Alumni Interview: Nicole Hennig '82LS

nicole-hennigphoto.jpgAs an award-winning independent user experience professional, Nicole Hennig '82LS is creating new educational products and experiences for librarians and academics across the globe. In addition to her years playing pipe organ and harpsichord as a professional musician trained at the Boston Conservatory, Hennig worked at MIT Libraries for 14 years, first as webmaster, then as Head of User Experience. Earlier, she was a systems librarian at Bose Corporation. As she plans the next stage of her career, she continues to embrace virtual technologies that allow her to live a location-flexible lifestyle, working in various geographic locations at different times of the year.

How did you become interested in specializing in user experiences?
When I was working as a systems librarian at Bose Corporation in 1997, I read Jared Spool's book Website Usability: A Designer's Guide. At that time, usability testing had been applied only to software, not to websites. I began conducting tests of the Bose intranet and found that I loved usability testing. We were able to evaluate actions, as well as perceptions about user experiences, to determine how to make better sites. The experience qualified me for the webmaster position at MIT. I was promoted to head of the user experience department when the libraries changed their organizational structure in 2010. Now I am developing educational products, such online classes, ebooks, and apps, that help librarians and educators learn about emerging technologies.

When I went to Simmons GSLIS in the early eighties, the Internet as we know it didn't exist. Yet database management and the literature of science and technology courses with Professor Candy Schwartz, as well as classes about the structure of information, created a foundation for the work I do now.

Why do you think it is important for librarians to become "app literate"? As the app market continues to expand, what is the best way for librarians and information science professionals to stay informed about the latest apps?
R. David Lankes said "the mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities." I believe this statement encompasses where libraries have been and where they need to go. Initially, people thought the iPad and its apps were mainly for providing entertainment. We now know that apps can serve as tools for knowledge creation. Librarians are ideally positioned to educate communities about the usefulness of apps.

To stay informed, I recommend that librarians set up Google alerts with terms, such as iPad app review, iPad academic, and other keywords that apply to specialty areas. In addition, it is useful to follow blogs, like Publications, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, Library Journal, and specialty trade magazines, also contain app reviews. I tweet about new apps and emerging technology daily @nic221 and maintain a website about academic apps.

Stories on my web pages are powered by FeedWelder, a web app that I created together with Sands Fish, a software engineer from the MIT Libraries. It is a tool that makes it easy to curate content for your websites by combining RSS feeds.

I recommend that librarians try one or two new apps a month, as well as use "core" apps, such as Evernote and Dropbox.

I encourage librarians and educators to take continuing education courses. I teach a Simmons GSLIS Continuing Education workshop called "Apps4Librarians: Become an Expert in Mobile Apps for iPhones, iPads, and Other iOS Devices." Taught several times per year (next session begins in July), it is a six week foundational workshop about various types of apps and how to write app reviews. As one of my students said, "Before taking Apps4Librarians, I didn't realize there were so many apps that could be useful in educational settings." I also offer a self-study, non-credit version of this course through Udemy. Another course that I teach is called The Book as iPad App, which is offered through the American Library Association and a self-study version is available on Udemy.

How did you select the app resources on your web page? For example, what distinguishes a good app from a great one?
When selecting apps and resources for my site (see resources below), I have developed criteria for distinguishing a great app from a good one. For example, great apps have an intuitive, simple, interface design with an eye-catching icon. In addition, they take advantage of mobile device capabilities and perform actions that laptops and desktops cannot do as well. Great apps, such as Dropbox, Evernote, and Instapaper, make the best use of other apps for getting content in and out and are part of an ecosystem that works on many platforms. Developers of great apps realize that users will often be using the apps for only seconds at a time while multi-tasking or in less-than-ideal conditions, so they take that into account in their design. Most important, they offer experiences that encourage creativity and learning, or are just plain fun.

How do you think apps will change student learning? How do you think such tools will influence teaching instruction? 
Apps are revolutionizing student learning by making it easy for students to be creators of content and full participants in their own learning, rather than passive recipients of knowledge.

Content creation apps can help students record and edit audio and video, as well as annotate, illustrate, and write books. Others, like the collaborative whiteboard SyncPad app, are making it easier to collaborate with other learners and teachers. In addition, it is easier for educators to move away from the front of the classroom to broadcast student work using apps like Reflector with Apple TV and a projector. Since students often see iPads as "cool," this provides another means to engage them about topics they may have previously thought boring. Apple's guidelines for developers encourage excellent design for accessibility, which enables easy use by people with disabilities.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching courses online as opposed to providing instruction in a classroom?
Although I initially thought I wouldn't enjoy online teaching, it's now my preferred method of instruction. I feared that lack of face-to-face instruction would make it hard to convey my enthusiasm. However, since I create video screencasts, my enthusiasm is coming across, since students can hear my voice while I demonstrate the apps. In my experience, the advantages of online teaching outweigh the disadvantages for professors and students. First, there's the ability to offer a class anytime and anywhere. Virtual classrooms bring together library professionals from around the world, as well as from various types of institutions to share ideas from several viewpoints. Because students participate through writing reviews and commenting on readings in discussion forums, there are more opportunities for introverts to contribute effectively. Another advantage is that students can work at their own pace and convenience, fitting coursework into busy lives.

The only disadvantage for me is that I don't get to meet students face to face or hear their voices, unless they choose video formats for their reviews.

What are some tips you would give students who are interested in taking an online course?
I encourage students to participate as much as possible since participation is how learning happens. Initiate conversations in forums and review assignments; a lot of learning comes from interacting with fellow students. Don't worry about making mistakes since it is often the best way to learn. I also suggest trying a self-study version of courses and a version with deadlines, to see which type of course works best. Last, it is important to reflect on what works well and what doesn't, so you can provide feedback to your instructors.

Please share your plans for living a location-flexible lifestyle.
Since all of my work is done online, I am looking forward to living in Oaxaca, Mexico, for about six months this year. Low cost of living, a mild climate, stable Internet connections, and a thriving community of expats make it a place I am looking forward to experiencing. I am planning to spend time in California in late October and November, and then return to New England for the holidays. After that, I may go anywhere. Information professionals have the skills to enable this way of life, and I'll be blogging about this topic later this year at

Additional Resources
Best Apps for Academics:
Nicole's website:
GSLIS Continuing Education:

Nicole's courses:
Apps for Librarians & Educators:
Apps4Librarians: Become an Expert in Mobile Apps for iPhones, iPads, and Other iOS Devices:
The Book as iPad App:

Interview by Jennifer Moyer, Dean's Editorial Fellow

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