Mlibrarian Badges

Introductory comments

Thank-you for the opportunity to present at OE4BW. I’m very sorry not to be there with you in person in Vipava. My family and I are on holiday in France this week.

I’m also grateful to Sandhya Gunness and Lance Eaton for being my mentors. We were a great match. Thanks to Mitja Jermol and Tanja Urbancic for bringing us together.

The project that I have been working on can be divided into three phases.

  1. The production of a mLiteracy toolkit intended as a basis for interventions in public libraries.
  2. A series of two day professional development workshops for librarians who want to enable better use of mobile devices in their library community.
  3. A set of mLibrarian badges to acknowledge and reward the community of librarians who implemented projects that involved the use of mobile devices.

Today I’m going to be presenting about the third part of the mLiteracy project – mLibrarian badges.

I’ll tell you a bit more about the process that we went through in producing these badges, the challenges that we faced and lessons that were learned. But before we get into this, a bit of background.

Introduction to the project

MLiteracy is a project that was initiated almost 3 years ago by the Goethe-Institut in response to the new opportunities for reading via mobile devices. Across the developing world, hundreds of thousands of people are reading full-length books on mobile phones. Reading in the mobile era, a UNESCO report, explored how mobile technology was advancing literacy and learning in under-served communities around the world.

Brigitte Doellgast, Goethe-Institut’s Head of Library & Information Services in Sub-Saharan Africa identified the possibility of combining this growing mobile trend with local social publishing projects. We conducted ethnographic research into libraries. We observed how the combination of mobile devices and free WiFi had attracted a new set of patrons to libraries. We also saw how some librarians had recognized this as an opportunity. They recognized a need to promote a positive use of mobile devices among their current and new patrons.

We also looked a reading initiatives that we driven by a mission, rather than profit. These projects (we refer to them as “social publishers) offer access to open access reading materials via the web. Those who are concerned about literacy and reading, but have limited access to print books, can practice reading skills with these materials. African Storybook, Bookdash, Fundza and Nal’iBali are some of the local organisations that distribute open reading resources in a digital format. Stories are licensed under Creative Commons They are often available in the local language or can be translated online. The materials are also contextually appropriate with local characters in recognizable settings.

The mliteracy project is aligned with UNESCO’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) and can contribute towards at least three of the SDG targets, namely innovation, quality education and equitable development.

Target Audience

This focus of this project was public libraries. We asked ourselves “how might we leverage the use of inexpensive mobile devices to facilitate story telling and reading, particularly among children”. The target audiences within libraries were

  • mobile enablers, interested in preparing libraries and their services for a connected world,
  • workshop facilitators, responsible for structuring a professional development workshops and
  • librarians, wanting to be able to better connect with children and their care givers who have access to a mobile devices in their library

The first two parts of the mliteracy project were successful. 40 activities were included in the toolkit and almost 200 librarians attended the workshops. The next challenge was to find a mobile friendly route to recognize the application of learnt skills and acknowledge the work of librarians who took what they learned and implemented it.

Why Open Badges

Recognition is often paper based. Certificates are extremely popular in the local training circuit. Since this was a course about learning new things about mobiles, reading on mobile devices and the use of apps and sites on the internet,  I decided to avoid glossy cardboard and use web-enabled credentials.

I thought that an interesting possibility was open badges. The idea of micro learning in a workplace setting appeals. Open badges allow for micro-credentials, the have an infrastructure that is inter-operable and the open badging approach is widely understood and the backpack can be shared across different technology platforms. Open badges also contained meta data (a concept all librarians understand) baked into the badges, which meant that each credential could be interrogated.

 Developing Open Badges

I applied to join the OE4BW project and Lance Elton (USA) and Sandhya Gunness (Mauritius) were the two mentors selected by OE4BW for our team. We took the project from an Excel spreadsheet to proof of concept that contained  a structured collection of missions and reflections that led to three mLibrarian badges.

To explain the idea to librarians, I looked at Scouts, their badges and used the process of earning a badge as an analogous concept to explain how mlibraian badges would work. I explained that in a badge system, the organization

  • Creates a badge and issues the criteria that accompany the badge,
  • Judges the evidence that has been collected,
  • Endorses the effort and validity of the efforts of the individuals and
  • Issues the badges

The challenges

The challenge facing the whole mLiteracy project was how we would implement the this initiative where WiFi is erratic and and many employees adopt a  “train me” mindset to any technology intervention. To address this challenge, we opted to use What’sApp as the main channel of communication (most librarians had this app installed on their mobile devices and many were able to use it without incurring additional data costs). What’sApp groups were formed, so that even those who had a passive “train-me” approach could see what was being learned. Those who wanted to know more information could request assistance.

Open badges were developed in way that took cognizance of the limitations of free Wi-Fi and the widespread use of Watsapp. Textingstory, a chatstory app that can be used for writing and recording text based communications, was used to author a scenario. These “chat story” conversations were intended to be sent to the mLiteracy What’sApp group members. A copy of the text story conversation was also posted onto YouTube and accompanied by transcripts on Google Sites.

Communicating about mLibrarian badges (as a concept) was not a problem. Finding a way to explain how these badges can be displayed was more difficult. As far as I am aware, there are not many examples of open badges issuing via any messaging service. The Whataspp platform does not have an API that intersects neatly with the open badge infrastructure (OBI). The idea of a badges “backpack” does not translate easily into a mobile environment. The backpack concept might work well in a LMS or on a widescreen, but the concept of the badges “backpack” does not translate neatly into a mobile device.

The badges that you see in this presentation and online are at present, an expression of an idea. Collecting evidence, submitting it and the assessment of the evidence has yet to be attempted. The main reason for not implementing the badges with librarians yet is a lack of any formal endorsement. This endorsement of mlibrarian badges depends on an outside body, and until this endorsement is secured, the value accorded to these badges will be limited.

Lessons Learned

Mlibrarian badges require broader organisational legitimacy. Without the backing of management or the endorsement from a professional body that is recognized in the library community, the amount of effort taken to earn a badge will not match the reward.

MLibrarian Badges are primarily about demonstration and acknowledgment. They are premised on the relationships developed during the mliteracy process. The open badge infrastructure (OBI) offers a structure for the issue, validation and display of badges. The process associated with helping librarians become mlibrarians is far more important than earning a credential. A tangible reward, whether they be paper based or web enabled, is important. But a badge or certificate is not the key to being mliterate.

Conclusion

I learned that the mlibrarian badges need to be located within a community of librarians who are already familiar with using mobiles for reading. Becoming mLiterate is already a challenge. Getting librarians to the point of understanding open badges and the OBI requires even more effort and time. MLibraian badges cannot stand alone. They will need to be re-framed as a part of the community of practice. The badges and the activities around them need to be seen as an opportunity to continue with the the  conversational approach to professional development that was initiated in the face to face workshops.

The Mliteracy toolkit and workshops were well researched, formally conceptualized and refined. The mLibrarian badges are an attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of using digital badges as a reward system. But the mLibrarian badges have not been piloted. Open badges have potential to be used in the project, but are at present still a proof of concept.

Six Social Publishing Challenges

Getting books into the hands of children is vital if kids are to learn to read. But there are many significant challenges facing those who wish to build a nation of story-readers and story-tellers. Five of these challenges are:

  1. Affordability – the average storybook in a book shop is expensive and many caregivers / parents find that children’s books are priced beyond their means.
  2. Diversity – storybooks often don’t reflect the multiple cultures, different family types and range of heritages.
  3. Home languages – when children learn to read, the should be doing so in their home languages but storybooks are not published in all the vernacular languages
  4. Distribution – making storybooks available, especially in remote areas, is a logistical challenge.
  5. Emerging writers – if we are to address some of the above challenges, then we also need to grow our own young authors..

Social Publishers are publishers who create reading materials for neglected audiences. Rather than operate on a profit basis, these publishers are driven by a mission. They see their books as a social goods, to be directed where they are most needed.

In South Africa, to make books affordable, accessible and available, social publishers like African Story Book, Bookdash, Fundza, Nal’i Bali and Vula Bula have adopted a range of innovative book production and distribution practices. Almost all have digital editions of their books available, formatted in PDF, ePub or as a webpage. Some of these storybooks are published under a Creative Commons licences. Sometimes they also have apps available for mobile devices are associated with these projects. Caregivers can freely install these apps, download the different books and store and read them from their mobile devices.

The above mentioned challenges are being addressed by social publishers in different ways. Below are a few specific examples of how certain projects are working with highlighted issues.

  • Fundza & the Author Challenge – Fundza are making it possible to become authors Their “Developing Young Writers” programme is intended to prompt young readers to become writers. Aspiring young voices can showcase their writing on the fundza.mobi site.
  • Bookdash & the Funding Challenge – Bookdash have a different book creation model. They generate publishable story books very rapidly. They facilitate an event and challenge multiple story production teams to create a storybook in 12 hours. Groups of four creative professionals (illustrators, authors, editors and designer) voluntarily combine their skills to create a complete creative commons storybook in one day.
  • Nalibali & the Distribution Challenge – Nal’ibali works to build a larger community of reading enablers across the country who are interested in storytelling, reading and writing with children. They distribute the message about reading by running high-visibility media campaigns (TV, Radio, Newspapers, Billboards), a network of reading clubs and also offer paprents and caregivers a library of multilingual stories and resources.
  • African Story Books & the Diversity Challenge – African Story Books have taken an open education resources approach to book production. This alternative model involves books licenced as creative commons materials that can be re-used and remixed. Their platform has a facility for users to alter, translate or create new stories and select different images. This has meant that their books have been translated into 111 languages
  • Vula Bula and the Language Challenge – Vula Bula is an African language graded reading series. Rather than translate books from English, they commission indigenous South African writers to write stories in their home language. These illustrated stories are contextualised to the young reader’s inner world and life experiences. The text within these books is based on the specific orthographical building blocks of each language.

The 6th Challenge – Obscurity

The one challenge that has not been mentioned is the inconspicuousness of these projects. Commercial publishing still holds most most of our attention, especially when it comes to storybooks. While these social publishing initiatives are as innovative as they are exciting, they need to also become sustainable. This is THE problem that requires immediate attention. If social publishing is to continue to offer new routes to entrench reading and writing habits in children’s daily lives, then broader uptake and ownership of such projects is necessary. Social publishing needs to become a mainstream player within the development of reading. Visible support, especially from those who access and use children’s books frequently, like librarians, teachers, social workers etc. Financial backing from the state, large multinational or corporates in required. Obscurity is their biggest challenge.

Our first mLiteracy Workshop

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Last week, I spent two days on the east rand, working with Ekurhuleni librarians and running a pilot workshop about mliteracy. We set out to explore the combination of free WiFi and mobile devices. We wanted librarians to become comfortable with these two technologies in a library setting. Our focus was on accessing early reading materials. We wanted to show them how digtitized and freely available story reading materials could be accessed via mobile devices.

Working alongside this group of people was very satisfying. They were very interested in using mobile devices within their libraries. Participants seemed to enjoy the experience. Comments about the workshop included “I’ve learned a lot of things I didn’t even know about”; “the Workshop was excellent”, “liked the informal and fun way the workshop was presented” and “this workshop should be done regularly to keep us updated.”

The workshop was about introducing early reading resources that social publishers are producing. We addressed the variety of issues associated with using using mobile devices in a library setting. A large part of the programme was focused on making librarians comfortable with change. While many welcome the introduction of new technologies into a library, there are some who are wary of the unintended consequences of a mobile friendly library space.

The workshop was designed to allow space for questions, opinion and doubt. Activities like “Emoji Tracker Cards” – an ongoing feedback exercise that offered participants to express their reactions,  “Hopes and Fears” – a process of articulating both positive and negative sentiments about technology and “Shades of opinions” – a set of opinions about changes in the library, allowed participants the opportunity to become comfortable with each other and the workshop programme*.

The workshop was a pilot. I’m hoping that senior management within library services will see the value in it and offer #mLiteracy learning opportunities to more librarians. If you are interested in keeping up with the project, please find us on Twitter or FaceBook. If you are interested in attending, please apply.


*A participants workbook will be available to all participants.

Shades of Opinion

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Free Wi-Fi is no longer a novelty. Across South Africa it’s becoming easier to turn off your data in restaurants, malls, banks and petrol stations. Local governments in Gauteng still remain the most generous provider.  At 300 MB of free data per day, a committed data guzzler can save 9GB worth of data bundles every month.

In libraries, the “no phone signs” are disappearing as many realize that the combination of Wi-Fi and mobile phones are attracting new patrons. Greater visitor numbers are not the only benefit. Members of library communities, equipped with their own feature or smart phone, can learn how to make productive use of information. Many librarians recognize the need to support their local communities technology aspirations. Access to data also offers a library community a new opportunity to develop digital capacity and a route to digital inclusion.

E-books on mobile devices can be positioned as a threat to reading. My perspective is that the two compliment each other. They enable a digital reading experience. Over the last year (with generous support from the Goethe Institut), I’ve been working on a programme to enable librarians become more comfortable with working in a data rich and phone friendly library. Together, we are asking how librarians and their patrons can they take advantage of a data surplus and their own mobile devices to access e-books, audio-books, newspapers, social publishing projects and other forms of digital information.

To stimulate discussion around the changing roles of librarians and to unpack how a library user feels about these changes in a library, I’ve created a collection of cards 10 called “shades of opinion”. Numbered 1 to 10, each card highlights a common opinion about change in a Gauteng library.  The cards offer a librarian the opportunity to gauge their colleagues or library patrons opinions. The “shades of opinion” cards can be used as the basis for engagement or discussion. There’s no right or wrong answer. If you want to take this conversation online, please do, The cards are also available on Instagram. I’d be interested to hear what the various responses are.

Free Wi-Fi in libraries , in conjunction with various local content initiatives, offer a librarian a golden opportunity to work in partnership with a ubiquitous tech – the mobile phone. Check out our #mliteracy hashtag. You’ll soon be hearing much more about this topic.