Bill Kules, School of Library and Information Science, The Catholic University of America
Successful assignment planning requires imagining the assignment from a student’s perspective.
Sometimes the simple activities turn out the hardest, and for reasons that surprise me—at least until I put myself in the students’ shoes and remember that I have to make it easy for them to focus on the learning.
I teach a blended (hybrid) course on information systems in Catholic University’s Master of Library and Information Science program. I’m always looking for ways to help students make practical connections between the classroom and the professional world they will soon enter. There is an established and growing need within the library and information science (LIS) field for professionals who have both traditional LIS skills and advanced technical skills. I thought that interviewing practicing librarians would be a great opportunity for students. They could find out how the information systems we discussed in class were really being used, and make some professional connections as well.
The ingredients for this less-than-successful assignment were simple enough. I provided the questions. The students just had to contact a librarian, ask the questions, and report back to their online discussion group. The activity would foster engagement online as students shared their findings. I would be able to draw connections from our discussion of databases, workflow, web pages, etc., to the practical challenges professionals face every day. The students were already familiar with the online discussion forum and had established small discussion groups, so I didn’t anticipate any issues using the tools.
As the end of the week approached and the discussion forums were near-silent, I began to worry. When the deadline passed with few reports, I knew something had gone wrong. Many of the students never even contacted a librarian. When I probed, I learned that many students felt intimidated by the need to contact a professional and ask for their time. Plus, many students were still developing the organizational skills needed to find and contact the right person, which could require multiple phone calls or emails and negotiating schedules. In short, the cognitive and emotional effort outweighed the pedagogical value of the exercise because I hadn’t considered the students’ perspective. What I thought would be easy turned out to be a show-stopper.
In hindsight I recognized other aspects of the course where students had to work too hard—not on the course material, but on simply getting to a point where they could focus on it. For an assignment that introduced the collaborative editing tool Google Docs, students found that the need to learn how to use the tool hindered their ability to collaborate on the writing. In addition to acquiring the technical skills they had to overcome a reluctance to edit their colleagues’ writing before they could focus on the material they were writing about. I realized that even the online course management system (we use Blackboard) was problematic. The default course menu was impeding students’ efforts to find and keep track of the weekly activities because it didn’t match the structure of the course.1 The common failure with all of these course elements was a lack of attention to the learner’s perspective.
As I reflected, I realized that there were a number of ways I could take the learner’s perspective. I could apply design principles like Nielsen’s usability heuristics2 and recent work on social and collaborative pedagogy,3 in addition to common instructional design frameworks.4 Over the next few semesters, I began to critique the way I use technology more consistently and intentionally from the student perspective. I dropped the interview activity, replacing it with a guest lecture from a practitioner. This eliminated the need for students to find and contact an interviewee. Instead, students could engage deeply in the dialogue, asking much more interesting questions than I had originally posed.
Taking a cue from instructional design principles, I provided more step-by-step guidance for the Google Docs activity. First I had them practice basic editing skills. We then discussed how collaborative writing tools change the way we produce and use information. Only then did I have them start on the collaborative assignment. Following the advice of Coopman and Lane, I jettisoned the default course menu and constructed one that aligned with the topics, resources and weekly activities used in the course. In keeping with usability heuristics, I found many ways to clarify instructions for weekly activities, some as simple as putting the deliverable (i.e., what students should submit or post) in bold, and using terms more consistently. These changes, many of which students suggested, helped reduce confusion and missed assignments.
The failure of my interview exercise was a valuable reminder of an important aspect of instructional design. We expect our students to work hard and show initiative, but we want them to apply their intellectual energy and their limited study time to the content of the course, without getting bogged down in the tools or process. By taking the learner’s perspective we can make it easier for students to simply focus on the learning.
The short and simple interview exercise that failed:
Activity: Interview a librarian about their information systems
For this short activity, you will get a librarian’s perspective on library information systems and report what you learn to your group. This should take about 30–45 minutes total.
Contact a librarian who uses a library information system and ask for his or her perspective on the following questions. You may call, meet in person, or communicate by email. If you can reach a systems librarian, that would be an excellent person to talk to, but if not, find a librarian who uses the system regularly.
1) Verify that they use a library information system as a regular part of their job.
2) Do they use a single system or multiple systems? What parts of the system(s) do they use?
3) Can they describe and explain one strength and one weakness of the information system(s)?
4) [Optional] In what ways (if any) do they expect the system(s) to change? For example, do they see the integrated library system (ILS) becoming “dismantled” as Pace (2004) argues? Do they see new capabilities being added?
Post a short summary (1-2 paragraphs) of their answers to your small group forum for discussion and comparison.
Coopman, Stephanie J. “A Critical Examination of Blackboard’s E-learning Environment.” First Monday 14, no. 6 (June 1, 2009). http://frodo.lib.uic.edu/ojsjournals/index.php/fm/article/view/2434. ISSN 1396-0466.
Dick, Walter, and Lou Carey. The Systematic Design of Instruction. 3rd ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1990. ISBN 9780673387721.
Gagné, Robert, Leslie J. Briggs, and Walter W. Wager. Principles of Instructional Design. 4th ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1992. ISBN 9780030347573.
Kazmer, Michelle M. “Produsage in A/synchronous Learner-led E-learning.” New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia 17, no. 1 (2011): 121-139. doi:10.1080/13614568.2011.552644
Lane, Lisa M. “Toolbox or Trap? Course Management Systems and Pedagogy.” EDUCAUSE Quarterly 31, no. 2 (2008): 4-6. ISSN 1528-5324.
Nielsen, Jakob. “Heuristic Evaluation.” In Usability Inspection Methods, edited by Jakob Nielsen and Robert L. Mack. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994. ISBN 9780471018773.
About the Author
Bill Kules is an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America.
- see Coopman, “A Critical Examination of Blackboard’s E-learning Environment”; Lane, “Toolbox or Trap?”. ↩
- Nielsen, “Heuristic Evaluation.” ↩
- e.g. Kazmer, “Produsage in A/Synchronous Learner-led E-learning.” ↩
- Dick and Carey, The Systematic Design of Instruction; Gagné, Briggs, and Wager, Principles of Instructional Design. ↩