Thank you for helping others to recognize the benefits the library continues to offer to individuals who were born into a technology world, by sending them into the foreign world of books. The individuals, who work very hard in this field, have made the commitment to welcome them, as well as learn to use their new tools and skills.

  9. Anonymous12:58 PM

    As a member of the adaptive/assistive technology department of a university elsewhere in the country, this article jumps out at me as a GREAT venue to also drop in a mention of accessibility hurdles in old media and the ways to leverage new media for accessibility purposes. A high percentage of students either are doing this kind of scan-and-OCR on their own or using school-provided departments such as mine to provide accessible versions of course materials not otherwise available in digital copy. (Digital materials are essential for students with visual disabilities--low vision, dyslexia--or even cognitive issues such as ADHD.) Have you thought about running the assignment past UW's Access and Accommodation Resource Coordinators to see if they have any extra bits to add?

  10. I work at a further education college and part of my role is to deliver study and research skills sessions. It never fails to alarm me how many students do all of their research via (fairly basic) Google keyword searching -- no wonder they're flummoxed when teachers tell them Wikipedia just won't fly. This is a really clever assignment and a great way to bring home just how much information is out there and how little is available on the web.

    Some shameless self-promotion: I write a blog about just this topic called That's Not Online! Please feel free to visit and suggest a topic if you like. I will surely be writing this up.