The University of Virginia Short Courseby Scott A. Silet
Technology has changed the way scholarly research is done for many in academia. The emergence of the Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, as the primary mechanism by which academic libraries make available their growing collections of print and electronic resources has had a profound effect on libraries and their users. In a short ten years, activities such as on-line database searching have evolved from a primarily librarian-mediated task to one in which the end user now controls access to the enormous virtual world of scholarly resources. The persistent stream of new Internet-based electronic tools and resources has stimulated user demand for these technologies and, concurrently, the need for qualified instruction in their use. Libraries, to their credit, have responded in kind to both of these trends. Information literacy programs are growing in concert with the collection of electronic library resources. The following article chronicles the beginning and continuing evolution of one program at the University of Virginia Library that was created to meet the growing information literacy needs of our University clientele: the Short Course Program.
According to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), electronic resources and collections in its member libraries are growing at an exponential rate, substantially higher than traditional printed materials (ARL Statistics, 1963-1997, http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/newarl/multi_inst.html). For example, during the period 1993 - 1997, the number of computer files purchased by the University of Virginia Library increased by over 350% as compared to 1.3% increase in monographic titles and a 4% decrease in serial titles. The implications of this trend have not gone unnoticed by library educators. As our individual and consortium-based collections become more dependent on Internet technologies, we all have recognized the importance of keeping users educated not only on the existence and efficient use of these resources, but also on how best to incorporate them into their research. Keeping ahead of this trend remains one of our greatest instructional challenges.
In the summer of 1994, the University of Virginia Library User Education Committee met to assess the current state of user education needs. The Committee decided that in addition to the existing instruction programs, the Library would expand on a series of Short Courses "designed (the previous year) to provide concentrated education in the use of specific information resources and skills." [Report of the User Education Committee (internal Library document). Karen Marshall, et al. August 15, 1994] Up to this point, course-integrated instruction sessions in which a librarian works with a class on library resources and research skills had been the primary means by which we taught groups of users computer-based skills and tools. Since a relatively small percentage of students received such training and students, alone, were the primary audience, this method fell short in providing the University community with a broad-based information literacy program. Short Courses were designed to fill that gap by extending computer literacy opportunities to faculty and staff as well as undergraduate and graduate students.
Short Courses are interactive sessions which combine lecture, demonstration, and hands-on components; they are offered free of charge; and they are open to all students, faculty, and staff at the University. The University's computing services department, Information Technology and Communications (ITC), offers its own unique series of technology oriented classes, but charges a fee to attend and uses an independent self-paced tutorial method. Because of limited budgets and available personnel, we decided that we could not extend the course offerings to those outside the University. This need is fulfilled, albeit on a smaller scale, by librarians and library staff working at reference desks. Exceptions to this rule, though, are made for some groups (i.e. visiting scholars, Friends of the Library, etc.).
The structure of Short Courses follows one of two basic formats: part instruction/part hands-on session or one that integrates hands-on with instruction. Most Courses are 90 minutes long and do not require registration. Exceptions to this rule involve Courses using software packages or on-line database services for which the Library has purchased a fixed number of multiple-user licenses (e.g. CARL UnCover and Adobe Photoshop) or Courses in which demand exceeds the capacity of our electronic classroom. Most classes maintain a technical prerequisite, either completion of a lower-level Short Course or equivalent skills, though the Library generally allows the participant to determine whether his/her skills meet the stated requirements. Many Courses are offered as part of a progressing series (e.g. from the Web to HTML to Adobe Photoshop), and it is suggested, though not required, that Courses be taken in that order.
One of the centerpieces of any good Library instructional program is a well-equipped, fully functional electronic classroom. In 1993 Alderman Library finished construction of its first classroom. This state of the art facility was adorned with 16 top of the line 386 PCs with 8 mhz processors, 52 MB hard drives, and a staggering 640k of memory. All machines, four across and four deep, faced the front of the room where the instructor used an overhead projector and LCD panel to facilitate the sessions. If DOS-based programs were being taught, the instructor also had use of a specialized software program, Exac, which enabled him/her to "take over the controls" of each computer. Five years, and several upgrades later, we have plans to equip the classroom with 450mhz PCs with 8 GB hard drives and 128 MB of memory. Our instructional capacity and abilities have also increased greatly with the recent purchase of a ceiling-mounted remote control digital projector, which provides the instructor with high-quality instructional images. With the half-life of computer technology shortening seemingly by the day, keeping classrooms current with the newest technical advances is one of the most pressing and, at times, frustrating challenges to an instruction program. Finding the financial resources to do so, at a time when Library budgets are flat at best, is difficult for any library and suggestions for doing this will have to be the subject of a future article. It is safe to say, however, that a library instruction program that successfully serves the entire University community can pay dividends down the road.
Instructors for Short Courses were drawn initially from those library staff who had previously done instructional work- primarily reference librarians. Instructors who had an interest in developing and teaching a Short Course were encouraged to do so and, after a test run or two, it was then incorporated into the Program. Since that time, staff in the Library's new Electronic Centers have also contributed significantly to the program by developing new Courses which support the use of their unique collections (see below).
Since course enrollments were high when the Short Course program started (most classes were capped at 20), we felt it necessary to provide each instructor with an assistant who could help less technically advanced users and also troubleshoot technical problems. This was and continues to be particularly important because users come into the library with a wide range of technical skills, and the nature of computer hardware and software can, at times, be capricious at best. For some smaller libraries, instruction assistants are, understandably, an unaffordable luxury. We use assistants less now than before primarily because class sizes are not as overwhelming as they were when the Program began; assistants are used when Courses teaching new skills/tools are being offered or when class sizes are large (generally 8, or more). A frequent question we are asked is whether we will teach a course if only a few people show up. The answer depends on the class, the attendees, and the instructor. It's likely the instructor will teach the course if it's the last time that class is being taught that term, if those in attendance cannot make any of the other sessions, or if the class lends itself well to a tutorial.
Short Course assistants typically come from both technical and public service departments within the Library, and drawing from the entire staff helps the Library in two major ways. First, it helps train successive generations of library instructors who might not have been "found" otherwise. It also supports the Library's commitment to providing professional development opportunities for staff. The Library established the Staff Sharing Program to provide opportunities for staff to fill high priority needs in different Library departments and to learn new skills. A handful of assistants have gone on to teach Short Courses and many now play important roles in developing and teaching courses in the Library staff training program.
Examples of courses offered during the early stages of the Program (Spring, 1995) are:
- Internet Basics (telnet, gopher, archie, veronica, ftp)
- Navigating the World Wide Web
- Creating Web Documents with HTML
- Introduction to Text and Image Scanning
- Introduction to the on-line Library catalog (VIRGO)
- Electronic Databases by Subject Area
Although it's hard to believe now, the Web was still much of a novelty at this time, and user demand for classes frequently exceeded our instructional capacity. As use of the Web has become more common, interest in these classes has waned somewhat, but we are continually surprised in the demand for basic level Web courses.
Each fall and spring, the Library's User Education Coordinator solicits library instructors for new Short Course topics, and as long as the proposed courses meet the Library's user education goals, they are incorporated into the Program. Most recently, classes on Adobe Photoshop, taught by staff in the Library's Digital Media Center, have been in very high demand. From early on, the Library learned the importance of predicting and, therefore, staying out in front of the electronic literacy needs of our users. Doing so has had two effects. First, and most importantly, we have successfully trained thousands of users early in the game to utilize library and University resources efficiently. Subsequently, we are now recognized throughout the University as an important and effective provider of and educator in the use of electronic resources and services.
Examples of courses offered during the Spring 1999 session are:
- Three levels of classes using Adobe Photoshop
- Using U.S. Census Data in Geographic Analysis
- An Overview of XML
- Exploring Lexis-Nexis Academic Universe
- Keeping Current with the Literature of Science & Engineering
- Four levels of HTML
A complete list of current Short Courses, Course descriptions, and on-line handouts can be found at http://www.lib.virginia.edu/usered/.
Course offerings and structure
There are now five distinct series of Short Courses offered during the academic year: two six-week sessions each semester separated by fall/spring break, and a five-week session that begins shortly after commencement ceremonies. Short Courses are typically offered twice each session on different days and times. Most Courses are taught between 10 a. m. and 5 p. m., but occasionally they are offered in the early evening. Attendance at Short Courses tends to be intense during the first half of the series and wanes toward the end of it. Short Courses, like any course at the University, come and go. New Courses are offered nearly every semester, and, depending on demand, may only be offered for one or two series before they are discontinued.
Short Courses are promoted throughout the University in a number of different ways. Although a comprehensive study has not yet been done, it is suggested that the majority of attendees hear about Short Courses through electronic mailings that go out to student, faculty and staff e-mail aliases before each new session. Brochures advertising Short Courses are available in strategic public places in each library, and listings of Courses are also available from the Library's homepage. The Library places ads in the student newspaper and does public service announcements on the University radio station at least once during each semester as well. Short Courses are publicized during course-related instruction sessions, particularly if the instructor does not have ample time to cover a specific electronic resource of interest to that class. Short Courses, by their very nature, are also an increasingly important marketing tool as they play a major role in helping the Library publicize its new electronic products and services.
Another important aspect of the Short Course Program is evaluation. Everyone who attends a Short Course is asked to complete an evaluation form that attempts to measure their expectations of and satisfaction with the class and the instructor. Several of these suggestions have improved the way classes are now taught. The User Education Coordinator typically meets with our cadre of instructors after the end of the spring term to review how well the year has gone, examine the current status of the Program, and discuss possible changes to improve each course during the next academic year.
Technology has helped lead libraries to the forefront of the information age. The ever-changing nature of the Internet, computer software, and scholarly research and communication, combined with our traditional role of serving the information needs of our parent institutions, provides us with a unique opportunity to support the expanding research and curricular needs of our students, faculty, and staff. Responding to this opportunity also allows the library to integrate its services further into the research needs of users and to help meet the instructional missions of our institution. It is incumbent on us not only to keep pace but to remain ahead of each successive technological wave; innovative instructional programs like the Short Course Program are a major step in that direction.
Scott A. Silet is Instruction and Information Services Librarian at Alderman Library, University of Virginia.