November 17, 2017

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The Big App: New York’s libraries take homework help mobile–with a little help from their friends

—“Why when I search for ‘Full Metal Alchemist’ do I end up with results about comic books and nothing about Full Metal Alchemist [the manga series]?”

—“Why can’t I do a search for anything that has more than two words?”

— “Can I search just for events that are in my local branch?”

These are just some of the questions posed by teens in response to HomeworkNYC Apps, a suite of tools designed to provide around-the-clock help to the estimated 1.3 million children and teens served by the libraries of New York City. Bringing homework resources directly into Facebook and other sites commonly used by young people seemed like a winning idea from the start. But as we soon discovered, having kids involved in the design process every step of the way is the key to make sure these tools truly work for our potential users.

In spring 2010, when we began testing our apps, the use of social media for homework support was new to the city’s three independent library systems: New York Public Library (NYPL), Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library. Five years earlier, these institutions collaboratively launched the HomeworkNYC website. Aimed at being a one-stop shop for all things homework related, the site offered access to library catalogs and databases, browsable subject guides, and even real-time homework help provided by teachers during after-school hours through a Dial-a-Teacher program.

This expansive set of resources sounded great—to adults. But not to young people, who normally frequent Facebook, Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, email, and chat. Seeing that our site wasn’t being used as intended, we went straight to the targeted users to learn how the library could better serve them.

Our first objective: to find where students were actually going for homework help. Armed with a $30,000 collaborative planning grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the project team (consisting of myself and several NYPL staffers) set out to learn the online habits of students and how they gathered information. In a series of focus groups held across New York’s five boroughs in the fall of 2007, we interviewed over 90 children and teens about their homework needs and how they used the Web. Some students recalled that a teacher or librarian had told them about the HomeworkNYC.org site, and close to 50 percent even recognized it as the site splashed across the home screen of library computers throughout the city. But none actually used it for homework.

“I’ll use a web page that my teacher makes or tells me about with the stuff I need for homework,” said one teen. In fact, the only resources students really trusted were those that their teachers specifically told them about. If a teacher didn’t provide a list of resources, students turned to their parents or their friends for help before asking a librarian.

“But I like Google”

What did students think of HomeworkNYC itself? “Overwhelming” was how many described the site. Our site’s search features were much more complicated than Google’s, reported students, and its browse capability didn’t make it easy to scan information. “I already know how to use Google and Wikipedia, why should I have to learn how to use this site, too?” was a sentiment expressed repeatedly by the focus groups.

More than anything else, HomeworkNYC wasn’t compelling enough for kids to take the time to expand their horizons beyond Google, YouTube, and Facebook.

When asked about what they’d like to see in homework support from the library, 90 percent of students said they wanted to be able to get help within the web environments they already spent time in. “Apps are cool,” they said, as they considered the possibility of homework applications within Facebook and MySpace. They envisioned tools that could do everything from allowing them to chat with a librarian about homework to searching Google for resources that librarians and teachers had recommended. Other requested features included being able to track the steps needed to complete an assignment or project and exchanging favorite resources with friends.

From the focus groups, the HomeworkNYC project team emerged with a brand new perspective. Homework support for students needed to take place outside the traditional library website. According to HomeworkNYC outreach specialist Shauntee Burns, “Young adults expect to have content delivered to them where they are and to be able to repackage it and push it out into their own social sphere.”

As a follow-up to the research grant, the New York libraries received $378,000 from IMLS to put the focus group’s ideas into action. Currently in its third and final year of development, the libraries are creating homework apps for social networks and web start pages, including Facebook, iGoogle, and MySpace. And we’re also using that money to overhaul our website. While providing some resources for students, the brand-new HomeworkNYC.org is now primarily geared toward educating teachers, librarians, and parents on the use of social media and other digital resources to enhance learning. (See the sidebar for more information on the new HomeworkNYC.org website.)

“Uh, what’s a widget?”

As we worked on the apps, the HomeworkNYC team again approached students for help. Teens were encouraged to test our creations. “Bang” on the apps, we told them, and let the facilitators of the testing process know exactly what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs to be changed. Teens uncovered flaws related to searchability in two of our apps: SearchIt, a tool that provides students with the ability to look for information using a recommendation engine, and ListIt, which gives students the chance to create and share with social network friends lists of favorite books, movies, games, etc. They also offered interesting and simple ideas for extending the value of AttendIt, an app for searching local library events by borough or topic via a start page or social network.

Along with testing functionality, teens were asked to evaluate the apps’ appearance. The tools are very simply designed with a logo and one customization feature—users can change the text color within the app. Design-wise, there are no bells and whistles, and our teens appreciated the simplicity. They didn’t see a need for snazzing up the interface without adding functionality. Simple, as it turns out, is good.

The name originally applied to the apps suite, however, was another story. When we initially applied for IMLS funding, the apps were referred to as widgets. To that the teens responded, “What’s a widget?” Kids were familiar with the term “apps,” hence the name change from HomeworkNYC Widgets.

The HomeworkNYC Apps planning team realized early on in the redevelopment phase that the key to serving young people successfully on the web is to bring them into the process. As we continue to develop new tools and more apps, our target audience will continue to be on hand.

We’ve planned more focus groups and a wider-reaching survey is under way to reassess how students are accessing web resources. New York City libraries are learning they need to leave behind traditional notions of homework help in order to serve today’s kids effectively. Future plans include going mobile with our apps, as more and more teens—like everyone else—are living through smart phones. That’s how high-quality homework support will work in the coming years. Then, we’ll figure out what’s next.


The New HomeworkNYC: A Website for the Adults in Students’ Lives

Many parents and teachers can’t fathom why it’s OK for kids and teens to use social media when doing homework. Therein lies the challenge for a public library that’s integrated these tools into its homework support.

The answer for New York City’s three public library systems was to recast their homework help site. Relaunched in spring 2010 as a destination resource for teachers, parents, and librarians, the new HomeworkNYC.org takes a social approach to homework help.

HomeworkNYC.org features:

A revised main page that’s now a portal, with content organized for the site’s three main audiences—parents, teachers, and librarians. A teacher can visit the site, for example, and find educational materials and resources. And a parent can learn about the relationship between social networking and learning.

Screencasts that help parents, teachers, and librarians understand how to use the HomeworkNYC apps.

Downloadable materials for teachers and librarians. These can be used when teaching with technology tools or presenting technology-based programs to children and teens.

A blog platform so that library staff members can easily update content on the site. The platform also makes it easy to integrate multimedia elements.

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Author Information

Linda W. Braun (lbraun@leonline.com) is project management and consulting coordinator for LEO, a library consulting firm.

Linda W. Braun About Linda W. Braun

Linda W. Braun (lbraun@leonline.com) is an educational technology consultant and a past president of YALSA.

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