Choosing a Topic
Author: Amanda Clossen
Institution: The Pennsylvania State University
Interviewee: Amanda Clossen
Interviewer: Melissa Harden
Q: What led you to develop this tutorial?
A: Before I began working at Penn State, I was a part-time reference librarian at both Temple University and Bucks County Community College. I did a lot of instruction, but more than anything I worked the reference desks. Temple’s desk, in particular, was incredibly busy. While I was there, I noticed that the reference questions I received often had the same sort of theme. Students of all levels really didn’t understand how to begin the research process, and they would try to research topics that were exceedingly general. When I came to Penn State, this module was the first thing I began working on because my department head noted the page we had was outdated, and I suspected that it was a systemic issue for undergrads, in general.
Q: Who is the intended audience, and what is the primary intended use of the guide (e.g., for self-guided learning, as part of formal instruction, assigned as homework, etc.)?
A: My greatest focus is typically the novice academic researcher, and this guide is definitely designed with those individuals in mind. But the fact is, students in more advanced classes often have trouble with topic development, too. We have World Campus at our institution, which is entirely online, so creating reusable learning objects that online students can use is also a priority. I tried to make the module as general as possible to reach as many students as I could. It was designed to be something that instructors could share with their students as part of self-guided learning.
Q: How is this tutorial being promoted?
A: It’s on our tutorials page, which is on the top level of the libraries’ site where it can be easily found. This tutorial, along with the libraries’ other tutorials, is regularly featured in a newsletter that goes out to all of the instructional designers on campus, who then include library resources in their course design. I also do a lot of word-of-mouth promotion with the many instructors I work with on a regular basis. In my experience, the best way to get to the student is through their instructors, so I work on cultivating those relationships.
Q: This guide contains drawings and a video. What program(s) did you use to create these features?
A: The drawings are rage comics, which are under a Creative Commons license and can be made using ragemaker.net. The stop motion video was made with Final Cut Pro X. The Wikipedia video was made using Camtasia and Final Cut Pro X.
Q: Did you need any special training to create any part of the tutorial?
A: My intern, Kiersten Shank, and I had many long conversations on how to best create a stop motion video. In fact, we filmed it all at once (which took forever) before deciding that the lighting just wasn’t good enough, so we filmed it a second time. There was certainly a research element involved in figuring out the process; however, we were both fairly familiar with the technologies we used.
Q: How long did it take to create it?
A: Most of the content took only a few weeks to compile because I had been mulling the idea around for quite some time. Between the planning, filming, and editing, however, the stop motion video took about two months.
Q: Did you encounter any difficulties or unexpected challenges along the way?
A: Stop motion takes forever to do! Since it is animation, it’s just a series of static photos run together really fast. Setting up each shot is quite time consuming, even in the simple way we did it. Also, for something like that you really need to have good lighting, and ours was not up to par at first. The white board looked really yellow-y, and the text wasn’t crisp enough until we brought in professional-grade lights. We also learned pretty quickly that an eraser was not enough–you really need to use the white board spray and cloths if you want a white surface.
Q: Were there any aspects of this project that required you to seek outside assistance or draw on someone else’s expertise?
A: There was a point in time where some of the stop motion footage was just completely out of focus, and although it would have maybe been passable as it was, I was really unhappy with it. We had already refilmed it once and weren’t thrilled at the idea of doing it again. So in an effort to avoid that, we consulted several individuals in Penn State’s Media Commons, as well as one of my intern’s advisers in the film department. Her adviser indicated what setting needed to be adjusted in Final Cut to resolve the issue—something none of us would have known on our own. This meant we didn’t have to reshoot the film a third time. The entire project would have taken a lot longer were it not for the help of Vicki Brightbill. She did the web development, so there would be no module without her.
Q: Were there any best practices and/or accessibility guidelines you tried to follow while creating this guide?
A: All of Penn State University Libraries’ web content needs to be accessible to individuals with a variety of physical abilities, so the page follows very rigorous accessibility standards. I also make it a priority to create tutorial videos that are as accessible as possible including, but not limited to, things like screen-readable players, closed captions (in a player that can have them turned off), simple language, color contrast, and so on. Unfortunately, concept mapping as a visual brainstorming tool is in its own right a somewhat inaccessible concept to individuals with certain types of visual impairments; however, the video itself is as accessible as we could make it. I also try to make my videos around three minutes or shorter (both the videos in Choosing a Topic are a hair over three minutes), avoid heavy blocks of text in the pages, and use humor without being too heavy-handed or culturally specific. Penn State’s community of international students is enormous, and I don’t want to confuse them by making jokes that are culturally exclusive.
Q: Have you received any feedback from students, faculty, staff, and/or coworkers on the completed product? If so, how has it been received?
A: I have sent it to instructors I work with, and the feedback has been quite favorable. They appreciate having a tool that their students can refer to in the process of topic development.
Q: Have you done any assessment on the effectiveness of this tool? Are there plans for any changes or updates?
A: I have been tracking the Google Analytic numbers, as well as the YouTube counts. In the future, I’d like to have a class complete the module, and then track their topics to see if they differ from classes that have not completed the module. The learning objectives for this particular tutorial strike me as difficult to assess, as topic development can be such a collaborative effort between student, instructor, and librarian. It is difficult to see what improvement came from the tutorial itself and what might have come from other sources. The tutorial is already in the process of being updated—specifically the videos—as the general look and layout of our libraries’ homepage have changed, and we want the tutorials to reflect the current version. Luckily, we expected that and the updates were pretty seamless.
Q: What recommendations or advice do you have for someone who might want to create similar tutorials?
A: In my experience, it is better to design and prototype with actual users than to spend too much time agonizing over design choices. Everything you create should be as agile as possible because things online change so incredibly rapidly. Storyboard everything if you’re doing video. It makes it easier to share with others for feedback and check for errors, and it just generally streamlines the brainstorming and creation process into fewer steps. Most importantly everyone should be aware of web accessibility guidelines for text, image, and video. As libraries, it is our responsibility to provide access to information, and this access should not be dependent on physical or cognitive ability.
November 2013 PRIMO Site of the Month