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September 2010: Students Know Best When It Comes to Online Homework Help

September 1, 2010
Students use the Internet to connect with friends and do homework.

Recipient: The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations

Grant: 2007 and 2008 National Leadership Grants for Libraries – planning and project grants

Pictured: Students use the Internet to connect with friends and do homework.

Contact: Lynda Kennedy, MS Ed, PhD
Director, Teaching & Learning, Literacy & Outreach
The New York Public Library
455 Fifth Ave 6th Floor
New York, NY 10016



Project Resources
The NYPL plans to publish instructions for how libraries across the country can adapt the open-source code for the widgets to interface with their state learning standards.

In 2005, New York City’s public libraries received acclaim and awards for, a Web site that provided homework help for teenage students.

The folks it didn’t win over, however, were the students. Traffic failed to meet expectations and ‘tweens’ and teens were having difficulty navigating the site and finding homework answers, according to usability tests conducted in summer 2006.

"Relatively speaking, it didn’t perform the way we’d hoped, and the numbers were declining over time," said Josh Greenberg, the former director of digital strategy and scholarship at the New York Public Library (NYPL). "We had to put a lot of effort into teaching people that it was there, which is kind of an indicator that it wasn’t quite hitting the mark of really being useful to kids intrinsically."

So, the project partners went back to the drawing board, applying for a collaborative planning grant under the IMLS National Leadership Grant program to determine how best to support the online homework needs of New York City students aged 10 and older. NYPL, the lead partner, received the $30,000 grant in 2007 for the Online Homework Help project. Other partners were the Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library. NYPL includes libraries in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, so the project was citywide.

Learning How Students Use the Internet

The partners applied for the planning grant, initially envisioning a traditional planning process of hiring education experts to advise them and conducting research with the help of focus groups of students, parents, and teachers.

"This wasn’t just a matter of building a site for teens or other kids and hoping that they’d come, but also kind of realizing that there are really three stakeholders in homework: There’s the kids themselves, their parents, and their teachers. And we needed to understand all three and their perspectives about the Internet to build the best service possible," said Greenberg, who recently left the New York Public Library for a job at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The project’s new director is Lynda Kennedy, NYPL’s director of teaching & learning, literacy, and outreach.

In fall 2007, the partners conducted five focus groups: three with a total of more than 90 students across all five boroughs; one with teachers; and another with parents.

The student focus groups were asked how they use the Web for homework and research. Students said they use tools such as Google and Wikipedia; most were not familiar with The students also noted that they spend much of their time online on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Teachers were asked how they use the Web to support their teaching and student learning. The teachers said they were unable to keep up with technology and the ways students use the Web. They did not use and did not realize it would be useful in their teaching.

The focus group results surprised the team, because they had mistakenly assumed that the planning grant would indicate the need to improve the existing Web site. "The lesson from talking with the kids was that they don’t want another Web site to go to," said Greenberg.

Because the students frequent social networking sites, the partners decided that if they built a homework widget that kids could incorporate into their Facebook or MySpace pages, the students would be more likely to use the resource.

"We needed to literally bring them [the services] where they live. Kind of ‘take it to the people,’" he said.

In 2008, the team held a second set of three focus groups with a total of 31 teens. The students were asked to investigate widgets — a portable chunk of code that a student can install on a Web page — and to brainstorm types of widgets they thought would be useful. Their suggestions included a cross-searching widget that would conduct searches of the library catalog, Google, and Wikipedia; and a resource list widget that would allow them to save links they found while doing research online. One teen suggested a science project widget.

Creating a Prototype Widget

With the data from the two sets of focus groups in hand, the partners decided to create a test widget to present to students in order to get direct feedback.

The team hired BookLetters to develop a prototype "bookshelf widget," which allowed students to display customized bookshelves of materials they had read or selected on their social networking sites. The widget allowed sharing of student bookshelves and communication with groups created by the students.

Forty-two students tested the prototype. They commented on its appearance and made recommendations for customization elements and size. Several teens said they constantly changed the look and content of their MySpace pages, and their use of a library widget would depend on how they were setting up their page on any given day.

All teens agreed that the widget should feature the following abilities:

  • Write and read reviews;
  • Rate materials found on friends’ lists;
  • Make suggestions to friends about titles to add to their lists; and,
  • Share the widget with friends.

One teen from Brooklyn said, "It has to be social or it won’t be used."

Challenges and Lessons Learned

The partners learned that students were receiving mixed messages from parents and teachers about the Internet and social media sites.

"Depending on which class they were in, kids would get messages saying, ‘Yes, use the Internet,’ or ‘No, don’t use the Internet.’ ‘Yes, use Wikipedia but understand where the information comes from,’ versus ‘No, Wikipedia’s awful, I don’t want you citing it at all,’" noted Greenberg. "It really did vary almost teacher by teacher."

The team realized that for their plan to succeed, they needed to bring teachers and parents up to speed about the world of Google, Wikipedia, and online information resources. The partners would also have to convince parents and teachers that social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace could be places where kids do schoolwork.

Going Viral

In 2008, the partners received a research and implementation grant under the National Leadership Grant program to continue development of Web-based homework resources. HSBC Bank USA, N.A. also contributed funding toward the project.

A contractor began building the widgets, several of which were tested in fall 2009. In response to student feedback, the widgets were renamed HomeworkNYC Apps and their functionality was streamlined. Currently available in a beta version, Apps SearchIT, AttendIT and ListIT are being promoted for wider use and feedback.

AttendIT allows students to search the event calendars from all three NYC library systems for events of interest to teens in their area. ListIT provides the opportunity for students to list and share their favorite books, music, movies, and video games. SearchIT provides more guided search results than a wide-ranging Google search would, with suggested search terms provided by teachers and librarians to help students more easily find the information they are seeking.

Two additional HomeworkNYC Apps are currently in development: a project builder to help with the organization of research projects and a math-related app that will allow students to receive quick help for their math homework problems. Great care has been taken to work with legal and social media experts to ensure student privacy and safety while using HomeworkNYC Apps and the HomeworkNYC team utilized the project as an opportunity to educate students about social networking safety.

HomeworkNYC Apps employ open source code that anyone across the country can adapt to interface with their own state learning standards. The partners will provide instructions on how to do so. Project Director Lynda Kennedy notes that plans are in the works for members of the HomeworkNYC team to present at national educational-, library-, and technology-focused conferences to disseminate information about the process of creating the apps as well as how others could make use of the source code and lessons learned.

The new grant also supports a full-time outreach specialist, who regularly visits schools, parent meetings, and library events, showcasing the apps as they have evolved, answering questions adults may have about social networking and Web 2.0 resources, and explaining the 21st century instructional technologies available to help students succeed. The specialist has helped to reposition the website so that it provides more information for parents and teachers. Moving forward, the site will be translated into Spanish to reach more New York City parents and caregivers.

To promote the apps project, in June 2010, the HomeworkNYC team presented "Meeting of the Minds: Youth, Social Media, and Education," a panel discussion with featured guest speaker danah boyd. boyd is a researcher at Microsoft Research and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her research investigates everyday practices involving social media, with specific attention to youth engagement. More than 120 public librarians, teachers, and administrators attended in person and many more attended via webcast. According to a follow-up survey given after the panel, 93 percent of the attendees agreed or strongly agreed that as a result of the panel discussion they see social networking as a positive tool to use with students and 91 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that the event increased their knowledge of social networking.

In the coming months, students will hear more about the apps through their local librarians, their teachers, and their friends. Teen Advisory Group sessions held throughout the three library systems are being enlisted to create short videos about their favorite HomeworkNYC Apps to help spread the word. "Our focus now is getting the word out to teens through any means possible," says Kennedy. "Kids will see their peers using the apps and want to find out more... and looking to the future, there’s the possibility of the apps going mobile, which will open up the resources of our libraries to a whole new audience!"

National Leadership Grants for Libraries