Table of Contents | Marlene CohenAdobe Acrobat 

by Robert Goldberg, Associate Professor, English

One of the challenges I face when I am teaching online is ensuring that my students know how to conduct appropriate secondary research, which is critical since their term project is a research-based formal business report. In the past, I would “encourage” my students to visit that school’s library, or a research library close to them. I expected that they would know how, or learn how, to conduct the necessary research. Unless they sent me a message with questions, I had no interaction with them in the research phase of their projects, nor could I gauge how much work they were actually doing. I had to wait until they submitted their assignments.

Last spring I took the challenge of teaching at University Town Center, where we do not have a library, though the local public library is only a short walk away. Of course, I caution my students that, while public libraries are wonderful and indispensable, they would not likely carry the types of materials the students needed for their research projects. Therefore, I contacted our reference librarian, Norma Schmidt, to see if she could come up with a way to put her library instruction session on Blackboard, using the Discussion Forum. To my amazement, she had just piloted such a venture with another instructor in a different discipline.

So, I experimented with an online virtual library tour with my UTC class. The librarian tailored the instruction materials for this session, and we scheduled a one-week period where the students would log into the Discussion Forum on Blackboard, review the materials, and then post questions for the librarian to answer. The librarian was very prompt and thorough in responding to the students’ questions. I kept my interaction to a minimum, so the librarian could do her job. But, that was the extent of the tour – it was designed to substitute for a physical instruction session, and to track attendance, but it did not encourage much interaction.

This semester, I more fully implemented a virtual library tour in my online business communication course via Blackboard. This virtual tour required three things from the students: 1) take the tour; 2) interact with the librarian by asking research- and term project-related questions; and 3) complete an annotated bibliography.

To achieve the greatest interaction, I needed to address four issues: role, goals, applications, and assessment.

For this activity, role is a three-prong aspect that must work together: the students, the librarian, and the instructor.

·        The librarian’s role:
o       Create and upload the “tour”
o       Answer students’ questions in a timely fashion

·        The students’ role:
o       Take the tour
o       Ask the librarian research- and term project-related questions
o       Complete and submit an annotated bibliography

·        The instructor’s role:
o       Monitor the discussion
o       Foster communication

To be effective, I needed to have a clear view of the goals of this activity. First, I wanted to ensure that the students learned how to conduct appropriate research and where to find relevant material. Second, I needed to make sure that all of the students participated in the activity. Third, I needed to be certain that the students were actually learning the necessary skills and were internalizing them.

Embedded in this activity is that the students learn to think critically about the task; not simply to do it as an automaton, but to understand why they are doing it, and why they are doing it the way they are doing it. By interacting mainly with the librarian, and to some extent with their classmates and me, they were learning how to access the relevant research materials.

To assess the effectiveness of the activity and the level of interaction and participation, I took “attendance.” If a student posted a question to the librarian, then I marked that student “half-present.” I also needed to determine that the student read the librarian’s response. Therefore, that student had to reply to the librarian’s posting to acknowledge understanding of the answer or to ask a follow-up question. Once the student did that, I marked the “present.” I also recorded this as having participated. The students know that participation in each week’s discussion is worth two points toward their participation grade.

In addition to attendance and participation grades, I had to assess their understanding of the material. In conjunction with the library tour, I required the students to prepare an annotated bibliography. This exercise demonstrated that they have learned how to find relevant material for their term projects, and it showed if they learned how to document the material.

This exercise has several potential applications. For the current course, the students learned how to use the online library resources and they began doing research for their term project. It also reinforces other activities requiring them to “discuss” relevant issues with their classmates. This exercise can thus build for future activities in this class and in the “working world,” where students, as employees, might be required to do a variety of tasks requiring research and long-distance collaboration.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 20, No. 1 

Fall 2004