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Month: April 2014

Improving WiFi, the shelves of our electronic collections

via TechNews
via TechNews

Wifi is like oxygen for so many of us these days. I expect to be able to hop on the internet in public spaces even though I don’t have a smartphone. If I’m in a library, coffee shop, conference hall, hotel, or my house and there’s no wifi, I can hardly concentrate on anything else even if I really wasn’t doing anything on the wifi anyway. And for libraries, as we move more and more of our collections towards e-content, having robust wifi is like having robust shelving for our physical collections — it’s absolutely essential.

But here’s the thing. Robust wifi for people wandering around with laptops in large spaces is technologically really really hard to accomplish, especially given the history and assumptions behind current wifi protocols. Carleton’s network architect (a networking genius and also amazing at explaining things in words I understand), recently attended a conference where he learned the very latest in how to set up more robust wifi networks, and he invited me to attend the debrief presentation he then gave to his IT colleagues. This presentation went over the main points from a talk by Peter Thornycroft of Aruba Networks, apparently one of the great thinkers on this topic.*Here are some of the salient points that you might want to know when talking to your IT folks about wifi in your libraries.

Philosophically, network architects have so far been far more concerned about coverage than about speed. When push comes to shove, they say, “Well, nobody will be working at their very fastest, but there’s plenty of wifi for all.” As it turns out, this has been the wrong decision. The nature of network communication is very “bursty.” Each device gets a time slice out of the access point’s attention and then waits while the attention turns to other devices or to the routine housekeeping it has to get done. If the network optimizes for speed, then more happens in each time-slice — more bursty bits of communication or housekeeping happen each cycle — and therefore more devices get along merrily while sharing the access point. The fast devices will get their work done and out of the way faster and leave some time and attention for the slower devices that would otherwise get crowded out.

On the device side, all the decisions are made by the manufacturers, and faster wifi rarely makes it on the priority list. Apple, cell phone companies, etc prefer to put their money into other parts of their products to keep the over all device price point lower. What’s more, when they list their device specs, they list the results of tests that were done in ideal environments (no other devices in range, access point ideally placed, etc). In the real world, devices almost never operate in such a clean network environment. The result: optimizing the network for speed will help get signal to all of these slow devices, and there will never be enough incentive for the solution to come from the device side of the market.

A word about institution- and library-type networks. They are very different from home wifi setups. Your access point at home is made for a stable environment in which it either can or can’t reach your device. It doesn’t know anything about other access points and it doesn’t communicate much about the environment with your client devices. On the other hand, WLANs (wireless local area networks, like those at most of our institutions) are made up of many access points that talk to each other, adjust themselves to maximize their signals as the environment changes, and communicate a lot with the various devices in the area. We’re talking about WLANs here.

When a device moves, a new access point takes over where the old access point’s signal peters out. However, this process is plagued by three issues.

  1. Device manufacturers market their products based on battery life. It costs (slightly) less battery power to lock onto a single wifi signal. Therefore the devices are made to prefer staying in contact with a favorite access point rather than move from access point to access point throughout the day.
  2. Networking, in bygone times, was assumed to be useful in an environment where things didn’t move around. Hence the “sticky client” issue I wrote about previously.
  3. Early on, it was assumed that the client device would be the smartest about its network needs, so the device should choose a favorite access point rather than have the access points choose devices.

How do these issues play out in a WLAN environment?

  1. The 2.4GHz signal carries farther than the 5GHz signal, so as you approach a building your device may glom onto a far-away 2.4GHz signal. Meanwhile, in all but the fanciest access points, having a device access at 2.4GHz will slow down the entire access point for everyone else.
  2. Your computer may not want to let go of a particularly satisfying relationship with an old access point that is no longer in range. This means that you may enter a room and find that you have no signal even though other people there are internetting along quite happily. Your device is refusing to try out a new relationship in hopes of remaining faithful to its lost love.
  3. A well-behaved device would take the access point’s report “you’re getting a little far away from me, so please transfer to this other access point over here” and would do exactly that. What usually happens, though, is that the device hangs on until things get dire and then probes every access point in the area (a lot of wasted time slices and energy) and then chooses a new access point often based on previous familiarity rather than optimal signal. Meanwhile this whole process bogs down the entire network.
Peter Thornycroft, "Gigabit Wi-Fi, 802.11ac in depth," Presented at AirHeads, 2013.
Peter Thornycroft, “Gigabit Wi-Fi, 802.11ac in depth,” Presented at AirHeads, 2013.

How to improve performance given all these issues?

  1. One solution is denser signals (visualized to the right, where each dot is the number of ones and zeros the network can process at a time). If we do the exponential bump-up from a 4×4 network to an awesome 8×8 network more things can happen at once. If Jack has a 3×3 laptop and Jill has both a 1×1 smartphone and a 2×2 tablet, our awesome 8×8 access point could serve both of them in a single time-slice rather than cycling through them one by one. The problem here is that you need more and more signal strength to decode the denser signals, so we’ll need more access points with higher signals strength and greater speed. The problem, of course, is that more access points means that each access point has more neighbors, and neighbors interfere with each others’ signal. So this will be a delicate balancing game.
  2. Another solution is to use software to force clingy devices to allow a handoff to a new access point. In this scenario the network tells a device “Look, you should really move to that access point over there for best results.” If the device doesn’t do as it’s told, the current access point will actually shut off communication, forcing the device to choose a new access point. Carleton’s network has been running this upgrade for a few months now and all indications are that it has helped with performance.
  3. A third solution is to upgrade access points. Older ones simply don’t have the memory or CPU power to handle all the stuff they need to do these days. Also, older access points are only able to handle 1/3 to 1/2 the number of connected devices as newer ones, and people come into our areas these days with a laptop and a phone and maybe a tablet… That’s a lot of devices for a single person. Also newer access points can emit both fast and slow signals so that the entire area doesn’t slow down when one slow device connects.

So those are the main points that I understood from the presentation. There is clearly not enough here for you or me to start improving our WLANs, but hopefully there is enough here that if you’re in conversations with your network folks you may have some context and even some concrete suggestions to offer.

*You can find a lot of useful videos of Peter Thornycrof presenting online. Many of them will be more useful to you if you speak network, but even I was able to get a lot out of the clips Carleton’s network guy showed us. One of the ones we watched some of was about Beamforming.

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ACRL Information Literacy Framework Feedback Deadline Extended

In case you haven’t heard (as I hadn’t) the deadline for submitting feedback on the ACRL Draft Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education (part 1 and part 2) has been extended. Submit feedback (via SurveyMonkey) by Monday, April 21st at 5pm Central Time.

If you would like to crib from (or disagree with) the feedback Carleton and St. Olaf have sent, feel free to do so.

This document will set the tone for our work for the next several years, so it behooves us to make sure it accurately reflects our work and our learning goals for our students. (In other words: GIVE THEM FEEDBACK because we care about this stuff.)

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Responding to the ACRL draft Information Literacy Framework

As you are no doubt aware, ACRL is drafting a replacement for the Information Literacy Standards. They’re hoping for feedback on their draft of the Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education (Part 1 and Part 2) by 5pm Central today5pm Central on Monday, April 21, 2014.

The Reference & Instruction Librarians of Carleton and St. Olaf got together and, over the course of 3 meetings, synthesized our comments into a unified response. Here is what we have now submitted to ACRL as answers to their questions.

In what ways will the focus on threshold concepts help you to generate conversations with other campus stakeholders (such as disciplinary faculty partners, members of the general education curriculum committee, and academic support services staff)?

The term “threshold concept” has not yet come into widespread use here on our campus, but the concepts themselves will provide valuable support and backing for conversations we have with our campus stakeholders. They resonate strongly with our work on our campus. In particular, the messages of the framework that will most strongly support our work include: a) that this is firmly rooted in critical thinking, but still defined in a very information-based way, b) that this is about building “credibility within [an] ecosystem” and performing “expert moves” within a context (from lines 170 and 173), c) that we focus on student learning strategies rather than a simple ladder of skills, and d) that context can’t be separated from information literacy, but that information literacy is all about ethical and effective participation in a community’s discourse. The context-based language will help us communicate with faculty, giving us official vocabulary to talk about the ways in which information literacy is both a discipline unto itself and also integrated into other disciplines.

How do the sections for knowledge practices and assignments/assessments provide helpful guidance when considering implementing the new Framework? What else would you want to see in these sections?

The “Knowledge Practices” sections do a good job of taking the threshold concept and delineating representative “expert moves” that help increase credibility within a community. Since the concepts are, by definition, difficult to grasp, these sections provide instructors and students alike with a handhold while grappling with the larger concept.

The “Metaliteracy” sections have such potential, but currently fall short. They are far too focused on social media and the producer/consumer metaphor. There is such a wealth of information on metacognition in the scholarship of teaching and learning, and we suggest that this would be a richer, more framework-like direction to take these sections – not removing the social media aspect, but adding crucial focus on self-knowledge, reflection, and putting that self-knowledge to use to participate effectively in the community (whatever platform that participation uses). Emphasis on reflective practice is crucial.

The assignments and assessments sections will be helpful during the transition to and adoption of the new Framework, but they will quickly become dated. We suggest that these be housed in a supplementary document aimed at helping librarians make the transition to thinking and teaching based on the Framework for two reasons. First, they would not bog down the central document of our profession with suggestions that will never be generalizable in the way that the rest of the document is. Second, they could be updated on a regular basis without necessitating full-scale revision of the Framework.

We plan to include additional materials in a subsequent phase (described in the welcome message). What other elements would you find helpful that aren’t mentioned in our plans?

“Ethical Participation” is listed in the definition of information literacy (line 162), but hasn’t yet made much of an appearance in the framework itself. It should either be woven into the current threshold concepts or be given its own concept. And of course, it is far more complex than simple citation practices or copyright adherence. It also involves knowing what kinds of evidence can support what kinds of claims, etc.

Metacognition is a vital component of critical thinking and learning. You gesture toward it both with the new focus on affect and also in the metaliteracy sections, and you have a section mentioning it on line 246, but calling it out specifically and integrating the richness of the scholarship on the topic would greatly enhance the Framework.

A third suggestion is to include, either woven into the others or as a stand-alone concept, some discussion of the importance of managing one’s research materials (bibliographic management, appropriate back-ups and security, file management, data management, research notes, etc). This has implications not just for grants and general effectiveness, but also for increased creativity. Well organized files and notes help researchers see patterns and connections that may not be apparent otherwise. Well documented decisions about research, research materials, and products of research aid in sharing and reuse (or better decisions about keeping some information private).

Is there anything else you would like for us to know?

Definition of Information Literacy:
Line 161: Change the order of the list to “finding, using and analyzing scholarship, data, and other information”

Structure and Terminology:
The “experienced researcher” formulation can be problematic. We see what you are trying to achieve with that formulation, but in practice it can often make it seem like only experienced researchers are actually creating anything. Take Line 425 for example: “with the experienced researcher adding his or her voice….” That makes it sound as if less experienced researchers are not adding their voices – like they have to wait to get some sort of certification before they can create meaning.

The term “Learners” is used throughout the document. We feel that this is jargon that may become dated. Since ACRL explicitly serves college and research libraries, and since the audience here is for less experienced researchers, we feel that “students” more accurate and simply describes the audience here. We understand that “Learners” also comes from the language of K-12 education, and that continuity is useful between standards, but “students” resonates with faculty far more strongly and will help us get faculty on board with this document.

And finally, the first concept is named using a very short sentence: “Scholarship is a conversation.” We feel that the other concepts would be better served by this construction than by being forced into the “noun as noun” construction (which muddies the waters at best and causes outright confusion at worst).

 Notes on the “Scholarship is a conversation” section:
“Negotiate meaning” (line 425) does not work well for all disciplines, but “negotiate understanding” works well. We recommend “negotiate understanding.”

This section would be greatly enhanced by including some discussion of ethical participation.  Conversations die quickly if people don’t think you’re participating ethically.

It might also be worth emphasizing that engaging with sources in a conversation does not mean parroting back what other people have said. So conversations involve adding to the body of knowledge rather than summarizing. The act of synthesis is vitally important, but simple summary is insufficient.

Notes on the “Research as Inquiry” section:
Inquiry can mean an iterative process or a single question. Perhaps it would be clearer to formulate this as a very short sentence (like “scholarship is a conversation” already is). We suggest “Research is iterative inquiry.”

Line 487: “open or unresolved” is limiting and actually untrue for some methodologies. In many disciplines people go back over the same ground. You could probably just cut this portion of the sentence and be fine.

Notes on the “Format as Process” section:
This section was nearly impossible to understand as it is written. We feel it needs quite a bit of work. The concept as it is currently named makes almost no sense to any of the people we have asked. For one thing, “Format” in library jargon most often describes print/digital/microform/etc. Perhaps what you mean here is “genre” or even “product.” Please consider removing the term “format” entirely. The title would probably be best served by a short sentence rather than a “noun as noun” construction — we suggest something like “Product informs process.”

The scope and focus of the concept is also murky. It seems to be trying to teach two things at once: 1) the process and method matter and help predict what you can get as an end result, and 2) some genres of end product impose methodological constraints. In addition, while the section acknowledges some emerging forms, as a whole it is highly book- and article-focused. This focus leads to a sense that this is primarily about understanding a static set of things. In reality new forms emerge,  and it is important for students to be able to recognize the non-static “alive-ness” of the universe of output types.

Finally, we would also love to see in this section a good way to talk about the different artifacts of a publication you find online: pre-prints, working papers, etc.

Notes on the “Authority is constructed and contextual” section:
This is a hugely important concept that could be strengthened by adding some language about the economics of information (how does research get funded? What gets distributed? Who gets access and through what funds?). This is also tied to the problems of “filter bubbles” where Google and others rank results based on what they know about you already, and your friends feed you information that they like or know you will like, and it becomes harder and harder to stumble on information from other perspectives.

This section could also be strengthened by adding some mention of the importance of knowing both how to navigate information power structures and also influence those structures (via scholarly conversation).

We suggest cutting the example of the Weather forecasts and sticking with a stronger version of what appears on line 21 of part 2: “Scholars within a discipline DO value specific publications or publishers over others.” We also note that previous threshold concepts in this Framework have not relied on examples as much, so it would both strengthen this section and even out the writing style of the document to leave the examples out of this portion.

Notes on the “Search is Strategic” section:
This section could perhaps be subsumed into the section on Research as Inquiry.

If it is not merged with the Research as Inquiry section, we offer several suggestions for improvement. First, under “Dispositions,” add a bullet saying that expert researchers are flexible and patient (or tenacious) – they’re willing to keep digging, to take what they’ve learned and apply it to new searches, etc. Also add the importance of creativity in search. That combination of creativity and iterative work are crucial to strategic searching, and it is also necessary when students are trying to decide whether results are relevant to them or not. Lack of creativity or tenacity lead to two common problems: Results are “not on my topic” (don’t name my full topic in its title or abstract), or the first 5 results are sufficient regardless of whether they adequately fill the information need.

This section could also be strengthened by mentioning the importance of reading (result lists, abstracts, articles) in order to learn the vocabulary of the scholarly conversation you’re delving into. Since search systems rarely go beyond matching the exact character string of each word you type, if you’re typing the wrong words you will get disappointing results. (This also ties back to the concept of engaging in a scholarly conversation – interlocutors have to understand each others’ language.)

This section focuses rather narrowly on search systems and doesn’t leave much room for exploration, either guided or free-flowing.

Finally, on line 175 of part two: “I-Search papers” is jargon with a pretty narrow audience. We recommend aiming for more generalizability


Why would you want to keep your copyrights when you’re not planning to republish?


Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

A scholar I know in another field (Hi Dad) recently asked his publisher for an author agreement that would let him retain his copyright while the publisher retained non-exclusive rights to do whatever the publisher needed to do, now and forever. The response was interesting to me because one of the biggest questions was “Why would you want these rights, anyway? We don’t understand.”

This was actually the first time I’ve thought about that question in that way. Of course nobody’s planning to take the same volume to another publisher, and realistically a whole huge volume isn’t something normally republished in PDF online, either. So realistically, what might a scholar reply to this question?

Here’s what I came up with this morning, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

You are not being paid, so it makes sense to retain ownership of the thing you produce. Further, if you repurpose your material in the future, it will save you the time and expense of seeking copyright permissions to use your own work. You give many presentations that might benefit from the inclusion of the material you produce, you teach courses where you might want to reproduce or display portions of your work. You may want to distribute a “good parts version” at a conference (which would further your goal to share knowledge widely and would also be a good teaser for people who might have been on the fence about buying the full work). In addition, once the publication goes “out of print” you’ll have recourse to find a new avenue for distribution. You are certainly not trying to limit the publisher’s work in any way, but you would prefer not to have them limit your work.

I can imagine a clause in the contract (though I’ve never seen an example) where you also agree not to produce a directly competing product. You’d want to word that carefully so that they couldn’t claim breech of contract with other, similar scholarship that you would produce with or without owning the copyright to this particular work. Realistically, you’re not going to take this work and re-publish it on your own to compete with their version of the volume, but they may want that in writing.

I also shared my ACRL author agreement with him (still my gold standard for author agreements).

I’ve only ever published with library types, so I don’t have to articulate all this stuff when I ask for a non-exclusive agreement — it’s kind of built into our profession. Have you had similar conversations? What resonated well?