Electronic Eye Archives
Electronic Eye by Kathleen Meulen. In-depth reviews of electronic resources. (In e-voya only as of August 2005.)
First disclosure: I am trying to type this column entirely on my iPad using Apple’s word processing app, which is called Pages.
Second disclosure: I had to borrow back the iPad from my son.
He’s going to be three in August.
While my son is not the VOYA target age at the moment, he will be in a decade. Recently, I’ve been watching him and imagining what he’s going to be like as a learner and information consumer in ten short years. Today, he happily taps away at the screen using the many preschool apps that I’ve made available to him on our iPad. They are helping me teach him his letters and how to count. I see him figuring out what different things on the screen do based on trial and error. He listens to stories and has learned to swipe pages to advance the tale. He even uses the pad of his finger to doodle on the screen using an art program. I’ve come to the conclusion that he may never remember a time when you had to use a mouse to manipulate information on a screen or a time when he had to pull up a chair to sit at a special desk in front of a special piece of equipment in order to learn something new. He just sits wherever he wants to and puts the device on his lap. That’s my anecdotal take on the user of the future but my opinion is backed up by the Pew Research Center who in 2008 predicted that most people would access the Internet via their phones by 2020 (Pew Internet and American Life Project, http://www.pewInternet.org/Reports/2008/The-Future-of-the-Internet-III.aspx).
I know that you all realize that we in the libraries don’t have a decade to get ready, our users are already changing the way that we work with them.
So I’m going to focus this column on the rise of mobile devices as places where our users will gather and create information and will be talking about my experiences using my iPad and iPhone. I’m including reviews of my favorite Apps available from Apple’s Apps store, some of which are connected to online libraries of electronic content.
And I’ll be making a case for our current online resources to start creating apps so that young adults will be able to tap into credible content from a mobile device.
But first, let’s talk about the world of mobile devices including tablet computers, smartphones and apps. Tablet computers came on the scene in 2000 and the term is used to define any small laptop like computer that has a touch screen that can be manipulated with either a finger or a stylus. The iPad is a recent example of a tablet computer but there are more to come. Smartphones come in a lot of different versions now but I am going to use the term to mean any phone that can allow a user to surf the Internet as well as make a call. An app used to be a term used only by the IT world to mean any computer application or software program. It has been taken over by the mobile device world to mean any piece of code that can be downloaded onto a device to make it more useful. The term app has given rise to the apps store that people can visit virtually.
There are lots of great stuff in app stores both to distract a mobile device user and to make them more productive or better informed. Many of these apps are bargain priced or are even free. Creators of apps bank on being able to sell a lot of copies without any overhead at all. No paper, no plastic, no storefront . . . nothing. The costliest app that I’ve purchased for this column was $13.99.
My reviews of apps can be broken down into four categories: ebooks and their readers, readers for text-based content, reference tools, and productivity software. This survey is by no means exhaustive and I’m looking forward to reviewing more apps in the future including the many audiobook readers that are coming online. All were purchased from the Apple App store.
Ebook readers. The media has been covering the price wars between ebook sellers for some time now and which books you can buy to be read on which device is still very volatile. The major players are the Kindle, the Nook, Apple’s iBook, and the Sony Reader. I’ll talk about the two that I’ve been using the most: The Kindle and the iBook.
iBook: Apple’s iBook app for the iPad is my clear favorite for most closely matching the tactile experience of reading a book but with the added advantage of being able to customize the reading experience with regard to font, size, color (sepia or white) and page orientation. Holding the iPad so the screen shows a portrait orientation gives the reader one page, turning the iPad so that it shows a landscape orientation gives the reader side-by-side pages. The enhanced reading experience that the IBook app affords also has a great deal to do with swiping from page to page. When one touches the edge of the page with a finger, the virtual edge of the paper curls up and follows the finger’s motion. Looking at the opposite side of the page as it is curling over reveals the faint reverse of the letters bleeding through the paper. Curling the pages when they are oriented side-by-side shows the following page. I have actually wasted lots of time just turning pages back and forth in fascination.
Other fun features reminiscent of the actual print reading experience is the wooden bookshelf where images of the front covers are stored. This bookshelf flips around to reveal the iBook store front so that users can browse and find their next read. A user’s iTunes account is used for purchasing from this store.
Features that mark the text include bookmarks, highlighting, and adding sticky notes. Most of these options are revealed when a user holds down on a word.
Kindle for iPad and iPhone
Amazon has the advantage of time in the ebook market with it’s Kindle device and now the Kindle app which is downloadable on the iPad and iPhone. They pushed this app out to the market about a month after the first iPads delivered and I’m glad that it is available because there simply are a lot more books available to be read on Kindle over the iBook and there may be a price difference. This will probably change greatly as the market matures.
The reading experience and text marking features are completely adequate to the reading experience. One page slides to the next with a swipe of the finger instead of curling back. Changing the orientation of the device from portrait to landscape does not create a two-page spread, but does allow the user the opportunity to consider how many characters and words to read on one line. Kindle also allows users to read their ebooks on several different devices and will even sync the page to the last read if a reader is switching from iPad to phone and back. I’ve done this several times and it is thankfully a very quick process.
What I’m most concerned about is how ebook checkout from libraries is going to fit into this equation. Many of the ebooks available at my on public library can be read only on Adobe Reader, which is also a fine eBook reader but Apple and Adobe don’t seem to be getting along right now. I do not expect to see an Adobe Reader app any time in the near future. The future seems similarly bleak in my own school library which uses Follett. Follett’s online ebook reader requires Adobe Flash 10 or above to view.
The fact that any Web site that is laden with Adobe Flash cannot be browsed on my iPad is my greatest frustration with the iPad.
The Elements: a Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray published by Touch Press, 2010.
This ebook is so much more than just an ebook. It’s an amazing feat of electronic publishing and a huge gift to the chemistry students of the world as well as the rest of us who are often fascinated by the stuff that our world is made of. I am extremely hopeful that this is a foretaste of what is to come in reference books.
Let me try to come up with a description that will do it justice. Theodore Gray, one of the most avid element collectors, has made a cottage industry out of marketing visually appealing Periodic Tables. His poster is a staple in science classrooms around the world and there is also a print version of this book. In this ebook, he has integrated an image that represents every element, combined it with a brief, newsy description of the element which may include how it was discovered and named, uses, whether it is dangerous, and whether it is naturally occurring, or only hangs around for a few minutes in the laboratory after being isolated. His chatty text is then combined with several images of items related to the element. Each image spins around so that users of the ebook can get a 360 degree view of the object. Most of the images can be manipulated by the iPad user which just adds to the fun. Many images can also be enlarged and then put into a mode where they can be enjoyed with 3D glasses, which can be purchased for $4.95.
It is certainly the images that are the biggest sell on this ebook. The mercury moves around the screen like the “quicksilver” that it is and the liquid nitrogen wafts over the Dewar flask. Admittedly, there are a few elements that resist photography so they are generally represented by images of the person or institution that they were named after. Think Berkelium and Californium.
While there is an index and a table of contents, the ebook is organized by the element’s atomic number and the forward and backward buttons move between the elements.
The ebook also starts out with a rendition of the famous element song written in 1959 by Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer. The accompanying element images make for a presentation so visually stunning that buyers of this ebook will be very glad that they have plunked down their $13.99 at the App store just to see it.
The only downside to this whole ebook is that it is huge! It is over one gig and takes up tons of space.
My big question is how do libraries make this available to their patrons and how to science teachers use this as a reference text in their classes? I have three hundred science students who could all use this in the fall and absolutely no way to make it available.
A taste of what this looks like is available at http://www.periodictable.com.
Pages and Keynote
Pages and Keynote are two apps in the suite of three productivity tools created by Apple. Pages is a word processor and Keynotehelps users create presentations similar to Microsoft’s Power Point. The third is called Numbers and it is a spreadsheet program. Both are available at the App Store for under $10. Both are extremely well designed and easy to use. Both use the iPad’s nearly full-sized keyboard which, when deployed, takes up nearly half of the landscape oriented screen but does allow for the ten finger typing method.
Because of the small screen which is further obscured by the keyboard, only the most frequently used tools are shown on top of the screen and include justification and text and paragraph styles. Other options are a little buried under some menus and some things are simply not available like word count or tables.
Both Pages and Keynote have a few appealing layouts for users to tailor with their own content. The layouts seem to address a variety of audiences from the business professional to the student demonstrating some learning about history (ya gotta have that parchment background). Adding pictures either from the Web or from the collection stored on the device was relatively seamless and manipulating the image (rotating and resizing) required the user to learn a few more touchscreen swipes that will eventually feel like second nature. The only other touchscreen swipe that has to be learned is how to highlight text. Users can tap the screen at one end of a passage which brings up two dots which can be drug in either direction to encompass the selection.
Sharing documents can be done via e-mail or using iWork, a Web site for document sharing. I’ve used all methods and have found the iWork Web site to be a little clunky and hard to learn. The best part of Pages and Keynote is the fact that work is saved automatically. One does not have to remember to “save early and save often.”
World Countries All in One. ADS Software
Many of the apps in the App Store listed under the reference category are primarily Wikipedia readers but I wanted to include one reference app that I could imagine one of my teachers using with her classes in the fall. World Countries All in One combinesWikipedia content with the content from the CIA World Factbook to create a functional country study database. The content from the World Factbook is presented with a table of contents so that users can drill down to specific content with ease, maps of each country and continent are included as well as images of the country’s flag. It compares well with the web-based CIA World Factbook as well as Nationmaster (http://www.nation master.org), which mines data from the World Factbook and presents it in a way that allows for easier data comparison between countries.
What it doesn’t compare well with is CultureGrams which is a much richer database with a component that helps users better understand world conflicts. This is a point that must not be ignored. As librarians, we know the where good, quality information can be found. But if it is not available via the device that students are choosing to browse the Internet, then we may find ourselves fighting an uphill battle. It is my hope that I will be reviewing a lot of apps in the future that help users access the online databases that we know will help them solve their information problems.
The rise of the “app” cannot be ignored.
After working for eight years as Head Librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state. Please e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For young adults, it has never been easier to communicate via the printed word. Our digital natives text constantly, frequently e-mail, and often throw out their thoughts to the larger world via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. All of this fills one of the great requirements to becoming a better writer: practice, practice, and more practice. To become a good writer, one has to write . . . a lot. But at the same time, all of this practice is missing one important component: feedback. Today’s young adults may be putting more words on a screen than any other generation before had ever managed to put on paper but they also aren’t getting much of a critique.
Maybe I’m wrong but I’m pretty sure that none of our teen-aged Facebook users are commenting on each others’ posts with a red pen and a suggestion that they visit the dictionary. In fact, I have a feeling that they might just think any errors in grammar or spelling are simply new and unique ways to abbreviate words for quicker texting.
But identifying and fixing problems in general writing conventions is easy with technology, although not always dependable. Spell checks and grammar checks embedded in word processing software and Internet browsers have been around for quite some time. What I’m more worried about is how young adults learn to write with good organization, convey their ideas clearly and develop a unique and consistent voice. For that, we’ve always needed human interaction. It’s the leadership and counsel of teachers and writing coaches that is crucial, whether they teach students face-to-face or electronically. Human interaction, however, is not always available for young adults.
The following resources are making in-roads towards using technology to support writing programs, providing some support and feedback for writers.
WritetoLearn. (Formerly Prentice Hall Essay Scorer) Pearson Education.
WritetoLearn combines a bank of writing prompts, writing suggestions, and sample essays with a program that offers users feedback. This feedback is modeled on the Six Traits of Good Writing created by REL Northwest (http://educationnorthwest.org). These six traits are: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. There’s a plus one now—presentation was added to the original six but is not included in WritetoLearn because the presentation on the page of WritetoLearn is going to be the same for each user.
The feedback offered to the user is the heart of the program. The user sees bar graphs of their score in each trait on a range from one to six. They are encouraged to revise their writing in order improve their score. Help files are offered for each trait, as well as sample essays for each point value, so that they can compare the difference between an essay with the score of one and another that received a six. They can revise and receive feedback twelve times. This need to write in order to raise your number score can actually be a huge motivator for young adults.
In addition to the feedback on the six traits, users also have three tools at their disposal: spell check, grammar check and check for repeated content. I especially liked the repeated content check because it was quite good at finding phrases that had too much similarity. It wasn’t just a check for identical phrases.
What kinds of mathematical algorithms are behind how the computer knows what score to give an essay on such a trait as voice is a mystery to me, even after helping many students and teachers with it over a period of months. Certainly a student’s score improves as they make their essays longer but there is a diminishing return to greater length and also a word limit, which makes sense to me. If they can’t say it in 1,000 words or less, a user probably should go back and revise for greater succinctness. I can also say that an essay scores higher in conventions when more commas and semi-colons are used.
The background information only talks about the how the system considers ideas and concepts as whole ideas rather than simply phrases and individual words. In other words, the information is extremely vague. The one sales representative that I talked to at a trade show also held up his hands in puzzlement.
The program as a whole does offer students a fair degree of guidance. When users look at the bar graph of their feedback and they see that they are getting a low mark on sentence fluency, they quickly learn to go back and find new ways of connecting phrases together so that their language doesn’t sound so choppy. Or they call over a teacher or another student to offer specific suggestions. The program is very good at helping users to decide on their own path.
Does the program ever get it wrong? Yes, occasionally. Something that is easily noted is that it is not very good at differentiating between synonyms. Less easy-to-explain is that sometimes the system will tell the user that their essay can’t be scored because it is too highly inventive or strays too far away from the writing prompt or the type of essay (narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.) that the user should be writing. This lack of score can be very off-putting for users.
What I’ve enjoyed seeing is the enthusiasm and independence of the students. With this program, they get the idea that the ability to improve their writing is in their hands. They aren’t waiting for a teacher’s red markings on a returned essay to hint at ways of improving the quality of their writing. Instead, they’re making their own attempts, seeing if those decisions pay off, and then calling over a peer or teacher/coach when they need human interaction. I could easily see this program also working well in a community education program or after-school setting.
For the record, none of the ten teachers I’m working with will be using WritetoLearn to issue a grade for them. Their students will only use it to make their essay as good as possible before it gets turned in. The ultimate grade for any piece of writing should be up to a human teacher.
WriteToLearn is purchased on a concurrent student basis or on a per student basis. Minimum order requirements exist. Volume discounts are available.
Writer’s Reference Center. Facts on File.
This is Facts on File’s newest database and draws together content from many other Facts on File publications and products. There are two components to the database: Writer’s Reference Shelf and Writer’s Resources. As would be expected, the Writer’s Reference Shelf has a dictionary, a rhyming dictionary, and a thesaurus. There are eleven other reference works including collections of clichés, British slang, American regionalisms, allusions, literary terms, and often confused words. The Writer’s Resources is a extensive collection of well-written essays on all aspects of the writing process. They are categorized under six headings: the writing process, writing fundamentals, how to write a good essay, writing with style, style for various documents, and research guide. Writing fundamentals and writing with style are extremely well-developed. There are over thirty fundamentals that are covered and each is carefully explained with examples. In the writing with style section there are over fifty points to consider, including how to use figurative language and how to develop a style including an essay for each point.
The entire database is searchable as a whole and there’s an advanced search to help direct searching towards a particular component. I would like to see more cross-references and internal links within the information itself. It didn’t seem very browsable. I did like the fact that the home screen had a few features that should change from time-to-time. I don’t think that one would turn here for writerly inspiration and I was hoping for that. I could see great benefit to being able to view ideas on particular themes so if a user had to do an essay on courage, they could get inspiration from the database. Searching on a theme didn’t work very well for me.
As one can imagine, there are no graphics. It shouldn’t need to have graphics but I was surprised about how much that bugged me. I wonder if young adults would find it less approachable because there are no images. Then again, how much meaning would the images add to the text? It might be wrong to add images simply for the sake of having images.
I can see this database being used as an online textbook for a high school or college writing class to great advantage. Judging by the starting price, it is potentially cost-effective. Imagine being able to cart around fourteen reference books in addition to a writing textbook on your laptop or netbook! Young adults would have access to good information and not be limited to Googling for the meaning of literary allusions and getting whatever wiki-answer response was at the top of the result list? Simply put, I love how authoritative this entire collection is! This would also be a great addition to any public library’s online collection.
The starting price for Writer’s Reference Center is $595. Pricing is determined by full-time enrollment for schools and by number of cardholders for public libraries. All prices are for unlimited usage within the institution and include remote access privileges.
After working for eight years as Head Librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state.
Please e-mail comments to email@example.com.
Much has been made of the impact of social networking sites and other Web 2.0 concepts on the way that young adults interact with each other and their world. A great deal of effort has already been expended by librarians, teachers, and other information professionals on exactly how to reach out to the young adults who are using these tools for interaction. What I’ve been discovering, however, is that it does not come easily to the just-slightly-older generation. This generation of digital natives may not remember a time before the Internet, but they also did not receive iPhones on their twelfth birthdays as a “right-of-passage” into young adulthood.
I do not count as a digital native but as a digital immigrant, the Internet coming into my reality as a young librarian. I still don’t know how much my status as an immigrant matters, but occasionally I feel like I’m flailing about in the electronic world in an attempt to remain relevant to my frequently virtual students and library users. Should I reach out to them via Facebook or Twitter? Should I set up a library in Second Life just in case my teens can’t seem to visit the library to check out an item while they inhabit their “First Life?” Would my “rate of library book return” improve if I found a way to text overdue notices to my users? They certainly seem to think that it would help, but I remain skeptical.
I remain skeptical about a lot of things in my life. I hate to use or promote something that I don’t completely understand. I’m someone who likes to lay out the consequences of my choice to use a new technology, and one of the biggest questions I ask myself is whether using the tool will make the best use of my very limited time. In other words, I don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort hosting a party and then have no one attend. This first review of a social networking site is communication software that I have backed for the last four years; the second is a newly launched site that shows some promise.
Moodle stands for “Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment.” The Moodle Web site describes it as an “Open Source Course Management System (CMS), also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).” That’s a lot of acronyms! All three descriptions are correct because the software allows for much tailoring and a wide range of uses. The fact that it has been used internationally also has given it a wider audience. Because I’ve been using a Moodle to connect to my library patrons, I’m going to narrow my focus to the use that a librarian can make of it.
So what is Moodle, really? It’s free software that has been developed by a lot of different people over the years. The software gets installed on a Web server, and then the creator can design a site where people can interact with one another in a lot of different ways: presenting information to each other, participating in forums, blogging, chatting, putting up podcasts, leaving voice comments on podcasts . . . the list goes on and on. Most of the creators are teachers who will use the site to support a course. Each person in the course becomes a member of the Moodle and has certain rights to do different things within it, depending on how the administrator has set up the site. The ability to tinker with the site means that not every available function has to be offered. It’s not a “one-size-fits-all” kind of site. The administrator of the site gets to choose which “objects” or functions are available. The site is useful whether if it is made rich with interactivity or kept very static.
To clarify, imagine that you are a science teacher. On the first day of class you “enroll” your students in your Moodle. You show them where the calendar of class assignments is posted and where they can post questions to a forum that all class members, including you, can view. Then you ask them to go home and find one science-related article in any news broadcast or feed that they routinely use. You ask them to post information about it on the forum and be ready to comment the next day on someone else’s post. Several students post the recent news story about possibly finding water vapor on the moon, and suddenly your students are having a heated discussion on whether it is important for the United States government to have a well-funded space exploration program. Could this discussion help to foster better citizens ready to participate in our democracy?
Later you ask them to create a presentation on an energy source, and many design projects using software like Microsoft’s PowerPoint or OpenOffice’s Impress. You ask the students to upload their electronic presentations to your Moodle, allowing others to view the results of their research.
Then comes a day when several students are absent, which is certainly a big reality this winter. The absent students log into the Moodle during their class while one student at school logs in and chats with the ones at home about what is going on in the classroom. The absent classmates now have some understanding of what’s being taught and have an opportunity to ask the teacher questions during class time.
All of this functionality sounds very expensive so it is stunning to realize that the software is completely free. The costs to an institution are then limited to space on a Web server, salary for IT people, and training expenses.
In the four years that I’ve used Moodle, it has been my library’s only Web presence. All of my links to other resources are on it, but it also has my blog of recently enjoyed books and videos of book reviews that my students have taped for me. I conduct surveys on it so that I can better understand what interests my users. The subject bibliographies that I hand out to users are also on my Moodle. I help teachers construct their book groups on it and I’ve even used the quiz feature to support some of my information and media literacy lessons.
I could easily imagine a public library embracing this software and making great use of it with their community reading groups. The forum module is designed for this kind of interaction. All of those “no shows” on the day of a reading discussion would be able to participate in the reading activities if they were part of the forum. I could even imagine librarians creating a Moodle site for different reading interests, allowing community members to connect and discuss the best new science fiction or the most popular paperback series, without the costs and hassle of creating events that brings them within the walls of the library.
Most users will find this site easy to navigate, with a drop-down navigation bar at the top and links to the category headings below. For the Moodle administrator, editing is initially tricky. A “turn editing on” button reveals all of these little icons that allow users to manipulate the objects in the site. The objects can be moved around and turned on and off by using the editing icons. The icons make sense; for instance the X icon will definitely delete stuff and it is impossible to recover whatever you’ve Xed off your screen. There’s an HTML editor embedded within Moodle that most users will be able to understand rather quickly. The saving grace is that the embedded help is actually quite clear and useful. Signing up for Moodle is as simple as signing up for Facebook—just go to the site and register as a new user.
This site is at the bleeding edge of newness and much of its promise is yet-to-come. VRLibrary’s Web site describes it as a product that combines “the collaboration of Wikipedia, the online publishing of YouTube, and the personal space of Facebook, all while supporting classroom content . . . in a secure and locked down environment.” It is built on the philosophy that students are more engaged in learning when they are constructing their own understanding and when the resources they are using are very rich in visual content. To that end, VRLibrary has created a site that allows users to view visual content as well as share and upload their own creations.
This site is constructed on the same lines as Facebook with users able to identify (and also “un-friend”) buddies. There’s also an incentive for greater participation; a user’s power status increases as they upload more entries. An early peek at some of the entries shows that they are concentrated on explaining one concept in a very focused way. For instance, a student stands in front of a white board and uses markers to explain the concept of slope, or the camera focuses on a pool table while a student off-screen uses the cue ball to hit another ball into a corner pocket to explain the word “accuracy.” Because this product is so new, the best way to really see what’s going on with VRLibrary is to contact the company and schedule a Webinar.
Pricing is based on the number of users: 15–249 users is $3.50 per account, 250–999 is $3 per account, 1,000–4,999 is $2.50 per account, and 5000 or more users drops the price to $2 per account.
In the eight years since teachers began using streamed media with their classes, I’ve watched the role videos have played move from passive “enrichment” activities (i.e., when there is no more textbook content to cover or as an easily executed substitute plan) to a very central place in the classroom. Teachers are now building daily lessons around shorter, more directed video clips with the idea of using a video as a lesson starter rather than a lesson finisher. I’m starting to see my colleagues turn first to their video collections to see what they have to offer before they begin planning their class activities.
I also see teens looking initially to video clips for a better understanding of the topics they are researching. They’re so hungry for video that they are directing their Web searches to find video clips. Although I have occasional fears that this strategy will become a time waster for the students most likely to avoid work at all costs, I have seen an entirely different result thus far. Generally the clips that they find are short and to-the-point and effectively give students a visual understanding of difficult concepts. Even if they watch the video twice, I’ve discovered that they are engaged, on task, and more capable of explaining what they’ve learned.
The teacher’s more refined and more frequent way of using video in the classroom combined with the students’ hunger for learning in this mode has created a great deal of additional use, which puts a strain on networks. Many institutions are opting to bring the video collection back within their walls by purchasing a media server with the content pre-installed. Both of the following companies offer this locally hosted option and their servers electronically update with new content when it becomes available.
The first time I reviewed this product was in the December 2001 issue of VOYA. It was then called United Streaming and was a part of the long-time educational video giant United Learning. The idea of streamed media over the Web was completely new and very exciting to most librarians. At the time, United Streaming was a reasonably strong collection of educational media, with the occasional annoying filmstrip-to-video program. It was the only streaming product available so many users forgave it for pausing to buffer in the middle of clips and for its exceptionally low resolution. I remember showing it to other teachers and librarians and hearing them ask, “Does it ever get less blurry?” At the time, it was difficult to convince people to look past the quality of the video, but some users downloaded clips and ran them directly from their own computer. By the time I re-reviewed it in the August 2007 issue of VOYA, it had been purchased by Discovery Education and a lot of Discovery content had made its way into the collection. The old video filmstrips had thankfully been phased out, and more important, people were actually capable of streaming the videos directly from the Web. Users could now access the “My DE” functionality to create their own playlists and share them with colleagues. Two years ago, there were approximately 5,000 full-length videos segmented into more than 50,000 clips; today there is approximately the same amount of content but there are definitely fewer old clunkers. A brief scan of the title list shows that most of the videos were produced after the year 2000. The earliest date I found was 1993 on a few non-time-sensitive animal videos. Of course, there are a few classic titles that transcend date.
Those wishing to have a larger, more diverse collection can enhance the regular collection via Media Packs or by purchasing Discovery Education streaming Plus. With Discovery Education streaming Plus, users get access to more than 9,000 full-length programs which are separated into 71,000 segments.
Additional media packs give users a fuller collection without having to resort to the more expensive Plus price point. The media packs include additional content from specific publishers such as PBS. The PBS pack contains 500 videos that cannot be found in the basic package. If users want access to Liberty’s Kids or Ken Burns’s Lewis and Clark or The West programs, they need to be willing to pay extra. A World Languages pack contains 1,000 titles that span 30 different languages with some dubbed narrative tracks and subtitling. The 100 Chinese language titles can be especially useful to school districts offering classes in Mandarin. An additional free media pack is available for Catholic schools, which will add religious content to an otherwise secular collection. The media packs are a useful way of keeping the cost of the basic product down while still offering some additional premium content.
Institutions can consider having DE configure a Dell server to run either regular or high-resolution video clips. There is a distinct difference in the quality of the two servers, which causes a big jump in the amount of information able to be stored on a server. It is the difference between 6.4 MB for a 30 second clip or 1.3 MB for the same clip.
Discovery Education Network completes the package, offering an online community filled with a collection of blogs, forums, virtual and traditional conferences, and other professional development activities that promote more use of digital media in the classroom.
Prices for Discovery Education streaming and streaming Plus are set by building and grade level of students and range between $1,570 and $3,095 per building. Call for pricing on the local server option and media packs.
Library Video Company
Safari Montage is Library Video Company’s video-on-demand solution. It launched in 2005 and has been adding school districts to its list of clients ever since. Most notably, Chicago Public Schools is a model user of the system.
It is difficult to completely describe all of the parts that go into Safari Montage and the many usage choices that can be made by an institution. At Safari Montage’s core is a server that comes pre-loaded with content. This core content can be organized into a K–8 product, which has 1,000 videos with 32,000 individual clips for 605 hours of total viewing; a 9–12 product, which has 1,000 videos segmented into 39,000 clips for a total of 793 hours; or a K–12 product, which currently has 2,000 videos, 57,000 clips, and 1,105 hours. The core collections can be tailored by purchasing additional content packages. The Video Encyclopedia of the 20th Century with its 77 hours of primary source content is one such package.
The Safari Montage model requires an institution to make an initial investment of a server that resides within the institution’s network. Having the hardware in-house allows a great reduction in network traffic while providing very high quality video. Like Discovery, both Windows Media Player (.wmv) and Quick Time (.mov) formats are offered, but allowing users to select between formats requires purchasing a larger hard drive.
The easy-to-understand Safari Montage interface has a navigation bar at the top, the video viewing window on the right, and search results and summaries of the video clips on the right. The summaries fully describe the clip, which allows for better keyword searching. Supplemental documents are linked from the video window and include teachers’ guides and state standards for education. Drilling down via the state standards is one of the many ways in which teachers can search for content. Teachers can add clips to playlists from a link that is also below the video window.
My own school district recently completed an evaluation of Safari Montage, and the aspect of the interface that most excited them—by far—was the ability to easily set timepoints within clips so that series of clips can be put in order and the entire program can run as edited. This ability to cue up only what they want the class to see was a very powerful tool that I believe will go a long way toward making the use of video in the classroom even more directed.
There are a lot of other parts to this product that I cannot fully do justice to in this column, such as Safari Montage Creation Station, which allows users the ability to create video programs for others to access from the Safari interface; Managed Home Access, which provides copies of the videos at a lower quality so that users can stream them at home without tying up network resources; and MARC records for downloading into library cataloging software. Users with Follett Destiny 9.0 can enjoy even greater functionality by linking from their catalog directly to the media within Safari Montage.
Call Safari Montage at 800-843-4549 for pricing information.
In the end, the decision of which service to pick (or keep) is a weighty one. There is a significant amount of money involved in the initial purchase of a server and in yearly subscription costs. Both services have done an admirable job of building a collection that covers most of the subjects studied in K–12 settings. Anecdotal evidence from my own studies showed that both Safari Montage and Discovery Education streaming were able to sufficiently support social studies teaching, but the math teachers were strongly swayed by the amount of content that was available for them via Safari Montage. Safari Montage’s ability to target timepoints within clips and then play those clips continuously was also very compelling.
After working for eight years as Head Librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state. Please e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I remember the first time I came across a video camera. It was in my school library and I was in eighth grade. The librarian explained how we were going to be videotaping our book reports, and then the library aide
gave a demonstration of how one could slowly “pan” the audience. We got to see ourselves on the closet circuit system as the aide showed us how she could zoom in and zoom out on different subjects.
And THAT was the end of the lesson. Although I do remember the book that I read for the project, I don’t remember filming it. Nor do I think that we were given an opportunity to work the camera, which we were all very excited about.
That’s why I’m so seduced by the Flip video camera. It makes it easy to give young adults the opportunity to film. Not much larger than a deck of cards, it is highly portable and runs on either two AA batteries or a rechargeable internal battery, depending on your version. It looks and behaves much like a digital camera, with the same small screen for framing a short and viewing it later. The button controls have been kept to a minimum with a large, red record button placed prominently in the center of the panel. The quality of the video is perfectly acceptable for most users, and the audio is clear when the sound source is close enough to the camera’s internal microphone. The flip-out USB port makes it easy to download film clips directly to a computer. With a price point of under $200 for most models, it also is an economical option. This easy-to-use format is perfect for young adults of the YouTube generation. For them, video clips are completely ubiquitous. They are everywhere on the World Wide Web, from small sections of documentaries that make a research Web site more meaningful to stories from news programs to grainy digital footage captured on a cell phone and sent around electronically like e-mail forwards of an earlier age.
At one time, the digital video camera was the most expensive piece of equipment in a library and only certain trusted individuals could be offered the chance to use it, never mind learning how to edit digitally, putting clips together using very unfriendly first generation video-editing software.
Now that we have a piece of equipment that is inexpensive, sturdy, and easy-to-use and users who are already living in a world filled with filmed media, how can librarians use this solution through creating quality programs to help our young adults effectively communicate their thoughts? And can cash-strapped libraries create young adult programming that makes the most of these more inexpensive tools?
In order to make the most of inexpensive video cameras, we need to look at video-editing software. This column will compare three free video-editing software programs: Windows Movie Maker, FlipShare, and VideoSpin. What I’ve learned from comparing these three products is that the easier a program is to use, the less choice the user is given over what their product will look like.
Pure Digital Technologies, Inc.
FlipShare is the video editing software program that comes loaded with every Flip camera, and it downloads onto a computer the first time the Flip camera is connected to it. It gives users the least amount of decision-making power but probably creates the most attractive movies. User editing tools include the ability to trim from the front and the end of a video but not split the video into two parts. Users can arrange clips into a movie but cannot choose different types of transitions between clips—a fade between the two is automatic. Users can also choose to integrate background music as long as it is in MP3 format. There
are six very serviceable tunes built-in. Users can add titles and credits at the beginning and at the end, but these are only white text on a black screen and the amount of text that can be put on a title or credit slide is limited.
The interface is extremely easy-to-use with only a few choices listed under each of the seven menus at the top. Choices for sharing electronic eye and creating are also listed as icons at the bottom of the screen.
Most of the screen is used for viewing the clips, and users may choose to view them in one of three ways: thumbnail, list with details, and individually. There’s a play icon at the bottom right of the individual clip screen and a scissor icon at the bottom left, which brings up the trim screen. Sliders at the beginning and the end can be set and checked before the icon is trimmed. Although there is built-in help, I found the program to be so easy to use that I did not have to rely on it to learn the program.
Users can then export finished movies into .wmv format. Built-in wizards help users share their videos with friends through a private Web site that can be viewed by clicking on a link embedded into an e-mail. Users can also send the video with a greeting card frame around it. The main purpose of this software is to make a personal video available for sharing with friends. The most frustrating thing about the software is that the built-in fade transition from one clip to another takes time away from each clip. When using it, I often lost dialogue.
WINDOWS MOVIE MAKER
The most recent version of Windows Movie Maker is 2.1. It is available for download from the Web and also comes as part of XP’s Service Pack 2. Users first have to import video into the program by either selecting it from a computer location or capturing it from a video device. Users can also import pictures and music for inclusion in their projects. Each imported object can be dragged onto a collection’s time line that runs at the bottom of the screen. This time line allows users to trim videos, split them into two, insert transitions, add titles either on a separate slide or directly onto the clip, and also add background music. Playback is viewed on the right-hand side of the screen. The time line has the time points marked for easier reference. Users can toggle from the time line view to a storyboard view that helps them manage elements more simply.
Using the time line can be tricky. It is difficult to cut out just the right amount of a video clip, although there is a feature in one of the menus that allows you to nudge things to the right and to the left.
Unlike FlipShare, there is a wide range of choices for almost everything. More than sixty transition choices will keep most young adults happily sweeping their scenes up, down, or diagonally, shattering them into several pieces or drawing pinwheels with them. The choices for title creation is equally large, with users able to choose the color, size, and font of their text as well as the background on which the text is viewed and how it plays across the screen. Young George Lucases can recreate the “Long Ago in a Galaxy Far Away” moment with their own script as well as watch paint drip away their credits. Because there are different tracks to the time line, more advanced users can learn how to insert different video over an audio track for a voice-over effect.
There’s a strong Windows Movie Maker user community online, many of whom have created XML scripts that can be copied and changed and then saved into a special folder in the program’s files. I learned how to create a YouTube-ike watermark at the bottom right of my screen by locating a helpful script from the Web.
Pinnacle/Avid Technology, Inc.
VideoSpin is a scaled down version of the more comprehensive Pinnacle Studio, to which constant advertisements embedded in the software suggest that you upgrade. This persistent marketing seems very much like bait on a hook, but the software does do good things. It is the most intuitive program of the three. Most users will not need to use the built-in tutorial video in order to get the most out of this program. The overall layout of the program is very similar to Windows Movie Maker, with a time line at the bottom of the screen offering different channels for video, audio, titles, and other text; music and playback is shown in a frame on the right.
Users can find audio and video to include by browsing through the folders on their computer. This browse function appears on the top, left-hand side of the screen. This program makes it the easiest of the three to find and include media from your computer. Windows Media Player requires you to import media into your collections before you are able to use it, and FlipShare makes it difficult to import anything except from the Flip camera itself.
The interface is also very appealing, with attractive little sounds when certain commands are executed. The program also allows users to create their movies in many different formats, including ones that would be iPod compatible.
After working for eight years as Head Librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state. Please e-mail comments to email@example.com.
“I don’t know how people ever did bibliographies without it.” This statement is very high praise coming from an impossible-to-please high school student. She was talking about EasyBib, the free online bibliographic generator to which she had been introduced last year by one of her teachers and continues to use by choice. When I overheard her comment, it occurred to me that it is precisely the measure by which any research tool or online resource can define its success: a student wondering how people ever got by without it. In this column, I’m reviewing the highly praised EasyBib and Bib4School, which is its subscription-based, advertising-free version for institutions as well as a brand-new add-on tool for search engines called ChunkIt, which digs deeper into a searcher’s results page and extracts pertinent information for faster browsing. I wonder whether a future user of ChunkIt will someday muse on how people ever got by without it.
EasyBib is an automated bibliography generator with a hip interface that makes it very popular with young bibliography writers. In fact, the company touts advertisers to purchase ad space on its site by promising to directly target the eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old demographic. The site has three different types of users. Most use the free interface, which allows them to access the MLA style sheet and includes plenty of ads geographically targeting them (users give their zip codes as a part of the sign-up process). Others pay a nominal yearly fee for MyBib Pro, which provides access to APA citing as well as a few additional features. Institutions can purchase Bib4School, which allows teachers the opportunity to keep track of their students’ progress with research projects. There’s even a MiniBib widget/gadget so people can put a bibliographic generator on their homepages.
The public can easily log in with a unique user name and password and can maintain several different bibliographic lists within their account. Tapping on the prominent “Click here to select a source” button presents users with a window that alphabetically lists fifty-one different types of sources, including pamphlets, patents, films, lectures, and all kinds of federal documents. The seven most frequently used sources, however, are placed in bold at the front of the list. Users select the appropriate source and a “fill-in-the-blank” page appears, which leads them through filling out the necessary information. Once a person fills out the record to the best of his ability, he clicks “next” and the citation is generated. The program does not prompt for additional information if a certain field is left blank. It will allow someone to create a citation for a book that only contains the copyright date, for instance. This feature is appropriate because EasyBib is a reference, and not a teaching tool that shows people how to better write bibliographic citations.
B i b 4 S c h o o l u s e s t h e same user interface but is advertisement-free and gives teachers and administrators the ability to manage user accounts and track student progress. Administrators can add teachers to the service from within an administration panel. Teachers can then enter their student information manually, add students by uploading data from a comma-delimited file, or create a coupon code that will assign
users to the correct teacher when they create their own accounts. I tried the comma-delimited approach, which worked quite well when I followed the instructions very carefully and used the template for inputting my data into an Excel spreadsheet. This part of the interface is a little clunky. Once a teacher has created a student’s account, she is in charge of that account. It does not look as if there is any way to reassign a student to another teacher the following year. The unfortunate work-around would be to recreate users the following year. I also have yet to get the “edit student” function to work. The Bib4School service recently migrated servers so there is some confusion about URLs and logins. Technical support must be done via e-mail, and there is a frustrating 24-hour wait period with which to deal.
When you consider the fact that ImagineEasy’s Web site only names four employees, however, the fact that they’ve created such a useful and workable resource is pretty amazing. I’m hopeful that it will continue to evolve and improve.
EasyBib is free to individual subscribers. The yearly subscription for MyBib Pro is $7.99. The Bib4School yearly subscription rate is $300 and includes an unlimited number of users.
ChunkIt is a free add-on that functions as an additional search toolbar on a Web browser. It expands upon search engine results by looking within each Web site and finding the most pertinent pieces of information contained within. These “chunks” of information are then displayed with their keywords highlighted. The idea is that users can scan those chunks to see whether a search result has potential without having to open each Web site and scan them on their own. Users can then choose to click on the most relevant chunks. It’s a simple idea, but how well does it work?
Downloading ChunkIt is relatively painless. For this review, I used Internet Explorer, but the program can also run on Mozilla’s Firefox. It does take some time to extract and install, which was somewhat surprising. I was starting to wonder if my system had hung up when I received the message that the process was finalizing. The ChunkIt toolbar sits below my other browser toolbars and contains a search box and several buttons: “Chunk Google,” “Chunk Amazon,” “Chunk Right-Page Links,” “Chunk Right-Page,” “Search Options” and “Help.” The first two will toggle to several other search engines and online shopping sites including Yahoo!, AOL, eBay, and Wal-Mart. Once a user types a search query into the box, the software goes to work. It reconfigures the screen into two panes. The right pane displays the search results, as you would see them on the actual Web site; the left pane begins to display the chunks. Chunks are displayed in the order of the search results. There can be several chunks for each search but it appears that only ten can be displayed at a time. If there are more than ten chunks of relevant information in a site, a link to further chunks can be clicked. Chunks vary in size based on the number of search terms found within. Most are long paragraphs with highlighted keywords. Each word is given a different color. It appears that the chunks always start at the beginning of a section, regardless of where the keyword is located, which helps the searcher make better sense of the result and is a serious enhancement to typical findings that sometimes show text without any of the search words included. Users can display the full Web site by clicking on a particular
chunk. The site is shown on the right-hand pane, and not only does ChunkIt take the user to the place on the site where the chunk appears, it also highlights the entire thing in yellow. This feature is quite useful! Never again will there be a need to use the “Find in Page” function on a browser. Additional refinements can occur by selecting the “Chunk Right-Page” button after typing in different search terms or by selecting “Chunk Right-Page Links.” ChunkIt will then delve more deeply into the Web site. It can also look at PDFs linked from a page but this process is more time-consuming so the system will ask for permission to do so first.
Does it work within other electronic resources? It does, but you have to understand how it works because the useful chunks could be further down on the results list. I tested it with ProQuest. The trick is to make a ProQuest search open up in the right pane so that you can use the “Chunk Right-Page Links” feature. I had to google ProQuest because there was not an option to type in a Web address. There are many links on the page before you get to actual results (think about all of those tabs at the top of the screen), so you have to scroll pretty far down on the page. The tenth link in my query on “stormwater runoff” yielded someresults and it was helpful to see the chunks with their keywords highlighted. ProQuest additionally highlights keywords on its own. The interface also lets users e-mail chunk results, which leads to more sensible e-mails that are free of cut-and-pasted information.
What’s in it for the company? TigerLogic, which just changed its name from the more poetic Raining Data, has been creating data solutions for the corporate world for several years. It hopes ChunkIt will become an ad-driven product similar to Google. The beta version shows the future placement of actual advertisements: They appear at the right corner of the left-hand pane, which puts them firmly in the middle of the page. At this time, they’re relatively innocuous and look very similar to Google’s sponsored links.
Will ChunkIt revolutionize searching? It has the potential to really help users scan more quickly for relevant information rather than clicking to and from the results list. When used effectively, it could help people dig more deeply for information. The question in my mind is whether the necessary advertisers and investors will find this tool worthy enough to put money into it.
My school district recently reviewed its social studies curriculum, which was a tedious but necessary two-year task that lead to a curriculum realignment to better reflect our state board of education’s learning goals. A positive outcome at the high school level created the opportunity to host courses that will equip students to better understand the current world political situation. They now have the opportunity to take a
class that focuses on the Middle East along with more traditional civics and economics courses.
I serve on my district’s Instructional Materials Committee, a group of faculty, administrators, and community members who review most district materials before they are accepted for use by teachers and students. A few refer to it as the “dirty books committee” because it is also the group that is involved with challenges to materials. Although the work load can be exhausting during an important curriculum review, I love being a part of the group because of the divergent viewpoints expressed by my fellow members, which occasionally lead to strong words while maintaining a certain level of respect.
The other reason why I love being on the committee is because I get to see what my fellow teachers choose as core resources for their classes. I also get to listen to them explain their choices. The end of a curriculum review is sometimes like Christmas for these teachers. After months of work, they’re allowed to do a little shopping with the district’s money. Although courses still go with a packaged textbook, increasingly more teachers seem to be creating their own reading lists from trade books. It’s certainly more effort than using a textbook, but I consider my colleagues to be very dedicated people.
BOTH SIDES OF THE DEBATE
What I didn’t see during this most recent curriculum review was much consideration of electronic resources. In fact, I have yet to encounter an electronic resource proposed for review.
And I’m starting to wonder why.
I’m not saying that teachers always shy away from online materials. Our district’s libraries have a reasonably robust collection of electronic resources, and many teachers proposing textbook packages mentioned Web sites that support the print resources. I’m also not saying that students in colleges and universities aren’t using online editions more than in the secondary level. I am saying that requesting purchase of an online
subscription to a resource is not happening very often.
I can imagine many reasons why. Concerns may still linger in teachers’ minds about reading from a screen instead of a page. Considering the number of students who spend hours reading texts from friends on cell-phone screens no larger than a saltine cracker, perhaps we should give up this idea. There are legitimate worries that students may not have easy access to a computer and the Internet at home as well as at school. There may even be some doubts about an institution’s continued funding of a subscription over a period of years rather than the one-time purchase of a text. It should be pointed out, though, that many online editions, including the ones reviewed in this column, are purchased outright with only a small hosting fee that continues as a yearly subscription. I can also see that the static nature of print would appeal to any teacher who kept careful class notes from year to year. It would be a nightmare for these teachers to discover that the reading passage, historical map, graph, chart, etc. was no longer viewable or had been updated beyond recognition.
But it’s that updating that makes electronic editions so valuable. Lightening students’ loads from the inevitable lugging around of textbooks should also be noted.
Here’s another example from this year’s committee agenda. The text proposed for a one-semester survey on the Middle East was The State of the Middle East: An Atlas of Conflict and Resolution by Dan Smith (University of California Press, 2006). The committee’s reaction to this book was overwhelmingly positive: The maps and graphics gave readers a fuller picture of the region and the text was quite accessible for high school students. The committee approved of the book, so I can only assume a class set was purchased for the fall.
A revised edition comes out in October! Not soon enough to start the school year, but I’m sure there are many critical revisions of which our students won’t be able to take advantage in the years to come.
Bad choice? No. Bad timing? Yes.
Could it have been solved with a subscription to an online edition? Maybe.
To demonstrate, I’m reviewing two resources from CQ Press that might give teachers a reason to make the leap into requesting online editions of texts for students. Both are new editions and also have a great deal of relevance to specific high school course offerings. Although online editions will not be the solution for every class, there could be some courses where the switch to electronic may make better sense.
The Contemporary Middle East: A Documentary History and Political History of America’s Wars
Online editions from CQ Press.
CQ Press clearly leads in providing information on United States government and politics. Its various electronic forms of CQ Researcher have been go-to resources for young adults when searching for unbiased, in-depth information on American political affairs. CQ Press’s print texts are already in use by high school and college courses. It has also published many other online editions of reference works, including Political Handbook of the World 2007 and Politics in America 2008.
Like other CQ Press publications, these resources have only one author: Alan Axelrod is the author of Political History of America’s Wars and John Felton is the author of The Contemporary Middle East. Their credentials are prominently displayed on each resource.
The interface of both online editions has a similar look with a navigation bar at the right and a search box at the top directly below the title. Both resources open up to a table of contents. America’s Wars’s table of contents lists each separate war in chronological order. There happen to be forty-eight distinct wars (twenty-seven of them are Indian wars) so they are also wisely listed under eight broader topics, from the Colonial era through to the modern wars of “Intervention and Peacemaking.” The articles are not overly long but provide the pertinent facts with enough historical interpretation to make the event understandable.
There are eight chapters listed in The Contemporary Middle East, with an overview chapter at the beginning. The other seven focus on a particular country, pair of countries, or conflict between two groups. Lebanon and Syria are discussed together. Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians and its relationship to the Arabs are discussed separately. Each chapter is separated into two to four parts, based on the significant eras of that country or the conflict. Because it is a documentary history, each part lists several documents. A contextual essay introduces each one. This essay is placed in a shaded box under the title “Document in Context” to make certain users can discern the difference between it and the actual document. The most recent document appears to be President Bush’s January 10, 2007, speech announcing his plans for a troop surge, which is partnered with excerpts from the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report. The introduction to these two documents is detailed and balanced.
A bibliography of relevant resources is listed at the end of most excerpts. Chronologies and a collection of maps accompany both online editions. Most maps deal with political boundaries and are rather basic. They seem to be for reference only.
A few items make a user very aware of the fact that these are online editions of print books. For one thing, page numbers are listed at the right of the text and can be used to more efficiently scroll through the information. The index also includes page numbers, which serve as hyperlinks into the text.
There are several empowerment tools that are available from the navigation bar on the left; some require users to create a profile. Documents, articles, and even searches can be saved as favorites to view during another session. “Document History” also traces what a user has viewed during the current session. A “Cite Now” option opens the article’s citation in a separate window. This window allows users to easily switch among four of the most popular citation styles. Users can also export the citation in a format that can be read by a bibliography generator like EndNote or ProCite. Both online editions are well-written and balanced and certainly could serve as texts for high school and college courses as well as for more general reference needs.
Prices reflect a one-time cost for outright purchase. The Contemporary Middle East is $700 and Political History of America’s Wars is $350. Discounts are available for school libraries, and for libraries purchasing multiple products. There is a small annual hosting fee, but this fee is discounted for multiple products, and there is a cap on the fee for libraries with multiple online materials from CQ Press. At the time of publication, there are no other costs associated with keeping the online editions.
Lately I’ve been trying to renovate my kitchen on the cheap: vinyl tiles instead of ceramic flooring and spray paint on the cabinets instead of replacements. I’m nearing the project’s completion and while the new look is an improvement over the 80s-patterned linoleum and wood-grain laminate cabinets, I have to admit that my kitchen will never be photographed for a glossy home magazine.
It’s hard to compete with marble countertops and solid wood cabinets.
But would these features make my kitchen any more functional? My dishes would fit in new cabinets the same as they do now. Or would I just enjoy cooking in my kitchen more? And would greater pleasure in making meals justify the added expense?
I’m thinking of re-designs to the Web interfaces of online resources in much the same way. Like kitchens, the look of a resource can date quickly and requires the occasional overhaul to keep it appealing. And when you’re dealing with youthful information seekers who have many choices from which to find their information, appearance is important. For instance, one thing that I’ve noticed recently is how many online resources are featuring more ways to browse their databases. Often this browsing takes the form of a topic tree, an alphabetical list of subjects, or even a timeline. Featuring content has also become very big. Editors’ selections of the month or pictures that draw a user into a particular article are prominently displayed on the home screen, which punches up the initial visual impact of the database.
Are these renovations making online resources more usable, though? This column will take a look at two online resources that have recently undergone renovations and decide whether or not these updates add substance and functionality $MD or if they’re just marble countertops for the marble’s sake.
Facts on File
I reviewed the upgrade of Facts on File’s historical databases in e-voya’s December 2007 Electronic Eye and Health Reference Center’s update follows many of these same design conventions while adding features more specific to the health content. As with the other Facts on File databases, users have the ability to save information into a folder for later access and can choose to use a basic search box prominently placed underneath the banner or utilize Boolean search logic from the advanced search screen.
Several methods for browsing are offered below the search bar. Users can drill down to specific information from a broad subject list that includes body systems, diseases and disorders, drug abuse and addiction, mental health and developmental disorders, and nutrition and wellness. These broad topics seem to mirror modern health concerns. Another feature on the home page is the “Health Centers” section, which focuses on the separate concerns of men, women, children, and seniors. The topics of each center are quite varied. For instance, the women’s center includes information on rape as well as depression and knee problems. The men’s center ranges from hypertension to the father’s role in childbirth. As with other databases, there is an “Editor’s Feature of the Month.” Information about strokes was highlighted in March.
Similar to other Facts on File databases, users can browse through the multimedia files, including 565 video clips. These full screen clips are formatted to play with Windows Media Player and appear to vary in age, from the 1980s to the present. It is difficult to tell exactly how old each is; the suggested citation information uses the date the clip was accessed rather than a production date. I watched several and found some that would enhance the understanding of a topic being researched, such as one explaining the benefits and pitfalls of medicating children and young adults for ADHD, and also some that could potentially be used in a counseling or teaching situation, such as one talking about the stages of grief and a teen’s loss of a parent or other close relative. Browsing these clips, however, is rather inefficient. Separate sections of a production are listed alphabetically, which means that a clip titled “Acceptance” from a death and dying program is listed first in the index followed by a clip titled “Achieving Successful Development” from a child growth program. Each clip references the rest of the files in the series, but the collection might be more easily browsed if they were listed as full programs.
A feature that this database does not share with the others is the “Find a Medical Test” capability. Users can either search for a specific test or browse through a list of diseases and disorders such as respiratory disorders and sexually transmitted diseases. I really thought that this was a brilliant idea. People frequently seek out medical information after discovering that they need to be tested for something. This time of discovery is often an anxiety-producing period in a person’s life and it’s difficult to wade through questionable Web information while stressed. Targeting this need with well-written material and making it very simple to find adds an extra level of functionality to this database. The descriptions of the medical tests include the procedure and how patients can prepare themselves for testing.
Although this database does not directly target young adult users, I think most teens would feel quite at home here. Many of their health concerns are featured either in the men’s or women’s health centers and many of the video programs are designed to appeal to their age level. It provides comprehensive, trust-worthy health information in an interface that helps users find answers quickly.
(Pricing is determined by full-time enrollment for schools and by the number of cardholders for public libraries. All prices are for unlimited usage within the institution and include remote access privileges.)
ABC-CLIO’s Release 2.0 Social Studies databases
There are eight databases using ABC-CLIO’s new Release 2.0 interface: American Government, American History, Issues, The United States at War, United States Geography, World Geography, World History, Ancient and Medieval Eras, and World History, The Modern Era. The United States at War database contains resources on every war fought by Americans, from colonial wars to the present Middle East conflicts, and the Issues database, subtitled “Understanding Controversy and Society,” explores viewpoints on over 100 varied issues confronting modern society, including overpopulation, eco-terrorism, and even chronic fatigue syndrome. These databases can be searched and browsed alone, or can be selected for simultaneous searching via checkboxes from the home screen.
Each database has its own unique home page but there is a navigation bar that is consistent throughout the eight. This navigation bar has a search box, a link to the extensive advanced search capability, and links to the other seven databases. The home screen presents two major choices to the user: explore or analyze. Both have well-chosen pictures that add to the visual content of the home screen. The “Explore” option allows the user to search the database by eras in the case of the historical databases, by state in the case of the United States Geography database, and by issues in the case of the Issues database. Clicking from any link within the “Explore” list brings up an overview of the topic. The left column of this overview presents a content list which can include individuals featuring prominently in the time period, location, or issue as well as primary resources. The right column presents related entries to maps and images as well as additional print information. The column on the left side can certainly help a user gain perspective on the concept and hopefully the user’s eye will learn to automatically consider it first.
The “Analyze” option is more intriguing. Users are given in-depth analysis of a subject, which is framed by a well-stated “Key Question.” For instance, the United States History database contains the key question, “How Should Native American history be recognized by the public?” Information necessary to answer the question is listed under the headings “Need to Know,” “Dilemma,” “Investigate,” and “Doing More.” The first heading presents background information, the “Dilemma” heading offers several different perspectives in the form of signed essays, “Investigate” contains an activity to increase understanding of the topic, and “Doing More” contains other Web resources for further study. The home screen also presents a feature story. At the time of this review the feature story was a retrospective piece entitled, “Iraq War: Five years later.”
Staff and student users have different logins because staff users have a toolbox available to them. The staff member toolbox features an opportunity to see correlations between the content and state standards, and the ability to create research lists that can be viewed later by the student user. A dictionary is available to student users. Both tools are easily learned and add greatly to the functionality of the database.
This is a superlative database. It’s easily searched but also easily browsed. The content is authoritative and is organized in a manner that enhances understanding. I can imagine so many different ways in which this database can be used by both individuals and classrooms.
(Price per school site: Complete package of all 8 databases is $2,295, Premier (6 databases) is $1,895, and Elite (4 databases) is $1,395. Custom pricing is available for academic and public libraries.)
I really do love history teachers. But when assigning projects to students, they seem to give them as little as possible to go on. Quite often they simply request that their students choose a topic within a certain era in history or stay within the boundaries of a particular region of the world. If they are feeling generous, these history teachers might throw out a few ideas that have been done in the past as examples of what can be presented, and then turn the students loose.
And into the library they run—at least, we hope that they will! A librarian can be confronted with several desperate students at once, each hoping to collect sources on the one idea that the teacher did suggest or perhaps they are really keen to report on that period’s fashion trends . . . or torture devices. They consistently gravitate to the computers, attempting Google search after Google search with enormous success in terms of number of results returned but with limited hopes of being able to use any of them. Occasionally they remember seeing something from the History Channel a few weeks ago that would be perfect fodder for
their project . . . if only they could view it again.
The times that I have been given some advance notice by the teacher, I’ve realized that what students need is a pathfinder to help them discover the right information in my print and online collection. Such pathfinders take time to create, however, and quite often a printed one does not get referred to much by students eager to simply find something—anything—that meets their needs and perhaps takes away some of their anxiety.
It would be wonderful if online resources would occasionally structure their information in a way that would help students make sense of what they are finding. Such resources would help users be sure that they found all that they could on a certain topic and would give them the opportunity to locate primary sources, images, and videos. And it would be wonderful if they could do so with an attractive interface that gets users excited about learning more. The following three historical online resources are making some strides toward this goal.
FACTS ON FILE HISTORICAL DATABASES
Facts on File
Although Facts on File’s six historical databases—American History Online, American Women’s History Online, African-American History Online, American Indian History Online, Modern World History Online, and Ancient and Medieval History Online—have been in existence for quite some time, I’m reviewing them now because significant changes have been made to the interface, which not only help users to better interpret information but also make the databases more browseable and attractive. Each pulls information from Facts on File’s well-researched, well-written print reference collection that includes encyclopedias on art, war, terrorism, and religion, as well as biographical dictionaries and individual volumes on particular events in history.
The basic interface for each database is identical, but the color scheme changes to help users differentiate among the six. For each database, a large banner at the top lists the title and also gives users access to a folder of their saved items and to a list of the other databases. A menu bar below the banner allows users to toggle among the home screen, a learning center’s main menu, a pull-down of the different types of information represented (biographies, events and topics, primary sources, time lines, images and videos, and maps and charts), a list of the sources used in the database, a help screen, and a basic search box. The opportunity to conduct a more advanced search is also offered as is a chance to review the search history.
Below the navigation banner, the home screen of each database becomes very image driven. The “types of sources” menu is prominently featured on the left and is paired with a collection of images that changes as the user rolls over the choices. In the Women’s History database, pictures of Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem showcase the biography link, and then a suffrage parade appears when the mouse moves down to events and topics. An “Editor’s selection of the month” is highlighted in a box at the left as well as a “Focus on” box that gives an explanatory caption and then links to sources. Examples of editor’s monthly selections
include explorer Richard Byrd in the American History database and activist and writer Susan Sontag in the Women’s History database.
The “Learning Centers” tab is a very useful way of accessing the information. The editors gather material on a topic and present it with a small amount of introductory interpretation. They generally present an era in history, although the Modern World History and American Indian History databases also organize information by region. These Learning Centers take the guesswork out of finding the pertinent information on a topic and also help student researchers to generate topics and ideas for reports. It is exactly what student researchers need to help them be successful.
Additional historical video footage in several databases is included in the update and covers a wide variety of topics. In the American History database, video clips range from trolley cars in early 1900s New York to the opening minutes of a 1950s film on how to advertise to homemakers.
These changes to the resource’s interface result in a gorgeous update on an already superlative collection of databases.
(Pricing is determined by full-time enrollment for schools and by the number of cardholders for public libraries. All prices are for unlimited usage within the institution and include remote access privileges. The price for school libraries starts at $550 for American History Online; the other five history databases each start at $310. The public library price for American History Online starts at $1300; the other five history databases each start at $640.)
HISTORY CHANNEL CLASSROOM
The History Channel
Although the overriding goal of the History Channel Web site is to promote greater viewing of the History Channel’s television programs and also to increase sales of its DVDs, it offers some nuggets of good Information. It also has the very memorable history.com URL, which could make it one of the first places young researchers will find on their own. The History Channel Classroom’s “Exhibits” present material in an almost pathfinder-like manner and are indexed in the online “More Exhibits” section linked from the left of the screen. The index includes such varied topics as the history of Columbus Day to Boston’s infamous “Big Dig.” Most Exhibits include some streamed video, images, background information, interactive quizzes, and primary source material. One of the most stirring primary sources is contained within an exhibit called “Letters from Home:World War II.” In the letter, a soldier describes the horror of visiting the concentration camp Dachau.
The streamed video segments shown in the various exhibits are generally short and not comprehensive but can provide an interesting lead-in to a topic. Sadly they begin with an advertisement, which makes them more challenging to use.
History eSearch is an amateur researcher’s effort to help students and teachers access previewed links to Web information and historical lesson plans. The Web site is free but with sponsored links on the home page. The most useful part of the Web site is that it also breaks down larger topics into more manageable concepts and then lists Web sites for each. Many aspects of history are covered including Modern, Ancient, African American, Latin American, War and Military, and Rock and Roll. Unfortunately there are several broken links throughout the Web site, which makes searching somewhat frustrating.
Afew months ago, at the meeting of my school district’s instructional materials committee that evaluates new curricular materials, we discussed several traditional video programs for inclusion in the health curriculum. The videos focused on smoking cessation. One featured an actress portraying a high school student keeping a video diary of her success and occasional setbacks while attempting to stop smoking. Although our committee ultimately approved that video and many others, we were concerned that the actress and the content wouldn’t connect with students. It already seemed dated. Some committee members questioned the need to spend our budget on a product with which they were only marginally happy. “It’s too bad there isn’t a stop smoking journal on YouTube,” I quipped to the high school’s counselor, considering how everything attached to that free video-sharing Web site seems to be gilded with gold in most teenagers’ minds.
“Have you heard of one?” she asked, instantly intrigued.
For the record, there are smoking-cessation clips on YouTube, some of which might be useful for inclusion in classroom activities. Yet I was struck by how quickly she and I were ready to jump on the YouTube bandwagon and abandon more traditional video producers. Were we being cheap by not wanting to spend money on something we could find for free or were we seduced by the latest “it”Web service? Or was our thinking simply progressing down a road toward Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 is a term coined in 2003 by technology innovator Tim O’Reilly and his associates at O’Reilly Media, leading to subsequent Web 2.0 conferences. Its definition continues to evolve. Web 2.0 applications are designed to be completely Web-based and are focused on the contributions of Web users rather than Web-site employees or experts. In other words, it’s the rise of the amateur as content provider, to paraphrase Andrew Keen in his controversial book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Doubleday, 2007). Bloggers are another example of this reliance on the amateur. According to O’Reilly’s Web site, O’Reilly Network (http://www.oreillynet.com), Wikipedia is also a perfect example of a Web 2.0 application, superseding the Web 1.0 application, Britannica Online.
I would add that many Web 2.0 applications seem to rely on advertising placement for financial support rather than subscriptions. Many of these Web sites also rely on the user to determine the quality of the information as well as its usefulness to them. Today’s young adults are required to filter out bad information with much greater frequency.
Are our traditional online resources now considered to be Web 1.0 sites in a Web 2.0 world? As librarians, we are promoters of information written by the experts and reviewed by their peers, which flies in the face of the amateur-written thrust of Web 2.0. Yet there should be ways that online resources can evolve along with the World Wide Web, without losing their authority. Another area of growth in the World Wide Web is the ability to stream video content with greater success, which has led to the rise of video-sharing sites such as YouTube and the increasing use of subscription databases such as United Streaming and its individual online homework help service called Cosmeo. More text-based online resources are also including a greater amount of video content as a better way to explain concepts and ideas. And teachers are using videos in increasingly innovative ways. The following resources are examples of the ways in which the concepts of Web 2.0 are influencing online resources and how video is evolving on the World Wide Web.
After United Streaming was launched in 2001, I reviewed it for the December 2001 issue of VOYA. It was then the streamed video product of United Learning, which had long been a provider of educational videos. In 2003, it was acquired by Discovery Communications, an arm of the Discovery Channel. Popular Discovery Channel programs such as The Jeff Corwin Experience started to make it onto United Streaming. More recently, Discovery’s Planet Earth series and Discovery Atlas have been included. In 2006, Discovery Communications launched Cosmeo, a subscription service based on United Streaming but tailored to students as a homework helper site.
Currently United Streaming contains 5,000 full-length videos broken down into more than 50,000 segments, searchable by keyword and content area; users may limit searches by age level. State educational standards have also been loaded into the database, so that access is available through these benchmarks as well. Video content is frequently paired with related curricular materials such as PDF copies of teacher’s guides and blackline masters. Because the database includes content from United Learning, a company that started creating filmstrips in 1954, some “filmstrip-to-video” clunkers are still in the database, although I
estimate that they are not a significant part of the collection.
In past years, it has been difficult to stream videos off the Web. The computer spent much of its time “buffering” or putting data into memory before it would begin. Then it would stop to buffer some more when it ran out of data. Most United Streaming users downloaded clips and ran them from their hard drives to avoid this frustration. Now streaming directly from the Web is very easy to do, making the service much more valuable.
Cosmeo has been touted as a homework helper site for students who have grown up learning on the Web. It lists its number of video segments at 30,000—20,000 less than United Streaming. These segments are paired with reference materials such as an encyclopedia and dictionary. Cosmeo also offers 10,000 selected Web links and 20,000 images. Very useful are the 40,000 math tutorial animations that break down math concepts and can actually re-teach an idea if a student has forgotten it—or at least reinforce learning before students begin to practice. This part of the database can be searched by a student’s textbook, making locating the right concept relatively simple. Interactive games round out the database and make the site a Web destination.
(United Streaming sells its product to school districts and larger consortiums, making pricing difficult to quote. Cosmeo offers a monthly and a yearly subscription; monthly subscriptions start at $9.95.)
Launched in March of this year, TeacherTube is the epitome of Web 2.0. It was founded by a small group of people with the idea to provide educators with a free place to put their own educational products, both teacher- and student-created. It takes most of its visual cues from YouTube, which makes me wonder if that larger Web site won’t challenge aspects of this one at some point. Like YouTube, TeacherTube also relies on advertising for financing, including Google ads. Facilitating communication between users is also an important goal. As with YouTube, users can designate friends and can also join groups such as one for teachers of Shakespeare or others specific to a particular location. Users are also given the code to easily embed any of these videos into a blog. Anyone can subscribe and upload videos, which allows for a range of quality and usefulness. Recent additions at the time of this review included an entertaining video in which the pink erasers finally get their revenge after years of abuse from art students. Another was titled Teach the Teachers Collaborative 2007. Expecting to see a video about professional development, I discovered a schlocky slide presentation of candids from a recent teacher-training institute, accompanied by Dionne Warwick’s song, “That’s What Friends Are For.”
More curious and potentially useful videos included What Is the Holocaust? This short production strung together several teens attempting to explain the Holocaust and being very far from the mark. One girl mistook it for Hanukkah. Perhaps the clip could spark a discussion on the importance of learning about the Holocaust. Another video reflected on Truman’s reasons for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
Like YouTube, TeacherTube has enormous potential to provide useful content to teenagers, but the onus will be on users to filter out a lot of the bad before they find the good.
As to my original question about smoking-cessation videos, a few student-created products on the topic are on TeacherTube. But none are as good as the traditional, professionally-produced video that my district chose to purchase.
Like many, I’m about the health and well being of young adults. Although life as a teenager has always involved risky behavior, it seems as if there are even greater pitfalls for them to stumble into these days. Counselors and health practitioners often say that education and information is vital in keeping teenagers healthy and safe, and librarians spend time and budget funds on building and keeping current collections of guidance materials.
I’ve been dreaming, however, of an online resource that would help us to provide information. Recent electronic character-education packages have been CD or video/DVD-based, a format that is not easily updated. These programs focus not on providing information but on changing behavior and attitudes. Although behavior modification is a worthy goal, such materials don’t meet the needs of the young person who might be worrying about a problem, feels too scared to talk to someone about it, and wants to locate information privately.
Where have these young information seekers been going?
It’s my belief that they have been relying on the Internet for their information, where not all of what they find is reliable, current, unbiased, and advertising-free. Two exceptions are WebMD, which has advertising and is not directly focused on teen health, and CoolNurse.com, which also has advertising and is much smaller with a less sophisticated interface than WebMD; it does focus on teen health. Now Rosen has launched a product that directly targets these information seekers. [Editor’s Note: For an excellent overview of how online health information is used by teens—calculated by a 2002 study as more than seventy percent of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds—see Bernard Morrissey’s December 2005 e-voya art i c l e, SexAndHealthForTeens.com at http://pdfs.voya.com/VO/YA2/VOYA200512SexHealth.pdf.]
The Rosen Publishing Group
With the tag line “real life, real answers,” Rosen’s Teen Health & Wellness resource seeks to connect young adults with credible information on health and wellness topics. It does so with an interface that caters to two different kinds of users: those completing web research assignments on health topics and those seeking self-help information.
The bulk of the database is a diverse collection of articles ranging from commonly researched health concerns, such as diabetes and epilepsy, to recent hot topics such as “Methamphetamine and Crystal Meth” use, “Self-Mutilation” or “Cutting,” and what to do during a “Terrorism” attack. The database is rounded out with issues that relate to teenage development, such as online dating, safe driving, and joining the military.
Each article has several sections, whose headings are displayed in a table of contents on a side menu. At the bottom of the page, links to the previous and next sections also help users move within the information. The articles fully describe each topic and include characteristics such as how a condition is diagnosed, historical notes, and statistical data. Also included are myths and facts about the topic and suggested methods for getting help. Noteworthy are lists of ten questions that a teen could use when talking to a doctor, counselor, or other resource person. Some articles even list questions for teens to ask themselves. The answers to
these questions are not provided, allowing the user to create a dialogue. I found some lists to be quite poignant, and imagine that they could be tough but very useful to ask and answer. Examples: “What are the chances that I’ll be stationed overseas or in a dangerous assignment if I enlist in the military?” “Can I have contact with my baby after the adoption is completed?” “What are the chances that the chemotherapy will work and how will I know it is working?”
Users may browse easily for additional information in related articles listed under the table of contents.
Several features that enhance this database are available from the home page: an advice column, a Web poll that returns results instantly, and personal stories, which are first-person accounts that illustrate the issue being described and provide greater understanding. Emerging from a story-writing project sponsored by Rosen, they include stories by Kevin, a Microsoft lawyer who struggles with dyslexia; Zoey and Sophia, who are twins; and several people who became parents as teenagers. The advice column, called “Dr. Jan’s Corner,” is written by psychologist Dr. Jan S. Hittleman, who addresses questions about topics such as teen stress and what to do if a friend is contemplating suicide. Each answer is linked to a pertinent article in the database.
The few illustrations seem limited to charts on the human body, although small icons sprinkled throughout the page provide some visual interest. These icons highlight sections of the text and include these headings: “reality check,” “number crunching,” “quick tip,” “helping hand,”“med speak,” and “you’re not alone.”
One can follow several paths to locate information in the database. A search box is always present at the top left corner of the screen. Users may also browse the database by subject, which presents a topic tree that includes broad categories such as “Developmental Disabilities and Disorders,” Drugs and Alcohol,” and “Diversity.” An “A to Z” list of topics is also available.
All articles are signed by the author and all have been reviewed by a member of the resource’s Expert Review Board. The reviewer’s name and a link to her credentials appear at the end of each article. The date when the article was last updated is also noted, along with a suggestion for citing the resource. The Expert Review Board has also had a hand in the scope of the database and decisions about what to include and how to present the information. They did their job very well: Politically controversial topics such as abortion and gay lifestyles are present and completely described in this database. It is my opinion that the writers and editors have kept the text free of bias and do not advocate for a particular side of any argument.
Everything about this database seems very thoughtfully considered. One wonders if the few omissions were intended. For instance, articles on death and dying focus only on what to do if a pet, friend, or loved one dies, not what to do if an individual is faced with his own life-threatening illness. Most articles written about life-threatening illnesses do not discuss in great detail the possibility of death. The article on HIV/AIDS mentions that a diagnosis does not mean a death sentence, offering the name of Magic Johnson as someone living with an AIDS diagnosis. The article dealing with bone cancer notes that most cancers are “not
terminal,” and the article discussing brain cancer suggests that sufferers stay as involved in school and social activities as possible, as a way of coping with the diagnosis and body and cognitive changes during treatment. Although I think that it might be important to have a part of the grief article that reaches out to those teens who might be struggling with a terminal diagnosis, I appreciate the life-affirming tone of the other articles that deal with potentially terminal diseases. They do so without glossing over the extremely serious nature of these conditions. Their explanations are honest but also do much to improve a person’s outlook on his or her condition.
A smaller omission is information on the effects of chewing tobacco.
Of great importance is a red “hotline” link that is very visible in the navigation bar on the top right, which connects the user to a page that lists the 800 numbers and Web sites of several reputable organizations. The first two numbers, listed in red, are the suicide hotline and 911. These hotline numbers are also placed within relevant articles so that teens know where to turn for more information.
This exemplary product is well worth including in the online resource collections of public libraries, high schools, and middle schools. It fills a much-needed niche that has long been empty.
(Annual subscriptions for schools begin at $595 per building. Pricing is based on enrollment. All pricing is for unlimited, simultaneous access and includes remote access and ongoing content enhancements and updates. District or multiple-building pricing is available upon request. Annual subscriptions for public libraries begin at $595 per building. Pricing is based on cardholder numbers. System-wide pricing is available upon request. All pricing is for unlimited, simultaneous access and includes remote access and ongoing content enhancements and updates.)
A few days ago, I had occasion to search for a photograph—any photograph!—of a traditional Saami dwelling, which is also known as a peat hut. Because I knew that this photograph was not going to make it into a student project that would require impeccable references and because the requester was standing impatiently in front of me, I decided to use my current Web-based time-waster, Flickr.com, which allows users to upload their pictures into a huge, fully searchable image database. It is my opinion that Flickr gives amateur digital photographers a reason-to-be: Tourists who used to pass around vacation snapshots to the limited audience of their friends over dinner can now share them with the world-at large. And the photos are quite good in general—a testament to just how amazingly easy-to-use digital cameras are becoming. I was certain that someone on a trip to Sweden would have documented one of the interesting dirt homes.
Lo and behold, someone had. It was a lovely photo with great lighting and nice placement, but it was missing a caption. All it said was “Peat hut.” Considering that the photographer had uploaded 177 photos from that trip, we were lucky to get that much information, as well as five searchable tags and a title.
But it left me and the information seeker full of questions that we couldn’t answer from that Web site. This situation illustrates what can be very wrong with Open Source information: The creator is kind enough to make it available, but he never has time to finish the job. I miss the interpretation of the information.
The electronic world seems to be embracing the Open Source movement wholeheartedly. The term “Open Source” is defined as a product that “includes permission to use its source code, design documents, or content.” It has generally meant the source code in which a computer program is written, but it is expanding to include other forms of shareable data. (I take this definition from the most famous “Open” information source, the Wikipedia.) Open Source is being embraced so thoroughly because a product for which one used to pay is now free.Many who favor Open Source products also speak glowingly about the democratic nature of the movement—providing equal access for all, not just those who pay for it.
For cash-strapped institutions, Open Source is becoming a wonderful money-saver, allowing them to balance their budgets by not purchasing expensive software programs such as the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite. For those who think that this choice rarely occurs in real life, I’m willing to offer that at least one school district in Bill Gates’s Washington state backyard no longer purchases Microsoft Office for new computers, using instead the Open Source equivalent called OpenOffice.
I don’t think that this decision will mean that this school district’s librarians must cease purchasing the Encyclopedia Britannica in favor of the Wikipedia. Yet some continued education is required concerning the reasons that certain online resources are superior to items found on the free Web. I recognize the constant challenge of dealing with a dwindling budget and increasing materials. The following two resources provide added value that makes them worth their subscription costs.
AccuNet/AP Multimedia Archive is a new database that contains media created by the Associated Press and distributed by AccuWeather.com. AccuWeather describes itself as the world’s web leading Internet weather provider. For free, it offers an elegant but frustratingly advertising-laden Web site of weather forecasts as well as two levels of premium subscriptions that do away with the pesky pop-ups. The matchup of AP news information and archival photos with weather forecasts is interesting—the company has long been a creator of products that support student learning.
AP Multimedia Archive is segmented into four different types of content; each must be searched separately. These sections are audio; graphics in pdf form including maps, graphs, and charts; text of AP news headlines; and international photos. The largest part of this database is the photo collection of more than one million shots taken by AP photographers. Dating back to 1826, the database’s oldest known photograph is
Joseph Nicephore Niepce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras.” It also includes photographs from the same day of searching, with about 3,000 photographs added each day. That range is phenomenally exciting! Each captioned photograph has indexed information including the photographer, location, and date. Because captions are provided by professional journalists, they are clearly written and fully explain each photograph. This extra level of interpretation is one reason that this resource is superior to what can be found on the free Web.
The graphics section also includes information from the same day of searching, also nicely captioned. On the day of review, the most recent graphics included a photograph of Saddam Hussein’s co-defendants and the verdicts for all as well as a map of the United States showing the average age of voters in the most recent elections. The audio section includes 4,500 hours of audio clips; its updating delay is about 48 hours.
The interface is rather basic in appearance, especially when compared to the AccuWeatherWeb site. A frame to the right and the top includes search boxes and tools for limiting searches. This database’s search functions require some greater understanding. Users might have to refer to both areas before performing a search: On the left are the radio buttons that allow users to select the type of media to be searched and the actual search button; at the top is the keyword search box.Most users will know that they can hit enter to initiate a search. The database is somewhat unforgiving of improper syntax but offers a quick help sheet and good suggestions when searches don’t get results. Teachers might be interested to note that they can search by their state’s learning standards. A small collection of material is correlated for each standard. This feature could be helpful when creating lesson plans.
Users can collect images and audio clips in a “lightbox” as well as easily download or e-mail the files. The subscriber agreement (viewable in the help section) allows library and school users to use these images in electronic products that are curricular or educational in scope. Users might consider using the material in visual presentations such as PowerPoint or video podcasting.
Because the AP creates this content, they don’t screen out intriguing references to the world of journalism. The index fields include one with the “slug” ID, and a caption or a graphic “correct” is identified. Sometimes photographers are referred to as “stringers,” and occasionally cryptic “special instructions” are attached. This rewarding peek into the world of the press provides subscribing institutions with a way of assuring that
users have permission to use the media in limited presentations.
(Prices for schools range between $295 and $495 based on student population. Pricing for other libraries is based on population served.)
Wilson Web: H.W.Wilson
With Current Issues: Reference Shelf Plus, H.W.Wilson continues to do what it does best: connect their indexed collection of periodical articles and topic interpretation from their on-staff editors to free Web resources. For this product,Wilson has developed a collection of topics that cover a range of current issues, including concepts from politics, science, and the world. Each topic is broken into smaller subtopics, which present users with a collection of relevant periodical articles, viewable either as html full-text or pdf page-view. Each topic offers about thirty articles. Reviewed free-Web sites are attached to each topic; because they are reviewed by H. W. Wilson editors, they are quite authoritative. For instance, the topic “Global Warming” includes Web links to the Kyoto Protocol, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, and eleven other noteworthy Web destinations. Users can also search the Web, which pulls up a Google screen and inserts a suggested search string for users.
Wilson Web’s interface is consistent throughout their Web-based products and is somewhat customizable by the user. It utilizes a side and top frame with most navigation options available from the sidebar. These
options allow users to perform advanced and basic searches as well as browse the collection. An “infographic” search allows users to browse with pictures in place. Users can either print, e-mail, or save text, and are also given suggestions for proper citations. A thesaurus provides users with the opportunity to find better search terms.
After viewing Reference Shelf Plus, I was convinced that a student could read all the suggested periodical articles, visit all the linked Web sites, and come away with the information needed to write a wonderfully complete report or successfully participate in a debate on the issue. Students who paid attention would also have a correctly formatted bibliography. All these aids led me to wonder whether it is spoon-feeding to give
student researchers exactly what they need to be successful, or a much-needed leg up on how to conduct research in the proper way. In the end, I decided that young researchers need and deserve the leg up.Although this resource provides them with a great deal of structure, it does not write the report for them. Wilson Web’s Reference Shelf Plus serves as a model for what good information should look like.
(An annual subscription for schools with enrollment under 250 starts at $535. Pricing for academic or public libraries starts at $670 for one simultaneous user.)
News resources for young adults haven’t been reviewed in this column since December 2001. As a librarian in New York City, I wrote that column in reaction to the events of September 11 while coping with the loss of the Internet at my school as well as the grief that all New Yorkers were experiencing. I mentioned my discovery of how painfully reliant my library was on our Web-based resources and how difficult it was to manage
without them. I also discussed the rumors that spread after September 11. In the absence of good data about what had happened and why, students at my school were giving credence to conspiracy theories and wild speculation. The news vacuum created a sense of panic. My students were particularly frightened by the rumors of what might happen next.
Their fears were understandable. I remembered being their age during the height of the Cold War, aware that the USSR was a threatening presence in my life but not quite understanding the issues behind the conflict. I was irrationally fearful every time regular television programming was interrupted for a special news bulletin, scared that I would be told that a nuclear attack was on the way. I might have obsessed about nuclear bombs more than was healthy for a teenager, but I’m sure that I wasn’t alone. When you’re young, any world crisis seems earth shattering because you have no other events with which to compare it.
In that 2001 column, I expressed my opinion that students need credible resources not only for the news of the day but also for analysis of the issues that affect their lives. It is still my belief that quality information can lead young adults toward a greater understanding that can help them feel less powerless.
Five years have passed. The news arena has changed dramatically, but our desperate need for reliable sources has not. Most of us recognize the need for trained journalists to provide us with news, but we aren’t sure if we want to pay for access to their product. The financial health of traditional print newspapers has become a great concern. How do you get people to continue paying to read the news when much of it is available free on the Web? Newspapers across the country are scrambling to think of creative ways to appeal to current subscribers as well as to encourage the habit of daily newspaper reading in young people. Local “Newspapers in Education” programs have become part public service and part critical marketing tool.
Also in the last five years, our valuing of the journalistic profession has been eroded by plagiarism scandals as well as differing opinions on how freely the media should report on issues of national security. More strikingly, the advent of blogs and the prevalence of opinion-centered news sources make the process of finding balanced, unbiased information more challenging than ever. Accordingly the need for young adults to be able to discern opinion from fact is essential—the onus is on them to recognize slant in writing.
A historical perspective on current issues is crucial. With little understanding of the history of the last century, teenagers are hard pressed to make sense of the world events now occurring. The following two resources provide access to archives of news reports.
When it comes to credibility and quality of information on world and national issues, it is difficult to compete with CQ Researcher. The story of its creation underscores the theme of this column—the need for historical perspective in promoting full understanding. In 1923, Richard M. Boeckel, a reporter covering the League of Nations debate for the New York Tribune, suffered a “guilty conscience” concerning how little he and his fellow reporters understood about the background of the issues on which they were writing. With Bertram Benedict, Boeckel founded Editorial Research Reports, a service that provided newspaper editors with in-depth reports on the issues of the day. Congressional Quarterly purchased this resource in 1956. Renamed CQ Researcher in 1991, today it is published 44 times a year in print and online, continuing to provide balanced, in-depth analysis on a variety of topics including international affairs, the environment, and technology. Each report presents an overview and background, a chronology, and statements from individuals representing both sides of the issue. A bibliography is also included.
CQ Researcher Online provides access to reports from 1991 to the present. The print collection of Editorial Research Reports and CQ Researcher is being digitized, and its content is now available as a plug-in resource to CQ Researcher Online—hence the name “Plus Archive.” The archive provides access to more than 3,000 reports published since 1923, offering an unusually deep historical dimension to current events.
Because of this depth, CQ created “Issue Tracker,” a feature that helps users browse a topic through history. The tracker includes social issues such as abortion, ethics, and cheating in schools; cultural trends in areas such as cosmetics and fashion or journalism and the media; and political topics such as civil liberties in wartime and filibusters. “Israel, Palestine, and Middle East Peace” is an example of a tracked issue. Stretching back to 1946 are 37 reports under this heading, with the entire history of the problem including the roles played by neighboring countries as well as the United States.
Users can also search the entire database via a quick search function and an advanced one. A quick search of the term “Iraq” brought up 294 hits, the oldest of which was written in 1925. This report on “The Mosul Question” offered an explanation of the role of the League of Nations and the world court in determining which of three nations would govern the area of Mespotamia known as Mosul. The article helped to broaden my understanding of the challenges of shaping a new Iraqi government.
The advanced search function allows users to limit by age ranges and even specify the report sections to be searched. The interface also allows users to create their own password-protected profile. A profile gives users the opportunity to save their searches, specify articles as favorites, and backtrack through their document history.
Because this resource draws upon articles written over the past seventy-five years, the product rightly notes that there is some anachronistic language and that some terms could be considered offensive to the reader. This situation is readily apparent in the titles tracked under the topic “African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement.” The CQ Press has chosen not to alter these reports so that they can offer a full picture of the time in which they were written.
CQ Researcher Plus Archive is a welcome and significant content enhancement to an already worthy product.
(Subscription-only options start at $695 for high school libraries. Pricing for the “Archive” backfile—available as a one-time purchase—varies by enrollment.)
Touting itself as the “largest newspaper database available online,” Access NewspaperARCHIVE is making its content available free to K-12 schools and public libraries. Launched in 1999, this resource comes from a division of Heritage Microfilm, which provides preservation microfilming services to the United States newspaper industry.
Looking through Access NewspaperARCHIVE can be much like visiting the morgues of several newspapers all at once, without having to travel. Its forty million newspaper pages date back to 1759 with pages from Scotland’s Edinburgh Chronicle. The database contains 613 cities and towns from all 50 United States as well as the countries of Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Jamaica, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Page images are presented as pdfs in Adobe Acrobat, with search terms highlighted in the text. Images show a range of quality: Some papers are hardly decipherable and others are easy to scan.
Using the advanced search is an effective way of managing such a large database, tweaking searches by date and location. Some suggested search wizards help with frequently used searches.
Although the database is quite large and varied, it is also spotty. In this big project, there’s only so much that has been digitized. The one German newspaper is the European Stars and Stripes, published in the Army base at Darmstadt from 1967 to 1973, and then again from 2000 to 2003. The bulk of the database seems to be small-town United States newspapers. You can enjoy scanning the Chehalis Bee-Nugget from Washington state for community information at the end of the Great Depression in its run of issues from 1935 to 1938, but you’re probably not going to find this year’s issues from your favorite local paper. You’re in luck if you live in Syracuse, New York, or Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The ranges of those two newspapers go up to 2006, with a lag time of only a few months. A few other periodicals appear in this somewhat exclusive club of the recent.
But it is history, and it’s really a beautiful thing! It’s quite an experience to be able to read what the London papers had to say about Napoleon around the time of the Battle of Waterloo or to compare the coverage of the attack on Pearl Harbor in different U.S. newspapers. Genealogists are finding this site a boon to their research with the accessibility of obituaries, and it’s easy to find a copy of your birthday newspaper from the home page. Full-sized copies on acid-free paper are available for $29.95.
Free access to such a useful resource is always a good thing, but there are some limitations. Access is granted using IP authentication, which means that school and public library users can only access the database from the building; they will not be able to see any content from within their state nor can they search newspapers published after 1977. Those who wish to use the product at home through an individual subscription can take advantage of a rather reasonable rate between $5.95 and $9.95 a month.
Access NewspaperARCHIVE also provides free access to 25 collections of articles on special topics. Representing both historical and current ideas, they include AIDS and asbestos, Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Assassination, and earthquakes and global warming. These separate topic Web sites have advertising content provided by Google and also contain background material such as chronologies and biographies.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a pdf of this article.
Although it hardly seems possible, most of us have been working with online products for nearly a decade now. I know that I was still struggling with CD-ROMs a little more than ten years ago. At that time, my biggest frustration seemed to be figuring out how to provide access to all my CD-ROM products on a limited number of machines. Like many librarians, I wound up dedicating specific machines to specific products, which forced users to circulate between workstations.
Then came the more widespread use of the Internet in libraries and schools. Soon afterward, Web-based access to online resources became available. It almost felt as if the heavens opened up; I certainly thought that all my major access problems were solved. I was thrilled that users no longer had to queue up to use specific machines. And wasn’t it just wonderful that they could look at everything that my library had to offer without moving their seats or waiting in line? Best of all, they could even use most products at home!
By now, we all know that the accessibility of the World Wide Web was a double-edged sword. Despite the fact that my online resources were fully available to users, I soon discovered that young adults were choosing to use the free Web first. I watched stunned as they cited poor or incorrect information from the Web in their papers. I’ll never forget the eighth grader who used a biographical sketch from a vampire role-playing Web site in her paper on the Brontës. In a desperate effort to correct this trend, I found myself urgently teaching students how to evaluate the quality of the information that they were finding. I know that many of us were doing the same, from the number of workshops and professional articles still being written on the topic.
It was also around that time that I began to hear the term “Google” standing in for the word research. Most gallingly of all, I discovered that I needed to persuade students to use the online resources that they had once stood in line to access.
Now I’m starting to feel as if the tide is turning once again. Although I don’t think that easy Web searching via Google and other search engines has lost all its luster, I do feel that users have become smarter about information. It’s my belief that many librarians are trying to introduce good information principles to younger users; young adults are reaping the benefits of this early intervention. Many of today’s teens are quicker to accept the pitfalls of the free Web and are becoming savvy about how to access quality alternatives. Our teen users are starting to place a higher value on quality over the speed of accessibility and the quantity of the World Wide Web. Suddenly, sifting through thousands of search results hits is starting to lose some appeal.
Online resource companies also are becoming better at marketing themselves to their primary users. Their Web interfaces are appealing enough to become Web destinations to explore rather than just to search. These resources are providing more eye-catching graphics and media as well as greater interactivity. It is also possible that they are becoming better at intuiting what the user wants to find.
This history has been on my mind lately because I’m revisiting two products that I reviewed several years ago: World Book Online Reference Center and Grolier Online. Both products have undergone recent major changes to their Web interfaces and are attempting to market themselves to both younger and older users. To this end, both have created two different age-based interfaces from which users can select.
Scholastic Library Publishing
Although Grolier Online recently went through a major redesign of their interface, much of the content has remained the same. Seven databases still make up the product: Encyclopedia Americana, Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, New Book of Knowledge, La Nueva Encyclopedia Cumbre, The New Book of Popular Science, Lands and Peoples, and America the Beautiful. The first three are general knowledge encyclopedias. The other four are subject-specific databases based on a print reference series. Libraries still can tailor their subscriptions to include all or some of these databases, which can make the product economical for smaller libraries. The databases included in a library’s subscription agreement still can be searched at the same time and the search results do indicate from which database the information is being pulled. Each database can also be browsed individually, with its own main page and special features.
What has changed? Now there are two age-based interfaces; both are more dynamic and colorful, and quite frankly, they make more sense to users. The interface for older users is named Grolier Online Passport.
Grolier Online Kids is tailored to younger users. In both, orange now replaces white as the dominant color and page elements change either on their own or when the user rolls her mouse over the screen. The old
Grolier Online “Go” frame contained a search box located on the bottom right of the screen, the last place where a user’s eye looks. The search box in the redesign is larger, placed in the top middle of the screen, and even says “FIND IT FAST!” directly above the box. The urgency of the wording might ring somewhat false, but I think it does match the young user’s level of anticipation when starting a search. Grolier’s seven products are listed on the right; a very brief explanation of the product appears when the mouse is rolled over its name.
A “Feature Showcase” is available on both interfaces, although the layout and text differ somewhat. At the time of this review, the showcase subject was “The Living Ocean,” which contained gorgeous videos of ocean life and answers to basic scientific questions such as “What is a fish?” Users can easily choose to view the video in either QuickTime or Windows Media, the two most common formats. Most users will already have players for one of these two media installed on their workstations. A game called “Fish or Fake” rounded out the showcase for the Kids interface, giving users the opportunity to determine whether certain strange ocean creatures are fish.
There are some stylistic differences between the Passport and the Kids interfaces. Passport is more elegant, with muted colors. Kids is livelier with larger pictures and colors in deep orange, purple, and greens. The major content difference between the Passport and Kids interfaces is in the “News Now” section, where Passport users see scrolling news headlines and three “Feature Stories” discuss major world events. At the time of this review, Avian bird flu and the trial of Saddam Hussein were featured, both pulled from Newsweek. The “News Now” section in the Kids interface featured stories that were somewhat gentler, with intriguing references to pop culture. At the time of this review, users could learn about the giant squid caught on video and could discover more about the Disneyland opened in Hong Kong and the 3-D Chicken Little movie.
The start pages for the specific databases have not been redesigned, but all still seem fresh, providing good exploration opportunities. The redesign of the Grolier Online interface is a remarkable success. Both interfaces provide greater opportunities to interact and even “surf” the resources. Now Grolier Online seems more like a Web destination to enjoy as well as search.
(Prices vary according to user population and databases selected.)
It is important to note that World Book now has three online products: World Book Research Libraries, Spanish Student Discovery Encyclopedia Online, and World Book Online Reference Center. This review examines only the Reference Center, which contains the text of the print World Book Encyclopedia along with 12,000 images, 10,000 sounds including word pronunciations, 100 videos and animations, and 100 360-degree views. In addition, some searches bring up content pulled from a collection of 100 periodicals and links to more than 7,000 approved Web sites.
Users can move between the two interfaces from a change display link on the top right. The “standard display” is the default setting designed for older users. A display for younger users features brighter colors and an absolutely huge search box in the center of the screen. Like Grolier Online, World Book Online also now places the search box in the center of their home page, directly below their banner.
When an article is displayed, the box become smaller and moves to the top right. Interestingly, users can toggle between an American English display and a British English display. A link to World Book’s Spanish Language Encyclopedia is in the same location.
Tabs allow users to select different resources in each display, including a clickable atlas, a dictionary, the ability to browse the encyclopedia alphabetically, and a resource guide for the state where the user lives. The home screen advertises “Behind the Headlines” news stories, “Features of the Month,” a “This Day in History” section, and a question-and-answer “Media Showcase.” For younger users, this media showcase becomes a “Fun Fact” featured prominently on the home screen. News stories are the same in both interfaces—there’s no softening of the news for a younger audience.
Other ways in which this resource becomes a Web destination capable of being explored as well as searched is via the “Surf the Ages” feature, asking “What if the Web had existed since ancient times?”
Users can view imaginative articles from newspapers that did not exist back then, but could have. The death of Ramses the Second is fully covered in the Sumer-Egypt Sun, whose motto is “All the News That’s
Fit to Inscribe on an Ostracon.” The Middle Ages are covered from 1000 to 1400 AD and the Modern Times section includes the 1500s to 1900s. In this clever way of introducing users to historical periods, this
section goes far beyond the usual fun feature in an online resource. It’s almost an online resource in itself.
The only major frustration in World Book Online has to do with the accessibility of the media. Videos are encoded as RealMedia, which requires users to download a free version of RealPlayer. The 360-degree views require users to download a free plug-in from IPIX. No one likes to download plug-ins.
(Pricing varies according to user population and starts as low as $495. Beginning school district licenses start as low as 58 cents per student in grades 3 through 12.)
“It’s the iPod, isn’t it?”
It was country report time—that most traditional of research topics when students are asked to gather data on one of the world’s nations. I had just finished demonstrating to the students what I considered some useful and authoritative places to check. I pulled out the relevant online resources and showcased them all. I made certain that each student was at a computer and that all the screens featured the page where I had posted the links to the best information. The students were raring to go, so I turned them loose, wandering around to make sure that they were on task.
It was then that I noticed one particular student who had immediately switched over to About.com. Not my favorite search engine, it has what I consider to be more advertising than content—but I could see he was pleased that he had found something so quickly. Thankfully he had found the harmless “Background Notes” written by the U.S. State Department; frustratingly the information was more than five years old.
I pointed out the dates to him and also suggested that we remove the About.com frame with its blinking, distracting banner ad so that the information would be easier to read.
“But I like it just the way it is!” he protested.
It was not the first time I had heard such a declaration; I had been suspecting that there was a clear difference between what my students’ eyes judge as good and my own. This time, I was determined to get to the bottom of the problem. “Look, you’ll have the exact same information,” I said, borrowing his mouse and taking the frame off to prove it. Ever his own man, he clicked the back button and returned to the ad-framed version.
“But this is better,” he expressed confidently.
It was then that I realized that the prominent advertisement at the top of the frame featured the opportunity to win a free iPod.
The student didn’t know how to respond to my iPod comment or my continued prodding, so I chose to leave him on his own for the moment, knowing that I would check on him later when he might be more willing to consider my suggestions. In the interim, I was left to wonder if good information has to have pictures of iPods and pink cell phones to make it marketable to today’s young adults. Absurd as that thought is, I believe that there is a grain of truth in it: Young adults swim in advertising. They are quick to have an emotional response based on visual cues. And the visual cue of the iPod might have triggered something in my student that made him more interested in the text surrounding it.
While pondering this example of the digital generation gap that all young adult librarians deal with, I realized something. Although the online resource products that we purchase for our users are designed with them in mind, they aren’t marketed to those users. These products are marketed to us. We’re making the purchasing decisions, which conform to what we want to see. And in general, we want to see an authoritative product, broad enough in scope, but with a intuitive interface that makes it easy for users to find exactly what they need.
We don’t want to see pink flip phones next to our text. But our users might. Or maybe they just want to see an object that will make them excited about the information and familiar with it at the same time.
I am not suggesting that any online resource company start embedding ads for cool gadgets into their content. But I was interested in seeing what would happen if an online resource company had to market to the end user instead of the middleman librarian. What would a product look like if the company needed to convince young adults to purchase it with their own funds?
Questia is an information company that sells directly to the older high school and undergraduate end user. Before continuing, I must make readers aware that Questia’s publication agreements do not allow them to sell to institutions, although secondary head librarians are being offered their own personal yearly subscriptions at this time. I’m reviewing this product to make librarians aware of what teens might be using on their own; it appears to be a product of some significance.
The first thing that one notices on the Questia home page is its tag line: “World’s Largest Online Library.” This claim is rather impressive, and the hype continues in the “About” section as “the first online library that provides 24/7 access to the world’s largest online collection of books and journal articles in the humanities and social sciences, plus magazine and newspaper articles.” Well, okay, all online resources provide 24/7 access. It is difficult to disprove these statements because their product information doesn’t provide a direct comparison to other products. I also recognize that young adults do respond to hyperbole and that these statements might make them more confident about the product.
The Questia story goes on to describe founder Troy Williams’s goal of addressing the inequity of access to information resources. He experienced this inequity as a high school and college student in small, rural settings. Only when he began to attend a much larger institution was he able to see the difference in resources that a large, well-funded university provides for its students. Addressing this disparity became a personal mission for Williams. He gave up a law career for the opportunity to lead this startup through the difficult years after the dot.com bust and the many changes in the information market.
Today Questia appears to be a stable product containing books as well as journal, magazine, and newspaper articles focused on the college-age or college-bound young adult. More than 56,000 books from 250 publishers include university presses such as Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford. Greenwood Press and Chelsea House are also represented. I had feared that Questia’s book collection would feature the backlists of these publishers and lack relevance and currency. At the time of this review, however, 409 books in their collection were published in 2004, representing some significant topics. More than one million scholarly articles include work published in the Journal of Psychology, Social Research, World Affairs, and College Literature. Questia also contains 668,000 newspaper articles and 173,000 magazine articles, including pieces featured in magazines such as Arts and Activities and History Today. Its text is HTML rather than page image. A collapsible sidebar lists the contents of the text and offers users a search text function. Search terms are highlighted in yellow on the actual text. I found these screens easy to use and readable.
Tools built into the interface allow students to bookmark, highlight, cite, add notes, and add the work to a bibliography. All of
these text additions can be saved into a user’s workspace, where projects can be managed in separate folders. I was very pleased that all these tools appeared to be designed to help students avoid unintentional plagiarism. The “highlight and cite” feature is especially useful when compared to the questionable practice of copying and pasting text. With this function, the highlighted text is always accompanied by the source information. The bibliography generator features the most common style sheets. Users can print out the page being read but are restricted from printing out large sections, allowing publishers some control over copyright.
Six thousand research topics also allow students another entrance into the content by linking to the most relevant works in the collection. A hierarchy of these topics can also be browsed. Questia makes these suggestions without overstepping its role; it does not offer separate analysis of the topic or thesis statement ideas. I also noticed that several of these research topics appear as “Sponsored Links” advertising on Google.
Questia is free up to a point. Anyone can search the database and preview sections of the text, but this preview does cut off—often in
mid-sentence. Users must subscribe to view the rest. It’s a strategy designed to lure users in. The $19.95 monthly subscription rate is also designed to be appealing—most consumers, including adequately funded college students and many college-bound teens, consider it an acceptable price for an impulse buy when desperate for the right article. But what about those students who can’t pay twenty dollars? Libraries cannot come to their rescue when Questia’s agreements with publishers make it impossible for institutions to purchase access. This situation is somewhat concerning—especially when the democratizing mission of Questia is taken into account.
Does an online resource that is marketed to the end user look different than the ones purchased by institutions? Questia’s interface is uncluttered and intuitive, but so are the interfaces of most online resources. The front page does look more like an online bookstore, however. Choice tabs are arranged at the top of the screen and the middle ground advertises new features. At the time of this review, Questia was highlighting a “Book Profiles” feature, which gives users a better sense of specific titles. The site also offers users the opportunity to read two free books—both were about the history of the blues at the time of this review.
The only advertising that seems to target young adult users is “10 Cool Things About Questia”—a chart that compares it favorably to
both the Internet (“Sifting Through 4,795 Web sites affects your social calendar”) and the traditional library (“Go ahead: highlight and scribble on our pages”). A Flash presentation called “Discover Ginger’s Secret” features a manga-drawn, jean-clad teen with an iPod hanging from her waistband! She’s lost in the world of irrelevant Internet sites until she discovers Questia.
I knew there would be an iPod somewhere if I looked long enough.
(Individuals may subscribe for as low as $19.95 a month.)