As part of their efforts to provide library services to distance learners, the Florida Distance Learning Reference and Referral Center (RRC) librarians offer real-time online library instruction using a chat room as a virtual classroom. RRC librarians share their experiences with online instruction, pointing out some considerations that should be made when preparing an online library workshop, and some of the challenges that they have faced in their endeavor.
According to the ACRL Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services, "The instilling of lifelong learning skills through information literacy instruction in academic libraries [...] is of equal necessity for the distance learning community as it is for those on the traditional campus." If librarians are responsible for the information literacy training of distance learners, how will they reach this geographically diverse community? Students who take online classes sometimes live far from their school. They may do their research entirely online or they may rely on the resources available at libraries near their home. The librarians at the RRC provide reference and instruction to students enrolled in distance learning courses, and they face the challenge of providing bibliographic instruction to students who never meet in a physical classroom, students who may never step foot inside their library. In order to meet the instructional needs of students in online classes, this group of librarians recreates a traditional in-person research skills training session in a chat environment.
* Introduction to the RRC
The RRC provides library and research support services to students enrolled in distance learning courses at seventy-three regionally accredited, Florida-based colleges and universities. The RRC is part of the Florida Distance Learning Library Initiative (DLLI). DLLI is a state-funded project created to support the research needs of distance learners throughout the state by providing reciprocal borrowing privileges, an interlibrary loan courier system, electronic databases, and reference and instruction assistance.
The RRC supports distance learning students and faculty at Florida's ten state universities, twenty-eight community colleges, and thirty-five independent academic institutions. Physically located in the Tampa Campus Library at the University of South Florida, the RRC is open seven days a week, five of those days until 1 A.M. Five professional librarians and three graduate assistants (from USF's School of Library and Information Science) staff the office. These librarians and graduate assistants work flexible hours, including nights and weekends, in order to meet the needs of Florida's distance learners.
* RRC Services
The RRC provides a variety of services to both distance learning students and faculty. The services available to students include ready reference assistance and in-depth research advice, including assistance with selecting and searching various library and Web resources. The staff also provides basic technical help with accessing proprietary resources remotely, especially with patron authentication and the use of proxy servers. Another function of the RRC is to provide referrals to students' home or local libraries and the services that can help them conduct library research from a distance.
Distance learning faculty are eligible for all of the reference services offered to students, and they can also take advantage of some additional instructional services that benefit their students. These additional services include on-site, online, or broadcast library instruction sessions, course-specific Web pages that highlight appropriate research resources for their class, and brochures and print handouts describing the library services available to their students.
* Use of Chat Software
The RRC provides most of its reference services virtually, with patrons contacting the center by toll-free phone, Web forms, and e-mail. …