Academic libraries are the locus of most formal information literacy instruction in the United States. Much of it occurs in single sessions with learners who have been required to attend by their course instructor and whom librarians seldom see again. Questions concerning what these learners retain and later use as well as questions of how to reach learners who are not required to attend or who are distance learners plague most academic librarians. One response to this has been the development of a variety of online tutorials where learners either remind themselves of what they heard in class or attempt to learn information literacy on their own.

Librarians and instructional designers at Virginia Tech University have made an effort to address this issue by developing a small online textbook on information literacy. The Information Skills Modules ( ) are a teaching tool that can be used by librarians, teaching faculty, learners, or, for that matter, anyone who wants to teach or better understand the basic processes involved in identifying, retrieving, and evaluating information. The primary goal of these modules is to teach individuals to think their way through the information research process.


Four years in the designing and building, the Information Skills Modules 1 are the result of a collaboration between librarians and instructional designers. Involving instructional designers from the very inception of this type of project is essential because they analyze how people learn, the contexts in which people learn best, and the instructional strategies that promote that learning. Without the collaboration of instructional designers Lewis Erskine 2 and Pat Bevan, the Information Skills Modules would not have been built.

...the modules are as
flexible as possible so
that anyone from any
discipline can use them.

Several decisions were made in the early stages of this project that had a profound effect on the final product. The first was to design the modules to teach concepts and principles rather than how-tos. In other words, we focused on the how-tos of the complex problem-solving processes that constitute the foundation of information literacy. We wanted learners to discover how to think their way through the process of finding and evaluating information so that, ideally, they would carry a basic set of information literacy skills with them. Second, the modules would be generic and as flexible as possible so that anyone from any discipline could use them. This also included making the modules work efficiently either with a class assignment or in parts or pieces as selected by an instructor to emphasize a particular skill or aspect of information literacy. Third, we identified our primary audience as undergraduate learners, but decided that the modules needed to be useful to graduate learners and faculty as well. Fourth, the modules would use XML coding rather than HTML. And fifth, we assumed that anyone using the modules would have basic computer skills.

Design and Construction

As a first step, the instructional designers guided the librarians through a detailed analysis of the content and the audience to whom it was directed. Hours and hours were spent in discussing what the learners should be able to do at the end of the instruction and what they needed to do and learn during the instruction to develop those abilities. The entire logical structure of the content was explicitly analyzed, stated, and outlined. The connections and relationships between tiny pieces of content as well as between each piece and the whole had to be articulated. Every time a topic was suggested for inclusion, it was analyzed for relevance, necessity, and role in the entire project. By the end of this process, we had a detailed outline of the content as well as a visual structure for it. A visual structure was important because the modules would be located in a web environment. Everything that was selected for inclusion contributed both to the specific instructional goals established for the section it was in as well as to the overall goals of the project.


The colors and design of the Information Skills Modules were chosen for their ability to increase the modules' usability. A modular structure gives both learners and instructors as much flexibility as possible. The result is that the modules can be used as sequenced instruction paired with a class research project or as selected pieces that can be used by an instructor to emphasize a particular point. Instructors can design their own sequence of instruction by assigning specific parts in a particular order. Accommodations to student learning styles and prior knowledge are made via the modular structure, minimizing screen scrolling while offering pop-ups and supporting modules for explanations, bulleted lists for things to think about, and hints to point learners in the right direction. The homepage focuses the learner's attention on the core instructional modules, but still makes all of the supporting modules easily visible. It also contains unobtrusive links to About Us, Learner Resources, Instructor Resources, and a Site Map. Image 1 is the home page of the Information Skills website.

Information Skills Modules ( ) Home Page (see image 1 below)

There are six primary modules that explain the core of information research. These are: choosing and focusing a topic, selecting information sources, developing search strategies, retrieving information, evaluating information, and using information appropriately. Supporting modules cover specific tasks, such as using the Virginia Tech online catalog, or provide detailed explanations of key bibliographic conventions, such as subject headings, bibliographic records, or call numbers. Learners can navigate sequentially through the modules or select a specific one. Within each module, pull-down menus across the top provide navigation between modules; forward and backward arrows let the user move through screens; and the table of contents on the left side of the screen allows learners to jump to a desired section within a module. The first screen of each module has links to the prerequisites for use, a tangible goal or set of results that will be achieved, and the learning objectives for that module. Image 2 is the opening screen of the Information Skills Module 1.

Opening Screen: Module 1: Choosing and Focusing a Topic (see image 2 below)

It was a conscious decision on the part of the builders of the Information Skills Modules not to use linked HTML files. Content is coded in XML. These files are controlled by PHP scripts that call up the appropriate XML files for any given screen. This makes it possible to build tables of contents for each module that serve as the navigation to any section or screen within that module as well as the identification of the user's current location. The use of XML makes it possible to add or delete screens without having to manually change all linked screens. Screen content is displayed using cascading style sheets (CSS) that are selected based on the viewer's browser and platform. This separation of content from formatting facilitates content revision by allowing the replacement of content without the need to revise the code for its formatting. Cascading style sheets also permit formatting the content for other outputs, such as printers or screen readers. The project is currently in the process of testing simplified style sheets for easy-to-read screen prints that keep the content compact and limit the number of pages needed for each module. In the future, similar style sheets will ensure that the modules meet ADA requirements for the visually impaired.

Use and Assessment

The Information Skills Modules are now linked under Research Help on the Virginia Tech University Libraries website. University faculty are encouraged to link the modules to their class websites and ask their learners to use them. Librarians are encouraged to experiment with them as a teaching tool. As time permits, the librarian designers are developing sample assignments and worksheets to support each module as well as identifying other instructor and learner resources that support the overall objective of information literacy. Assignments and worksheets provide learners hands-on practice with the many skills involved in information literacy. The librarians are also working on an explicit mapping of the Information Skills Modules to the Association of College and Research Libraries' Objectives for Information Literacy Instruction: A Model Statement for Academic Librarians .

On the whole, learners
felt that the modules
were helpful in
understanding and
applying the
research process....

In the short time since its completion, several things have become apparent. First, librarians are not necessarily conversant with using a textbook, online or print, to augment their instruction, and those who choose to use the Information Skills Modules will have a learning curve. Second, learners need to complete worksheets and other assignments that give them practice with information literacy skills more than once. And third, librarians need to collaborate with teaching faculty to integrate these learning opportunities into course curricula. This collaboration is made easier by the fact that the modules were designed to assist students as they work on a course assignment. The assignment provides the relevancy, motivation, and engagement in the learning experience. At present, some librarians are more comfortable referring learners to the modules either for independent study or as a supplement to the classroom instruction while others are exploring ways to incorporate all or parts of the modules into their instructional strategies. Learners who are referred to the modules can find them quite useful, as the following comment from a graduate student indicates: "By the way, I have checked out the ISMs that you mentioned on Thursday; VERY helpful!"

Librarians who are incorporating the modules into their teaching strategies are developing a variety of assignments and worksheets to be done before and during class each with the objective of getting learners to think about and practice some aspect of the information research process. For example, learners are assigned to read Module 3: Developing Search Strategies. At the same time, they are given a worksheet based on the Concept Table in Module 3, which they are to complete and bring to class. The structure and function of search statements are then discussed in class with the learners better able to participate because they have tried to write at least one search statement before coming to class. The worksheets are collected, corrected, commented on, and then returned, which further emphasizes the necessity of well-designed search statements to information research. Another example: the librarian gives a general lecture on information research and assigns all six core modules as reading, plus two worksheets to be completed prior to a required one-on-one meeting with the librarian to discuss the student's information research strategies. The worksheets are initialed and dated by the librarian and turned in with the student's paper to the course instructor. The instructor for this particular course is convinced that student papers have improved since starting this practice. A third example: a Virginia Tech librarian who has gone to another university is using the Information Skills Modules as a textbook for a credit course in information literacy.

So far, attention has been primarily on learning how to teach with an online textbook. Assessing the effectiveness of the Information Skills Modules is the next step. However, assessing how well a learner internalizes complex higher-order problem-solving skills in an environment where the instructor has, for the most part, a single contact with the learner presents a serious challenge. The modules have been tested on a small class of juniors and seniors. After turning in their research papers, these learners were given an anonymous survey to ascertain their perceptions on the usefulness of the modules. On the whole, learners felt that the modules were helpful in understanding and applying the research process, although the comments ranged from "Not useful, I already knew this" to "It really helped make the research go easier." The instructor for this particular course stated that his best learners told him at the end of the semester that the Information Skills Modules should be required reading. Personal interviews with other students have elicited a similar range of reactions. Interestingly, those students who felt that the modules required too much reading tended to be the ones who had the most difficulty selecting and focusing a topic or developing good search statements. Correcting and commenting on assigned worksheets also gives the librarian and instructor a sense of who read the assigned module and who didn't.

Analysis of the web server logs for the ISM pages indicates that users tend to work their way through the modules sequentially rather than skipping around. These logs also indicate that a number of teaching faculty are linking the modules to class websites (Blackboard) or online syllabi and that some appear to have assigned or strongly recommended that learners read parts or all of one or more modules. An anonymous online survey soliciting user feedback is being added to the end of each module. In addition, this semester, approximately one third of the freshman English sections are being assigned Module 3 and given a search statement worksheet to complete and bring to class. During class, an in-class worksheet is assigned and collected upon completion. The remaining two thirds are given just the in-class worksheet. The success of those learners who read Module 3 before completing the in-class worksheet will be compared with those who did not read the module.

In summary, the Information Skills Modules have been designed to be effective tools for teaching information literacy. Developing teaching strategies that optimize use and manageable methods for assessing effectiveness are the next steps in this process. We invite all of you to try out the Information Skills Modules ( ) in your own teaching environment. Please send us your reactions, critiques, and suggestions.


1 Development of the Information Skills modules was funded by grants from the Virginia Tech Center for Innovation in Learning ( ).

2 Lewis Erskine is currently engaged in private consulting for instructional design and Patricia Bevan has retired.

Essential Reading

Association of College and Research Libraries. "Objectives for Information Literacy Instruction: A Model Statement for Academic Librarians." In ALA: American Library Association [website]. 8 March 2005 [cited 22 March 2005]. Available from .

Shambaugh, R. Neal, and Susan G. Magliaro. Mastering the Possibilities: A Process Approach to Instructional Design . Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

Stripling, Barbara K., and Judy M. Pitts. Brainstorms and Blueprints: Teaching Library Research as a Thinking Process . Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1988.

Contact the Authors

Margaret C. Merrill
College Librarian for Agriculture and Life Sciences
Virginia Tech University Libraries
P.O. Box 90001
Blacksburg, VA 24062-9001
Phone: (540) 231-9670

Robert Sebek
Classroom Manager
Virginia Tech University Libraries
P.O. Box 90001
Blacksburg, VA 24062-9001

Lewis Erskine
Instructional Design Consultant
1072 Ferney Creek Rd. NW
Willis, VA 24380
Email: VL