Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Liaison Librarian, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics & Statistics
University of Calgary
At the start of every academic year, the University of Calgary Library welcomes 1,000 first-year biology students to basic library research skills sessions. These sessions are traditionally taught in lecture format with a PowerPoint presentation and students following along on computers.
As part of a pilot project in the Fall of 2002, 200 first-year biology students received the session via WebCT. WebCT is the web-based course management system utilized by the University of Calgary1; it delivers course content in addition to assignment submission functions, self-tests and tracking of student activity.
This paper outlines the process and experience of creating and administering the sessions through WebCT and summarizes student feedback and lessons learned.
September is a busy time for instruction at MacKimmie Library. In September 2002, 99 classes received sessions in information literacy or basic library research skills, using the full capacity of the physical and human resources of the library. The electronic classrooms in the library's Information Commons hold a maximum of one hundred students with two students sharing a computer2. The library research skills sessions for biology students are two hours long and are held during the course's first regular laboratory time slot at the beginning of the semester. This means that 11 first-year biology sessions occur within a three-day period, while other non-biology courses with a similar enrollment are also being held. WebCT was investigated as a method for alleviating some of the time and space constraints by delivering the content remotely. With the assistance of an on-campus fellowship, the content of the biology lab was transferred into a trial WebCT module over the Spring and Summer of 2002.
The biology "library lab," as traditionally taught, is a two-hour session in the Information Commons teaching classrooms. Each lab consists of four Biology 231 lab sections with 100 students in each session. Students all receive a 45 to 60 minute presentation and hands-on demonstration. They are given the remaining time to complete the lab assignment.
This paper-based assignment is a workbook with fill-in-the-blank questions. Topics in the workbook were chosen in consultation with the course coordinator and include: defining a research topic, choosing keywords, choosing an appropriate article index, searching article indexes, deciphering a citation, finding a print or electronic copy of the same journal article using the library's online catalogue, and identifying document delivery (ILL) if the journal issue was not available at the library. Students are given topics to research at the beginning of the lab, and are asked to use them with the workbook exercises. Screen shots and examples of many of the topics are included in the workbook to make it easier for students to follow. The workbook is submitted at the beginning of the next lab one week later. After the teaching assistants mark the workbook, students can keep the workbook as a future reference for library research. It is this workbook that formed the basis for the WebCT content.
The students given the WebCT version of the lab had a 50-minute class on how to use WebCT. The library staff member responsible for providing all WebCT training on campus gave this session. She did not cover any library concepts, instead she provided a look at the features and navigational aspects of the program.
The WebCT content was structured like the paper-based assignment. The format consisted of HTML files with screen shots and graphics. To avoid one long screen of HTML content, the text was divided into several sections such as Keywords, Selecting a Database, Searching an Article Index, and Searching the Library Catalogue. Included within these were subsections on searching Biological Abstracts, using article indexes to find articles, formatting a citation for a bibliography, document delivery services, and assignments and self-tests.
In creating the WebCT version of the session, the content of the original paper workbook had to be marked up into an HTML file, as it was available only in Microsoft Word. Microsoft's Image Composer was used because it was found to create the clearest images for WebCT. The University of Calgary has a WebCT and multimedia consultant who is available to assist with the creation of courses using WebCT. Having such institutional support was extremely helpful; creating WebCT courses without such support would be quite difficult.
Students were encouraged to open a second browser window and follow the examples in the WebCT module. The assignment was two separate documents designed to be downloaded onto students' computers, where they would be filled out, and then uploaded into the WebCT system. Questions included finding and pasting a copy of a database record on their topic, formatting the citation in Harvard style (name and year system), and analyzing the abstract for a hypothesis. If no hypothesis was given in the record, students were to surmise what it would be. There were concerns about the teaching assistants' knowledge of WebCT, so the librarians who created the module marked the WebCT version of the assignment.
All students who completed the WebCT version, as well as 100 students who completed the paper version were surveyed after the assignments were submitted. The overall feedback was positive and was similar in content to what we normally receive from large undergraduate student orientations. Some students found the introduction to be very basic and learned nothing new, others picked up a few hints and a better overall understanding of how to conduct research in a library, while others found it challenging. The average grade of the students who completed the assignment using WebCT was 78%, as compared to 85% for the students who completed the traditional paper version of the assignment. Getty et al. (2000) also found in their experience that students "passed the requirement [80%] at about the same rate as students had during previous terms when the requirement was a tutorial/answer booklet combination."
Comments received from the group that completed the WebCT version of the assignment include:
And students who completed the traditional paper version commented:
Negative feedback tended to focus on the class time spent introducing the WebCT software. There was a gap between the reality of receiving a session on how to use WebCT and the students' expectation of a session on "how to use the library." Students arrived at the Information Commons classroom expecting to meet a librarian and receive instruction on how to find information on their assigned biology-related topics; instead they received a session on a technology for which they had no context. They then had to use that technology to teach themselves the research skills. The context for using WebCT needs to be better explained and delivered at a slower pace. Comments included:
The comments reflected some confusion between "WebCT" and "web-based library resources" which made it difficult to interpret comments. For example, one student commented that "WebCT [is] faster to use than the actual library no lineups." WebCT does not contain library resources, only course content; the student mistakenly thought that WebCT was used to access library resources.
WebCT has a steep learning curve and is not a very intuitive program. Many of the basic file management functions are unique to WebCT and do not follow usual Windows conventions. Having the course content written, edited, and proofread before uploading into WebCT is highly recommended. HTML coding can be done within the program but the data entry boxes are very small, making it difficult to prepare large amounts of text. Creating the complete text in an HTML editor and then uploading the completed file was found to be the most efficient method of inserting the course content into WebCT.
As with any software-based project, continual learning is required, particularly as versions and preferences evolve. As mentioned earlier, University of Calgary is switching during the summer of 2003 from WebCT to Blackboard, another leading course management software. This requires that all courses be migrated to the new platform. We have not done this migration for our course but we expect that certain features will not be compatible and will require re-creation.
As mentioned earlier, the University of Calgary does provide technical support for the WebCT program; in hindsight, we should have taken advantage of this to a much higher degree and also had them review the content for suitability to an e-learning environment. The content could have benefited from being divided into smaller sections and including more opportunities for interactivity.
The file format used for submission of assignments greatly affects the amount of time required for marking. WebCT allows the students to submit assignments in either a word processing format, such as .doc and .rtf, or as an HTML file. For the trial, students were asked to submit them in .doc or .rtf formats, which meant that each submitted document had to be individually saved to a local disk in order to be viewed and marked by the course administrator. If the assignments had been submitted as HTML files, they could have been viewed within WebCT thereby reducing the time required to mark them. When using this program it is important to remember that it is basically just a web browser with a few extra features.
Traditionally, the University of Calgary Library has placed great value on the students being aware that there are friendly, approachable library staff available to provide assistance during their academic careers. A drawback to using WebCT is the loss of this opportunity to physically have the students in the library and personally meet the librarian for their subject area. Getty et al. (2000) also mentions this, as did the teaching assistants at the University of Calgary.
The placement of a library module within a broader course results in the course professor and teaching assistants receiving the majority of the questions regarding the content. Therefore, it is important that those involved are well acquainted with the software and the session content to ensure that all students receive the same information and advice. It would be useful to fully integrate the library presence throughout the course, using methods such as including the list of library resources in the instructor's reading list, having the library assignments listed with all the other course assignments, and generally removing any gap between the information literacy instruction and the core course content (Cox 2002).
The confusion that the students experienced when they received a session on the WebCT software when they were expecting a session on library skills set a negative tone for the assignment for many of the students. The assignment was quite straightforward but this disconnect caused them to begin their library experience already frustrated. This frustration appeared to transfer to the assignment overall, as seen from the survey results. The confusion extended to the difference between WebCT as a course delivery tool and the library's Web-based resources. This is similar to the trouble that some students have with differentiating between library resources and the Internet in general.
If a university course were being offered via WebCT, including a module on library research skills and information literacy would be a good use of the technology. The students would have more of a context for the role of WebCT within their course, and have the benefit of the information literacy component being available for future referral. The introduction of WebCT for just the library research skills left many of the students confused and unable to see why it was needed. In addition, training of the students in the use of WebCT would be the responsibility of the professor, instead of the library's, thus easing space constraints during a busy time of the semester.
At this point in time, we have no plans to offer this session again via WebCT. If an existing course was utilizing course management software and required an information literacy module, we would be willing to undertake another trial project. The upcoming adoption of Blackboard by the University of Calgary may change this. If Blackboard proves to be user-friendly enough to be able to offer a library session without instruction in the software, a second trial may be warranted. Course management software definitely holds the potential to efficiently reach a large number of students. As it stands now, the technology obscured our message instead of helping us clarify it.
2. For more information on the University of Calgary's Information Commons teaching space and set up, please see: White, P. & Rutherford, S. 2002. The wired classroom. College & Research Libraries News 63(9): 642-645.
Getty, N. K., et al. 2000. Using courseware to deliver library instruction via the Web: four examples. Reference Services Review 28(4): 349-360.
Kesselman, M., et al. 2000. Web authorware and course-integrated library instruction: The Learning Links project at Rutgers University. College & Research Libraries News 61(5): 387-390, 402.
Wernet, S. P., et al. 2000. Postcourse evaluations of WebCT (Web Course Tools) classes by social work students. Research on Social Work Practice 10(4):487-504.