Thursday, 14 July 2011

Knowledge Workshop

I currently work for a higher education institution that focuses solely on law education. Last week, there was a staff training week and I took the opportunity to attend a Knowledge Workshop run by the Head of Knowledge Management. The talk was billed as a way to keep staff abreast of developments in student information resources and a look at social media tools such as blogs and Twitter. It was really aimed at tutors and lecturers (mainly former lawyers now responsible for teaching courses) but I was interested in going anyway. As a qualified librarian who doesn’t actually work in the library – I work on the VLE helping to manage the online delivery of courses – I was interested in finding out more about library resources here.

e-Books, e-Links and i-Guides

The aspect of the talk that concentrated on e-Books was interesting as the college has just completed the first year of an e-book trial, in which textbooks were available to all staff as well as students on one particular course. The textbooks are interactive, and can be annotated, highlighted, searched and downloaded. The textbooks have been very heavily used by some students, particularly those studying via distance learning. The presenter pointed out that some paper textbooks weigh in excess of one kilo – quite a weight to carry around! I am not at all surprised that students with many commitments who spend their days rushing from one place to another would shun these heavy textbooks in favour of their lighter e-equivalents.

There have been some problems meaning that not all students were keen to make use of the e-books. One factor was the timing – students were informed about the e-book resources after many had already accessed the PDF equivalents on the VLE. Also, the original email was sent at the start of term and largely got lost among the general flood of emails. This raises questions about how to promote and encourage use of the e-books among students.

An important issue was that students have open book exams into which they are allowed to take annotated textbooks. However, they are not permitted to take electronic devices into the exams – so what’s the point in annotating the e-books? Some students also worried that hard copy textbooks would be taken away if e-books were greeted with too much enthusiasm. The college is keen to stress that hard copies are not under threat and electronic resources are an addition to, not a replacement for, current resources.

We had the opportunity to look at some e-Links – useful sites grouped by the course to which they related – and i-Guides, which are interactive guides that examine students’ knowledge of legal methods. They are aimed at students on the Graduate Diploma in Law (the conversion course for would-be lawyers who have first degrees in a different subject) but are open to anyone. It’s unlikely I’ll need to look at these in my role, but it’s still handy to know where to find them.

Social media and networking

The talk then moved on to social networking: in particular Twitter, LinkedIn and Yammer (an institution-specific corporate networking site rather like Facebook but with Twitter-style hashtags). I am an enthusiastic user of Twitter to keep up to date with developments in libraries and information, so it was interesting to look at it from the point of view of those involved with the law. The presenter cited some examples of law-related hashtags, and companies and bloggers with a Twitter presence that it might be useful to follow. An interesting point was made that Twitter is serving the purpose of article abstracts for summarising blog posts and online articles. I’m not sure I agree completely, as abstracts generally contain much more information than Twitter can provide in 140 characters and can give you not only a brief summary but a run-down of the arguments, method and conclusions of the article, depending on the style of abstract. However, I can definitely see the similarity and I suppose both Twitter and the average blog post are more informal than most ‘proper’ articles anyway.

The presenter also discussed ways in which Twitter can be used in a non-work context, such as getting updates on weather or traffic or even sharing random information with colleagues. She pointed out that even informal discussion will help you to network and get to know your colleagues. In the staffroom, you won’t just talk about work, you will chat about your children and your hobbies and what you’re doing at the weekend – so why not on Twitter too?

She was preaching to the converted as far as I was concerned, but I was surprised at the level of hostility towards Twitter in the room. Several of those attending hadn’t come across Twitter before and asked questions that showed they didn’t quite understand it – which is fair enough – but some seemed to be ready to dismiss it out of hand. I think more could have been done to emphasise the difference between Twitter and email, since this seemed to confuse several participants who didn’t seem to see the point of exchanging ideas via Twitter when they could do so via email. For me, an email exchange (in a work context at least) is more of a private discussion of a particular issue or topic: Twitter is a way to spread ideas, carry on discussions and share information in a much more wide-ranging way.

Next up was a discussion on LinkedIn, in which examples of personal profiles and organisational groups relating to the law were shown and discussed. The final social media tool examined was Yammer, which as mentioned above is a bit like Facebook but with a corporate slant. The college’s Yammer page is open only to those with a college email address. Many posts are made openly to be viewed by anyone, but it is possible to keep groups private for more confidential discussions. As with Twitter, it is possible to use hashtags to mark posts about a particular topic.

Yammer has been used effectively by several people within the college to post links to articles of interest and begin discussions on particular topics. Personally, though I haven’t posted much on Yammer I’ve found it to be helpful – last week we received a helpdesk query from a student asking if it was possible to access college email from her iPhone. Though this isn’t strictly something we deal with, I was able to send the student a link to the app for our email client on the iTunes store – because I’d read about it on Yammer.

Individual information management

The final topic of the session was individual information management. I like to be organised so I was looking forward to this! The presenter focused on Groupwise, our email client, and gave us several handy tips including quick ways to edit, retrieve and forward attachments as well as pointing out that it is possible to customise the email homepage with links – this was something I hadn’t been aware of so I was grateful for this tip. She recommended putting aside 20 minutes a week to go through and sort emails. There was also a discussion on general ways to find information, such as social bookmarking and tagging, and we were given details of where we could go for help within the college.

Final thoughts

I found the workshop worthwhile – I enjoyed finding out more about what the library offers, even if it isn’t directly related to my work. I found the issues surrounding the introduction of e-books particularly interesting and would like to see where this goes in the future. I also found it useful to look at social media from a law point of view.

The aspect of the talk which was the most useful to me was the part about individual information management. I would like to take on board some of the tips and in particular try and sort out my email homepage!

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