The Jam

One of my favorite things to come out of the work I do with my co-conspirators Cartland and Jerry is “the jam”. I believe credit goes to Cartland for the naming and codifying it into a Thing™, but it evolved out of many meetings where we would sit down and actively work on building something together. Whether it was revamping a presentation, figuring out work flows, or architecting a site we realized some of the best work came out of sitting down and hashing it out together. So, whenever we need to work on something like that we don’t call it a meeting, we call it a jam, and we go into that space ready to build, make, or blow up something. Additionally, in these collaborative moments we reveal and clarify our thinking and ideas (e.g. how do we talk about online identity to students?). I often come out the other side of those jams not only happy with what we’ve built but with a better and more nuanced understanding of the topic, idea, or purpose. It should be noted that at the foundation of all of this is trust. Even when we argue, sometimes vociferously, we all want to work towards the same goals.

Earlier this year Cartland and I were wrestling with better ways to scaffold our DKC student consultants to be better prepared for class visits. We had an explosion of class visit requests from faculty (seriously, we’ve done about double the amount of class visits than what we had done the previous two years). Some of these class visits required students to understand an assignment for a class and explain how to get started with technology tools. Many of our consultants had not done this kind of presentation and although we gave them a outline template to use to prepare for these presentations, they were not utilizing them in the way we wanted.

Sunset view up the Rappahannock river

Cut to an evening paddle along the Rappahannock river where many a work question has been pondered. As we paddled upstream Cartland asked the question, “What if we extended the jam model to our work with students?” As soon as he said this not only did I know we had a very viable solution, but a parallel musing that had been running through my mind suddenly found itself doing a hard right turn and coming together in his simple idea. You see, one of the most the valuable parts of my undergraduate experience was my time spent as a student employee in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT). It wasn’t necessarily the projects I did (although I did learn things), what I really had access to was a seat around the table (and I mean this literally) and the opportunity to listen to people (really smart and thoughtful people) think through ideas and be creative. I got to see how people think. In retrospect it seems like this shouldn’t have been a radical practice, but my schooling experience was full of assignments and projects where I was expected to complete them on my own (and in fact perhaps collaborating could even be considered cheating) and I don’t recall any moments where teachers demonstrated how they wrestled with complex questions and ideas. Cartland’s simple idea of “why don’t we jam with the students?” brought together all of this. Why wouldn’t we share the process that helped us create better things?

The jam is not necessarily a defined protocol we follow, but I do recommend that for anything you are planning to jam on with student that having an outline or questions to work from is helpful. It gives enough scaffolding to have a conversation, but by going through it together, out loud, we can also have those clarifying conversations. My favorite application of the jam has been for our DKC workshops. We encourage our students to propose a workshop around a digital skill or topic and we work with them to develop it, name it, market it, and run it.

The naming is honestly my favorite part of the whole endeavor. Once we have established a topic we gather around the whiteboard with the student (and anyone else in the room that wants to be involved) and start to brainstorm. We strongly push the “no bad idea” part of brainstorming. If you say it out loud, write it down. I think students have been able to see the value of being generative in ideas and not self-editing so quickly. You never know what is going to inspire the next thought that will lead to everyone exclaiming, “That’s it!”

whiteboard with brainstorming words about designing graphics
The winner for this workshop was “Let’s Get Graphic! Designing for Social Media”

Not only have we come up with some terrific names, but I think student have a lot of fun with this process too. There are often silly suggestions that don’t lead anywhere but at least one workshop on building accessible websites was titled “Oops, I Made the Web a Better Place!”. This title jam is also an opportunity to make sure we all are on agreement about what this workshop is going to be about. If you are trying to come up with a concise title and tagline it reveals what you think is important and can help clarify focus of the workshop itself.

A whiteboard with brainstorming words about a storyboarding workshop
We went with “From Post-It to Production: Learning to Storyboard your Videos”

Combining an eye catching title with some snazzy marketing graphics designed by our students has led to some fairly amazing ads as well.

An ad for the DKC workshop series titled "Mixing it up with JMack: Launching your DJ Career on Twitch"

We have seen an uptick in our workshop attendance this semester and I think credit can be given to the combined effect of a good title that makes a compelling pitch, alongside pushing that marketing material everywhere you can get in front of students (more props to Cartland for taking the time to figure out a process for getting this distributed to all the places at the right time. He should really write about this).

One thing I’m eager to see is how the jams will evolve over time as students gain creative confidence and become more practiced in the process. While I can’t speak for my students experience I suspect that like me at that age their experience in this kind of collaboration is minimal. I hope they see value in it and I hope we can continue to make time to prioritize it. Honestly, we are lucky we can do this kind of work because it is time consuming (in the best way). I think the jam not only leads to a better “product”, but it lets us have real human connection and a shared experience building something great.

Mucking about in databases and giving it all over to google

Shelves and Book Cart_9556678137_l

As mentioned in my previous post one of the projects I wanted to complete over last summer was digitizing as many of the paper processes that I could. One of the largest challenges was finding a way to digitize a major task my student supervisor performs. In the library the student supervisor takes time each week to spot check some of the shelving of the previous week. In order to do this the paper process was as follows:

  •  When a student assembled a “ready to be shelved” cart they filled out a slip of paper and wrote down 6 random call numbers that appear on the cart. This slip of paper went in to a bin near the computer workstation.
  • They would also write their name, date, time and cart number on another slip of paper. This slip stayed with the cart until the cart was completely shelved. Each student who worked on a cart would write down their name on the slip of paper. If one student shelved the entirety of the cart they only had to write their name at the bottom. If multiple people worked on a cart there was a field to indicate where they stopped on the cart.
  • Each time a student would head up to the Stacks to shelve they had to fill out their name, date, time and, cart number on a log also kept by the computer workstation.
  • The student supervisor would have to match up the the various pieces of paper to figure out who shelved what and then they’d take the slip of paper with the 6 call numbers and go do the spot check. During the spot check they’d write down anything that was out of order and if they did find an error they’d put the slip of paper in a binder that had the various student aides names so they could go back and correct their mistakes.

How do you even begin to digitize this process?

During my first year I had been introduced to Navicat which is piece of database management software (like Microsoft Access). My supervisor had shown me some queries she had built because the reporting tool that comes with our ILS (Integrated Library System) is not very robust. So, while I was thinking about ways to digitize the process it occurred to me I probably could put together a report of some sort. Every time a cart is assembled by a student the cart gets a second check-in. This ensures that all things have been checked-in and catches other statuses a book may be on that need to come off before they head back to the Stacks. Knowing that all these second check-ins were being recorded by the system I was able to build a query based on the items checked-in, the computer they were checked-in on and, a date range. Now, a lot more than just carts get checked in on the computer in the back so I needed a way for the student supervisor to sift through the items relatively easily. I created a google form for my students to fill out:

This form gives the student supervisor the barcode information they need to easily find the carts that have been made. In, addition I’ve made my students scan a barcode before and after they check-in a cart.  This helps speed up my student supervisor’s process even more by giving them an easily identifiable number to search for in the report that is generated. After the student finish shelving they also fill out an after-shelving form:

The input from these forms gets dumped in to google spreadsheets that both my student supervisor and I have access to. My student supervisor then has to match up the corresponding information.  They look at when carts were made and choose the date range for the query (which they are able to run themselves using some nice and free software that allows you to run basic queries) and then they run the report. They then take the database query output and import it in to our shared google drive folder where they can identify all the carts that are made based on the information in the “Assembled Carts” spreadsheet. After they have identified carts they pull up the “After Shelving” spreadsheet to see who shelved the cart and write their names down. For this last part I let my supervisor choose how they wanted to format things so that when they went spot check it made sense to them. My student supervisor this year color coded the spreadsheet and came up with a system of naming when identifying errors and that seemed to work for them. All that was left to do was grab a tablet (or their phone) and go upstairs and spot check. An, additional advantage to this system of spot checking was the student supervisor now has a complete list of everything on the cart. Rather than leave it up to person assembling the cart to pick 6 random call numbers the student supervisor can be more targeted in their checking. We know certain areas of the Stacks have more problems than others so it makes sense to check those places more often.

In order to get the information back to the student aides about what errors they need to correct  I gave them all individual pages on (which are hidden behind a login) and on each page is an editable spreadsheet so that not only can my student supervisor record the errors, but my student aides could grab tablets and head up in to the Stacks to correct their errors and mark that they fixed them while they are up there. Many opt to write down call numbers still, but quite a few adopted picking up the tablet and heading upstairs to check. This is one part of the process I’m trying to figure out how to make more easily accessible so that more student feel inclined to pick up the device rather than write down a bunch of call numbers on a piece of paper.

We’ve done this new way of spot checking for one academic year and the experiment has been very successful and few fun side benefits have come out of digitizing this process. My student supervisor now spends half the time doing the spot checking that it used to take and now I have the opportunity to expand out that positions task to include more variety and higher-level activities. One of the more fun side benefits that I had not given much thought to is the massive data collection that is a by-product of this process. I now know on average how many carts each week get shelved, when are our busiest weeks, how many items have been shelved, who had the highest accuracy (did I mention my student supervisor was keeping an on-going spreadsheet of student aides accuracy rates?). It was very cool to tell my student during the last week of school that they had shelved over 12,000 items during the semester.

Now that I have all this data it has my brain going about a new approach to student supervisor spot checking and on an even larger scale it has me thinking about the best use of student aide time while they work. I’m going to spend the summer sifting through the data a bit and spend time thinking about better ways to record statistics, do proper analysis (finding rates of accuracy on uneven sample sizes? Got to figure that out) and figure out what data is meaningful to keep recording. I’m excited that the experiment went so well and hopefully with a few more tweaks the system will be even better for this upcoming academic year.