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.
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
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 ways in which catalog and indexing treatment impacts on access.
- The weaknesses of keyword searching in some specialized areas of
- Importance of iteration and "rethinking" the problem in the
- There is no "one way" to approach a question-it depends on what
resources are available.
- And the corollary, successful reference encounters involve using
everything you know.
- The importance of scientific information published prior to the
- Techniques for recognizing and dealing with poor or inaccurate citations
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
|Liberal Arts Grad
|Mid to late Twenties
|Mid to late Thirties
|Currently working in library
|Stated they had some scientific experience
The pedagogical objectives for each class were exactly the same and
included the following goals for the students:
- An understanding of the importance of tool iteration and tool
integration, i.e. the use several different tools for each question.
- Various parsing/strategy techniques that can be used to figure
out what is important or implied in specific questions.
- The ability to find and use appropriate tools, including:
- Public web sites and specialized library tools to answer real
- Online library catalogs and utilities to verify information.
- Selection of appropriate tools to answer factual questions.
- Selection of tools used in "find information on a specific
- Ability to verify poor or inaccurate article and conference paper
- Ability to find information and citations published prior to the
electronic library age.
These were to:
- Use actual reference questions collected over the past year in
all demonstrations and assignments.
- Demonstrate that factual information can be found in a variety of
places, including public web, handbooks, encyclopedias, and dictionaries.
- Demonstrate the diverse nature, coverage, and usability of
- Grade each assignment and make comments to the student within 48
hours or next class period.
- Prepare students so that they can perform basic science reference
at the end of the class in any venue.
- Share instructor's love of this topic.
Attainment of the instruction goals would be evaluated through the
- 11 assignments
- 2 quizzes
- Comprehensive final
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.
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:
- 45 to make or improve notes for each class (45 hours total)
- 20 hours design, create and test assignments, quizzes and the final.
- 10 hours to create class web site.
- 45 hours to deliver the lectures.
- 15 hours to recover from lecturing.
- Total preparation time -- 135 hours.
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:
- 30 hours to organize and design class lecture structure.
- 20 hours design, create and test assignments, quizzes and the final.
- 105 hours to write lectures using Microsoft FrontPage web publisher.
- 75 hours to rewrite and edit text.
- 15 hours copy edit lectures, demonstrations, and anecdotes
- Total text preparation time -- 245 hours.
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
Actual breakdown was:
- 20 hours to design "look and feel" of the web site.
- 30 hours to test web site navigation.
- 10 hours to evaluate and test course "logic."
- 20 hours to create dynamic demonstrations.
- 10 hours miscellaneous clean up; add new, etc. based on the
results of tests.
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:
- Web demonstrations.
- Web site navigation.
- Transition or mini lectures.
- Anecdotes and stories.
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
Other similarities included:
- No group projects.
- No textbook.
- There was no statistical difference in how the students performed
on assignments, quizzes or the final between the two classes.
- No demonstrated difference in the amount of "displayed" interest
in the class which was defined as the number of questions asked:
- In class
- By e-mail
- By phone
- Amount of office time was the same and was equally "unused" by
both classes. No student in either class visited me during my assigned
office hours either:
- By phone
- By e-mail
- In person
- No demonstrated difference in the ability to follow assignment
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
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:
- Arrived late or left early.
- Ate or drank.
- Fooled with PDA or laptop.
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
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
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
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:
- A written record of all communications so that if a problem
develops the instructor has a copy of every single interaction.
- Written communications provide a better understanding of the
strengths and limitations of every student.
- Written communications from one student can provide "teachable
moment" for all.
- Lectures can be quickly changed or improved due to questions or
comments from the students.
- Ability to schedule all interactions at a time convenient to the
- No block of time is devoted to lecturing. Three hours of lecture
per week can be physically draining.
- Each lecture is written and can be referred to at any time.
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.