SOSIG: Training to Support Social Science Teaching and Research
Meeting end users’ needs
Although the ‘bread and butter’ end user workshops in the Internet for Social Scientists portfolio are aimed at less-experienced netusers there are fewer absolute beginners now than there used to be. Libraries and faculties alike are establishing and developing provision of networked machines running WWW client software and some have their own excellent general Internet training programmes. Fewer sites rely on access to the Web via text-based browsers such as Lynx, with the majority of sites visited now running Netscape. The complaint of many staff and postgraduate students is that they have limited time to make use of these facilities and need to know how best to make use of that time for their own specific teaching and research needs.
The Internet for Social Scientists workshops provide a brief overview of Internet tools and facilities, but concentrate firmly on using SOSIG and other UK-based national services as starting points for Internet access to valuable and relevant networked resources worldwide. The training for end users is partly tailored at each workshop to the audience’s subject-specialisms and level of knowledge and participants are encouraged to substitute their own interests for those given in the exercises. Workshops are provided for small groups of 12 or less participants at their own institutions (although up to 18 participants can be accommodated with two trainers). This has the benefit of introducing new information in a familiar environment where participants can use machines and configurations similar to those they will find on their desktops, most often with a group of colleagues with similar teaching and research interests. The downside is that some feel obliged to return to their offices between sessions and are caught up in local crises, particularly in termtime, which occasionally prevent them from returning. Lesly and Tracey are therefore heavily dependent on the goodwill, organisational skills and tact of their contacts at host sites who are equally responsible for ensuring that each training event is a success.
The beginners’ workshops are designed to be flexible enough to cope with a mixed audience of complete Internet novices and those with limited experience. The sessions are also suitable for those tasked with providing similar training on-site to a larger audience who may want to adapt SOSIG’s materials for their own use. An online tutorial is used at the beginning of each session to introduce Internet and WWW fundamentals. It offers practice in navigation for beginners and some useful links to occupy those with more confidence. A generic version is available at: http://www.sosig.ac.uk/training/gennet.html although a revamped version, with less text and more interactivity, is planned for early 1997.
During the course of each workshop extensive documentation in the form of a workbook is provided. The full-day beginners’ workshops see SOSIG supplied ‘on a plate’ for the less-experienced with step-by-step exercises and hints and tips on using WWW browsers. Quick quizzes throughout provide more challenges and an opportunity to test what has been learnt. Quiz sheets along the lines of ‘twenty questions’ emphasise for the more advanced how SOSIG can be used to answer a variety of research questions and how the national UK services can be used singly or in combination for a variety of enquiries. The use of SOSIG and other subject-based gateways is placed in context alongside the use of Internet and WWW search engines and other electronic - and paper - sources of information such as Library Catalogues and Citation Indices. The beginners’ half-day session has step-by-step and quick quiz exercises only and the half-day session for the more experienced has quiz exercises only.
Trainers and on-site organisers can sometimes have a difficult time preparing for workshops. Problems can arise because sessions are organised at a distance and often booked 6 months or more in advance. Organisers at host sites face difficulties when prime movers for a workshop leave or go on sabbaticals, leaving behind colleagues who are less enthusiastic about networked information. Other priorities may also intervene, especially when workshops are booked during termtime, when there may be a high drop-out rate or last-minute substitutions. Although the trainers are very specific about facilities and information required and what they can offer there can occasionally be a mis-match between participants’ and organisers’ expectations and what the trainers have committed to deliver. As an organiser within an institution it is extremely important to identify the potential participants’ needs and abilities before booking a workshop. These needs can then be discussed with a trainer and the course can be tailored to the group. Good planning and communication with the institution beforehand generally produces satisfied customers at the end of the workshop and feedback is usually appreciative both of the on-site organisation and the session content. The trainers themselves are particularly appreciative of a warm welcome, where overnight accommodation and an ‘evening event’ such as a pub supper have been organised in advance. It can be disconcerting to find that the guest house or hotel is some way from the host site or the centre of town and that ‘safe’ areas to dine alone are difficult to find: trainers do not always travel in pairs (but when they do, details of late-night shopping hours are also appreciated!).
Evaluation of workshops over the past six months reveals that the most-liked elements of the workshops include the documentation, the informal style of presentation and session structure. Also appreciated is the opportunity for participants to explore resources related to their own teaching and research interests at their own pace, in a non-threatening environment, with support if required. Least-liked elements - where identified at all - arise generally from two sources: training facilities and catering - food and beverages - available during breaks!
The size, layout and temperature of rooms used for sessions feature largely in the ‘least-liked’ comments and lead us to question the resources and support given generally to IT training within UK HE institutions. Many institutions are equipping computing labs for students, often with 24-hour access, which are suited to open and computer-aided learning. They are less suitable for workshops where the trainers need to be able to monitor participants’ progress unobtrusively yet still have easy access to participants and their machines to respond to queries and provide one-to-one help. A ‘horse-shoe’ layout has proved the most ideal. Awkward layouts, with pillars or odd angles resulting from adaptations of rooms from other uses, mean that some participants cannot see or hear demonstrations or presentations. The need to cram as many machines as possible into a room often makes it difficult for trainers to negotiate the narrow space between rows of desks to provide one-to-one assistance. Noise from air-conditioning or heating equipment, or the need for complete blackout during presentations because of low-powered projection equipment is a general problem and can seriously hinder the provision of training to the deaf or hearing-impaired.
The team’s portfolio of courses is expanding. Courses in provision of resources on the Internet for contributors to SOSIG are planned to be available from early 1997. The SOSIG trainers are also working in collaboration with colleagues at Newcastle University on the European DESIRE project to produce training materials which can address the wider issues of delivery at a distance and self-paced learning tools.
All end user workshops are run under the Internet for Social Scientists banner:
Introducing Networked Information (INI)
A full-day (6 hours) workshop for network novices with an initial afternoon session concentrating on an introduction to the Internet, a clarification of some of the jargon and an exploration of SOSIG. The following morning session encourages participants to take a more independent approach to accessing social science resources worldwide, with exercises on NISS, Mailbase and a variety of Web search tools and virtual libraries, most often based in the US. At least 70% of the workshop is occupied by hands-on sessions supported by step-by-step and quiz exercises.
Introducing SOSIG and Other Sources (ISO)
A half-day (3 hours) workshop (morning or afternoon) aimed at beginners. This is a cut-down version of the full-day course, providing a briefer introduction to the Internet, with the focus on using SOSIG and Web search tools only. Step-by-step exercises are provided, although hands-on sessions are obviously shorter, given the limited time available.
SOSIG: Supporting Teaching and Research (STR)
A half-day (3 hours) workshop (morning or afternoon) aimed at more experienced netusers who want an introduction to SOSIG and the opportunity to compare a subject-based gateway with Web search tools. Familiarity with the Web and the use of browsers is assumed: quiz exercises, rather than step-by-step, are used during the hands-on sessions.
Details of the contributors’ workshops will be available from SOSIG’s training pages in early 1997.