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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2003

[Board accepted]

A Tale of Two Classes: Teaching Science and Technology Reference Sources Both Traditionally and through Distance Education

Susan B. Ardis
Head, Science and Engineering Libraries
The General Libraries
The University of Texas at Austin


Teaching continuing education and credit courses has been an important and enjoyable part of my professional life. Up until this past year all my previous teaching had been the with traditional face-to-face lecture method where students come to class, take notes, do assignments, and the instructor lectures and grades.

However, in 2002 I had the opportunity to teach the same class -- Introduction of Science and Technology Reference Sources -- simultaneously through distance education (DE) and traditionally. Over the course of both classes I kept track of my time as well as keeping notes on the differences, similarities and insights gained through this experience. This information makes up the rest of this article.

The Classes

Both classes required the same prerequisites: a basic reference and an online or database searching class. Both covered the same material and were organized in the same way and both downplayed theory while stressing the art, tools, and techniques used in modern scientific reference work.

The lecture style in each class was as similar as possible. The distance education class (DE) was written in a conversational style as if I were talking directly to students in a classroom. This meant that in the DE class relevant stories, asides, assignment hints and editorial comments were embedded in the lecture -- just like a traditional lecture. I decided on this style because I was teaching -- not writing a textbook.

To make sure everybody in each class was on the same page, the following basics were covered:

The Students

The students in each class had similar academic backgrounds. The following information was gathered or extrapolated from the first assignment. This was to write a one page or less biography, which included specific information on their interest or experience with science.

Type Traditional Lecture Distance Education
Female 100 % 75%
Liberal Arts Grad 85% 88%
Mid to late Twenties 100% 30%
Mid to late Thirties   70%
Currently working in library 50% 60%
Stated they had some scientific experience 25% 35%

Instruction Goals

The pedagogical objectives for each class were exactly the same and included the following goals for the students:

Instructor Goals

These were to:

Attainment of the instruction goals would be evaluated through the results of:

Preparation Time -- Overview

First, preparation for any type of teaching can be extensive -- especially if you want to do a good job. I expected and was not surprised to discover that preparation time for distance education was very front-loaded -- every lecture, example, demonstration, anecdote and assignment must be written, edited, and put up on the web in an organized way prior to each "class" meeting.

Traditional Model

The preparation for each traditional lecture can quite casual since one lectures from notes and the instructor doesn't need to write down everything that will be said. In fact students in traditional lecture classes would rightfully complain if the lectures, demonstrations, and anecdotes were read to them. The preparation for this type of teaching, rounded to full hours, was as follows:

Distance Education

Preparation for distance education class was more involved and complex but breaks down into two categories: creating the text and creating the web site. Creating the text broke down as follows:

Creating the web site took the following amount of time. The time normally needed to code the text in HTML was not necessary because Microsoft FrontPage was used. This allowed the text to be written, edited and coded simultaneously.

Actual breakdown was:

Preparation time for the entire class was 335 hours. What I did not fully appreciate when I began this project was the amount of time needed to create and test:

Every web demonstration must be checked and rechecked to make sure it works as intended and in ways that make sense to the students. Navigation or how students move through the lectures, assignments and quizzes to the final must also be checked for logical flow and continuity. Mini or transition lectures are also needed because students can read through the entire class in several sittings. Without a transition of some kind between each lecture, it can seem to the student as if the each lecture came out of nowhere and this can cause students to become lost or confused and frustrated. Transition lectures are not needed in a traditional lecture class because the time space between each lecture.

Preparing anecdotes and stories for distance education takes time. Each anecdote or story must be relevant to the written lecture and underscore the point the instructor is trying to make. These take more time than simply preparing a written a lecture because the anecdote must be scripted and this means writing dialog. Using dialog is important because facial gestures or body language cannot be used to improve the story's punch line as would occur in a traditional lecture class.

One of the most tedious but important tasks is to seriously copyedit the entire text. This is never required for classroom lectures. DE students are rightfully critical of any copy editing problems.


There were an amazing number of similarities between the two class formats. There was no difference in the amount of preparation time needed to create the individual assignments, quizzes or the final since both classes used the same materials. The amount of time to grade each individual assignment was the same as was how the students received their graded assignment. Each student in both classes received an e-mail answer key for each assignment and then a separate e-mail with their grade several days later.

Other similarities included:

Interestingly, the percentage of whiners in both classes was the same. It seemed that how students took the class had no impact on this kind of behavior.


Some of the differences were meaningful and some were merely interesting. The first difference was that there were substantially more students in the distance education class -- three times as many in fact.

Secondly, the web sites for each class were different. The DE class was taught completely on the web-they never saw me and I never saw them. Everything they needed for the class was on the web site. The traditional class had a web site but it included only the syllabus, assignments, and the PowerPoint slides used for each lecture. The DE web site was on an independent web hosting server and was password protected. This was done to protect my intellectual property. The web site for the traditional class was within school's web site and was not password protected as there was little to protect.

There was an important difference between the different class formats when it came to classroom etiquette. It turned out I'm an old fuddy-duddy-I was surprised the first time a student took a phone call during a lecture without batting an eye. Another difference could be seen in the number of students who:

This kind of behavior is not seen in distance education classes-it happens -- it just isn't seen by the instructor.

However, there were some serious differences. First, for any given assignment nearly 20% of the DE students did not turn it in on time and within this group over half never turned in the assignment even after a reminder e-mail was sent. This was not a problem in the traditional class -- none of the assignments was late.

The amount of time needed to complete the class was also different. The DE students could finish the class in a minimum of 8 weeks. None chose this option and I was shocked. All those who finished the class used all 16 weeks.

But the most serious difference was that every student in the traditional class completed the class successfully. This was not the case with the DE class where two students failed to turn in the final and therefore failed the class.

What I Learned

In both classes I continually had to stress the difference between the public web (a Google-type search) and specialized scientific library tools. Even when students told to use "scientific library tools from the list provided" many continued to use sources from the public web. This was quickly remedied in each class by taking off points for "not following directions."

The importance of catalog treatment and the level of inclusion in scientific abstracts seemed to be "news" to both classes. Neither group admitted, when asked, to ever having heard that how a monographic serial is treated can have a dramatic impact on retrieval from either online library catalogs or utilities such as RLIN and WorldCat. They also voiced surprise that a specific online catalog might not include every item a library owned. Imagine the surprise then when the students discovered that abstracting services do not necessarily include every article found in a specific journal.

There were two other surprises. First, it made no difference how a student took the class when it came to quiz grades. Students did just as well or poorly on the quizzes regardless of how the information was presented to them. This amazed me since the face-to-face class took the quiz in class and the distance education class took the quiz wherever they wished and there was no restriction on going back and reading the covered lectures while they took the quiz.

The second surprise was what impact the pedagogical difference had on the instructor. In the traditional class the students and the instructor were all in one place at one time. Unlike the DE class which consisted of a group of people interacting with the instructor one-on-one. This one-on-one aspect turned out to be important since every interaction with a DE student was written. These communications were often quite personal. In them students voiced surprise and excitement by what they had found as well as discouragement and confusion. But the most interesting was that they often included relevant anecdotes from their lives.


I suspect that just as teaching a traditional lecture class is not for everyone, the same is true for teaching distance education classes. However, for working professionals there are real advantages to teaching distance education. These are:

I was surprised by the amount of satisfaction I got out of teaching a distance education class. Even though I don't know what these students look like, I feel I know them. Yes, I would do it again and in fact I may actually slightly favor distance education as a method of teaching. This was a big surprise but the biggest surprise of all was how much and how often I can reuse with only slight modification my DE lectures, anecdotes, and demonstrations. This simple fact has been like manna from heaven and one that I would have never expected.

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