Teaching the 'Net Without a Net: Custom Simulations Boost Freshmen's PC Skills

Your audience is on time. Thirty students, professors or staff are staring up at you in anticipation. Your computer is on. Your instruction notes are ready. Your hand is on the keyboard and ... zap! Enter that feeling of white-knuckled dread, of naked electronic stage fright, that blinding bolt of sheer terror that can leap out of a frozen computer screen and strike you deep in the gut. The network is down ... again. The source of your acute embarrassment might be the LAN, the WAN, Internet traffic, or some squirrel chewing through an AT&T wire in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It d'esn't matter. All you know is that your carefully choreographed Internet lesson was zapped ... again!

Helping 'Newbies' Get Up to Speed

Episodes like this are causing information technology instructors across the country to pull out their hair in frustration. Yet it is not the only problem that afflicts those who, each semester, are charged with the task of bringing their university up to speed on the use of campus technology.

The time available for instruction is often limited, but "one-shot" training sessions make it hard for students to review difficult concepts and to repeat exercises for reinforcement. Hand-outs are fine for reference, but a poor substitute for hands-on practice. Moreover, the proliferation of electronic information products and connectivity gadgets has increased user questions to levels that can overwhelm library, academic computing and technical support staff -- all this at a time when hiring more instructors may not be an easy option.

New arrivals who do not quickly acquire a working knowledge of an array of academic technologies -- ranging from online catalogs, Internet search engines and electronic journal indexes, to e-mail and telnet software -- are at a real disadvantage when doing research in the content areas of the curriculum.

Even more basic is the need for new students and faculty to know the location of various information access points on campus. With these obstacles in mind (and under foot), I undertook the seemingly impossible task of creating an instructional program to teach certain basic technology skills that would be impervious -- or at least resistant -- to all of these glitches, annoyances and shortcomings.

Automating Info-Access Training

The result was InfoMagic Explorer, a three-part interactive multimedia program for teaching information access skills. Part I, Explorer for Freshman Seminar, is administered to the entire incoming freshman class as part of the Freshman Seminar "Global Citizen" experience (similar to what some universities call "University 101").

This interactive computer module focuses on basic information literacy skills such as Internet log-on, e-mail, navigating the Web, using Library of Congress subject headings and call numbers, and Boolean search techniques for finding information in the library catalog and remote databases. In this module, each student receives training in research skills relevant to all content areas, as well as hands-on practice in exploring databases most relevant to the immediate needs of the Freshman Seminar's "Global Citizen" theme. (In 1995, the tutorial focused on Silverplatter's electronic index, PAIS. This was changed to InfoTrac's Academic Index in response to changes in the 1996 Freshman Seminar curriculum.)

Part II, Explorer for English 104, is taken by all students during their second semester in the context of the required freshman writing class, English 104. This module focuses on teaching information literacy skills typically required for first-year English composition assignments, such as using Boolean logic to find citations for articles in literary journals, and retrieving text from full-text databases or from journals in local or remote library collections.

Part III, InfoKiosk, combines all tutorials from both Explorer modules in the form of a random-access kiosk. This kiosk program can be accessed from computers in the library or computer labs by students, faculty, staff or visitors. Users can enter and exit any tutorial from the Main Menu. InfoKiosk also allows users to review the specific skill sets introduced in the two Explorer modules and, finally, functions as an ongoing resource for anyone seeking first-time instruction. Since the InfoKiosk module is not tied to any particular class, sessions are not tracked. Usage of the various tutorials within InfoKiosk is tabulated, however, in order to provide us with statistics on which tutorials are in greatest demand.

Realistic Network Simulations

Using a network to find information typically consists of two steps: access and navigation. The InfoMagic Explorer series combines a variety of media -- images, sound and text -- in order replicate the experience of signing on to a network and performing typical electronic tasks such as sending and receiving e-mail, searching online databases and navigating the Web.

This was done by taking "screen shots" of actual online sessions. Hundreds of these images were imported into Macromedia Director files where they were joined together with "hyperlinks" and coded to respond to user keystrokes or mouse actions -- the same key and mouse actions that users would execute in a real online session. A narrator's voice was added to guide users through typical navigation routines. Embellishments such as music, animation and video clips were also inserted to make the lessons more interesting. The result was a series of network simulations that (at least to the user) behave identically to actual online sessions.

The only feature that distinguishes an InfoMagic simulation from the "real thing" is its range of action and reliability. Users can only operate within the parameters of the simulation, e.g., they must search for the items suggested by the narrator to receive the desired results. On the other hand, the simulation's speed and degree of reliability are much higher than that of a typical Internet session: since the simulations run directly from computer hard drives, they are immune to network traffic jams and downtime.

Automatic Tracking & Reporting

Both Explorer programs are, by necessity, linear. In order to insure that each student finishes all of the mini-tutorials, they are guided through the program in a linear fashion, sometimes allowed to repeat -- but never to skip -- all of the units. Students may exit Explorer at anytime, but will only receive credit for the units they actually complete. In this respect, Explorer is like any other course requirement.

Its uniqueness lies in its individualized approach and portable structure: Students work individually, solving problems at their own pace, with realistic hands-on simulations. Since the program is available at various computer sites around campus, it can be used any time that is convenient. Typically, each Explorer program can be completed in 35 - 50 minutes. Credit is assigned on the basis of progress reports that are written to a diskette as a student works through the program.

Upon completion, these diskettes are turned in to the library where individual data files are printed out and sent to each student's instructor. Students are then graded by their Freshman Seminar or English instructors on the basis of how many skill sets were actually completed. The following reports list the skill sets which must be completed by each student.

REPORT 1: Explorer for Freshman Seminar

INSTRUCTOR: Johnson, Cary

STUDENT: Woo, Charles


Date: 9/16/96

Begin: 3:01 PM, End: 3:42 PM

Dut of 20 units. Woo. Charles finished:

1. Overview of Chapman Information Services
2. How to sign-up for Chapnet/Internet account
3. Introduction to the on-line catalog (OPAC)
4. How to use call numbers to find books
5. Intro to LC classification system. Location of reference works vs. monographs in Library
6. Practice author search
7. Intro to Title and Subject searching
8. Intro to theory of Keyword searching
9. How to log-on to Chapnet/lnternet
10. Using the Internet to access other libraries
11. On-site access policy for neighboring research libraries
12. The Interlibrary Loan (ILL) alternative
13. Using Library Web page to order books (ILL)
14. How to find journal articles via Library CD-ROM indexes (includes off-campus access)
15. Logging on to the PAlS (or Academic Index) CD-ROM Periodical Index
16. Boolean searching using 'and' and 'or'
17. How to find journals in the Library
18. Using Library WEB page to order journal articles (ILL)
19. Using 'Web Crawler' to search & Intro to Netscape browser
20. Intro to PINE - Sending and Receiving E-Mail

Student comments: "I liked the part about searching online databases, but more examples would be helpful. Need more info on World Wide Web."

REPORT 2: Explorer for EngIish 104

INSTRUCTOR: Cumiford, Bill

STUDENT: Lang, Jerri


Date: 2/16/96

Begin: 9:35 AM, End: 10:12 AM

Out of 20 units. Lano. Jerri finished:

1. Introduction to Wilson Humanities Index
2. Distinguishing between magazines & journals
3. What is an online journal index?
4. Intro to database structure (parts of a record)
5. Overview of how to find journal articles.
6. How to sign-up for a Chapnet/lnternet account. (optional review)
7. Signing on to Chapnet from computer labs, library & home (modem)
8. Accessing Wilson Humanities Index via Chapnet/ Telnet
9. How to do a "Simple Subject Search" (using online the-saurus - Humanities Index)
10. Identifying the parts of a record (Humanities Index)
11. How to return to the search screen (Humanities Index)
12. Using Boolean "and"! "or" in multiple subject searches (Humanities Index)
13. Using subject identifiers as cross-references to similar records (Humanities Index)
14. How to determine if the Library owns a journal
15. How to find journals in the stacks
16. Document delivery: procedure for ordering journal articles from Library WEB page
17. Using "LC Subject Headings" as source for subject search terms
18. How to do subject searches using authors names (online catalog)
19. Review of Keyword searching unit for online catalog (optional review)

Student comments: "Narrator spoke in a boring monotone. Can't you find someone with a more interesting voice?"

Distributed Vs. Centralized Reporting

The InfoMagic Explorer series tracks student progress for over 30 information technology skill sets and generates individualized student progress reports for some 35 Freshman Seminar and English 104 instructors.

This reporting mechanism, however, still involves relying on staff to print out reports from hundreds of disks and forward them to the appropriate instructor for grading. The logical next step, one might think, would be to further automate the report function by writing the student reports to a server file and automatically e-mailing them to the student's instructor upon completion of the tutorial. While this is possible (and a pilot is now being developed along these lines), this approach presumes the use of a network -- with all of the positive and negative things that go along with it -- and a reliable back-up system to protect student data files until they can be evaluated.

These measures would certainly make the interactive training system more efficient and, presumably, easier to administrate. This centralized, network-based reporting model could also be extended to include the tutorials as well. This solution, however, would require both a broad-bandwidth LAN and a powerful server to support the multimedia content. As with any server-based application, one glitch in the network could bring down the system for all users. On the other hand, a LAN would protect the program from reliability and speed problems associated with the Internet.

Participation & Feedback

A high level of institution-wide involvement in the InfoMagic project was achieved by building a close collaborative relationship between the Freshman Seminar faculty, library instructors and the InfoMagic development team. Linking course credit to completion of the module has helped to insure virtually 100% student participation in the Explorer program.

An interactive survey at the end of the tutorial provides Chapman University administrators and faculty with an "information literacy" profile of the freshman class. This survey also gathers user suggestions for improving the program and provides a way for faculty, students and administrators to participate in program modification and development. Student participation in the survey has been close to 90% due, in part, to a special arrangement with campus food service to redeem a free soft drink coupon for those who complete the survey.

Information Literacy Survey/Freshman Seminar: This survey was designed to create a profile of the information access abilities of incoming students so that the library, Freshman Seminar instructors and university administration can better meet their needs. It also gives students an opportunity to identify shortcomings and suggest improvements for the computer tutorial. The results of this survey are shown below.

Total students taking survey: 246 [# = number of respondents] # (%) 1.My age: 17 29 (12) 18 178 (72) 19 28 (11) 20 5 (2) 21 1 (1-) Over 2l 5 (2) 2. Sex: M 99 (40) F 149 (60)3. Native language: English 222 (90) Other 24 (10)4. Before coming to Chapman, I used a computer at home or at school: A. Never 17 (7) B. 0-1 hr/week 42 (17) C. 1-2 hrs/week 52 (21) D. 2-5 hrs/week 74 (30) E. Over 5 hrs/week 61 (25)5. I have used a computer at home or in school: A. Never 4 (2) B. 1-6 months 34 (14) C. 7-12 months 15 (6) D. 1-2 years 22 (9) E. 2-3 years 23 (9) F. Over 3 years 148 (60)6. I think my computer skills are: A. Poor 0 (0) B. Fair 93 (38) C. Good 91 (37) D. Excellent 62 (25)7. Before coming to Chapman, I used the Internet: Yes 126 (51) No 120 (49)8. Before coming to Chapman, I used the World Wide Web: Yes 150 (61) No 96 (39)9. Before coming to Chapman, I used a library on-line catalog (Searched for books on a computer terminal) Yes 170 (69) No 76 (31)

10. Computer programs I have used: Word processor: Yes 227 (92) No 11 (8) Database: Yes 148 (60) No 98 (40) Spreadsheet Yes 140 (57) No 106 (43) Paint/Draw Yes 182 (74) No 64 (26) Other SW Yes 210 (85) No 36 (15) Student Feedback Survey 1. This tutorial was: A. Too short 6 (2) B. Too long 134 (54) C. Just right 106 (43)2. The computer tutorial was: A. Very interesting 10 (4) B. Interesting 140 (57) C. Not interesting 48 (20) D. Boring 47 (20)3. Generally, the tutorial was: A. Easy to use 238 (97) B. A little difficult 7 (3) C. Difficult 1 (1-) D. Very difficult 0 (0) 4. The examples were: A. Very clear 167 (68) B. Clear 74 (30) C. Not so clear 4 (2) D. Confusing 1 (1-)5. I want to see more multimedia programs like this: Yes 170 (69) No 76 (31)20. Most typical student comments (to be addressed in V.2): - Narration was too monotone & slow. - Want chance to do more searches at end. - You should give this tutorial at the beginning of the semester because I already knew how to get the information off of the computers. Maybe that way, students wouldn't hold up the librarians in the library. - Needs more interaction with computer. - Want more on Internet searching.

Finally, in response to student demand for a more compelling narration, this year's Explorer featured a dramatic introduction by the university president and new narration by other key members of the university community such as the Provost/VP of Academic Affairs, the Library Director and the Deans of the Schools of Music, Film & TV, Business & Economics, the Associate Dean of the College of Lifelong Learning, the Registrar and the Women's Basketball coach.

The InfoMagic Model

Despite enthusiastic claims to the contrary, the Internet is not yet ready for real interactive multimedia tutorials. Moreover, anyone who has tried to use the Internet to teach in a classroom setting knows that relying on network "up time" to deliver content at a designated class time is risky at best.

InfoMagic Explorer solves this problem by delivering realistic Internet, Web and online database simulations that are impervious to network zaps and quirks. We have found that it is sometimes best to "teach the 'net without the net." By running the module directly from computer lab hard drives, high-quality multimedia training is assured. For a generation raised on stereo sound, fast-response games and high-definition video images, this is an important aspect of winning the imagination and holding the attention of young learners.

To enable wider dissemination, we are now also "stripping" some of the modules of their rich multimedia features, however, so they can be accessed on the Web in quasi-multimedia mode.

Although Explorer was designed for individualized instruction (there is no need for an instructor to be present) both faculty and library staff play a role in determining content. After taking the tutorial, students are also given an opportunity to make criticisms and suggestions via a built-in electronic survey module. Broad participation in both the program and the survey is assured through incentives such as a "credit for completion" arrangement with Freshman Seminar faculty and "survey completion coupons" linked to the university food service.

Although customized for Chapman's own learning environment, the basic structure of the program is generic. With a little effort, the InfoMagic Explorer model can be adapted to enhance the delivery of information instruction at any university. For us, it is a friendly robot that shoulders the oft-repeated "help" questions, so we can all get on with our real job: teaching.

A free demo version of InfoMagic Explorer can be downloaded from Chapman's FTP site at ftp://ftp.chapman.edu/pub/kenny. Those who find it useful and want to adapt it for use at their institution can request the "open source code" version and copy or modify it.
More information on InfoMagic Explorer is available on the Web at www.chapman.edu/library/services/infomag.html
or from ERIC/IT (on microfiche) #ED392 389.

Dallas Kenny is Multimedia Instruction Librarian and coordinator of the InfoMagic Information Literacy Project at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. His masters' in library science and doctorate are from the University of Michigan where he designed an interactive program for analyzing Arabic syntax. He has taught Arabic and worked as a bilingual reference librarian at the University of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he developed interactive bilingual instructional modules for academic research. Kenny has given papers on multimedia instruction for information literacy in the U.S., the UAE and Saudi Arabia and is the author of Language Loss and the Crisis of Cognition: Between Socio- and Psycholinguistics (Mouton de Gruyter, 1996). E-mail: [email protected]

Products mentioned:

Director; Macromedia, Inc., Santa Clara, CA, (800) 326-2128, www.macromedia.com
PAIS; Silverplatter Information, Inc., Pasadena, CA, (800) 343-0064, www.silverplatter.com

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.