Nov 2011 Site of the Month

primo banner

The Search for the Skunk Ape


Anna Carlin, Information Literacy Technology Librarian

Geraldine Collins, Head of Reference, Research and Instruction

Rachel Cooke, Librarian

Carol Maksian, Librarian

Kay Oistad, Librarian

Interviewees: Anna Carlin

Institution: Florida Gulf Coast University


Interviewer: Robert Perret

Tutorial Description: The current Search for the Skunk Ape tutorial is a four part information literacy and library skills tutorial aimed at undergraduate students who may not have much experience using library resources for research. This reincarnation of the Skunk Ape tutorial reinvents the theme and spirit of a previous tutorial created by Florida Gulf Coast University Library, using interactive exercises and multimedia. The four modules cover the research process, including getting started, gathering background information, scholarly vs. popular sources, using the catalog and databases to find books and articles, avoiding plagiarism and citing sources.


Q: Who was involved in making this tutorial?

A: There was a small taskforce of 5 librarians who oversaw the development of this tutorial. I, Anna Carlin, Information Literacy Technology librarian, did all of the hands-on work, building the lesson modules, recording and editing Camtasia videos, devising interactive elements, and generally designing the content of the tutorials. Geraldine Collins, the head of our Reference, Research and Instruction department at the time, provided guidance on what objectives and learning outcomes to include in the tutorial, as well as extensive work on the text of the tutorial. Librarians Rachel Cooke, Carol Maksian, and Kay Oistad all contributed in various ways from testing, suggestions for quiz questions, and organization of the tutorials. Some content was adapted from an older Skunk Ape tutorial which had fallen out of use sometime in 2004 or 2005. I also consulted with Elspeth McCulloch, one of our school’s e-learning designers, at various points throughout the project for help with implementation of the tutorial.


Q: What software and hardware was involved in creating this tutorial?

A: The lesson modules were built using SoftChalk Lesson Builder software, which has a lot of great built-in quiz and activity functions. Camtasia Studio, along with PowerPoint in some instances, was used to create the instructional videos that are spread throughout the modules. The only hardware used was my office computer and a headset microphone.


Q: What were the goals for this tutorial?

A: We wanted to create a tutorial that would address the information literacy competencies that were considered Tier One, or more basic, competencies in our library’s information literacy plan. Our Humanities librarian was overwhelmed with requests for basic library instruction in the Composition classes every semester. We hoped to offer an online alternative for some of the classes that just needed general information literacy instruction.


Q: Who is the audience for this tutorial?

A: The target audience for this tutorial is lower-division undergraduates or anyone who may be new to college level library research.


Q: Is this tutorial in addition to, or in lieu of, traditional library instruction?

A: The original intent was for this tutorial to be available for any student or instructor who wanted to use it. Since the original launch of the tutorial, the leaders of the Composition program at the university approached us with a proposal to require all Composition II classes to complete the tutorial. That is currently the practice, so those Composition II classes no longer get face to face library instruction. Outside of the Composition program, we still do traditional in-person instruction. And of course, students from any class or program are welcome to come see us at the reference desk.


Q: One striking aspect of this tutorial is the combination of a humorous research topic with a very straightforward tutorial. Why did you decide upon this approach? Has it been successful?

A: The idea of the Skunk Ape as a theme for the tutorial started a long time ago when the first Search for the Skunk Ape tutorial was created back in 1999. The people who worked on that original tutorial (including Pamela Sawallis, coordinator of the library instruction team at the time) chose a topic that was fun and interesting and also a somewhat well-known myth in the area. When planning the creation of this new information literacy tutorial, we decided to stick with the theme, since it was memorable and unique. I think that using the Skunk Ape as our topic has given the tutorial a special notoriety with the students. My personal opinion is that it is hard to get students excited about the library, so anything we can do to jazz up our instruction helps. At the same time, we had a lot of information we wanted to get across and I didn’t want students to have to spend too long on the tutorial, so most of the content is there to be informative. We have a feedback survey for the tutorial with open response questions asking what people did or did not like about the tutorial. At least six people said they liked that the topic was the Skunk Ape, although one person said they disliked it. I think overall the theme has been successful.


Q: At the same time, you clearly faced the classic struggle that plagues every instruction librarian on occasion: Your natural keyword, “skunk ape”, didn’t get particularly good results in many of your searches. Throughout all four modules you fall back on “bigfoot” instead. You do acknowledge this sleight of librarian hand once in Module 2, but I wondered if this created any confusion for your patrons.

A: I have not gotten any feedback regarding that issue, so I’m really not sure how well the students have understood the concept. It was definitely something I struggled with throughout the making of the tutorial when I wanted to show sample searches. But it is a real truth of library research that sometimes the search terms you want to use don’t reveal the most results, especially on a topic like this where there just isn’t much literature. I think it serves as a good example of how to think more broadly or narrowly about your topic in order to find relevant sources. Some of the book examples would only come up with a search for “bigfoot” since the word was in the title, but there would be a chapter or a few pages dedicated to the Skunk Ape. Students often need to be able to perform this type of thinking in order to complete their research.


Q: Reminding your patrons to consider their audience and suggesting other potential additional audiences, such as elementary school groups, was a great suggestion that I don’t often see in bibliographic instruction sessions. I also appreciated that you snuck in real-world applications for research that they might consider pursuing in the future. Was including these sorts of grander aspirations an intentional part of your tutorial creation process?

A: Some of those concepts were present in the old Skunk Ape tutorial, so I can’t speak to the intentions of those people who worked on that tutorial. But I wanted to preserve those lessons, because I think it is important to remind students that their education and the work that they do in college is not just a hoop they have to jump through, but preparation for the real world. In almost any career, one will be expected to gather relevant information, analyze it and use it to accomplish a task.


Q: The text of these tutorials is full of pithy insights like “The format is less important than credibility.” That’s a great, memorable takeaway. Do you find that the text snippets around the video clips have the same impact as the videos themselves?

A: Looking at the feedback we have received through our survey, there is a bit of a split opinion about the videos versus text. Some commented that they would prefer to get all of the information for the videos and were tempted to skip the written material. But other responses indicated that they thought the videos took too long, and one person said they would rather just read something and answer the questions. My feeling is that one of the reasons the students didn’t like the videos is that they actually had to sit through them, rather than quickly scan through text or only look for the answers to the questions. That leads me to believe that the text snippets don’t have as much of an impact as the videos. But clearly, there are students who felt less comfortable with the videos as instructional tools, so I can see that there is still a need for text-based vehicles for instruction to accommodate various learning styles.


Q: I thought the “thought bubbles” in some of the early videos were a great idea. These really leveraged the possibilities of a multimedia format and allowed you to make multiple simultaneous points in a highly effective way. Did you experiment with different types of videos?

A: I have tried all kinds of “flash” when making the videos over a long period of time, which is probably obvious from the different things that pop up in each. Something I always try to keep in mind when I’m working on an instructional video is to take advantage of the format. If the same thing could be done on a sheet of paper with screenshots, I know that I either need to not bother making the video or add something to it to make it worthwhile. Some of the videos incorporate screen captures, photos, scanned images of pages, and recorded PowerPoint animations, which pulls together a lot of different media into one presentation. One element that does not appear in the videos is live action or real people, but that might be something to consider in the future.


Q: These modules are very video-heavy and time-intensive. For instance, in module 3 there are 14 minutes of video on finding an article in a database. Did you achieve the balance of media you were aiming for? Do you find that most patrons complete the entire tutorial sequence or do most patrons jump to specific sections?

A: This tutorial was supposed to be somewhat comprehensive in teaching students all that they would need to know to gather sources for a lower-division course paper. It was hard to decide not to include something, but we also want to keep students’ attention. In our survey responses, people did indicate that the videos took too long and were repetitive, and Module 3 is probably where the complaint is aimed. After reading those responses to our survey, I’ve been looking at ways to reduce the length of the video in that module without losing important content.

The majority of the people completing the tutorial are students in Composition II and they are assigned the entire tutorial (all four modules). But we designed it in four modules so that people could complete one at a time and get their complete scores from each module without having to sit down for an hour at a time. I have not heard of any major accessibility issues. As long as students have headphones, they should be able to hear the audio portion of the videos while in the library. We have headphones available for check out at the circulation desk and we have a class set in our library classroom, where some of the Composition classes come to complete the tutorial.

We do have some rudimentary web tracking set up on the tutorial. We have numbers for the year 2010 that show page visits. From the first page of each module to the last page of each module, there is a loss of between 9% and 17% of viewers. So, yes there are a number of people who are starting but not finishing the modules. And there is also a significant drop off of visits between the first module and the second module. We don’t know how many of the page visits are from Composition II students or not, so it is hard to make any guesses about the behavior of each group of students. I know the tutorial all together is fairly long, but it is functioning as a replacement for face-to-face instruction sessions, which are often about an hour long. We have other short video tutorials on our website for people who need more “point-of-need” help.


Q: Are there any accessibility issues? In particular, can patrons who are in the library hear the audio portion of the videos?

A: I have attempted to address some possible accessibility issues for hearing or vision impaired students by providing captioning for all videos, and in at least one case, an alternate PDF text sheet that includes information from a video. There is a lot of visual information in the videos, however, that is not fully expressed in the spoken narrative. This is certainly an area that calls for further development. I haven’t been able to collect any feedback from users who might have experience using adaptive tools to access the tutorial. Another problem that needs future work is lack of compatibility with some mobile devices. The videos are all Flash, which makes them invisible on Apple iPhones and iPads, as well as some Android phones (including my own).


Q: I noticed that you used both immediate concept check questions and end of module quizzes. How do the results of the two sets compare? Has this been an effective strategy for teaching and assessment?

A: Originally, I intended for those sets to behave differently. The concept check questions would allow the student to retry answers until they got it right in order to reinforce the concept. I was going to make the end of module questions allow only one attempt so that it would be more of a “test” of knowledge. In the end, I thought it might be too confusing or frustrating to the student to have the questions behave differently, and set them all to allow multiple attempts. It has also proven somewhat more difficult than anticipated to collect the scores from the modules, and I was unable to see the results of individual questions. To assess learning as a result of the tutorials, I created a supplemental pretest and posttest in our learning management system. I feel like having the two-pronged strategy allows the modules themselves to facilitate learning and the pre and posttests to more accurately assess learning. The score collection, assessment, and integration into the learning management system are all still a work in progress, but we have had some positive results so far. In the spring of 2011, we had over 100 students take the assessment and scores improved by 20 percentage points on the posttest over the pretest.


Q: In the module on citation you focus heavily, almost exclusively, on plagiarism as the rationale for citations. Why did you choose this approach?

A: I think focusing on the need to cite sources as a way to avoid unintentional plagiarism is probably the easiest and most impactful way to explain the concept to students, especially lower-division students who may not yet have made the intellectual shift into understanding themselves to be scholars and participants in scholarly discourse. Since this tutorial was aimed at the lower-division student, we chose what we thought was the most effective method for that group of students.


Q: The graphics in the modules were excellent. Was this a special focus for you?

A: I did work hard to try and make things look nice. I have an interest in graphic design and use of media in teaching and training, so I have tried to pick up lessons from presentations, websites, or publications that I’ve seen and liked. I probably spent more time than I should have tweaking things, trying different fonts, colors, and images, so it is nice to hear that it paid off. I took advantage of lots of different, simple to use programs to get to the final product: SnagIt for image editing, PowerPoint for animations, and all kinds of features within Camtasia Studio for callouts, transitions, and zooms.


Q: The variety of assessment methods, including drag and drop, a solitaire-style game, and traditional multiple choice, kept the questions fresh. How did you decide which question types to use and when to use them?

A: I worked with the types of activities and quizzes there were built into the SoftChalk software, which kept me from having to learn additional software. Multiple choice questions are used so often, that I tried to think of alternate activities whenever possible to keep it interesting. I think the activities like labeling the citations and sorting the search ask the student to engage a little bit more than just checking a box or radio button. I’d love to work more hands-on activities into the tutorial in the future.


Q: Finally, the most important question, who had to write the sample skunk ape paper?

A: No one, yet! Maybe we will see a student paper on the Skunk Ape someday that we can use in the tutorial.


November 2011 PRIMO Site of the Month