Using Research Assistant for Library Instruction

Article excerpt

Librarians are studying to employ new technologies to assist in the provision of bibliographic instruction and library orientation. Expert systems and hypertext variants such as HyperPad and Guide (for DOS environments) and HyperCard (for Macintosh) have become increasingly popular in computer-assisted instruction (CAI) programs. Automated approaches are attractive to staffs trying to cope with library environments complicated by the proliferation of information systems and delivery media - CD-ROM, OPACs, online searching - since they promise ways of providing an introduction to the library when a librarian cannot be present.

Unlike many other stacks that have focused on single libraries or resources, Arm Bevilacqua's Research Assistant uses a HyperCard stack to teach the entire research process, from formulating an idea, through research in the library, to writing the paper. Because of de approach, it could be used at a stand-alone kiosk in a library, as an adjunct to classes that teach the research process to undergraduates. or as part of a bibliographic instruction class.

Maneuvering in the Stack

After presenting an attractive opening screen that enables experienced users to bypass basic instructions, Research Assistant leads the user to the essential card in the stack, Ten Steps for Successful Research Papers" (Figure 1).

Since the icon representing the 'Ten Steps" appears on each card, the user has this navigating card as an anchor in maneuvering and can return to it when needed or if confused about location in this complex stack. The help instructions (available at the click of a button containing a question mark) suggest to the user that From the Ten Steps' main menu, you will branch out to the program's chapters." Since the author compares each of the Ten Steps" to a chapter, the comparison with a table of contents seems appropriate. This structured approach - moving sequentially through each of the chapters and then returning to the Ten Steps" card - is rather unlike hypertext. It seems more like a guided tour or reading a book in logical order.

That approach also is used for some of the subsections. In the "Select a Topic" section, each "Return" icon takes the user back, again using a table of contents approach, to the first card of that section. Since it is also possible to go through this step" sequentially without having to go back to the first card, in the combination of linear and horizontal movement that characterizes the stack, that could be considered an advantage.

I liked the table of contents approach and wished that it had been more pervasive. I found problems in going directly from the end of one chapter to the beginning of another without having to go back to the "Ten Steps." One can, for example, go directly from Step 1, "Understand the Assignment," to the next, "Select a Topic," without realizing that one has gone on to another chapter. Although the headings at the top of the cards sometimes help, a review, questions, or something to mark the completion of a chapter, as in a book, would have helped.

Forcing students to follow a fixed series of steps may be too authoritarian for some, but since the help documentation also stresses this approach, perhaps it is appropriate. Although it might limit maneuverability in the stack, it is closer to the systematic strategy that comprises the research process.

Another navigation aid that is more successful is consistent use of the same icons on each card. As Figure 2 shows, the icons are arranged across the bottom of the card and symbolically identify the actions they perform. The preferred path, another help, is indicated by a darkened icon. The user almost always can return to the Ten Steps" screen, the button on the far right, to continue navigating through the stack. The ability to print the text, represented by the printer icon, is valuable, since parts of the stack suggest that students form their own hypotheses and enter them in text fields for printing. …