Information Update - Spring 2006

Teaching a Research Course Poses Challenges and Rewards

Although librarians at academic institutions often have faculty status, many do not ever teach a complete course on either the graduate or undergraduate level. Instruction, instead, is generally done in either single class or several class session episodes for another faculty member’s course, focusing on research methodology. Instruction is also done extensively on a one-to-one basis at either the Reference Desk or in the librarian’s office, concentrating on the individual patron’s needs.
Beginning in the Fall of 2002 I have had the opportunity to teach E-Research: Information-Seeking Skills and Strategies. This three-credit course is a major elective for the interdisciplinary major of Media and Information Technology.
E-Research seeks to teach an overview of electronic research technique. It covers the organization of information; evaluation and selection of databases; evaluation of information from web resources; copyright and fair use; search engines; and basic research in a variety of disciplines including business, law, government publications, health, statistics, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. It recognizes that the ability to navigate the maze of information available through the Web is essential when working in an electronic information world.
The first challenge in designing this course was selecting a textbook. Available texts tended to fall into one of three categories. Many good library science reference guides were available; but this is not a library science course; the goal is not to train future librarians. Therefore, these were unacceptable. Other books focused on electronic research only, but these often turned out to be listings of dozens of websites, valuable for reference, but not really workable as textbooks. Also, these listings of websites were sometimes out-of-date by the time the book was published. The third and worst category was information science books which emphasized the theory of information science. Some of these I had trouble understanding; for undergraduates they would have been deadly. By the second year I realized that compiling my own lectures, handouts, in-class exercises, and homework assignments was the only way to teach such a course. Reserve readings were selected chapters from several different textbooks, combined with articles from journals, magazines, and newspapers which covered advances in electronic research.
This, naturally, led to the challenge of the amount of time needed to put together such a class. Although lectures and assignments can be used again each year, the world of electronic research is always evolving; revision was constantly necessary in order to keep the class up-to-date and meaningful.
One very big advantage and challenge of teaching a semester-long course in research as opposed to doing guest lectures in other courses or working with patrons on an ad hoc basis at the Reference Desk is the ability to follow up on results. Far too often at the Reference Desk the librarian cannot know if the instruction and assistance has paid off, not just in helping the patron find what he or she is looking for at that moment, but also in the ability of the patron to answer his or her own research needs in the future. A course setting allows the librarian professor to better see what works and does not work in research instruction.
Another major challenge is making a research class meaningful and interesting to an undergraduate. Research courses by their very nature do not have “curb appeal.” Most of the students which we had in E-Research were MIT majors who needed the course for credit toward their major. Part of the challenge was breaking the notion that research on the Internet consists only of surfing through Google and one or two general databases. Keeping the course moving by varying assignments and approaches was essential. Minimizing lecture time and maximizing hands-on lab experience generally worked best. Being flexible and looking at what worked and did not work in instruction was also necessary with the realization that these were undergraduates and not graduate students in library school.
Overall, teaching E-Research has been a positive experience. Student feedback and evaluations have been very encouraging. As a librarian I have gained classroom experience and have also increased my knowledge of online research resources in a variety of fields.

Kevin Norris