5 Apps That Make Remote Reference Rock!

If you prefer the mobility of a tablet to the tether of a PC, then I have 5 apps that you might find useful for providing remote reference services. Here they are in no particular order (most of them are iOS apps):

  1. Explain a Website (EAW). This is a very cool app that allows you to record and edit your web browsing to create a screencast that can be emailed or sent to YouTube, Evernote or Dropbox. This is a great tool for showing a patron how to navigate your website, find an article, log into a database, or anything else web-related. Available for iOS only. Cost: $0.99
  2. Bugshot. This app will take a screenshot of anything on your tablet. Just press the home and sleep/awake buttons simultaneously. Once the picture is taken, it is saved in your camera roll. All you have to do is pull it up in Bugshot. Then you can edit over it with arrows, frames, and scramblers and email it to your patron. Great for situations where you want to call attention to something specific. Available for iOS only. Free.
  3. Zoom. The Zoom app allows you to video chat with a patron, with screensharing capabilities. You can invite a patron to participate through email or IM. Perfect for more complex reference questions. Available for iOS or Android. Free.
  4. Pure Chat. This app sounds like its name. Essentially it is a chat app that connects your iPad to an embedded chat widget in your web site. The nice thing about this app is that it disappears from your web site when no one is available to chat. It can also be managed on a PC browser and includes features such as canned responses and transcripts. All for free!
  5. Google Drive. The Google Drive app is a great place to collaborate with patrons who need to show you their work (e.g. citation help), but don’t necessarily want to do it in real time. They can provide you with a link to their shared document, which will allow you to insert comments, feedback, etc… Available for iOS or Android. Free.

The Pedagogy of Reference Services

The librarian-student reference transaction has a lot in common with human tutoring. After all, they are both a form of one-on-one instruction, where the tutor helps the tutee master some type of knowledge and understanding, or a specific skill. So it stands to reason that best practices in tutoring pedagogy would translate well to best practices in reference services.

What are the best practices in one–on-one instruction? Three instructional strategies work particularly well together in tutoring. These strategies are equally applicable to the reference process. Here they are, with examples of how librarians can use them:

  1. Modeling. Modeling is the method of demonstrating tasks, while at the same time making the why and how transparently clear to the learner. The Think Aloud protocol is an example of this. For librarians, modeling can be done by demonstrating the selection, access and searching of materials within a database (or other source), where the librarian verbalizes his or her thought processes and justifications for each action taken. As a result, the learner gets an inside look at the librarian’s thinking processes. In an academic environment, this is a first step toward learning how to participate in library literacy practices.
  2. Scaffolding. I’ve talked about scaffolding before, which is really essential to all good instructional practices. In the realm of reference interactions, scaffolding means providing needed support to the learner as s/he performs a specific task. This step typically follows modeling. For example, a librarian is using scaffolding strategies when s/he provides hints or asks probing (or thought-provoking) questions while the student engages in a research task. Scaffolding is a ‘just enough, but not too much [support]’ instructional strategy.
  3. Fading. Fading is the process of gradually removing scaffolding support. For librarians, this is often the point where the reference transaction ends. The student has taken the wheel, so to speak, and is managing well on his or her own.

These three strategies, taken together, form a larger instructional process referred to as cognitive apprenticeship. They are strategies that I think the most effective librarians naturally use.

However, it would behoove all librarians to be cognitively aware of what these instructional strategies entail so that they may consciously apply them during reference transactions. That way, librarians can better avoid the habit of just plying students with information, or standing on the library soapbox and lecturing students. I’ve been guilty of both of those tactics, especially the former (when it’s busy).

From a learning perspective, delivering information instead of teaching the process of finding it just makes the research process more of a mystery to students. And the librarian-as-lecturer scenario just intimidates them (and there are plenty of students out there who don’t ask for help for that very reason).

We know that tutoring helps students precisely because of its one-on-one instructional nature. Reference services should be viewed in the same light. The reference transaction is one-on-one instruction, and a vitally important instructional approach for developing students’ academic literacy practices. That’s something to keep in mind when considering how reference services can be streamlined or modified within the library.