• Narrating the “Back Story” Through E-learning Resources in Libraries

    January 28, 2009
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    We at In the Library with the Lead Pipe are happy to welcome two guest authors to our blog! Hyun-Duck Chung and Kim Duckett are two of our creative and inspiring colleagues at the North Carolina State University Libraries. Read on to learn more…

    Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about the creation and re-use of online instructional content in libraries. To be more precise, we’ve been thinking about categories that might characterize the instructional intent behind some of this content creation. A casual survey of materials online suggests that much of the content focuses on how to use a tool, or how to follow a process. There seems to be less content that helps explain why the information landscape is organized the way it is. This background explanation, or “back story” can be useful in contextualizing how information is created, debated, vetted, and why we find information the way we do. In this way it also has the potential to help student researchers become more critical of their search for, and use of, information.  In this post we discuss our experience of providing the back story of peer review using an e-learning resource. But first, let’s take a brief look at the growing interest in e-learning resources in libraries today.

    E-learning Resources in Libraries

    “E-learning resources” is our shorthand for describing asynchronous, web-based instructional content. In other words, media that is hosted and disseminated online for the purpose of teaching and learning in the form of html tutorials, interactive video, flash animations, screen captured presentations, and the like. Instructional designers may use the term “learning objects,” but we do not use it here as it has been criticized for being overly broad and therefore less than useful.1  Bell and Shank prefer the phrase “digital learning materials,” but their definition emphasizes “interactivity” as a key defining character.2  While interactivity is certainly a worthwhile goal, many useful e-learning resources in libraries simply don’t meet this criteria so we’ve opted to use our own more inclusive term. Regardless of terminology, we’re basically referring to the notion of modular web-based instructional content that may be re-used across multiple courses, course sections, disciplines and even among various libraries.

    Librarians have been creating e-learning resources for years, but the importance of this type of library or user instruction appears to be growing. This trend can be seen in

    The trend seems to be undeniable, but is this a useful trend?

    Extending Our Reach through E-Learning Resources

    The proliferation of e-learning resources can perhaps be attributed, at least in part, to the useful potential they offer for greatly expanding the reach of a single instructor or instruction session. The one-on-one instruction or consultation at the reference desk relies on reaching only one person at a time and only those that approach the reference desk or library staff.


    One to One

    Workshops or classroom instruction expands that reach to “one-to-many”, connecting with students who may not (understandably) consult or even know about the expertise of librarians by their own initiative. E-learning resources have the potential (with good quality, relevance, and proper marketing) to expand the reach even farther to “one-to-many-more,” helping librarians find an audience otherwise inaccessible.


    One to Many More

    Categories of E-Learning Resources

    Since interest in e-learning resources continues to grow, we thought we’d better start thinking about them in more detail. Recently, we sat down with colleagues at the NCSU Libraries to categorize the kinds of e-learning resources we have been developing locally and those we’ve seen elsewhere. Though the discussion is ongoing, to date we’ve come up with three categories that enable us to think more strategically about both the purpose and uses of these resources. Here’s a list of our categories with examples from various libraries:

    CATEGORY 1. Teach students HOW TO USE A TOOL. This category includes screencasts and tutorials that show users how to search a particular database, the library catalog, or a library website:

    CATEGORY 2. Help students WITH A PROCESS. Resources in this category help learners with processes such as evaluating websites, creating citations, identifying a scholarly article online:

    CATEGORY 3. Provide students with MORE CONTEXT to understand a process or concept — the BACK STORY for how information is created, vetted, stored, accessed, and used. Resources in this category address social issues surrounding information and other scholarly communication topics:

    • Journal Costs is a “sticker shock” website that exposes the costs of journals that are so often hidden from users (Vanderbilt University Library)
    • Primary or Secondary is an interactive site that teaches users about primary and secondary sources (University of Washington Libraries)

    There certainly may be more categories than these and none of the above may be mutually exclusive. For instance, large-scale information literacy tutorials are typically a blend of more than one category. We hope that by teasing out the themes and intentions of various resources, we can better design them for use in more than one instructional context. Librarians should strive to have the greatest impact from all the work and energy currently being invested into creating them.

    More Back Story Please!

    From a very rough survey of e-learning resources online, the landscape seems to be dominated by the first two types of categories. Perhaps this is because librarians have traditionally played a role in teaching students how to use specific kinds of tools to find information or to offer strategies for evaluating sources. It might also be that since libraries make these information resources available, we see it as our responsibility to help our users make use of them. But consider how librarians are uniquely positioned to design and develop e-learning resources that provide students with the back story about sources of information. Such concepts are rarely covered by faculty instructors within a given academic discipline, yet they fall squarely in the realm of librarian expertise. Most importantly, they help to explain realities that might otherwise seem odd to students. For example, why is so much importance given to finding “peer-reviewed” articles for an assignment? Or why does Google Scholar sometimes ask for money and what should you do to get around it? Without some background on how information and publishing “work” on the Web, students may be just going through the motions of “how-to” find information without critically reflecting on the process of solving their information problem.

    Providing learners with the back story enhances understanding and use of information. Consider the pairs of questions below:

    How do I identify a scholarly, peer-reviewed article?


    What is peer review and why is it important?

    How can I use Wikipedia in my research?


    How did the information get created in Wikipedia?

    How do I get started with my literature review?


    What is the role of a literature review in research?

    The pairings go hand-in-hand, yet often library e-learning resources are limited to answering the first questions in each set. Why don’t we cover the second questions in as much depth? Could we be making e-learning resources that provide more context? After all, understanding the back stories that address the second questions are fundamental to information literacy, participation in scholarly communication (especially for those students who will become part of it in a few short years), and most importantly, lifelong learning. They are also topics that span across many different learning scenarios and across institutional boundaries.

    For Instance, Peer Review in Five Minutes

    Since this notion of providing a back story can be slippery, let’s look at a concrete example where we tried to incorporate some of the ideas we’ve raised above. Our interest in the back story led to our recent development of an e-learning module – an animation on the role of peer review in scholarly research.

    Click to play Peer Review in Five Minutes

    Click to play Peer Review in 5 Minutes

    Students often come to the service desk seeking peer-reviewed articles as part of a class assignment. At this point the student may need help with accomplishing a number of tasks. Perhaps they need help identifying or verifying that the article has been peer-reviewed, searching in article databases, or understanding what a peer-reviewed article is in the first place and why it is so important in academia. Since we found existing e-learning resources addressing the first two needs, we saw an opportunity in meeting the third need through a new e-learning resource. We came up with the concept of Peer Review in 5 Minutes – an animated video that would initiate students into one of the key facets of academic culture.

    Engaging Faculty Instructors

    Following the ADDIE model7 often used in instructional design, we based our design decisions on early input from potential users. Since faculty members are often the most influential factor in motivating students to pursue learning activities, we conducted informal interviews with faculty from various academic disciplines to test our assumptions on the usefulness of our idea. The response was very positive and our open discussions helped us tease out the various aspects of peer review as a topic as well as identify specific and different disciplinary needs.

    A significant challenge we faced early in the process of creating the resource was scoping the content. From the broad array of ideas that came out of our interviews, zeroing in on what to include and exclude in a five minute video required an iterative process of thinking and re-thinking the goals of the video and defining our target users and their needs. In the end we decided to focus on providing a general overview of peer review for undergraduate students. Since this project was our first experiment in animation, we wanted it to serve as a proof-of-concept for reaching learners in a new way and in turn acquire departmental support for launching similar projects in the future. Targeting a broad and general audience like the undergraduate population would 1) allow us to have the broadest impact for the time and energy committed to developing the resource, and 2) there was a greater likelihood of receiving feedback from the users.

    An additional challenge we faced was finding the right way to explain the back story. Where do you begin to tell the story? Where do you end it? How do you make it relevant to the student’s tasks? How do you make the content general enough to span across disciplines, yet relevant enough to each? Tackling such questions required creative narration, visuals that went well beyond screenshots, plus fairly creative use of scripting and story-boarding. In doing so we went through numerous revisions in the development process.


    Another challenge we faced was in designing truly reusable content that was also highly relevant to our institution. Since we intended to create a resource for broad dissemination we also thought it would be strategic to have the video specifically point to our library’s subscription-based resources and reference services. This way the e-learning resource would not only serve instructional needs, but also market specific library services and resources to our students. Our solution was to limit any institution specific aspect to a very small scene at the very end of the video. We then, as a service to the broader educational community, created an alternate ending for a second downloadable version that was not tied to our institution. We also made this version available under a Creative Commons license so that anyone could freely use it for non-commercial purposes. To get the video go to Peer Review in 5 Minutes and click on download.

    Despite the challenges we faced in developing this resource, the highly collaborative process of development offered a unique opportunity to connect with faculty, staff and students in departments within and outside of the library. The success of the project relied on recruiting the expertise and skills of various contributors. In addition to the faculty we interviewed, we worked closely with

    • a graphic design intern who created the animation;8
    • a student from the Libraries’ Digital Media Lab who created an original sound track to the video;9
    • a couple of library colleagues who contributed their technical expertise in developing an effective web presence for the video online.10

    We also consulted multimedia specialists in our distance education office about meeting accessibility requirements for creating audio-visual materials on the Web.11 All of these interactions not only helped spread the word about the Libraries’ embarking on an e-learning resources project but, perhaps more importantly, communicated the Libraries’ ability, openness and willingness to collaborate as partners in instructional uses of technology.

    Our experience has taught us that creating e-learning resources that tackle the back story of information is not without its own set of challenges. However, if you can work through the challenge of scoping the content and telling the story well, the greatest reward is having an end product that can be used to reach many more learners. Please let us know how well we did for this particular resource.

    What’s Your Back Story?

    We invite you to share your reactions to our three categories of e-learning resources. We’d also love to hear examples of how you’re engaging students with the back story as well as your ideas for what other back stories might be told through reusable, shareable, e-learning resources.

    Special Thanks

    Derik Badman from ITLWTLP, Steve McCann, Sandy Littletree, and Scott Warren for providing thoughtful feedback on drafts of this post. Cindy Levine and Andreas Orphanides for helping us think through the e-learning resources categories. Last but not least Hilary Davis for introducing us to ITLWTLP and inviting us as contributors.

    Creative Commons License
    This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License. Copyright remains with the author/s.

    You might also be interested in:

    1. See for example,  Polsani, P.R. 2003. “Use and Abuse of Reusable Learning Objects.” Journal of Digital Information 3, no. 4 (February 19). []
    2. Bell, S. & Shank, J. (2007). Academic Librarianship by Design. Chicago: American Library Association. []
    3. OCLC’s white paper “Libraries and the enhancement of e-learning” (2003) provides a more in-depth discussion than we will offer here. []
    4. The Animated Tutorial Sharing Project based in Canada is an example of a collaborative project emphasizing the re-usability aspect of these resources. The A.N.T.S. project tries to coordinate development and re-use of modules beyond a single institution by tracking useful metadata (such as what modules are in the works) and hosting completed projects on a shared Screencast server for anyone to use. []
    5. The Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Teaching is an online repository of peer reviewed digital learning materials. The collection spans across many disciplines and includes a “Library and Information Services” category. []
    6. PRIMO is the Peer Reviewed Information Materials Online” database. It focuses on promoting and setting best practices for implementing e-learning resources so that librarians can share ideas for creating them. At the time of writing, the database holds 191 records for materials that range from database specific modules to information literacy tutorials. []
    7. ADDIE — analysis, design, development, implement, and evaluate — is one of the most common instructional design models. Bell and Shank’s Academic Librarianship by Design provides a wonderful overview. []
    8. Susan Baker, then a senior student in the College of Design, worked closely with us to create original graphics and animate them using AffterEffects in Adobe Creative Suite 3 []
    9. We showed Chris Hill our video and some sample music online to offer a sense of what we were looking for and he created an original track using GarageBand []
    10. Jason Walsh and Andreas Orphanides worked their magic to format the video for optimal viewing online through progressive downloading, and with the help of Susan created the custom border around the video. []
    11. We’ve used Automatic Sync for captioning. It’s fast and cheap! It cost us less than $10 per animation. []
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