Preparing Students for a New Electronic Service
The JISC-funded eLib project, Project ACORN  was set up to explore the mechanisms for establishing an electronic 'short-loan' collection of journal articles for undergraduate students. Having received permission to make 236 high-demand journal articles from the reading lists of the departments of Geography, Human Sciences and Information and Library Studies available to registered undergraduates over the University computer network, the next vital step was to prepare students to use the new service prior to its launch on April 21st. This article outlines the approaches and experiences of the ACORN team in training and promoting the new service to students.
Promoting the new service
We felt it was important to make the promotion of the ACORN service a way of life, beginning with the launch of the project, not just the launch of the service. Promotional activities were not restricted to students, but to every ACORN 'stakeholder'. We thought it particularly valuable to promote the service to academic and library staff for with their support, they would themselves become promoters of the service to students. We used any method open to us to reach them: departmental staff meetings, staff-student committee meetings, library and university newsletters, regular update reports and seminars, and even a survey of academic staff concerning their approaches to reading lists and their views on the Short Loan Collection.
Although news of the ACORN service may well have reached the students via the above methods, our main means of promoting the service to students was via targeted training sessions and promotional materials. We felt the promotional materials to be a particularly important aspect of the promotional activities. Not only could they be used in conjunction with student training, but they could also stand alone as promotional material to any interested party. We produced a bright yellow A4 flier  giving details of the modules covered by the service, and how, where and when articles can be accessed and printed. Using bullet points we kept it short, snappy and completely relevant to the student. A bookmark style user guide  in bright red card was also produced. This gave a step-by-step route to the articles on the front, and listed the basic functions of the Adobe Acrobat Reader on the back, using images of the buttons for clarity. We wanted to make the materials as bright, fun and unforgettable as possible, being very much aware of the information overload faced by most students.
The timing and frequency of the training sessions was something we considered very carefully. We decided to train the students in the week before the end of the spring session, as the service was due to go live the week they returned, and the last week of the session can be very busy. The library staff training was then scheduled for the week prior to this, to prepare staff for any student queries arising from the training in the following week. We offered six half-hour training sessions to library staff. These short but frequent sessions enabled 67 of the 70 staff to attend - a library training attendance record!
Having won the support of many of our academics, we were able to approach them to request time in their lecture slots for student ACORN training sessions. This approach allowed students to receive instruction at no additional time cost to themselves, while also further promoting the service to the academic. Most were happy to comply and we reached 9 of the 23 modules this way: five Geography modules, two Human Sciences modules, and two DILS modules. Some academics offered to hold training sessions but found that their students had already been covered by other sessions. In all, approximately 50% (300) of ACORN's target students received training in this way. The group sizes ranged from between 5 to 80 students and only a handful received training twice by virtue of being on two modules covered by ACORN. We also offered two general training sessions within the library's lunch time Information Skills training programme for any staff and students not covered by the targeted sessions.
One of our main considerations when designing the training sessions was, again, the information overload already faced by the students. Most are not actively seeking out new electronic sources, rather, they are struggling to cope with those already in existence. For this reason it was decided to keep the training as short and straight-forward as possible. The sessions lasted no longer than 20 minutes and gave a clear, 'what, where, how and when' of the ACORN service, followed by a step-by-step demonstration of how to reach the ACORN articles. This was followed by a brief overview of what could and couldn't be done with the articles once reached in terms of printing and viewing with the Adobe Acrobat Reader. The session was prepared so that it could be delivered in any of three formats: live, PowerPoint and via overhead projector. Due to the lack of computer facilities in teaching labs, seven of the ten sessions were performed using an overhead projector, the others were a combination of PowerPoint and live demonstrations.
In order to assess the success or otherwise of the training, we distributed simple evaluation forms at each session. We asked students to identify the part of the session they found most helpful, what they thought could have been improved, and left room for any other comments. All the questions were open; students were not guided to respond in any particular way. We received 49 completed forms from seven of the sessions.
The most helpful element of the training
The vast majority of students (25, or 51%) appreciated the 'step-by-step' approach that ACORN adopted to illustrate the route to the articles. Comments included, "it took us through the process step by step", and "explained very thoroughly; the use of the overheads showing each individual stage of the programme was very beneficial". Related to this appreciation of the 'step-by-step' approach was an appreciation of the clarity and simplicity of the training sessions. Fourteen students stated that this was one of the most helpful aspects of the session. "Simple discussion of the use of the system", "simple format,", and "simple language" were all praised. Many students (11 or 22%) commented that the session was most helpful in just informing them of the ACORN service: "finding out facility exists", and "improving my basic awareness" were two such responses.
Despite the fact that much of the student training had to be performed using an overhead projector, some students said that this was the most helpful part of the training session: "clear instructions and plentiful overheads". Six students praised the informative nature of the sessions saying "the information given was delivered in a pleasant manner, was informative yet concise" and "informative, said everything it needed to". A small number of students were grateful for the brevity of the session with comments such as "quick, simple explanation", "brief and informative", and "straightforward explanation in simple form allowed quick grasping of concept". Two further students praised the handouts: "the red "How to Use" list will come in very useful."
There were considerably less recommendations for improvements than there were comments on the sessions' helpfulness (25 compared with 70).
Despite seven students (14%) praising the overheads, twelve (24%) saw the need for a live demonstration "with the aid of a computer". Four further students (8%) expressed a desire to have a "trial run" with "hands-on experience", with one other saying that they found the session "uninvolving". In our request to academics to use their lecture slots for training sessions, we did ask whether computer lab facilities could be arranged for just these reasons. However, this was simply not possible in most cases. Despite our preference for including hands-on training, we decided that training sessions without hands- on were preferable to no training at all.
Some more experienced students (3, or 6%) said that they required less detail from the session. One said "be less specific about instructions. ie, the session was too in-depth over procedures which were obvious" and another, "most people already know how to use the library's computers." Considering the range of IT abilities amongst undergraduates, the fact that only a very small proportion of respondents made this comment implies that the session probably was pitched at the right level. Indeed a couple of students went so far as to say the session couldn't have been improved.
This section revealed some interesting comments and some encouraging praise. The majority of students who used this section did so to recapitulate how clear the training sessions were, e.g. "very very good and useful. Thanks a lot". Five students (10%) expressed a desire to see the service extended: "it would be helpful to have this information available for other modules - I suppose this will be added after the initial trials", and three mentioned their pleasure that the service was being piloted on their department: "a very good idea - glad that its being piloted on the Geography department!".
Five Human Sciences students from one module made the comment that the service start date was too late in the semester for them to benefit. This has been a concern of ACORN, but unfortunately the launch dates were predetermined by the timing of the Project Team appointment. No other students made the same complaint, so it is hoped that only this module's coursework submission and exam schedules fail to coincide with the ACORN timescales.
Some fears were voiced in this section, such as "Will there be enough terminals?" and "Will it be slow like [the] OPAC?". These are questions that ACORN has considered but only running the live service will provide the answers. One student expressed a desire to be able to save articles to disk. Again, ACORN has looked quite carefully into the issue of downloading to disk. It was decided that by supporting such a facility, copyright owners would be less agreeable to participation in the project. It is an issue that will be raised with copyright owners at ACORN's Publisher Seminar in June. One final suggestion was that the commands needed to be more "user-friendly". The whole issue of the use and usability of the ACORN service is one that is being investigated by a Human Computer Interaction Masters student. The student is due to report in August 1997.
In terms of promoting the service, further publicity will go out at the beginning of term both to academics and students via email, and internal mail. The official launch is occurring on April 24th where Loughborough University's Vice Chancellor will be 'pressing the button' in the presence of various ACORN 'stakeholders'.
Obviously, the real value of the sessions will only be seen once the service is launched and students begin to put their training into practise. In order to assess the usage of the system we have carefully designed usage logs which will monitor viewing and printing times, access points, usage by department and year and so on. We have posted a comments form and email address on the system itself, and are in the process of designing an online questionnaire for the system as well. Towards the end of the summer session, we will be holding some focus groups for library staff, academic staff, and students to assess the impact of the service. As mentioned above an MSc student is investigating the use and usability of the system from a Human Factors point of view, and in June we will be holding a seminar for publishers participating in Project ACORN to gather views, amongst other things, on design features that may affect students' use of the system in the future.
- Project ACORN Web Pages,
- ACORN flier. Web version of the paper flier produced for promoting the ACORN service,
- ACORN User Guide. Web version of the user guide produced for students to access the ACORN service,
ACORN Project Officer
Tel: 01509 222403
Fax: 01509 223993
Address: Project Acorn, Pilkington Library, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire. LE11 3TU