It’s About Time, It’s About Place: Designing Interoperable Modular Web Applications for Delivering Online Library Instruction

Debra A. Riley-Huff, Web Services Librarian, University of Mississippi

The biggest cost for web-delivered library instruction is staff time. The software is cheap or free. Being able to use modules in different contexts (interoperability) or re-use structural pieces with new content (modularity) saves time and, therefore, money.

One of the things to know at the outset is your server environment, operating system, and who has control of the server. She had some things to say about various server and database products:

  • Microsoft asp.NET is proprietary but there is lots of information available about it. It has some security issues.
  • PHP5 has a large Open Source community but you need a programmer to do much with it.
  • ColdFusion is good at running smaller things, and instruction modules do tend to be small. It is quick to build things using freely available scripts.
  • Microsoft Access and MySQL. Microsoft Access is easy enough but is only appropriate for five or fewer people accessing it at one time. For more users, you will need MySQL.

She showed us several examples of web-based instruction. Some general advice:

  • Maximize the use of images, like screenshots.
  • Put no more than about 8 steps on a single page to minimize downloading time and because people tend to prefer shorter pages.

One example was static XHTML, but she had saved the structure in 2 different design formats (2 column and 3 column) with the “Lorem ipsum” text as a place holder. When someone else wanted a similar tutorial, she was able to pull it together quickly by just putting in new text and screenshots, all the design and coding work was re-usable.

Another example used ColdFusion to build dynamic pages that served up instructions for using EndNote and RefWorks with different databases. The librarian, back-end interface, allowed these modules to be easily built and changed using an interface that looked like a WYSIWIG blog or wiki interface screen, a simple CMS. The underlying database was Microsoft Access which worked because they never had more than a couple of students querying at the same time.

The third example used XML and XSLT to deliver repetitive content. The example was contact information for the librarian. If the phone number changed, the information could be changed in one place and then it would be fed out to the many places that information appears on the website using the same technology as RSS feeds.

The fourth example talked about storing all the instruction material, in whatever format, in a digital object repository. She listed a variety of options for doing this:

  • DSpace
  • Drupal/Plone
  • Blackboard (although not as interoperable as other options)
  • Ruby on Rails
  • Greenstone

She was particularly taken with Greenstone which she says is underutilized because it was hard to use when it first came out. It has improved a lot in the last four years and can store all kinds of file formats including video and audio. It’s only appropriate for small depository projects, but a library instruction repository would likely only have 250 to 500 objects in it. It supports full taxonomies.

The Internet and the Experience Effect: A Closer Look

Rachel Kirk, Middle Tennessee State University
Steve Bales, University of Tennessee

The Pew Center Internet and American Life Project published a report in 2001 called “Getting Serious Online” that drew a conclusion that as Internet Users become more experienced, they engage in more serious pursuits on-line, moving from games to banking, for example. As a project for a Ph.D. class, Rachel and Steve decided to use a General Social Survey (GSS) data set, taken from a survey in 2002, about “The Information Society” to corroborate the Pew report. Much to their surprise, it did not.

The GSS survey asked people which web sites that they visited in the last thirty days and how many times. Rachel and Steve divided those into recreation and serious web sites and found no correlation between how many years that a person had been using the web to what type of sites they visited. They also checked if the type of sites visited was a function of age and this also did not correlate. Instead, they found that as people gained web experience, they visited more of all types of sites—a finding that more recent Pew reports seem to corroborate.

Steve noted the “netizen” effect. People who have three or more years experience tend to become citizens of the Internet, using it for most information needs, serious and recreational.

Rachel’s personal theory, although she doesn’t have the data to back it up, is that people “get into grooves and kind of follow them along until something knocks them into another one.” An implication of this observation is that we can’t necessarily assume that what we teach freshmen in a one-shot library use instruction class during an English literature course will be transferred by the student into other situations, like a history or psychology class the next semester. We may need to expose them to new grooves as they have a need for that groove.