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Not Just Problem Solving But Problem Identification

One of things that I see students struggle with the most in doing research is question and topic identification. A big portion of the time I spend helping students with their research is spent helping them identify and define what their question is and what problem they want to address. I use techniques like mind-mapping to help students break apart their problem and start asking the right questions. Traditionally the work of librarians has been more focused on problem-solving. “Where do I look for information on human rights?” But increasingly, problem identification is becoming a skill necessary for students to master as they move into a world and economy built on creativity and innovation.

Dan Pink, the author of Drive and most recently To Sell is Human, talks about this importance of problem identification:

“The premium has moved from problem solving to problem finding as a skill,” Pink said. “Right now, especially in the commercial world, if I know exactly what my problem is, I can find the solution to my own problem. I don’t need someone to help me. Where I need help is when I don’t know what my problem is or when I’m wrong about what my problem is. Problem solving is an analytical, deductive kind of skill. The phrase ‘problem finding’ comes out of research on artists. It’s more of a conceptual kind of skill.”

This is a skill that can be hard to learn and especially hard to teach, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It’s a lot easier to teach how to search a database or how to properly cite, but teaching students how to ask the right questions and identify problems will better prepare them for the world they’re entering.

A real world example of problem discovery comes from the folks at the design firm IDEO. In this this video, the CEO Tom Kelley talks about redesigning a toothbrush for children. Based on observation and asking the right questions they are able to see the problem in a new light and design a brush that not only tops sales but fits children perfectly. By finding the right problems and asking the right questions the solutions that follow are going be exponentially better.

This skill of asking the right questions and identifying the right problems to solve is something librarians should definitely be teaching our students. It can be done both in the classroom and at the reference desk. What are ways that you teach this skill?

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Technology Woes

Technology is exciting and can help us with a number of tasks but it is also terribly frustrating. Today I was zipping along, thinking that I was going to be mister efficiency when I ran into two technology problems.

First, I was going to cook a chicken in the new slow cooker I received for Christmas. I wanted to simply “set it and forget it.” I set it just fine but luckily I didn’t forget it. After starting it, I came back about 15 minutes later to check the temperature and the whole unit had shut off. Moreover, I could not get it to turn back on. I got it to beep really loud at me once, but that must have been its death knell because it refused to work after that. Now I have to fool around with getting a receipt and sending it back to the manufacturer.

Second, I was going to post earlier today, but I realized that I needed to upgrade to the new version of WordPress. I had an automatic updater plugin but I kept getting fatal errors when I tried to activate it. I might have to search around for a new, working plugin one of these days. So, instead of spending my morning “setting and forgetting,” and posting to the blog I had to screw around with the slow cooker trying to get it to work, and I also had to update WordPress. I always forget how to update WP and luckily they have excellent documentation. It was just more reading and work than I wanted to do this morning.

My Christams break was very nice though. I was able to avoid a lot of technological distractions. I let my RSS feeds pile up, my e-mail inboxes became rather crowded, and I did not realize there had been a WP update until today. Technology can be very useful, but I find it helpful to take time away from it, because it is also often very stressful.

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Library School

There are those who say that library school is not rigorous enough and not teaching enough technological classes. While it may not be as rigorous as law school for example I believe that my time here at UW Madison has done a great deal to prepare me for a career at the top of the information food chain.

I purposely sought out tech classes because I realized how useful they would be right now as well as in the future. I now know how to: design and construct a database, build a website, and use the web in ways I never had even thought of before. I recently solved a problem I was having with a copy of “Sicko” that my dad burned for me.

The CD that I had would play the sound but not the actual video of the movie. I am subscribed to the blog LifeHacker, and one post on there was serendipitously for a piece of open source freeware called CodecInstaller. I learned all about codecs from my amazing “Digital Trends, Tools, and Debates” class with Dorothea Salo. I quickly realized that my problem was that I was missing a codec for the video. I downloaded the software and it automatically analyzed what codec I needed. I then chose it from a list in CodecInstaller and it automatically downloaded it for me. I was watching the movie within five minutes of downloading the software.

It is something as simple as this that shows how library school has actually put me at the top of the information food chain. Before going to library school I would have simply given up on the disc, deciding it was unplayable. Instead I used all new knowledge to solve an information related problem. I used an RSS feed to find free software, and because I knew about codecs I was able to understand why my disc would not play. I successfully wielded computer technology to solve a problem.

I know that I am not as technologically savvy as some of the real geeks out there, but I have the tools and training to quickly adapt, learn, and find solutions to any information problems that may arise. There may be some library school classes that are not as useful but I have found at least some value in every class I have taken. If I find I need to learn more though, I have the opportunities to do it. I have taken PowerPoint, Dreamweaver, and JavaScript classes through DoIt, the on campus I.T. people. I have also joined Toastmasters International to improve my public speaking skills. Library school may have its flaws but your education is simply what you make of it.