By Meredith Farkas | May 4, 2006
Before I started my job, there were no instructional materials provided to online students on how to use the library resources (there also was no distance learning librarian to create instructional materials). Not surprisingly, there were lots of students e-mailing the library every week with access problems and research questions. Students in certain programs — those that really require a lot of research — lambasted the library in their end of semester surveys. We got complaints from students who said they could never figure out how to access the databases, they had no idea which databases to use, and once they found a database for their subject, they didn’t know how to find what they were looking for. Many of the students in these online graduate programs have been out of school a while, so they are not familiar with doing research in online databases. And online databases seem anything but intutitive for someone who has never used them (heck, they don’t seem intuitive to me!).
The first thing I did was design a portal for distance learners to access library resources. This contains information about how to access the library resources and subject pages with links to the best library resources for each subject in which we offer an online degree. There is a link to the portal on the left menu in every WebCT classroom. This is the only way they can access the library resources.
Once I finished the portal I started pushing the idea of integrating library instruction into the curriculum. This was a tough sell. Initially, only one program director really went for the idea so I worked with him for a significant amount of time on creating a comprehensive research guide for his program. Once the other program administrators saw what I’d created, some of them began asking me if I would create things like that for their programs. So I did. I first met with each one of them to discuss their curriculum and where they thought a library tutorial would best fit in. I stressed the importance of tying the tutorial to an assignment. For each program (well, I still have 2 to go) I created guides for the first seminar that students have to take. I designed all but one of them to be tied to an assignment. The administrators all said that they were happy with what I’d created and that it would be helpful for their students.
Strangely, in one program I continued to get questions that were answered in the tutorials. Over and over again. I spoke to a few patrons in one program and asked them “have you gone through the library tutorial?” And all of them told me that they had no idea that there was a tutorial. So I went into their classroom and looked for it. And it took me a long time to find it. Not only was it not required; it wasn’t even easy to find! Even the instructors didn’t seem know about the tutorial, which means that they couldn’t market it to their students. Not surprisingly, when I looked at my Web stats, I found that almost no one was using the tutorial for that program.
Looking at my Web stats, I found the same situation with two of the other tutorials I’d created. No one was using them. And they were equally buried in the courseware. However, there were two tutorials that had quite impressive statistics. The first one was the program I had worked with initially. They decided not to make the tutorial a required reading, but the program administrator enthusiastically pushes the tutorial — and the library — to all of his instructors and students. The second program made the tutorial a required reading for week 1 of the first class and for their discussion question that week, students are required to use the databases.
So I am basically creating tutorials tutorials that sit on a shelf collecting dust. The burden is on the instructors to get the students to actually read the tutorial and to use the databases. There is only so much I can do when I cannot communicate directly with the students or the instructors (only the random ones who contact me with problems). The majority of the instructors in our distance learning programs are not located at the University; they’re all over the world. Some instructors do not have much experience using databases. Even those who do have experience with the databases do not necessarily use our databases if they work at another university so they don’t know what we have here. If the instructors don’t know about our library resouces, how can they encourage their students to use them? If the instructors don’t know that the tutorials exist, how can they market them? If the tutorials are neither marketed nor required, how many students will really use them?
It finally hit me over the past few weeks that it is more imporant right now for me to provide marketing and instruction to the instructors than it is for me to provide instruction to the students. They are the people who will guide the students through the programs. If they value the library and know what we have to offer, they will promote the library to their students. Obviously it’s important to provide instruction for the students, but don’t think that’s the right place to start. If I don’t focus on the instructors, I will end up creating more tutorials that no one looks at.
When our soon-to-be Head of Public Services was interviewing for the job, I asked her how she engages students who aren’t interested in information literacy instruction. She basically said that it “isn’t our job,” which surprised me at the time, but is beginning to make more sense. She said that there was only so much we can do as librarians to engage the students and tie what they’re learning to their class. The burden really rests on their instructor. If they instructor doesn’t push the value of information literacy and of using the library, we can talk ourselves blue in the face and it really won’t make much of a difference. We get them for a hour; the professor gets them for a semester. We can teach the resources and try to make it as interesting as possible, but their instructor really needs to show them how what they’re learning from us has value and is connected to the course. I’m sure we’ve all had professors who bring their students in for an hour without any learning objectives and no upcomming assignment. What do these instructors think we can do in that hour and why would the students bother listening when it isn’t tied to what they’re doing in their class?
I know this is all probably obvious to those of you who have been providing instruction for a while, but I was rather clueless about how to build up an instruction program in the online medium. I was building a house on a foundation of sand, and what I need now is to go back and create a really good foundation by working on the instructors.
Post Script: For those of you who will probably suggest that I provide instruction to students synchronously online or at their residency, those are options that will not work. Our students only have one residency and its when they graduate, so that wouldn’t be particularly useful (though I plan to crash every event that involves the instructors that whole week so I can talk to them). I’ve floated the idea of doing synchronous instruction sessions online, but the administrators aren’t really buying into that idea yet (we have a lot of students in the military and right now there are no synchronous aspects of the programs other than residency). Also the school doesn’t yet have any Web conferencing software. I’m going to keep pushing the issue, but I think it’ll take a long time before I can get anyone to agree to let me provide any sort of synchronous online instruction.