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August 2005 Site of the Month

DISCUS: Developing Information Skills & Competence for University Students
For English, please click on the UK flag icon.

Author: Thomas Hapke, Subject Librarian for Chemical Engineering
Institution: Hamburg University of Technology
Contact: hapke@tu-harburg.dephone

Description of the project
The primary aim of this online tutorial is to convey information literacy to students in the engineering sciences (especially process engineering, biotechnology, and economic sciences). In addition to a module on navigational and retrieval strategies, further modules on electronic publishing (writing, citing, and formatting) and the social aspects of information systems (intellectual property, copyright, patents, and information policy) are planned.

For a more detailed description, please see: For English, please click on the UK flag icon.

Interviewer: Carole Svensson

Q. What was the motivation for creating DISCUS?

A. As a library we try to meet the teachable moments of our customers through a diverse range of activities in information literacy and reference. Our customers are very different as learning types. To meet the full complexity of information literacy a wide range of activities to promote it are desirable: One-shot sessions in-class or outside of class, online tutorials, just-in-time-support in form of online and real reference, face to face consultations, newsletter via email, bookmarks, leaflets etc. To complement in-class instruction activities there was a growing need for an online tutorial.Raising awareness of information literacy and giving a general orientation to searching databases are the key goals of our tutorial, which offers a playful and explorative way of transferring information skills. It also gives a subject-specific orientation and includes interactive and task-oriented elements, with special emphasis on the visual appeal of the tutorial's interface. In addition to having something like a landmark for the promotion of information literacy, the most important reason for us to do an e-learning project like our DISCUS tutorial was a strategic one: To make the library part of the e-learning discussion within the university and to be visible as a library when building up a new electronic infrastructure.

Q. How long did the development process take? Who was involved?

A. It took two years to develop DISCUS. The core team included Detlev Bieler, who was responsible for concept, project management, content and layout; Oliver Marahrens, who developed the content and did the technical realization; and Thomas Hapke , who was responsible for the idea, concept, content, and the project as a whole. Additional consultants for the project were the TUHH Research Departments 2-10; Biotechnology II and 6-05; Chemical Engineering IV, as well as the University Library of the University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg.

Q. Tell us about the technologies that were used to create DISCUS, and why you chose them. Were there others that you considered?

A. Most important for us was the high-quality visual presentation of the user interface. It creates an enjoyable ambience for learning and supports perception and orientation. It creates positive emotions and increases learning activities. Didactically, DISCUS presents the content in multiple ways, offers changes of perspecives, appeals to different learning types, and makes the process fun. The red thread is the leading metaphor, visible on every page. DISCUS uses “LAMP” technology which is standard in the online arena: Linux as the operating system together with an Apache web server and the database system MySQL serve as basis for the tutorial which is primarily programmed in PHP. DISCUS uses an XML declaration to generate html pages on the fly, as well as to create PDF downloads. To enhance the interactivity and visualization Macomedia Flash was used. JavaScript must be enabled to use DISCUS as well. We considered using Java instead of Flash, but we decided against it because Flash is easier to create and use is wide-spread.

Q. What support, if any, did you get to assist you in the creation of DISCUS?

A. The project received funds from the Federal State of Hamburg through the E-Learning-Consortium Hamburg (ELCH) via the Multimedia-Kontor Hamburg (MMKH).

Q. How is DISCUS currently used? Is it tied to any particular class as a requirement, or how do students and faculty learn about it?

A. DISCUS is included as a link on all pages of our website at . Because of its subject-specific modules, it complements one-shot sessions which the subject librarian for Chemical Engineering presents in specific key lecture courses. This arrangement is a result of an agreement that has existed for years between the Dean for Study in Chemical Engineering and the Subject Librarian for Chemical Engineering. With these activities it is possible to reach at least 80 to 90 % of the Process Engineering students and to raise awareness of information literacy. In addition we developed a series of posters, a big banner in the stairways between our reading rooms (see image at top of page) as well as bookmarks to make DISCUS visible.

Q. What kind of feedback, either formal or informal, have you received from students or faculty? Do you collect any response data from the assessment quizzes? How do you use the data?

A. We made an evaluation with several users using “thinking aloud” protocols which provided us with information about the cognitions and emotions of a user while (s)he uses the interface, performs a task or solves a problem. As a result we learned that our users still feel that we offer too much text in opposition to our claim. Positive feedback concerning the interactivity, animations and playful elements emphasize this point.Currently, we collect the normal user statistics from the Apache webserver. In addition we have a protocol, which tells us how many users logged in and what exercises were done, how often, and the resulting scores. We analyze this data with no reference to the individual persons. We will use the data of the exercises to improve our tutorial in the future. We have noticed a loss of motivation in solving exercises: At the end of each part of DISCUS the exercises were less used than in the beginning (see also question 9).

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

A. We regard the user of databases and digital libraries as an ‘information player’ who plays with databases and search terms to improve research results. So DISCUS offers a playful and explorative way of transferring information skills. Nevertheless it is very difficult to create exercises which are fun, make sense and are challenging like our ‘Boole’s Restaurant’. From the beginning it was clear that we needed to build a bilingual online tutorial because more than 20 % of our students are from abroad.

Q. How has DISCUS contributed to or influenced your library’s instructional services?

A. The tutorial is one piece of our instructional services, which should be developed to better integrate into the curricula, creating a more extensive consulting role of the library and achieving a learning, facilitating, enabling or empowering library!

Q. What are your future plans for DISCUS?

A. The main constraint about our online tutorial is: Who really uses it, when, and how long? The normal engineering student won’t take the time to use such a tutorial from his/her own motivation - this will only be done by those students who in most cases also would have asked a librarian for help or who already know about the worth of information literacy for their theses or course work. To meet this challenge the TUHH library is partner in a further project called BibTutor which is funded by the German Federal Government. Together with three other university libraries and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Kaiserslautern, we aimed at facilitating searching in the original search interface of catalogs and databases. The first module of this product will support of database selection, the second gives context-specific support when the user searches a specific database interface. It can also offer context-specific just-in-time learning modules, for example through linking directly into DISCUS to a context-specific topic.The importance of the context and the ‘micromoments’ of searching will be advanced through the project concept of BibTutor. Direct links into DISCUS out of a specific context can tempt users to enlarge her/his information skills within DISCUS. Several smaller sequences of learning match the user needs better than a comprehensive tutorial.