Barcelona: An International Teaching Opportunity
by Larry Thompson
When colleagues heard I would be teaching in Barcelona, the first question that followed was: "Barcelona! How did you manage to do that?" Answer: "Right time. Right place."
The University Libraries Consortium of Catalonia (CBUC) started an annual workshop in 1999 with a program on "Information Resources in Economics." In 2000 the CBUC continued with "Information Resources in Engineering." The CBUC had contacts with Virginia Tech because both institutions use the VTLS electronic catalog. The CBUC asked if anyone at Virginia Tech had the qualifications and desire to teach the engineering resources course. Right time. Right place. This is a workshop series, so it's possible other librarians will have a chance to go.
The class met for one week, Monday through Friday, from 9:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. The participants and I had an ongoing discussion trying to determine who had the more difficult schedule. They thought I did, because I was talking for five hours. I thought they did, because they had to listen to me teach in the English language for five hours. No doubt about it, they had the harder part.
All of the basic engineering resources were covered in the workshop: databases, online full text, reference materials, patents, material safety data sheets, and more. If it was related to engineering, I tried to include it.
IEEE, SilverPlatter, OVID, Cambridge Scientific Ab-stracts, and ISI provided password access to their sites. Some vendors responded quickly, had passwords to me within a few days, sent materials directly to Barcelona, and even volunteered to send a representative to the workshop to do the teaching. Others took weeks to respond. I contacted vendors six weeks before the workshop. If I did it again, I'd start eight weeks ahead of time.
One of the biggest challenges was gauging how much material would be needed to fill a twenty-five hour time slot. Having never taught a twenty-five hour course before, it was a guesstimate. I wasn't absolutely sure until Thursday that the quantity would be correct.
PowerPoint was my primary presentation tool. I provided handouts for the PowerPoint slides and also provided detailed notes for everything I covered. Some participants used the PowerPoint handouts and took their own supplementary notes, while others followed along in the detailed lecture notes. Lotus ScreenCam and Adobe Acrobat were used for canned search demos so that if live connections were not available demos could be given.
Although the participants were familiar with Acrobat, they had not used it to capture WWW pages. ScreenCam was entirely new to most of them. I had the complete Adobe and ScreenCam software on my laptop (not just the viewers) and I "volunteered" some of the participants to use the software and create their own demos.
I was told that the twenty-four librarians were smart, computer literate, and adept at general reference tasks, but they didn't have an in-depth knowledge of engineering resources. I found that this wasn't entirely accurate. Some of them had considerable knowledge of engineering resources and I wondered just how much they were learning from the course. We talked about this, and they acknowledged that yes, they knew some of the material, but they felt it worthwhile to get an overview of the material and to learn about those materials with which they were not familiar.
While some participants worked at universities in Barcelona, others worked on campuses outside the city and commuted for up to an hour each way. A few worked at more distant campuses and stayed in Barcelona for the week. Those who worked on Barcelona campuses often had scheduled work hours in their libraries that lasted until 6:00 P.M. The days were long for everyone.
I brought my laptop so that all my material and software would be loaded and ready to use. Fortunately, the lab had very good computers and a ceiling-mounted projection unit rather than a clunky LCD panel. There were sixteen computers in the lab, so some participants doubled up but it wasn't a problem. Although I would sometimes become impatient with the slower Internet response, they were accustomed to it and it wasn't an issue with them.
The primary language of the participants was Catalan. I speak neither Spanish nor Catalan, so everything was taught in English. I believe that if the course had been taught in Catalan, there might have been more class discussion.
Although some database vendors provide Spanish interfaces, the searching itself must be done in English. This is something they work with daily.
From the beginning of the course there was an understanding that talking among the participants was fine. Some had a better grasp of English than others, and it was quite all right for them to help each other understand what I was saying.
Things to consider with this type of teaching
This was my first experience with international teaching, so I was a bit uncertain of what to expect. Looking back, I realize that there were three elements that contributed to the workshop's success: having a contact person, interacting with the participants outside of class time, and planning the class logistics ahead of time.
I can't stress enough the importance of having a capable contact person. I was fortunate to have someone who did an outstanding job, Marta López Vivancos. There are dozens of questions that can only be answered by someone on-site, such as:
- What resolution will the projector handle?
- What are the IP addresses for the computers, in order to obtain IP access to databases?
- Have the handouts that the vendors promised to mail arrived yet?
- Have the handouts I've sent as attachments been received and are they photocopied?
- Will there be a computer technician available on the first day of class to troubleshoot problems?
- What databases and what vendors are you currently using?
All of these questions and more were answered by Marta in a timely manner. After the class sessions started, Marta gave invaluable feedback concerning the pace of the class, whether there were language difficulties, etc. Although the capabilities of the contact person probably won't make or break a class, I'm convinced that having a contact person can greatly influence the smoothness and effectiveness of the class. When you're 4000 miles from your class site, you want someone you can count on.
Interaction with participants outside of class
Aside from the enjoyment of learning about another country and culture, I found the break times, lunches, and tours of libraries with the participants to be very helpful. We toured two branch libraries of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya: the Library of the Industrial Engineering School of Barcelona and the Rector Gabriel Ferraté Library. These activities gave me insight into the participants' knowledge of the material, the resources they had in their libraries, and how much they were learning from the class.
Class logistics (on preventing an aching back and a frazzled mind)
Send handouts on ahead. All the handouts were sent to Barcelona as e-mail attachments and photocopied there. There were well over one hundred pages of handouts for each of the twenty-four participants. That's five reams of paper that I didn't need to carry with me.
Distribute handouts as needed. I was unsure what the pace of the class would be, the exact topic order, or even if all topics would be covered. Because of this, I requested that the handouts not be compiled into course packets, but that handouts for each topic remain separate so I could distribute them as needed.
Make backups of backups of backups. My greatest fear was that I'd somehow lose the data on my laptop. In addition to floppy backups I placed all of the data on a WWW server. The WWW server also gave backup to the ScreenCam files that were too large to be saved to a floppy.
Moments of pure panic-only one
I'd been given directions on how to get to the classroom. After taking the subway from the hotel and walking four blocks from the stop, I found what I believed was the correct building. Then it hit me. I'd left the building name and classroom number at the hotel room. I asked the security guard at the reception desk if he knew where the course would be taught. No, but perhaps someone in the office down the hall would know. Unfortunately, the lone worker in the office spoke no English. OK. It's now time to indulge in pure panic. I walked back toward the reception desk, and noticed that the guard was talking to a woman and pointing my way. The woman turned and said, "Larry, I am Marta." Let me repeat, a capable contact person is indispensable.
Would I make the trip again?
In a heartbeat! It was thoroughly enjoyable teaching the workshop to a wonderful group of librarians. Of course there were other enjoyable experiences, too, the sunny weather, the paella at a seaside restaurant, the Gothic Quarter, the Mediterranean Sea, the Roman ruins