Using the Virtual Training Suite in library information skills training
The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) is a world-class centre for teaching and research in the social sciences. It currently offers a wide range of full and part-time courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. These cover all subjects within the social sciences ranging from anthropology to politics, economics, social policy and gender studies. In 2002 there were almost 9,000 students of which 750 were part time.
The LSE library serves the needs of the academic school. This includes the provision of user education in the use of electronic databases and Internet searching. The Information Skills programme is currently organised by a group of 10 assistant librarians from the Information Services section. They must deliver training, which is suitable for all academic levels and subject areas taught by the LSE. This case study provides an account of their experiences in using the Virtual Training Suite during the period 2002-3.
Why did we use the VTS?
User Education in the LSE Library
The LSE has a long established information skills programme. Traditionally this has included:
- Induction sessions for new students.
- Drop in sessions during term time, which are open to all students. These generally focus on individual databases or specialist areas of research such as tracing journal articles or government information.
- Subject based training sessions organised for individual departments by liaison librarians.
In recent years Internet information skills training has become increasingly important as:
- A number of key databases and publications have migrated to online only access. In particular many government documents are available on the web before they arrive in the Library in paper and the publications of smaller pressure groups and charities are only accessible electronically.
- A growing number of LSE courses are in the process of developing Virtual Learning Environments (VLES). These require students to be proficient in using online resources.
However, the LSE library has faced a number of challenges in delivering its information skills training.
The challenges we faced:
- Limitations on staff time. Only 10 librarians were available to provide training for nearly 9,000 students. Therefore it was impossible to offer enough sessions for everyone and the constant delivery of the same programme was time consuming and repetitive for staff.
- Limited IT facilities. The Library training room could only provide hands-on access for 25 students at a time. Therefore it would have been physically impossible to run enough sessions.
- The large number of subject areas taught by the university meant that there was not enough time to create specialised training materials for each one. Therefore, many of the training materials tended to be general rather than subject specific.
- Limitations on student time. An increasingly pressurised teaching programme meant that students were often unable to attend training sessions during the day and there was limited opportunity for staff to offer them outside of normal office hours. There were also growing numbers of students on external placements and mature students with family or work commitments who could not travel to the Library to attend training courses.
The solutions offered by the VTS:
- Reliability. All the tutorials were created by subject specialists so we knew that the advice would be sound and the sites suggested would be of a suitable academic quality.
- Flexibility. The training programmes could be used by staff and students at any time from any location.
- Subject focus. Each of the tutorials offered specialist guidance to students geared towards research in their specific subject area. This was an advantage over other training packages, which tended to focus on general IT skills and were often regarded by students as too technical or irrelevant to their immediate needs.
- Free Training. The Teaching Resources section offered trainers with a ready-made collection of handouts and PowerPoint slides that could easily be adapted for local use.
Training on library resources
VTS can not replace all local training, so we still needed to provide training and materials on use of the:
- LSE Library web site and Library catalogue
- Local subscription services such as CD-ROMs and electronic journal databases
- LSE special collections such as United Nations and United States government resources
Our approach has been to mix and match use of the VTS with locally developed online training modules and face-to-face information skills sessions. By offering basic Internet skills training to the "masses" the VTS has freed some staff time to focus on specialised training needs.
How did we use VTS?
The LSE Library has been able to adapt the VTS to several different types of training need.
1. Student Induction
Student inductions occur in the first 3 weeks of the autumn term. Their aim is to:
- Provide information to large numbers of new students
- Offer an introduction to the services on offer
The emphasis is on 'basic survival tips' as it is recognised that at this time of year students are often overloaded with information.
In 2002 the Induction programme included
- Library tours,
- A special web site for new students
- Many liaison librarians also arranged short presentations for their departments.
All of these aimed to achieve the objective of highlighting key resources, which students could then explore later in their course. Internet information skills formed one of the key areas as it was felt that it constituted an essential skill in locating relevant course materials.
Use of the VTS
The "New Students" Web pages [sample page]
were posted on the Library home page for the first three weeks of term. Click here to view an image of what they looked like. Alongside the usual facts about opening hours and borrowing rights, we also added a link to some online training courses. These included the Virtual Training Suite, plus some locally designed packages on using the Library catalogue and the LSE Electronic Library web pages. The intention for this was to offer an alternative to students who could not attend the time tabled sessions. The locally designed modules focussed upon local collections and access arrangements, the VTS was seen to offer a wider focus upon subject based Internet searching.
- Visibility - the links to the training course must be clearly highlighted on the web site if students are to successfully locate and use them. We found that generally they were unwilling to 'navigate down ' several levels in the hierarchy. If links were placed on home pages or specific training pages they were more likely to be used.
- Terminology is also important. If the users don't know what a term means they may not follow the link. We decided to use the phrase 'online training courses' as we felt that this was more self-explanatory than VTS or individual titles such as 'Internet Lawyer' or 'Internet politician'.
- Promotion - usage frequently increased if students were recommended to use tutorials by their lecturers, therefore good academic liaison was a key factor. Other useful techniques included advertising the new services via the PC log in box for a week at the start of term, advertising in free student newspapers and distributing flyers at Freshers fairs.
Handouts and library guides
At the start of term Assistant Librarians created quick guides to the collections for their subject area. These were intended to help orientate new students, highlighting the most important class marks and electronic services.
It was decided to create them using a standard template agreed by all members of the department in order to give consistency. They were written in Microsoft FrontPage so that students could view them via the Internet from any location and they could be cheaply printed. They were also distributed in paper from the Library Information desk and at induction presentations. While the emphasis was on local services, many of the guides also mentioned the VTS in their section on important electronic sources. This was felt to be useful as while large numbers of students were experienced in using the Internet, many were unaware of how to use if effectively for academic research or of the main scholarly sites in their subject area. Here are some examples for Anthropology and Social Psychology.
Quick Subject Guide for Anthropology
Quick Subject Guide for Psychology
- Making guides web accessible increases flexibility of usage. In particular it enables off-campus access by part time students.
- It is necessary to consider the visibility of guides on the web site. They can't be used if students can't find them!
Presentations to new students
These took the form of short (15-45 minutes) presentations given by liaison librarians to individual courses or academic department. They offered a general introduction to Library (opening hours, borrowing arrangements) and the range of services on offer.
An example is a session on electronic resources at the LSE Library given to 100 School of Psychology Msc students. This took the form of a PowerPoint presentation and talk lasting about 40 minutes. The short time period meant that detailed explanations could not be offered, so we decided to highlight the range of materials on offer, focusing on one key example of each type, such as an electronic journal, newspaper or bibliographic database. The students could then go back to explore them at a later date. Within this structure, reference was made to the VTS Internet Psychologist tutorial as a useful tool for beginning academic Internet research. A screen dump was shown of the main sections of the tutorial and it was explained that it provided a tour of the most useful web sites for Psychology as well as training on creating effective search terms. The students were also given the quick guide to social psychology handout, which gave the direct URL. Here is an example of a brief plan for a typical session.
PowerPoint Presentation: An introduction to Library Services
- If you have limited time remember that PowerPoint slides are quicker to use than 'live demos' as you don't have to wait for the web site to load!
- Keep the explanations brief. It is a great temptation to go into too much detail. In practice students won't remember it all. Summarise the key points (how to access, the benefits they will get and some of the topics covered) and provide a printed handout with the URL so they don't have to try to write it down from the slide.
- Offer a contact email address so any students who have problems/questions know where to get help.
2. Drop in Training Sessions
To train students in basic Information skills, including
- Boolean operators to construct search terms
- Effective use of Search Engines,
- Awareness and use of the Information Gateways
- Critical evaluation of Internet resources.
In 2002 Internet searching skills formed part of a basic training skills programme which covered essential skills in searching the Library catalogue, electronic journal databases and online subscription services. 50-minute sessions were run regularly throughout term time. Booking was not required. They were held in the Library training room, which contained 25 pcs and a trainer's pc with screen projector. Sessions were devised and delivered by a small group of Assistant Librarians. A standard plan and handouts was created. Each session combined brief presentations by the trainer with hands on exercises. Sessions were advertised via an information skills training page on the LSE Library web site, paper flyers and advertisements in student newspapers.
To view the publicity for the programme, which gives an overview of its objectives click here:
Information Skill Training Leaflet [MSWord file]
Use of the VTS.
While the main emphasis of the session was upon familiarization with the LSE electronic library web site and introduction to some of the main subscription services available via it, students were also pointed towards the VTS. This was presented as a useful starting point for beginning Internet searching for their academic subject area. Key features highlighted were the Tour of subject relevant web sites, the facility to create a 'links basket' of useful web sites and the exercises relating to developing critical evaluation skills. Some of the trainers printed the free handouts available from the teacher's section http://www.vts.rdn.ac.uk/teachers/. These included a workbook of exercises. Within training sessions dedicated time could be allocated for students to start working through the tutorial for their particular subject area. It could also be used as a tactic for effective class management, enabling students of different abilities to be taught at the same time, with some students working independently through the exercises, while others were being given personal assistance from the trainer.
The effectiveness of these sessions was evaluated via a feedback form. Initially this was in paper, but during 2002 it was made available online. This made the administration far simpler as there were no pieces of paper to lose and we were able to find out which types of publicity was the most effective in attracting students to the sessions. It also enabled students to fill in their forms after the session had ended which was useful if they were short of time or wanted to make comments in privacy! To view an example of this see.
Information Skills Training Evaluation Form
In general students liked the subject-based approach of the tutorials, however, there was not enough time for them to work through many of the exercises within the classroom setting. The time taken to complete each tutorial varied, but could be in excess of an hour if all the resources were explored fully. This was too long to accommodate within the existing timetables so in practice, classroom sessions tended to introduce students to the main features of the VTS (such as the common chapter headings and how to create their own links basket) and left them to explore the full content in their own time. As the tutorials were designed to be self-contained this seemed to present few problems.
- If possible try to target your sessions to particular levels of knowledge, such as beginners or advanced searchers, to avoid large differences in ability between students. In order to overcome problems relating to this we introduced suggested pre-requisite knowledge on our training publicity.
- Ensure that the trainers are familiar with the standard sections and features common to all the VTS tutorials so that they can answer any questions that may arise. One of the most common issues raised was how to use the 'links basket'.
- It is a good idea to check the sites listed in the 'Tour ' section of the main tutorials relevant to your subject areas. Verify whether any of those listed are already linked to via your local web site / electronic Library or if there are any local access arrangements to databases that from differ or supplement those mentioned in the tutorial.
- Publicity for drop in sessions is of great importance. We sometimes suffered low attendance as the classes were not compulsory and therefore students did not feel that they could spare the time. It was found to be most effective if lecturers recommended particular sessions to students. Also useful was a prominent link to the information skills training page from the Library home page.
- Finally allow time for students to complete evaluation forms at the end of the session. In practice once they have left the training room very few bother to fill them in at a later date. Also offer an email contact for future support.
3. Subject specific training sessions
These sessions were individually arranged by liaison librarians with their departments. They aimed to provide masters course students with information skills relevant to completing their dissertations. This included.
- Effective literature searching of online databases to locate relevant journal articles.
- Effective Internet searching using search engines and information gateways
- Effective citing of references using standard citation systems.
Classes usually took place in the Library training room this offered hands on access for 25 students. The focus was upon subject related resources. The liaison librarians were able to check in advance the areas being studied so it was far easier to provide relevant sample searches than in the general drop-in sessions. Again the sessions combined brief presentations from the trainer with hands on exercises.
Use of the VTS
Many of the sessions used the VTS as a starting point for Internet research in the subject area. This was combined with an introduction to other subscription services provided by the LSE electronic library web site.
For example a typical session of 1.5 hours for postgraduate Anthropology Students focused on the resources available via the Social Anthropology section of the LSE web site. This can be viewed here
Electronic Library: Social Anthropology
- The trainer gave an overview of how to access the page and the meaning of the icons.
- He/she then highlighted the key Anthropology subscription databases - Anthropology Literature, Anthropology Online and International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, in each case giving details of access arrangements and content.
- The students practiced using these for 30 minutes.
- This was followed by a section on Internet searching, where the trainer used the Internet Anthropologist http://www.vts.rdn.ac.uk/tutorial/anthropologist/ as a starting point. He/she showed slides of the main sections of the tutorial, highlighting the ability to create a collection of useful links and the guide to citing Internet resources. These aspects were chosen as they were considered to be most relevant to the needs of students preparing long dissertations.
- This was followed by a demonstration of the possible uses of SOSIG for locating further materials and a hands on session of approx 30 minutes where students were encouraged to work through the Anthropology tutorial.
- At the end of the session students were encourage to fill in the standard evaluation form.
- Subject targeted sessions tended to be better attended than drop in sessions as they were timetabled into the student's schedules and recommended by academic staff.
- It was better to combine demonstration of local subscription databases with the VTS as this covered the full range of resources offered to students. Using the VTS on its own would have excluded some key databases.
- Again the session was more effective if the trainer had recently practiced using the links basket and was aware of the current content of the recommended web sites.
4. Online information skills training
Self-guided learning is a relatively new area for the LSE as traditionally the numbers of part time students have been low. However, in recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on the creation of online courses that students can access from home at any time of the day. As part of this move the Library has started to develop online information skills training packages. The aims of these are:
- To offer a flexible self-contained alternative to students unable to attend the traditional training sessions.
- To free LSE staff time from delivering basic routine training sessions enabling them to concentrate on providing training for specialist local collections.
The Library has been developing a specialist Information Skills Training page. This provides information on the traditional timetabled sessions. It also includes prominent links to the online courses.
View an image of the Information Skills Training page for 2002/3
Use of the VTS
The online courses section highlights the VTS and a number of locally created online courses. The link to the VTS was placed under the heading 'Finding information on the web'. This wording was felt to be more intuitive to students than the official title Virtual Training Suite. A decision was made to combine it with locally created courses in order to provide guidance on locating information on the LSE Library web site, promote services which were subscribed to locally and provide details about any local access arrangements.
During 2002/3 two courses were created: Using the Library catalogue and Discover the Electronic Library. Both these courses are available on the LSE website and can be accessed be LSE students and external users by following the two links below:
The Discover the Electronic Library course includes information about electronic journal databases, journal indexing services and finding information on the Internet. While the first two sections highlight our major subscription services, the Internet searching section includes some basic tips on how to get started and then directs users to the VTS and local training sessions for more specialist subject advice. Here is an example:
Getting started on the Internet
Publicity for the tutorial included: a link to the site from the Information skills training web site, short articles in library newsletters and direct 'word of mouth' contact with academic staff. The visibility of the tutorial was a key factor. When it was included prominently on the home page or the new students page usage was found to be higher than if students needed to navigate down several levels in the hierarchy of the site. Integration with teaching was also significant. If students felt that completion of the tutorial was fundamental to their course then they were more likely to use it.
In order to take account of this, future plans for the development of online tutorials include their direct integration into WebCT modules. This is being developed through a collaboration between the Library and LSE Centre for Learning Technology ultimately it will enable students to log onto their own personalized VLE course pages where they will have the option of viewing lecture notes, consulting reading lists or accessing the 'Library resources area'. The latter will include access to electronic course packs, exam papers, e-journals and information skills courses, such as the VTS. Staff in the Centre for Learning Technology have created a help page for WebCT course designers to enable them to customize their Library resources area and actively encourage them to link to the VTS tutorials.
In addition to this from Autumn 2003 there will also be a WebCT information skills course, available to all LSE students. This will include instruction on basic Internet searching skills as well as quizzes and interactive discussion boards. It is hoped that this will offer both support to students unable to attend face-to-face classes and highlight the value of information skills to all students.
- Encourage usage of online tutorials by increasing their visibility on the web site. Try to locate them on the home page or on clearly designated training areas.
- Encourage academic staff to be involved in promoting and using the tutorials with their students.
- Remember to gather evaluative feedback on the content and presentation of your materials
As the VTS tutorials are designed as self-contained packages, they do not require many extra resources for use in the classroom. You will need to check that all your PCs can handle frames, but apart from that the technical specifications are low. However, some good general tips from our experiences of using them at the LSE are:
- Provide hands on access for everyone. The students usually want to spend time exploring the Tour links!
- Access to PowerPoint is useful. You can quickly show slides of the main sections of the VTS and then allow the students to explore the tutorial specific to their subject area.
- Provide a handout out with the URL of the VTS. Students often copy this down wrongly from a screen!
Conclusion and Recommendations
Generally the VTS is an excellent tool. We were impressed by the width of its subject coverage, as it offered information all the subject areas taught by the LSE, plus some marginal related areas such as medicine. This case study has also shown that it is flexible enough to be used in a variety of teaching settings and for students and staff at different academic levels. However, in order to maximize your results some good general advice is:
- Publicize the tutorials widely.
- Make the links immediately visible on the library home page or specialized subject pages
- Involve academic staff in using the VTS. If they recommend it students are more likely to use it!
- Consider how you can integrate the VTS with any local online training packages.
- Practice using the tutorial yourself so you are prepared for any questions!