Speakeasy Studio and Café: Information Literacy, Web-Based Library Instruction, and Technology

Mark Jacobs

Library instruction in the modern university is, increasingly, the task of creating and maintaining an information-literate populace well-schooled in advanced principles of information access. The librarian/teacher strives to help students develop scholarly research and information-gathering skills. The world the student prepares to enter is a digital one and the best-prepared student is the one who has learned the important skills of critical thinking and the art of the question while immersed in the Web-based environment of a discussion tool like Speakeasy Studio and Café.

The rapid evolution of information technology presents a myriad of difficulties and endless possibilities for bibliographic instruction librarians. In its broadest sense, the goal of librarians engaged in bibliographic instruction is to develop and maintain an information-literate populace. They must identify valuable information resources, learn how to use them, and impart that knowledge in the library and, increasingly, in the classroom. The utilization of technology in the context of the new media classroom enables them to communicate to students the principles of information literacy and library research in a way that is at once challenging and interactive.

Librarians at Washington State University (WSU) can take advantage of a homegrown, Web-based program called Speakeasy Studio and Café as an aid in teaching the General Education Program course, Accessing Information for Research (figure 1).

Figure 1. Speakeasy's Front Page

In the past, librarians at WSU worked to establish and implement a variety of traditional library instruction programs such as library orientations, and assisted with freshman composition classes. Recognizing the limitations of these programs and not afraid to tackle innovative methods of instruction, WSU librarians developed GenEd 300, a semester-long, one-credit course taught by library faculty. "Designed to help students develop advanced strategies for research, and use the variety of electronic and other resources available," 1 GenEd 300 provides an opportunity for librarians to take their place alongside the other teaching faculty at WSU. It also provides a semester-long, process-oriented approach to research assignments with class content that includes "topic formulation, utilizing reference sources, research practice in relevant academic disciplines, searching protocols in WSU's licensed databases and the Web, and evaluation of resources." 2 In other words, GenEd 300 is the perfect learning environment for the use of technology-assisted instruction.

Speakeasy and Bibliographic Instruction

Speakeasy is a Web-based platform upon which the framework for a digital online classroom complete with tables, chairs, assignments, blackboards, and interactive discussions between students and teacher can be built (figure 2).

Figure 2. Getting Started in a Speakeasy Café

Speakeasy is the creation of Eric Miraglia who, at the time, held a joint appointment with the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT) and the Student Advisory Learning Center (SALC) as a nonteaching member of the WSU faculty. An "online space designed to enable the formation of community independent (to some extent) of the constraints of time and place," Speakeasy is a discussion tool which allows instructors to make assignments and students to accomplish their work, individually or in groups, in a forum designed for complete interaction. 3 According to Dewald, interactive Web-based instruction that requires "thoughtful action or feedback by the learner is of paramount importance" in library instruction. 4

Guidelines for Web-based instruction place a high value on "online conferencing between students throughout the length of a Web course" and although this is not usually feasible in traditional library instruction, the use of Speakeasy in teaching GenEd 300 makes it highly practicable. 5 The intention is to transform learning from a linear, restrained, and stressful experience, into an inclusive, enjoyable activity that emphasizes osmosis rather than method. Speakeasy enables students and teachers to propose, discuss, and exchange thoughts, comments, questions, and experiences about the process of research. It also helps students develop information literacy skills needed to locate, access, and take advantage of information; the concept of how one approaches that state; and what it means to be information literate.

A common criticism of instruction in an online classroom is that it takes away from the valuable face-to-face interaction of the traditional classroom. The suggestion is that the humanity of the educational experience is diminished through the use of technology. Although this concern may be true on several levels, it doesn't accurately touch upon or give credit for the various ways in which technology can positively influence and enhance the teaching and learning experiences.

Librarians are uniquely prepared to tackle this issue because they have previously grappled with the view that digital manifestations of information resources will replace, rather than complement, their physical counterparts. This so-called "paperless society" argument is not new and has been joined, in recent times, by the "library without walls" concept that suggests a time when information will no longer be stored within the pages of books or journals. But this view is extremely polarized and ignores the historical fact that we, as a civilization, have never relied on a single method to access information or on a single format as an information resource. A digital online version of a piece of information simply provides an alternative form of access to that information and the new media classroom is, in the same way, simply an alternative forum for the exchange of ideas. The online environment is not the only interface with students, just the newest. 6

But the world students will enter upon graduation is, increasingly, a digital one. Students who are better prepared for success are the ones who have had the opportunity to apply critical thinking as part of a practical research strategy formulated in a classroom setting which synthesizes traditional goals of scholarship with new realizations predicated on immersion in an online environment such as Speakeasy. The convergence is complex, driven, by necessity, through interaction, and essential. In order to make the best use of their time in a digital environment "students need to think about what relationships exist within a topic they want to explore . . . [be] better prepared from the outset . . . able to think on their feet . . . [and] able to appraise critically the results of their searching. . . ." 7

The importance of the complementary relationship between the physical and online classrooms is recognized and attendance in the traditional classroom is a requirement of GenEd 300. This enables the use of the online components of the course to complement the work that goes on in the more familiar setting. With the help of Speakeasy, students share their efforts with each other as they progress through the research process. They also learn how to identify, access, and evaluate a number of information resources in print and digital formats. In other words, they do all of the things in a digital environment that they would do in the traditional classroom setting.

When students access the Speakeasy Studio, which contains their class goals and assignments, they find a link to the library's home page and the resources available within its walls and over the Internet, i.e., the online public access catalog (OPAC) and lists of databases and other digital online information. Not only do they have easy and ready access to these digital resources, they can store the accessed information that is relevant to their research in the Speakeasy environment for later use as well as for the perusal of their classmates. Using the Copy and Paste function of the Windows interface, they can also store descriptive information on databases in bibliographic annotations for the purpose of evaluation.

The use of technology provides the opportunity to enhance the learning experience. For example, students' approaches to assignments will change as the semester unfolds. This evolution is inevitable and is a result of students' individual growth fueled by a progressive discussion of relevant principles of scholarship. Speakeasy provides easy online reference for exchanges and discussions and enables students and teachers alike to observe the progress of the individual and the class as a whole.

The instructor, for example, can establish an event, the top level of the Speakeasy Studio and Café hierarchy, on the principle of information literacy. The online Café that hosts the event contains a number of tables, or assignments. One of these tables hosts an online discussion on the ethical use of information (figure 3).

Figure 3. An Initial Post and Response

Students are asked to post why this is a relevant issue in their daily lives. The posts are identified by the logins of the students who compose them and are lined up below the table in the Café window display. All students and the instructor can respond to each initial post and those responses line up under the initial posts in typical hierarchical fashion. The first post can be changed by its author or authors in response to the comments and suggestions of the other members of the class, or as thought on the subject evolves during the course of the semester. In other words, there are no right or wrong answers, just a free flow of ideas and information. With Speakeasy everyone in the class is able to follow the individual and group progression of thought on any given issue. "The need for students to acquire critical thinking skills has never been greater," and Speakeasy allows the instructor to integrate critical thinking into a Web-based learning environment. 8

Speakeasy and the Process of Research

There are several models for research and which one is used is of less importance than the tasks and discussions that surround the process once initiated. In general, research involves the selection and refinement of a topic, the search for information, the formulation of a focus, the collection of information, the evaluation of information resources, and the presentation of the results. In a Web-based environment, the initial and continued efforts plus the growth and evolution of individual thought can be observed, supported, and enhanced by instructor and classmates. Required tasks that are initially perceived by students as arbitrary become natural, comfortable, and acceptable steps in the learning process. These tasks include posting their own work, commenting on the work of others, and regular review of work based on the input of others.

The research process is a journey from which we learn as much in its undertaking as in its completion. In the Speakeasy environment, the ultimate goal of the researcher (e.g., the completion of a paper) is no longer a restrictive, linear undertaking of signposts and deadlines, but an adventure, a voyage that continues beyond the classroom. Even though there are, inevitably, an arbitrary number of steps in any research plan, the work evolves according to the exigencies of the researchers' personalities. No one engages in research in exactly the same way and no one devises a perfect method of research on the first try. In the Speakeasy environment, there is only an ultimate goal and, rather than being judged for false starts and wrong steps along the way, students are encouraged to experiment, take risks, and collaborate. Every step taken is archived and can be reshaped as more is learned on a given subject. For example, comments by other students on the work done in step five can suggest ways to improve the w ork done in step two. Ultimately, the quality of the final product improves from this collaboration, and students benefit from the process. In this way, Speakeasy can be used to apply the "model of behavioral learning theory, [which] focuses on modifying the learner's behavior and produces instruction that involves a presentation of information, a question to elicit a response from the learner [and] feedback to the learner's response." 9

Speakeasy provides a forum with no constraints of time or place (figure 4).

Figure 4. Discussion Goes on outside the Physical Classroom

If problems or questions occur to students outside the physical classroom, they can be posted to the cyber-classroom at any time for later discussion. Through the use of Speakeasy, the thread of a discussion is revealed to the whole class as it unfolds. When students access a specific topic in the tabled hierarchies, their questions, comments, and suggestions are systematically organized and displayed for the perusal and commentary of others. All of this cyber-exchange of information is archived by Speakeasy and is easily and readily accessible to current and future students. Over the course of the semester, students and instructors have an existing record of what works and what doesn't as the course progresses, how long it takes to complete the work, and what students like and dislike about the process.

Another useful feature of Speakeasy is that it allows for the storage and retrieval of lists of terms that students use for searching online databases, and lists of links to digital resources found by the students. The search terms can be copied from the Speakeasy environment and pasted into a search engine's query form. All these search terms and hyperlinks are available to the other students in the class, supporting the concept of the new media classroom as a shared learning environment.

The use of Speakeasy can lead to opportunities to fulminate, exaggerate, and elaborate one's knowledge, experiences, and ideas. If the course is properly structured, then students come away from it with an understanding that the most important lessons are the ones learned along the way. These lessons include what is learned about the process itself, what is learned about the art of the question, and what we learn about ourselves.

The Art of the Question

The most important factor in the research process, one especially suited to the online environment, is the art of the question. Asking the right question not only begins the process correctly, but it enables students to remain focused. Practical experience suggests that students don't necessarily know the right questions to ask when they start to gather information. A Web-based environment such as Speakeasy not only supports collaboration with the other students in the class and with the instructor, but helps students ask ever-evolving questions and keeps a permanent record of the process for later referral (figure 5).

Figure 5. A Chance to Practice the Art of the Question and Help the Discussion Evolve

For instance, a student might ask, "Why does the university care if students drink?" Another student might point out the negative effects of drinking, e.g., bad grades, violence, sexual licentiousness, alcoholism, etc. The student then might ask, "Why do college-age students drink?" Someone might point out that many people of all ages drink. The student might then ask, "Why does our society have such a big problem with drinking?" What started as a relatively specific inquiry evolved into a discussion of a larger social issue that impacts everyone. With Speakeasy the entire inquiry is documented so others can follow the discussion threads.

Much can be learned from how others organize and present their thoughts. If students take advantage of the opportunity to look into the minds of classmates and instructors, directions of inquiry never before imagined and affirmation of those already considered can be revealed. The online classroom environment is well suited for the creation and nurture of a milieu that is at once comfortable, challenging, and revelatory.

A survey of WSU faculty identified four important reasons to teach students to ask the right questions. These reasons have a special significance when considered in the context of the new media classroom: (1) if we ask the right questions, we increase our powers of observation. No environment in which we gather information presents more pitfalls or makes more demands on our skills of observation than the Web; (2) if we ask the right questions, we increase our understanding of what we don't know. College-age students are fascinated with the cyber-universe and don't always realize that much of the information there is unreliable. Instructors today cannot afford to suggest that students eschew the Internet completely in favor of information resources available in more traditional formats. With or without guidance, students will continue to access information online and it behooves instructors to teach them how to ask the right questions when faced with a plethora of online information resources of varied and su spect reliability and validity; (3) if we ask the right questions, we have the opportunity to encounter an encyclopedia of related information while attempting to answer the question. With literally trillions of bits to peruse, the Web is the paradise of information environments. The use of Speakeasy in complement with the traditional classroom is an attempt to follow Walter's suggestion and develop a new teaching strategy that will help students make use of the seemingly overwhelming mass of information "now accessible through emergent information technologies. . . ."; and (4) if we ask the right questions, the effort may lead to an information-filled discussion or a thought-provoking debate. 10

If a comfortable and, to students, exciting environment is provided in which students can develop the skill to compose research questions, the physical classroom then becomes a welcome and complementary forum. Speakeasy provides that comfortable, exciting environment where questions are presented for discussion and analysis in the digital environment between class meetings, and then are further refined by students in the course of in-class participation. The revised thoughts that result from this continuous refinement of the art of the question become tangible additions to the online environment and are ready to be shared and revised again.

Speakeasy and the Individual Learner

Speakeasy is an environment that challenges and engages students according to the principle of cognitive psychology. Its flexibility allows the instructor to focus on the way in which the student understands the world. The instructor, by relating new material to this understanding, allows meaningful learning to occur and the "transfer of the concepts to new situations. . . ." 11

"The Web's hypertext multimedia environment is highly attractive and can reinforce learning by accommodating students' different learning styles. The Web also affords feedback by providing the opportunity for unlimited drill and practice, giving self-directed students greater flexibility for learning." 12 This flexibility allows Speakeasy to be molded to students' unique learning styles. Some students are visual, others are aural, and some prefer a hands-on approach, while others learn by reading. No single way is better and often a combination of learning styles produces the best results.

An important advantage of the new media classroom is to provide a more flexible venue for teaching and learning than is apparent in the traditional classroom setting. Speakeasy provides an environment in which those who are often left out of oral classroom discussions can participate at a pace that is more comfortable for them. These students are often too shy or reticent to speak in front of others; require more time to compose and articulate their thoughts than is usually possible in today's dynamic classroom environment; have speech or learning disabilities; or speak English as their second language (ESL).

Speakeasy can help democratize opportunity in the classroom community by providing a public forum for those who are slower to articulate their ideas. In this way they are recognized for their participation and can benefit from collaboration with other students. This community-building is a notable advantage of Speakeasy as it evolves throughout the semester into an agreeable and progressive social setting in which students communicate. In addition, the complementary use of the cyber and physical classrooms ensures a forum for expression for those students who are less comfortable in a classroom setting dependent upon interaction with computers.


One of the purposes of the course, Accessing Information for Research , is to encourage students to discuss and debate the role that libraries play in their lives. Their insight comes from a constant interface with the library, its people, and its collections through tours, guest speakers, and through the Web. The Web-based classroom parallels the physical classroom by encouraging students to walk through its cyber-doors and access the library's people, its collections, its special events, and its schedules. In that same digital environment, students can locate, reference, and access information resources from the home campus and from campuses and libraries around the world.

An increase in information literacy raises students' library comfort level. As the class grows in confidence together with the daily and, yes, hourly exchange of ideas, discoveries, and concerns, their understanding of the role the library plays throughout the rest of their lives becomes tangible in Speakeasy and in their minds. By the end of the semester students have identified a variety of library resources in all formats, evaluated them, explained why they are important, and added them to the Speakeasy universe as a permanent and lasting record that is easily referenced by future students. They are well-acquainted with the library's Web site and know what resources and services are available from each library unit and department, where those units and departments are located, and how to contact them.

The role of Speakeasy in this process is to show students an enjoyable and innovative alternative to the traditional classroom setting. It also introduces them to and reaffirms their knowledge of and interest in traditional scholarly and information-gathering skills taught from a learning platform that immerses them in and prepares them for a future that will be increasingly dominated by technology-driven forms of information access.

As we enter the twenty-first century, students are faced with an increased need to be digitally literate. Whether this is a positive or negative turn of events may be as relevant to the information user as whether or not we should feel nostalgic about a time when we all received a so-called classic education replete with requirements in Latin and Greek. What is important is that today's students are about to enter a world of fast-paced technological advances and ubiquitous telecommunication. Whether we like it or not, we must prepare them for this world. One of the best ways to do this is to impart to students the principles of education and scholarship through immersion in an environment such as Speakeasy Studio and Café that is similar to the one they will encounter outside the university.

References and Notes

   1. Amanda Cain, "Gen Ed 300: Accessing Information for Research" (Washington State University upperclassmen and graduate student handout, Pullman, Washington, fall 2000).

   2. Ibid.

   3. "About Speakeasy Studio and Café," Accessed Nov. 1, 2000, http://morrison.wsu.edu/studio/About.asp.

   4. Nancy H. Dewald, "Web-Based Library Instruction: What is Good Pedagogy?" Information Technology and Libraries 18, no. 1 (Mar. 1999): 26.

   5. Ibid.

   6. Ibid.

   7. Tom Gilson, "Library Instruction for Credit: A Technology-Driven Need," Research Strategies 15, no. 4 (1997): 281.

   8. Elaine Jayne and Patricia Vander Meer, "The Library's Role in Academic Instructional Use of the World Wide Web," Research Strategies 15, no. 3 (1997): 125.

   9. Dewald, 26.

   10. Scott Walter, "Engelond: A Model for Faculty-Librarian Collaboration in the Information Age," Information Technology and Libraries 19, no. 1 (Mar. 2000): 35.

   11. Dewald, 27.

   12. Jayne and Vander Meer, 125.

Author's note: For more information on Speakeasy, contact CTLT Director Gary Brown at (509) 335-1355; e-mail: browng@wsu.edu.

   Mark Jacobs ( majacobs@wsu.edu) is Electronic Resources/Serials Cataloging Librarian at Washington State University, Pullman.