emerging technologies in instruction, instruction section, acrl

June 2004 Site of the Month

FastTrack on InfoTrac Tutorial

Authors: Mary Dykes, Katie Mahon, University of Saskatchewan
Interviewer: Kathy Magarrell


"FastTrack on InfoTrac" was developed to support students taking 1st and 2nd year online courses in psychology or sociology. The sample questions were approved by the faculty member for each course. The interview highlights librarian and faculty partnering, as well as helpful information and lessons learned on instructional design.

Interview with tutorial author:

Q: What was the motivation for creating the FastTrack on InfoTrac tutorial?

A: In spring 2003, the University of Saskatchewan Library met individually with several faculty members and the instructional designers who were developing online versions of their courses. Each of these courses had a library research assignment. The library wanted to include information about our resources as well as provide some instruction within the online courses. We already had Viewlet demonstrations for a couple of databases, but the search interface for the databases had changed. The faculty looked at the old versions of the demonstrations and they were very excited about using an updated version in their courses. We selected the InfoTrac OneFile database for our first demonstration because of its multidisciplinary coverage and Canadian content. It also had more full text content than some of the other discipline specific databases and therefore could meet the needs of students who lived outside Saskatoon.

Q: How long did the entire creation process take? Who was involved? What technology did you use?

A: Schedule: We started in late May 2003 on the psychology version of FastTrack on InfoTrac. The first draft of the 'peer-reviewed' module went through usability testing in early July and a second draft went through testing later in July. This was the core module for our target audience. The remaining modules for psychology and the entire version for sociology were written in late July and August. Development team: I worked most closely with Katie Mahon, a student librarian. We worked collaboratively on the creative end, working on the story boards, deciding how to chunk and sequence our instructions, and critiquing and reworking the first drafts. Then, we both did the grunt work, getting screen captures, adding explanations from our story board. We were fortunate to have an undergraduate psychology student working in the Library over the summer at the computer help desk. Although she wasn't on the development team, she helped us suggest a sample question that was approved by the course instructor, and she was our 'reality check' for both the content of the demonstration and student technical skills. Technology: As I mentioned above, we used the Qarbon Viewlet software program.

Q: What were some of the challenges (technological or other) that you faced?

A: There were a few technical glitches using Viewlet. I had to consult Qarbon about the corrupted files error. This error happened with several of the modules. Although it was easy to fix once I knew what to look for, it was frustrating because there didn't seem to be any pattern in the problem. But, I've found that defeating the technical gremlins is part of any project.

The much bigger problem was design related. The first thing many people comment on is the navigation in FastTrack. People familiar with Viewlet may wonder why we didn't use an automatic timed progression through the demonstration. In our version, users have to click on text to move from slide to slide. In the first usability test we showed students two versions: one version had automatic progression within each section of the table of contents, and the second version allowed them to control navigation from slide to slide. Every student preferred the second version. Actually, I wasn't surprised that students preferred the version where they could control navigation. The literature on computer-aided instruction tells us this should be a standard design feature. But there was a problem with the text I had used for navigation. The early version used terms students should be familiar with from their web browser, 'back' and 'forward.' Instead of clicking on the text within the slide, students were clicking on the browser back and forward button. I consulted one of my instructional design instructors about this problem and you can read his advice below.

Another challenge was meeting our self-imposed deadline, August 31, for the final product. I asked the instructional designer for the one of the sociology courses going online in fall 2004 to have a look at FastTrack. While she gave me some useful advice, she also asked us to quickly write a similar version for her course! But, this is a typical experience - projects do tend to expand, thus making it difficult to meet deadlines. The instructional designer provided the sample question for the sociology version of FastTrack. This question allowed us to explore in a natural way some interesting points about search strategies. In particular, I think the 'help with a failed search' module is much easier for students to understand because of the search question we used.

Q: What support, if any, did you have in creating the project?

A: At the University of Saskatchewan Library we are fortunate to have an expert on usability testing and web design, Darlene Fichter. We talked about library instruction online. How effective was it; was it even used? Her advice was not to re-invent the wheel, but to have a clear idea about why this demonstration was needed, what value was being added to the existing help features, and to keep in mind that in the online environment, people don't want to read a lot of text. They want to find the information they need quickly and they frequently avoid using online help.

After my consultation with Darlene, I had a closer look at the help information already in InfoTrac and I searched for other demonstrations in MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, (http://www.merlot.org/Home.po). I found a very good demonstration but it was out-of-date. The approach we took in FastTrack was to place our information for using the database within the research process -- find, evaluate, cite, information, and included up-to-date information for citing references (at the time InfoTrac had out-of-date citation information). We also included simple trouble shooting for failed searches, and contact information for more help.

I also consulted one of the University of Saskatchewan faculty members in Educational Communications & Technology, Dr. Richard Schwier, about the navigation problem. I had recently completed my Master's degree in this field and was doing some instructional design work for one of his courses. He said as instructional designers, we should try to work into our designs the strategies of the typical end-user. But when there are conflicts we have to "break the mold" and think of something completely different.

Q: What kind of feedback, either formal or informal, have you received from students or faculty and what are your future plans for the project?

A: The University of Saskatchewan Library is about to implement SFX linking to full text, etc., so we'll have to revise the basic version. We also plan to provide another version using the InfoTrac advanced search screen. The Library is using the advanced search screen in other databases as the default view and students seem to understand how to enter their search terms correctly.

We were unable to conduct user testing during course delivery last fall. During this summer I plan to get approval from a couple of instructors to include an online questionnaire for students on evaluating course embedded library information, including FastTrack. Usability testing in the formative stages of design is extremely important and useful, but this doesn't test the experiences of the learner in the environment that the product is intended to be used. Evaluation at the end of course delivery will allow us to capture feedback from students who may not be coming on campus to use our resources and in-person services, and from students who have accessed the demonstration several times. In this evaluation, we may find a completely different set of problems and opportunities for further improvement.

To contact the authors of FastTrack, please write:

Name: Mary Dykes
Email: mary.dykes@usask.ca