Your Humble Blogger came across an article called The Academic Library and the Promise of NGDLE, by Megan Oakleaf, Scott Walter and Malcolm Brown on some site called EDUCAUSE Review, and, well, I have thoughts.
OK, first of all, NGDLE stands for Next Generation Digital Learning Environment, and if you need a moment after that, I understand. I won’t hit you with interoperability just yet. It’s coming, though. Also data-driven and outcome-based. Possibly high-impact, too. I know, I know. But part of the conversation is about the conversation, which means speaking the mammyloshen, innit? Anyway. I don’t really advise reading the article, and I’m not going to claim to summarize it, either. I don’t think I really understood it, or at least not in detail. But it did make me see an argument that I think the writers would agree with, even if it isn’t what their actually saying in this article, and that is the argument that I have thoughts about, so that’s where I’m going. Ready?
OK, so it’s this: The current fashion in Higher Education administration is a focus on what they call data-driven, outcome-based programs. Which is great! They want evidence that stuff works, is all that means. Or all it should mean. In practice, it means that people are in meetings with administrators talking about how participants in such-and-such a program in their first semester show an 8% increase in retention rate, or that the GPA of such-and-such a subset of students is 0.65 points lower than a different subset. Which, again, fine, as long as everyone doing the talking and the listening really understands statistical analysis. Which, optimistic, I think.
Still and all, I am inclined to the notion that in the perpetual struggle for resources in the academy, it’s helpful to look at actual evidence, and it’s helpful to look at effects down the road, not just in any particular course. I do not intend to disparage the use of data, or a focus on what comes out. Education, as we have discussed in the past, doesn’t work, in the sense that a car works, but that doesn’t mean that we should waste a lot of money and time on programs that don’t make any difference a year down the road. And relying on anecdotal evidence, or the shining smiles of the successful students, is not the best way to go about allocating resources.
Well. Be that as it may, whether it’s rubbish or reason, academic administration is all about the data-driven and outcome-based right now. And academic libraries do not, on the whole, have outcome-based data to present to their administrations. Do students who use EBSCO FirstSearch have a higher retention rate than those who use ProQuest? Do students who check out books during their first semester have a higher GPA through their degree completion than those who don’t? We have no idea.
In fact, we go to some trouble to avoid knowing that information—we have our system delete the individual data daily, so that we know how often a book has circulated but never to whom. Our principle is that library use is not only confidential but almost sacrosanct. Took out a book? Took out twenty books? We don’t know. As long as you bring them back on time, we keep no record of them whatsoever.
I think the history of this started back in the late 1980s, when there were (or were reported to be) FBI investigations of library records, and library staff were said to be asked to inform on their patrons who took out certain books. I don’t know the actual history, but I know that after the Patriot Act (I am tempted to write the so-called Patriot Act, for it never seemed remotely patriotic to Your Humble Blogger) libraries were indeed the object of National Security Demands. The standard defense has become the basic fact that we have no such records. We don’t keep ’em. Gone, daddy, gone.
And that has worked out well for libraries, over the last thirty years or so. I think. The way the law is structured makes it possible that we are in fact scooping up information and delivering to the feds before we delete it, and that I am being kept in the dark about it for reasons having quite a lot to do with fighting terrorism and nothing at all to do with politics. But be that as it may, that’s how we libraries currently roll, and it would take a major philosophical shift as well as substantial workflow and software changes to keep data on individual students.
So. Where does that leave us? When higher-education administrative types start talking about programs that help students, they are looking for things we don’t have, things that we are philosophically opposed to having. The article that started this business simply takes for granted (I think) that this needs to be rectified. If the administration wants outcome-based data, then we need to provide it; it has to be interoperable and next-generation and creatively disruptive, and probably innovative, too. They are the bosses, and what the bosses want, they tend to get, or the people who don’t give it to them don’t get much support in return, right? And in truth, there is a good deal of truth in that. If we are not giving presentations about longitudinal studies in the meetings about Excellence in Undergraduate Outcomes or Developing Innovative Pedagogy, then those meetings will be held without us. We will not be, as the kids say, in the room where it happens. And on top of that, there probably are some things to be learned from those longitudinal studies. Things we think we know about how students use the library may not be true, and it would be better to learn that than to remain deluded. Correlations that never occurred to us might leap out of the data, and might even be causative correlations. Maybe we could improve our libraries and suck up to the administration at the same time.
I don’t know the answer to this one. My instinct is to stick with anonymity. My instinct is that the current fad for the data-driven and outcome-based will be short-lived. My instinct is that we would be doing real damage to the library in pursuit of illusory gains. Speaking about this with my coworkers, it was clear that their instincts run along the same lines as my own. And yet we are all aware that our instincts are what they are because we have worked where we have, not because we all have fantastic instincts.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,