Non-Credit Online Information Literacy Instruction

By Susan Cassidy, Modesto Junior College

Looking back, I realize that we had no idea of the path we were about to journey down. But looking forward, we, the librarians at Modesto Junior College, are thrilled that our new series of short, non-credit online courses in information literacy have the potential to become an important contribution to student success at our college.  
Nearly four years ago, faculty at Modesto Junior College met for a three-day retreat to learn about our equity gaps and brainstorm ways to increase our success and completion rates. At that retreat, the MJC librarians committed to creating information literacy skills modules that students could engage with at their own pace as a supplement to instruction they received from discipline and library faculty.  

Our first attempts at these modules took the form of physical binders that we kept on reserve at the library. Students could check out a binder, work through the material, and then take a librarian-graded quiz on the content. We had two “info lit kits”: one on identifying popular, substantive, and scholarly sources, and one on evaluating sources for credibility. The kits were mildly successful—some English and Communication Studies faculty assigned them for extra credit—but after a year we had developed kits for only these two topics, and we had no online version of either one available. 
We knew that our students needed something more, but we also knew that it would take us years to create the amount of material we envisioned providing. It was at this time that we first considered subscribing to the InfoLit Modules (now called Instruct) offered by Credo Reference. Our need to expand thankfully coincided with an increase in our budget, so we committed to the $4,000 annual subscription. At the time, we liked the scope of Credo’s modules, the fairly entertaining instructional videos, the “test your skills” exercises (especially in the section on MLA and APA citations), and, most importantly, the customizability of the modules. This last factor was crucial since we knew we would have to re-write and re-organize some of the content to ensure that our students could work through the material without getting frustrated or confused.  

Credo’s content is divided into 6 modules: Getting Started with Research, Sources of Information, Searching for Information, Evaluating Information, Presenting Research & Data, and Citations & Academic Integrity. Many other Credo subscribers adapt the modules by just selecting particular tutorials or videos for one-shot instruction sessions or making portions of the content available for faculty to embed in their own Canvas shells. However, because the comprehensiveness of Credo’s product was, to us, its greatest virtue, we decided to keep the content together and create a non-credit three-course series that leads to a CDCP Certificate of Completion in Research Skills. 

Working within Credo’s editing program, my colleague, Iris Carroll, and I customized the modules over a period of 18 months (but mostly during the summers). We added content where we felt it was lacking, and we altered content to align with the way we teach information literacy in classrooms and at the research help desk. For example, at MJC we use the “CRAAP” test for evaluating information, and the Credo course did not, so we substituted our information for theirs. Although some of our changes were not strictly necessary, we felt they improved the course. In one instance, we re-recorded the video on database searching using Credo’s script along with screenshots of MJC database searches as examples to make it more relevant for our students.  
At the same time that we were working on editing the content, we began working with our Curriculum Committee for local approval of the courses and program and State approval of the Certificate. We originally applied for the CDCP certificate in order to get full apportionment for the non-credit courses, but we quickly realized that because the courses are entirely online, to collect apportionment we would need to abide by the requirements for regular and effective contact. However, we deliberately designed the courses to be mostly hands-off from the instructors because of this very problem: we did not want the limited availability of our librarians to create an unnecessary cap on enrollment. As we could not provide regular, effective contact without completely changing the nature of our courses, we have abandoned the plan for full apportionment for now.  

All is not lost, however; our Certificate of Completion in Research Skills will count towards MJC’s number of completions. Under the State’s new funding mechanisms, the increased number of completions from these courses will eventually have a positive effect on our college’s funding.   

The courses, Research Skills 1, 2 and 3, launched in Fall 2018. Students enroll in them like they do in any other course and access them through Canvas. They are open entry/open exit, and they are available for students over the entire semester. Each course takes about 3 hours to complete, and students are allowed as many attempts to pass as they need. The courses are graded P/NP, and the final grades appear on student transcripts. 

The courses are set up to run with very little demand on the instructors of record, a job that is shared between three full-time librarians. As instructors, our biggest involvement with this course during the semester is resetting students who want to retake the courses because they did not pass. Because the course comes to us through an LTI link from Credo, each student who wants another try must be manually reset on Credo’s platform. Resetting an individual student and then emailing them to tell them it’s been done doesn’t take long, but the volume of resets, especially in the first course, is high. At 10 weeks into a 16-week term, I have processed more resets in the first course than there are students enrolled as some students need several tries. The reset requests fall off dramatically by the third course in the sequence; students learn that they must pay close attention to the material to pass the assessments. And, of course, not everyone who enrolls in the first course attempts the entire sequence.  

In Fall 2018, one English instructor made the courses part of the required work in her accelerated English 100 course. (At MJC, English 100 is our AB 705 course that is open to all students and satisfies the requirements for college level English.) Many other English instructors offered our Research Skills courses as extra credit. In total, 155 students enrolled in the first course in the sequence, and 106 students passed all three courses (most of those were students of the one instructor who required the courses). To pass each course, we require an 80% or better on the course post-test, and an average of 80% or higher on the five quizzes in each course. We set the pass score high to ensure that students actually master the content, and we allow unlimited retakes.  

Thanks to positive word-of-mouth from last semester, this term, Spring 2019, more English instructors and one Communications Studies instructor have required that their students take the course sequence—in total, about 330 students are required to take the classes (compared to about 90 in the Fall). We can tell when instructors’ internal due dates are arriving as we get a rash of reset requests right before. In the Fall, we were especially busy resetting students during finals week when many students seeking extra credit enrolled. Unfortunately, it was mostly extra credit seekers who ended up failing the courses when they ran out of time to retake them. 

Right now, we have only anecdotal evidence of how the courses have affected our students’ research skills. Our primary evidence is from the English instructor who required the courses in the Fall, but because faculty went on strike that term and students lost instruction time, she ended up modifying her research paper assignment to the point that she could not compare the work of the students who took our research course to the work that students submitted in previous semesters. Still, she noticed an elevation in the class discussions about research, and she heard her students using terms such as “primary sources” that she had never heard them use before. Similarly, I had an experience this semester in an English class during my usual one-shot instruction session. I have provided instruction to this faculty member’s classes for several years, and this semester’s prompt was used last year as well. This semester, the students, who had all completed the Research Skills courses by the time of my visit, were engaged at a deeper level from the beginning of my presentation. They followed my talk closely throughout, and they asked levels of questions on search terms and types of sources that I hadn’t been asked before.  

We have also been excited to see that students who started but did not complete the courses have gleaned some benefit. While working with a student at the Research Help desk this term, I began to show her our webpage on evaluating sources. She got a light in her eyes and said she had taken the online research courses and had seen this material before. And although she hadn’t yet passed the course that covers evaluating sources, she was familiar with the content and was ready to apply it to her own research. 

This summer we will continue editing the courses to further improve them. We are looking for ways to automate the reset process or at least ways to share the work. We continue to market the courses to our English 100 and 101 faculty, and we are hoping that word-of-mouth will continue to help us expand our enrollment. Eventually, we would like to persuade a faculty member to assign the courses to some of their sections but not to others and help us run an assessment that will provide more than anecdotal evidence. Especially in the era of AB 705, when the demand for individual research instruction has far exceeded our available librarian hours, we are glad that we devoted the time to create this program for our students and faculty.