October 2016 Site of the Month

Student2Scholar: Academic Literacies and Research Skills for Social Science Graduate Students


Authors: Student2Scholar (S2S) Team
Institutions: Western University, University of Toronto, and Queen’s University

Interviewees: Cory Laverty (Queen’s University); Monique Flaccavento (University of Toronto); Elan Paulson (Western University)
Interviewer: Jennifer Sharkey

Description (provided by the authors): Student2Scholar (S2S) is a series of ten self-paced, interactive, online and openly available modules built on the Association of College & Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. S2S learning outcomes are designed to help students develop their critical thinking, organization, research, and communication skills, to enable them to participate more actively and confidently in their communities of research. Modules incorporate a range of motivational strategies such as badging, quizzes, self-reflections, an online research workbook and other interactives. A facilitators’ guide for instructors and librarians also enables integration of any or all modules into face-to-face, blended, or online learning scenarios.

Q: Tell us about the process you used to determine the need for the tutorial. How was the concept or idea of Student2Scholar conceived? How long did it take to go from an idea to the live site?

At Queen’s University, there are always ongoing discussions among librarians on how to support graduate students in education. In a study Cory Laverty recently completed, she realized that they need more help with finding examples of how different research methods are applied in practice. Librarians often focus too much on search techniques rather than question formulation and the idea of mapping out a search strategy.

The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Library at the University of Toronto (UofT) had been offering The Virtual Library, a 7 module online non-credit library/research skills course for graduate students at UofT for many years, but enrolment in the course was capped at 20 students as marking and providing feedback was so time consuming for librarians. The course was very popular with graduate students at OISE and the University of Toronto more broadly – enrolment was always full; there was usually a waiting list as well. With a growing number of distance and online students at OISE, we were interested in finding a way to make the course more scalable and sustainable by integrating self-marking quizzes into the course.

At Western University, new directions have been set for more blended learning. At Western’s Faculty of Education [College of Education], new graduate-level professional programs that are entirely online were launched in 2012, with no clear plan to support their research virtually.

Thus, the S2S modules were developed in response to a need for flexible instructional tools, to accommodate fully online graduate programs, and to provide supplemental resources for hybrid library tutorials and established face-to-face instruction that is not easily scalable. The S2S team was composed of librarians, program administration staff, and graduate students from the above three institutions, and the content of the S2S tutorials was devised based on the team’s combined yet diverse experience.

The partnership began when Melanie Mills, then Acting Director of the Education Library at Western University and Dr. Elan Paulson, Director of Professional Programs, both got excited when they first saw the call for eLearning project funding. They knew that the Faculty of Education’s online programs needed additional support in a range of areas, and they settled on research skills as their primary focus. In less than a month, Melanie contacted Monique Flaccavento and Jenaya Webb, two education librarians from the University of Toronto whom she had met earlier that year at WILU, a Canadian IL conference. They in turn invited Cory Laverty, the Director of the Education Library at Queen’s University to collaborate in the project. Meanwhile, Elan asked members of the technology team in her faculty (Colin Couchman, Caroline Whippey), along with a few graduate students (Melanie-Anne Atkins, Caryl Ann Stordy), if they wished to be part of the team as well.

Western University took the project lead and the majority of team members were from that institution and included four librarians (Melanie, Colleen Burgess, Christena McKillop, Denise Horoky). The University of Toronto involved two librarians (Monique and Jenaya), and Queen’s University involved one librarian (Cory). Involving the other institutions enabled us to gather feedback from a broader range of graduate students and expert reviewers and involve librarians with different forms of experience and knowledge. The advisory experts, testers, contract experts, and others whose wisdom and skills were used to refine the modules were drawn from relationships with colleagues prior to the module build. Originally, the project was aimed to target graduate students in Education, but when this was later broadened to students in the Social Sciences we also solicited individuals from other fields to provide design input.

This tri-institutional partnership was formed primarily through a shared desire to identify the core research development needs of graduate students and address these needs through a single consolidated open access resource. We began the project with a literature review to inform learning outcomes development for the modules. In our own teaching, we were aware that students searching for research support typically uncover random resources whose content is not advanced enough for graduate students and is not built on an information literacy or a graduate degree level framework. To the best of our ability, we used a consensus-based and distributed leadership model in our development process, one that prioritized not only an evidence-informed quality product but also a collaborative learning process.

Tactical strategies for developing these modules included:

  • Completing a literature review on the needs of graduate students in the social sciences;
  • Comparing the types of library support currently offered across the three institutions;
  • Using the first two strategies to identify gaps in supporting research needs of grads at our campuses;
  • Developing learning outcomes based on where support was needed, mapped against Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Ontario Graduate Degree Level Expectations, and ACRL IL Framework to ensure that outcomes were at the right level for graduate students and focused on developing analysis and evaluation skills more than basic understanding of content;
  • Using the backwards design framework of curriculum development;
  • Integrating into the modules technology-forward ways to extend in-class information literacy instruction by providing students with activities, readings, quizzes, and other materials that could be used both before and after an information literacy session – essentially, supporting a flipped classroom model of instruction.

It took 10 months to develop the tutorials from our Statement of Intent to 10 live modules. This was a timeline established by our funding body, the Ontario Online Initiative (OOI). We received a total of $75,000 CAD from the Ontario Online Initiative to develop our modules within the 10-month period. The majority of funds were spent on contract web development, asset building, and writing contracts (held by graduate students). Some funds were spent on offloading core development team members, but the vast majority of the work was done in kind. A portion of the funds were held for overhead/fund distribution costs. Any unused portion of the grant was to be returned to OOI. None of the funds could be used for ongoing maintenance beyond the one-year timeline. Thus, a five-year maintenance plan and budget (about $5000 per year) has since been agreed upon by the three participating institutions, and this shared cost will pay for an external web developer for ongoing maintenance, as well as for other costs such as the website domain name.

Q: During the design and development of the tutorial, what type of input and feedback did you solicit? Were there specific individuals or groups you targeted?

First, we invited people we considered to have expertise in both the content and the delivery of online learning across the three institutions to join a local expert feedback group. The learning outcomes and plan for the modules were discussed with each member of the expert group. Members included specialists in developing online courses, faculty who teach in the content areas, IT staff, and educational developers at our three institution’s centres for teaching and learning. In particular, we spent a great deal of time at the outset soliciting feedback on the learning outcomes we had developed for each of the modules. We made major revisions to the outcomes in response to feedback received. For example, we had not initially intended to include a module on citation management, but this was something that faculty members felt was important to include.

Once feedback from the expert groups was addressed and module design progressed, their feedback was requested a second time, and further changes were made based on their relevance and feasibility. Feedback from graduate students was also requested throughout the development process, both individually and in small groups.

After the modules were built, we offered a two-prong testing feedback cycle. First, we invited students to participate in user testing and used feedback to make improvements to the modules. The feedback sought focused on module organization and structure. Then, graduate students were invited to test the modules individually, and were provided with a survey in which they were asked to give module content. Further revisions were made to module content following this phase.

Finally, since their launch the modules continue to be revised as the S2S team receives further input and feedback.

Q: What led you to focus on the social sciences as the disciplinary focus? Do you have plans to create a similar suite of modules for the other broad discipline areas (Arts & Humanities, Life Sciences, Hard Sciences)?

All of the team works in the field of education, but we wished to make the modules applicable more broadly to social science students. S2S team members from Western, Queen’s and UofT all have a background/expertise in the social sciences and have worked closely with students and faculty in the social sciences. Many team members were affiliated with faculties [colleges] beyond education or had training in other disciplines (e.g. social work, anthropology, media studies, English literature, etc.)

With this background, we recognized that research in social sciences and other fields are inquiry based and require students to develop research questions and creating evidence-based arguments. As such, there are many readings, activities, etc. within the modules that are applicable to students in all disciplines, and at all levels (i.e. undergraduates as well as graduates). As self-paced modules that can be accessed in any way, certain activities or sections might be applicable beyond the field of social sciences.

In terms of developing modules for other broad disciplines, this is not something we are prepared to take on. While we do not have any plans to create modules in other disciplines, we would encourage others to build on S2S content and apply a Creative Commons license to that content as well.

Q: You used a variety of technologies to develop this suite of modules such as Adobe Premier, Apple QuickTime, Macromedia Director, and Joomla (as the content management system). Why did you select these specific technologies? Did this require any specialized training?

We opted to host modules on a website as our modules needed to be openly available. The platform needed to integrate a range of technologies, especially an ongoing research workbook, and be an open access platform. We were also interested in using technologies that would enable us to meet web accessibility (AODA) requirements in Ontario and, wherever possible, would be SCORM compliant, which allows activities, videos, and other resources to be embedded directly into the LMSs at different institutions. This was both a goal of the Student2Scholar team and a requirement of the funding we received through eCampus Ontario. We required expert knowledge and skills relating to the Content Management System (for which we hired a web developer).

We opted to use technologies for asset development based on the learning outcomes and conceptual framework that we set for the modules, an approach that prioritized user design, self-determined adult learning, universal design for learning, and backwards design. We wanted to use technology that would promote a variety of forms of engagement, encourage higher levels of critical thinking, and motivate students. The technologies we decided to use were often already supported by IT and other support staff at Western, and by the instructional designers we hired. Thus, we selected the tools we used based on a combination of team knowledge and skill, accessibility, and affordability. We had some team members who had specialized knowledge in asset design (using Articulate and other multimedia tools), and we relied on a combination of in-house asset design, contracted design, and existing materials.

While we had the expertise within our team to do much of the work, time was an issue, so we outsourced the building of the Articulate Storyline tutorials, some of the screencasts, etc. In addition to having an instructional designer (Caroline Whippey) as a core member of the S2S team, we hired an external instructional designer (Trevor Tyre) to build Articulate Storyline tutorials and an Online Learning Librarian (Caleb Domsey) to develop some of our screencast tutorials. We had other core team members developing other module assets. Through this balance, we were able to use the resources we had to their optimum effects.

Q: You’ve incorporated badging into the modules. Why did you decide to include a badging component? Are you using a badging service like Credly or are they developed and maintained in-house?

Student motivation for self-directed online learning was a priority for us, and we understood that badging is a means for promoting student engagement. Drawing on gaming literature, we saw potential for the desire to build and gather badges into a resource that is essentially self-directed. Badges appeal to some users as a representation of individual effort and accomplishment. We also had a team member with a background in gaming, and she was able to guide our thinking on a badging model that was effective yet affordable. We did not have the time or resources to use an existing badging service, and we did not want to elevate the badging above the learning outcomes of the modules. Thus, our badging was developed and maintained in-house.

Our badges are beautifully drawn creative expressions that offer visual feedback on progression through the modules. This can serve as a means of encouragement to the individual learner. The badges were conceived primarily as a way to motivate students to track their own progress within the modules. The certificate, following module completion, was conceived as an instructional tool for module facilitators to obtain a record of module completion. However, the badges are not, per se, evidence of learning or engagement with an association that sets established criteria, nor were they intended to recognize professional development or community involvement. They are intended less for 3rd party validation and external credibility and more for making visible students’ own module’s learning path, as well as to recognize incremental personal learning.

Given that learning with the modules was intended to be self-directed, as students have the ability to complete as much or as little of any part of any module, as they need or desire, we had no particular expectations for the extent to which grad students are gathering badges. We hope that the badging is useful insofar as it motivates students, but we have not yet gathered data on their perceived effectiveness.

Q: Student2Scholar is an open access resource with the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA). How did you come to the decision to make it open access?

Development of the modules was funded through the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities’ Shared Online Course Fund. A condition of funding was that the modules be made openly available through eCampus Ontario. As previously noted, members of the team felt strongly that other librarians and faculty members should be able to reuse and/or modify the resources we had built rather than start from scratch.

Contributing to the Open Access movement was inspired by the personal and professional sensibilities of the team members. Our original intention was that anyone should be able to use the resource.

Q: What type of feedback from students, faculty, and/or co-workers within Western University, University of Toronto, and Queen’s University have you received? What type of reactions and feedback from library colleagues across North America and other countries have you gotten? Did you use any specific strategies to get the word out?

It’s still early days, but we have received positive feedback from all institutions that have developed the modules. In general, they like the look and feel, the depth, ease of access, saved research workbook, Facilitator’s Guide, and alignment of outcomes. They are excited that the modules are openly available and that they are flexible – that students do not have to work their way through all of the modules but rather can select activities, readings, etc., at the point of need to support/supplement in-class instruction.

We developed a marketing plan across all three institutions and presented at conferences in Canada, the U.S., and even in Europe. The communication strategy has included:

  • Local: Meeting with graduate student groups, offering workshops on S2S, contacting graduate faculty;
  • Provincial: Communicating via listserv, presenting at conferences and library learning sessions across various institutions (Ryerson University workshop);
  • International: Conferences (The Society for Teaching and Learning in Education 2016; LILAC in Dublin, Ireland 2016, etc.).

Following a recent information session at Western University, faculty and instructors said in session feedback:

  • “Student2Scholar showed me that there are lesson plans available for teaching aspects of research–extremely helpful!”
  • S2S offers “tools and techniques that I’m sure would be useful in my teaching.”
  • “Much work has gone into this, and it is an essential component for students.”
  • “Provid[es] concrete tools/resources that can be put into use immediately.”
  • “Graduate students will learn an extensive array of information about information, research and working in their disciplines. I liked that the modules included multimedia content, activities, and quizzes.”

Following an initial testing session of our S2S modules prior to launch, graduate students reported:

  • “Overall, I really enjoyed the format and ease of navigation. The presentation of material on the screens is visually appealing — simple and clean. The links to other relevant sites are useful.”
  • “The videos are great! The content is relevant and interesting.”
  • “There are a variety of assessment methods available (multiple choice, written, fill in the blank) which creates a more interactive and engaging learning environment.”

Q: Have you done any type of assessment since the launch of Student2Scholar?

Once again, it is early days, but we are developing formal assessments over the next few years. Currently, a formal study is planned to be administered at Queen’s during the fall of 2016. We have completed ethics application and are set to go for a November class.

Q: What recommendations or advice could you provide for someone (or a library) who might want to embark on a similar project?

Building 10 modules with partners across 3 institutions was a huge undertaking – it was more work and took longer than I think any of us had imagined. Our short list of recommendations are to:

  • Clearly define the scope of the project at the outset to establish which work will be done by each member of the team and what will need to be outsourced;
  • Have folks from different backgrounds on the team (the Student2Scholar team included faculty members, librarians, instructional designers, a project manager, a web developer, and graduate students, all of whom brought different perspectives, strengths, and skills to the project);
  • Gather a team with a range of strengths in content and online learning;
  • Research your area to identify stakeholder needs – both locally and via the literature;
  • Have a project leader to organize, consolidate, and motivate;
  • Get feedback from all stakeholders as early as possible;
  • Plan with the assumption that everything will take longer than you think;
  • Limit your time for planning, and maximize your time for revision and testing;
  • Maintain a regular meeting schedule;
  • Find an easy way to share and edit files;
  • Consider things like ongoing maintenance and future development – particularly if, as was the case for Student2Scholar, funding is only awarded for the initial development of the project;
  • Give all members of the team opportunities to build their skills by working in small teams and giving members a range of different roles.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

It was a pleasure to design such a useful, much sought-after resource with such a diverse group of individuals that is motivating and engaging for students.

If we were to start from the beginning again, what we might do differently is plan early on for how the project would be maintained and updated with top administrators so funding can be built in or room can be made within existing job descriptions.

However, we would keep the same productive mixture of practical experience and theoretical/research knowledge, which equally informed our product. Individually, we learned a lot from the experience and from each other. Modules such as S2S build capacities not only for students but also for the people who build and teach with them.

A photo from the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE, June 2016) conference at Western University.

Pictured (L to R, B to F): Melanie-Anne Atkins, Caroline Whippey, Colleen Burgess, Elan Paulson; Cory Laverty, Melanie Mills, Christena McKillop

Not pictured: Colin Couchman, Denise Horoky, Caryl-Ann Stordy, Monique Flaccavento, Jenaya Webb


A photo from the eCampus Showcase (January 2016) in Toronto Ontario.

Pictured (L to R, B to F): Monique Flaccavento, Colin Couchman, Colleen Burgess, Melanie-Anne Atkins, Elan Paulson Melanie Mills, Julie Whitehead (Western University staff member not associated with the team)

Not pictured: Denise Horoky, Christena McKillop, Caryl-Ann Stordy, Jenaya Webb, Caroline Whippey