The Case for Open Tools in Pedagogy

Academic libraries support certain software by virtue of what they have available on their public computers, what their librarians are trained to use, and what instruction sessions they offer. Sometimes libraries don’t have a choice in the software they are tasked with supporting, but often they do. If the goal of the software support is to simply help students achieve success in the short term, then any software that the library already has a license for is fair game. If the goal is to teach them a tool they can rely on anywhere, then libraries must consider the impact of choosing open tools over commercial ones.

Suppose we have a student, we’ll call them “Student A”, who wants to learn about citation management. They see a workshop on EndNote, a popular piece of citation management software, and they decide to attend. Student A becomes enamored with EndNote and continues to grow their skills with it throughout their undergraduate career. Upon graduating, Student A gets hired and is expected to keep up with the latest research in their field, but suddenly they no longer have access to EndNote through their university’s subscription. They can either pay for an individual license, or choose a new piece of citation management software (losing all of their hard earned EndNote-specific skills in the process).

Now let’s imagine Student B who also wants to learn about citation management software but ends up going to a workshop promoting Zotero, an open source alternative to EndNote. Similar to Student A, Student B continues to use Zotero throughout their undergraduate career, slowly mastering it. Since Zotero requires no license to use, Student B continues to use Zotero after graduating, allowing the skills that served them as a student to continue to do so as a professional.

Which one of these scenarios do you think is more helpful to the student in the long run? By teaching our students to use tools that they will lose access to once outside of the university system, we are essentially handing them a ticking time bomb that will explode as they transition from student to professional, which happens to be one of the most vulnerable and stressful periods in one’s life. Any academic library that cares about the continuing success of their students once they graduate should definitely take a look at their list of current supported software and ask themselves, “Am I teaching a tool or a time bomb?”

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