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"Digital Mentors" marks the first in a series of articles about the 2011 ACIE Award winners.
Bridging academics with practice has always posed a challenge for professional education. Traditionally, faculty have looked outside of the University for practitioners to speak to their students about relevant professional issues. The 2011 ACIE Award winning project, Information Professionals and Student Interactions (IPSI), now allows Master of Library and Information Sciences (MLIS) students in the School of Information Sciences to interact with information professional alumni in a very unique mentorship opportunity. Thanks to recent technological advances students can now take advantage of a repository of “digital mentors”, selected from a pool of MLIS alumni currently working in LIS professions.
Chris Tomer, Associate Professor, and Sue Alman, Director of the FastTrack MLIS Program, have both pioneered online education at the University of Pittsburgh. Together with Mary Kay Biagini, they developed the first fully online degree program at Pitt, and they have co-taught LIS 2000 Understanding Information since 2001. With the support of their graduate student project facilitator, Becky Berkey, they developed five10-20 minute edited video recordings of alumni presentations, focusing on specific topics and fields of practice within the MLIS curriculum. Additionally, support was available to bring Dr. Kathryn James to campus for a formal presentation recognizing the 10th anniversary of the FastTrack MLIS Program and to participate as a master teacher in a class session. Students currently enrolled full- or part-time in either the on-campus or FastTrack MLIS (online) program during the Fall 2011 Term will participate in the inaugural phase of the project.
Five IPSI mentors were selected from the top graduates of the on-line program during the last ten years. Approximately twenty-five to thirty student “hosts” were assigned to each mentor. In each case, mentors were interviewed on WebEx, a web conferencing and collaboration utility. Both on-campus and online students were then given access to the audio, the video, and the PowerPoint, which were posted in Blackboard. Berkey played a major role in this stage of the project, by prepping the mentors in advance with questions designed specifically for the student interactions, and conducting all the interviews. After viewing the interviews, students and presenters participated in one week of asynchronous interactions in a Blackboard discussion forum. Students were able to submit questions and comments to their mentors for in-depth analysis and application of key concepts within the discipline. During the Spring 2012 Term, Berkey will compile the recorded interactions in the form of an easy-to-follow Q and A transcript, to accompany the captured interviews for future student use in the program.
Alman and Tomer anticipate using this model in subsequent terms through 2015 with revisions made in response to evaluation results. The video segments will be stored in a digital repository and be available for re-use during the next three academic years (2012 – 2015), and alumni will be invited to participate in asynchronous discussions that focus on the key course objects each term. In defense of questions about the longevity of the recorded content and how useful it will be to future classes of incoming students, Tomer said “What we capture this term will have a substantial shelf life.”
Given the opportunity and resources to bring in other professional alumni to serve as mentors, the program could offer students a wider range of different perspectives. One of the lessons learned during this first term of the project is that each of the professionals who agreed to serve as a mentor offered the students a view of the profession and the possibilities that exist for them. “I think if we were to invite another five or ten people in the ensuing years, we would probably get an even more diverse view. And certainly that would be good for our students,” added Tomer.
Alman and Tomer take pride in their student-centered approach to teaching both face-to-face and online courses, and have many success stories to tell, which made it easy for them to select mentors for this project. Tomer explains, “Sue and I have been teaching the introductory course together for eleven years, so we had a good sense of the former students that could serve as mentors.”
Due to the recycling of digital objects stored in the repository, this initiative can be sustained over the proposed three-year period and can serve as a model for other faculty who wish to cut costs by creating a viable alternative to hosting “live” guest speakers. The 4-part evaluation process will include the following:
- Debrief information professionals to determine success of interaction;
- Monitor Blackboard statistics to gauge student involvement and determine topics/strategies to engage students;
- Student surveys at midterm and final;
- Participation in the Information Professionals’ discussion forums.
With a project that promises to be so successful, one has to ask, why stop in 2015? Tomer helps to clear this up by saying, “A generation ago, people were confident in making predictions that ran for multiple decades. Today, however, five years seems like a long time.”
Tomer continued to explain that when he and Alman first came into the field of LIS, “as practicing professionals and then as teachers, the rate of change was modest. It was like being in a sleepy small town.” Reflecting on how the discipline has changed in the last twenty years, Alman and Tomer agree that they are “operating at a rate of change that’s familiar to people in other disciplines, but it is not like the profession we entered.”
Alman added, “I also think because we’re doing this course, for both on-campus and on-line students, we wanted to have something that would be retained beyond the term in which we do it: that it would be available on an equal basis for all the students.” Beyond recognition of the tenth anniversary of the FastTrack MLIS program, these instructional pioneers wanted to do something to not only honor the work they have done in making this program a success, but also “the people who graduated and what they’ve gone on to accomplish.”For more details about this and other award winning projects, visit the Office of the Provost’s Innovation in Education Awards Website.
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