Re-envisioning the Internationally Sophisticated Student: Champlain College’s Global Modules Project

by Gary Scudder and Jennifer Vincent


In response to the demands of an increasingly interrelated world, there is not a college or university that is not grappling with the challenges of producing more internationally sophisticated students. To that end, Champlain College, a small baccalaureate college in Burlington, Vermont, has spent the past five years completely restructuring its core curriculum to best prepare students of the twenty-first century for their role as global citizens. A key component of this new core curriculum is the college’s innovative Global Modules (GMs) project, where Champlain students connect with students at various international universities for short, thematic, course-embedded, online discussions. Starting in the spring 2008 semester Champlain started positioning the Global Modules as mandatory assignments in certain key required interdisciplinary courses. The goal is to create an integrated series of progressive assignments based on global dialogue carried throughout the university experience.

Before discussing the Global Modules project and its role in Champlain’s new core curriculum, it might be a good idea to step back and take a look at a more traditional solution to global learning: study abroad. While the advantages of studying abroad are well-documented and Champlain continues to support students’ active participation in it, we feel that offering study abroad alone is not enough. Many factors, ranging from financial considerations to tightly-structured degree requirements, combine to limit  participation in such programs. We must also realize that study abroad experiences are often singular, isolated events that come late in the curriculum, usually in the third year, and typically exclude areas like the Middle East or Africa. The latest figures from the Institute of International Education show definite advances over the last decade, but also some limitations. In 2007-2008, over 260,000 American college students studied abroad, an increase of 150% in a decade but still only about two percent of the total university population. There are some positive factors in this study, especially the dramatic percentage increases for destinations like China (19.0%), Costa Rica (13.2%), South Africa (15.0%), India (19.8%), Brazil (7.9%) and Russia (8.2%), which shows that American students are increasingly choosing non-traditional study abroad locations. Still, an examination of locations by region shows that the destinations of choice remain overwhelmingly Eurocentric, with 56.3% of American university students studying abroad in Europe in 2007-2008. This compares to 4.5% for Africa (up from 2.8% in 1998-1999), 11.1% for Asia (up from 6.0% in 1998-1999), 15.3% for Latin America, 1.3% for the Middle East and 5.3% for Oceania.1 This limited diversity is unacceptable if we are to prepare students for the global challenges of the twenty-first century. As stated by NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, two expert organizations deeply committed to international exchange and study abroad:

We no longer have the option of getting along without the expertise that we need to understand and conduct our relations with the world. We do not have the option of not knowing our enemies–or not understanding the world where terrorism originates and speaking its languages. We do not have the option of not knowing our friends–or not understanding how to forge and sustain international relationships . . .2

The need for increased diversity in the destinations of study abroad students was also cited as a major challenge by the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program in their 2005 publication “Global Competence National Needs.”3

Champlain College has decided that not only is it important for students to have an international experience, but it is essential for every student to have an international experience. To that end, we have initiated an ambitious program of embedding Global Modules across the curriculum. Participation in the Global Module project not only raises cultural awareness for all students early in their college careers, it also allows our students to communicate with students from all over the world. Global Modules are an online global-learning solution that allows for the free exchange of ideas and opinions between domestic and international students that can be incorporated into any class. Using Global Modules involves very little training, preparation or class-time. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the Global Modules are not designed to replace study abroad. Instead, one of our hopes is that by requiring students to communicate with other students from around the world early in their university career it will actually increase the number who study abroad, as well as enhance their study abroad experience.


As almost anyone associated with higher education knows, one of the biggest reasons why international initiatives collapse is their cost and complexity. With that in mind the Global Modules are designed to be simple, flexible and inexpensive. We give students, both at Champlain and abroad, access to a Global Modules Web site designed and run by the college’s faculty members. Once a semester the classes “meet” online for assignments, usually in four week blocks. Global Modules are designed to link the students and faculty at international educational institutions for shared readings, discussion and teamwork. Their readings, chosen through consultation among the faculty at the different universities, are designed to challenge unspoken cultural assumptions as well as promote critical thinking and collaborative learning. The key is to choose readings and assignments that force the students to work together to cooperate and solve problems, and in the process come to grips with their national or regional biases. While the Global Modules can be adapted to any number of specific situations, they have traditionally taken this form:

    • Week 1: Students post introductions and initial perceptions
    • Week 2: Shared reading assignments; general philosophical discussion
    • Week 3: More focused, country-specific analysis; problem solving
    • Week 4: Critique and summary; reflective piece

The goal is to create a system that allows for a detailed and engaging dialogue, but is also flexible to fit into a variety of different courses.

At Champlain we ran our first Global Module in Spring semester 2003. We linked two Seminar in Contemporary World Issues classes that were being taught in Burlington and at our campus in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The students in the two locations shared a common reading on the Grameen Bank, the Bangladeshi organization that gives micro-loans to the poorest of the poor. To get a loan from the Grameen Bank, lendees have to agree to sixteen resolutions, which are really a means of societal transformation. The first part of the Global Module assignment was an online discussion of the article and what the students thought of the Grameen Bank. We then broke the students into virtual groups that were half-Burlington and half-Dubai. The group assignment was for each group to come up with their own list of ten resolutions, post them, critique the work of the other groups, and then reflect on what they had learned. By focusing on the Grameen Bank the students were forced to address issues of poverty, aid, gender inequality, and work together in international groups to solve problems. Not surprisingly, the two groups approached this issue in very different ways and thus learned from each other. The extraordinary outpouring of student interest and enthusiasm from the very first experimental Global Module let us know that we had stumbled across a potentially valuable mechanism for bringing students together in a virtual classroom. Since that initial semester, we have run hundreds of Global Modules on a diverse topics, such as human rights, gender issues, ethics, globalization, community, terrorism, medical ethics, concepts of the self, and perceptions of Arabs in film. We have dramatically increased our team of international partner institutions to include such schools as Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa,the Higher School of Economics and St. Petersburg Polytechnic University in Moscow, Haigazian University and Lebanese American University in Lebanon, Klagenfurt University in Austria, Ghana University in Ghana, Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates, Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, Kenyatta University in Kenya, the University of Alcala in Spain, Bethlehem University in Palestine, Corvinus University and Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Hungary, and the University of Jordan in Jordan.

Global Modules

It might be useful to take a look at the inner workings of a four-week Global Module. Weeks one and four are largely boiler-plate. In the first week the students get to know each other, with each student posting an introduction and their initial perceptions of the other country. Week four mainly consists of summary and critique, along with reflective pieces for the Champlain students that serve both for grading as well as institutional assessment. Weeks two and three focus on discussion about the assigned readings. Below, for example, are the second and third weeks of a Global Module on ecological sustainability that was written by our colleague, Cyndi Brandenburg:

Week 2
This week we begin our discussion of ecological and carbon footprints.  We will be using four short articles.  The first is Measuring Footprints: A Tale of Two Families”); the second entitled (“Big Foot”); the third is entitled “UAE Beats Americans’ Environmental Harm”; and the fourth is entitled “Why Bother?”.  Please follow these links and read the four articles.

Once you have read the texts you will answer a series of questions. You will be required to post answers at least twice, although you can contribute more often if you wish.  You can either post an original answer to a question or comment on the posting of another student. Either way, your postings should be detailed and analytical.  At least one of your posts should be a response to another student’s posting.  In addition, at least one of your posts should be completed in the first half of the week. If you are late posting for the week do not simply answer a question that has already been answered by another student–contribute in a new way. Build upon your fellow students’ answers.  Think of it as the class as a whole answering the question.

  1. What do the terms ecological footprint and carbon footprint mean? What type of activities contribute to it and why?
  2. Compare your life to the two individuals in the “Measuring Footprints” article. To which one are you most similar? Would you be willing to live like Jyoti if you knew that it would significantly improve life for the next generation?  What comforts of your life are you willing and unwilling to give up?
  3. What are possible solutions for reducing carbon emission? Are they viable?
  4. If carbon usage and emissions had a specific price tag attached, who do you think would be most seriously affected? Do you think a “carbon tax” is socially just? Why or why not?
  5. Does it make sense for an individual to adopt a “greener” lifestyle if his or her greater community doesn’t embrace change as well? Why or why not?

Week 3

Let’s continue our discussion this week, focusing on specific examples from our two countries. Work on the following question. Be sure to post at least twice this week.  Remember, at least one of your posts should be a response to another student’s posting— and at least one should be completed in the first half of the week.

  1. Go to Global Footprint Network and The Independent Footprint Calculator and calculate your ecological footprints using both sites. Don’t worry that the sites are limited to certain geographical regions. How big is your ecological footprint? How does the data gathered from these two sites compare?
  2. Can you suggest specific actions for reducing footprints on an individual level?
  3. Can you suggest specific actions for reducing footprints on a community level?
  4. Can you suggest specific actions for reducing footprints on a national level?
  5. Can you suggest specific actions for reducing footprints on a global scale?

As you can see from this example, the Week 2 activities are a more general, often philosophical discussion of a topic, while the Week 3 assignments give students a chance to bring in examples from their own countries and do some problem solving.

Global Modules in the Curriculum

Participation in Global Modules has enriched the educational experience of the American and international students involved. The Global Modules have internationalized the curriculum, fostered critical thinking, and inspired much needed dialogue between students and faculty members from different parts of the globe. Champlain College is so dedicated to the approach that it became a key element in the institution’s new core curriculum implemented in spring 2008. The first core curriculum class with an embedded Global Modules is the Concepts of Community course, which is normally taught in the second semester of the first year. We prepared a number of community-based topics that gave participating professors a variety of options. As part of this initial launch of the Global Modules in the new core curriculum, five hundred first-year Champlain students linked up with five hundred international students from universities in twelve different countries. Embedding the Global Modules in the Concepts of Community course was only the first step in a much more ambitious plan. Since that time we have embedded the Global Modules in Capitalism & Democracy, a second-year course, and Human Rights & Responsibilities, a third-year course. In each instance the GM is a required assignment of every student and constitutes ten percent of the grade.

Embedding the Global Modules across the curriculum provided several challenges, one of which was to ensure a diversity of discussion topics–and our professors, both here and abroad have worked assiduously to prepare a wide variety of topics. A brief look at the choices for this semester alone gives a sense of the diversity of options. For example, in the first year Concepts of Community classes the following topics are discussed: changing interpretations of liberalism and conservatism; the ways that festivals reflect societal norms; the interplay between economics and politics; ethical decision making; the worlds if Islam and Christianity; the culture of violence; ecological sustainability; social differences as expressed in the business community; marriage and family; Muslims in America; and divorce and society.  In the second-year Capitalism & Democracy classes students are discussing societal transformation in the UAE and the US, the worldwide financial crisis, political and societal space as reflected in suburbia, democracy and the Internet, critiques of capitalism and medical ethics. In the third-year Introduction to Human Rights classes students discuss corporate culture by focusing on multinational corporations, consumerism and democracy in a digital age, and women in crime and punishment.

A second challenge is how to make the GMs both integrated and progressive. Now that we are in our third year of including these as required assignments in the core classes, we have come to think of their progression in this fashion: in the first year it is enough that the students recognize the similarities and differences between different cultures; in the second-year GMs we expect students to try to understand why the similarities and differences exist, and whether they are societally- or individually- based; and by the third year we expect the students to be able to discuss how their own personal behavior is impacted by this knowledge, both personally and professionally. At the end of every Global Module the students write a reflective piece that discusses these concepts.

By spring 2010 the Global Modules have expanded to require participation by every first, second and third year student. The international partner universities for this semester include: Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (South Africa), State University Higher School of Economics (Russia), Al Akhawayn University (Morocco), University of Jordan (Jordan), Pearl Academy (India), Haigazian University (Lebanon), Corvinus University (Hungary), St. Petersburg Polytechnic University (Russia), Zayed University (United Arab Emirates), American University in Cairo (Egypt), Gulf University of Science & Technology (Kuwait), University of Alcala (Spain), Pazmany Peter Catholic University (Hungary), Lebanese American University (Lebanon) and Klagenfurt University (Austria).

What We’ve Learned

Administrative Support: Not surprisingly, a project of this size requires a consistent vision and extraordinary support from upper administration. Fortunately, the Global Modules project has received constant and generous support from President Dave Finney, Provost Robin Abramson, Associate Provost Michelle Miller, and Core Division Dean Elizabeth Beaulieu, who have provided financial support in the form of course releases and a travel budget and maybe more importantly, moral support by taking every opportunity to keep the GMs on the college agenda and rallying the troops.

Technology: Running the Global Modules requires a delicate technological balancing act. We need enough tools to carry on the discussions, but we cannot run a system that is such a bandwidth hog that it precludes the participation of some of our international partners with more limited technological infrastructures. Our current Web site, our third, makes use of vBulletin, a simple bulletin board approach that allows for dependable, asynchronous discussion. We will occasionally make use of video conferences (for example, in a recent two-week period our colleague Chuck Bashaw carried out Skype videoconferences with universities in South Africa, India and Russia) but don’t require it. So in regards to technology, the simpler the better.

Planning: It is Champlain’s belief that the best approach for providing a sustainable program is the creation of a smaller inner circle of linked universities. This does not diminish Champlain’s vision of acting as the facilitator of a much larger network of domestic U.S. and international universities, but in the short term, a more cohesive smaller network makes curricular planning more manageable. The dream would be the creation of an integrated consortium of eight to ten universities with a partially integrated curriculum. The advantages to this approach are obvious. Most importantly, the existence of this inner core of universities would make planning much easier if our international universities took the approach of officially embedding the Global Modules in certain key courses, which would allow us to plan out semesters, if not years, in advance.

Faculty Support: We have been fortunate in that Champlain has the reputation, richly deserved, of being a very nimble school that adapts quickly to changing professional and pedagogical worlds. Consequently, the institution, and especially the faculty members, are less tradition-bound and much more open to change. The positive response of the faculty to the Global Modules project, which required them to work with new international partners as well as teach partially online, is a statement to their extraordinary dedication to their students. The faculty members have been a part of the planning process from the beginning and we constantly look for their feedback. In choosing a Global Module topic we give faculty members the choice of either selecting one of the dozens of GMs that we have run in the past or writing an entirely new one, and this helps to increase faculty buy-in by providing secure time-tested options as well as protecting academic freedom.

International Partners: Quite simply, getting a project like this started, especially for a small school like Champlain, requires spending time overseas finding partners. When we started this project no one had ever heard of Global Modules or Champlain College, and thus we had to prove ourselves to an entirely new audience. We have developed a list of criteria that we use when sizing up potential partners–ranging from their technological infrastructure to their history of international programs to their English proficiency to the political freedom for discourse in the country–and thus we’ve been pretty successful. That said, nothing replaces devoting the time and resources to visiting new universities and presenting at international conferences and revisiting standing partners time and again. With most of our international partners, especially in the Middle East, the personal contact is irreplaceable. Keep in mind that we would not have a Global Module network without our international partners, and that every GM is team-taught with a professor from South Africa or Russia or Morocco, and spending time at the foreign universities running workshops and drinking innumerable cups of tea is a necessity.
1. Institute of International Education, Open Doors Report (New York, NY: IIE, 2008). [return to text]
2. American Association of Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2006). [return to text]
3. United States Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program, Global Competence & National Needs (2005).[return to text]

The Mixxer Language Exchange Community


mixxer1.jpgThe Mixxer is a social networking site designed for language learners. Dickinson College places a heavy emphasis on international education, its study abroad programs, and foreign languages. The Mixxer allows us to create real world language use in our classrooms with native speakers using Skype. The site has many of the same functionalities as Facebook with blogs, friend requests, and a messaging system; however, what makes it different is that users search for potential language partners based on their native language and the language they are studying. When they find a potential partner, they send a message proposing times to meet and eventually communicate via Skype. Though not required, the usual arrangement is to meet for an hour with each partner, spending thirty minutes speaking in their native language and thirty minutes in their target language.

The Mixxer also includes functions for foreign language teachers. Teachers can search for other teachers interested in class-to-class exchanges. They can organize and oversee their students’ blog posts. In addition, they can organize “events” where native speakers are invited to contact students in their class via Skype at a specific time. With more than 40,000 Mixxer users, it is now possible for any language teacher to organize a language exchange for their students at almost any time. This is especially helpful for less commonly taught languages in Asia and the Middle East where time differences make most traditional class-to-class exchanges very difficult.


The idea for the project grew from the collaboration of myself, the language technologist at Dickinson College, and a Japanese instructor, Akiko Meguro in 2005. Professor Meguro had heard about text chat exchanges done here at the college via NetMeeting between an intermediate French class and an English class in France. She wanted to do the same for her classes, but there were several obstacles in replicating the project in Japanese. The first was the Japanese writing system. Written Japanese consists of three character sets: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Switching between character sets, in addition to learning kanji (Chinese characters), is significantly more complicated than the Roman alphabetical system. Because of these character sets, typing is not usually taught until the second semester. Language exchanges for first-year courses would have to be audio exchanges done during class to avoid the necessity of typing and to provide help to students who may have trouble understanding or communicating. Unfortunately, the popular audio messengers at the time such as “Yahoo Talk,” “MSN Messenger,” and “IChat” often had difficulty connecting or maintaining an audio connection due to firewalls and network configurations. The second major hurdle was the thirteen-hour time difference between the east coast of the U.S. and Japan, which made finding potential partners with matching class hours very difficult.

The arrival of Web 2.0 offered some solutions. One of these technologies, Skype, enabled us to have reliable voice communications to Japan. Skype is a voice over IP application, often called an audio messenger, that allows for free calls between computers. We chose Skype over the other audio messengers for several reasons:

  1. Skype used what is called p2p technology, or peer-to-peer, meaning there is no central server. This enables it to reliably connect computers on different networks with little regard to the configuration or firewall settings on either network.
  2. Skype had a very large and international user base, which meant we had a large pool of native Japanese speakers from which to draw who were already familiar with the technology.
  3. Skype could be set to connect over a specific internet port. On a campus network, this meant we were able to reserve bandwidth for the language exchanges by setting the Skype clients in the language labs to use the port that was assigned the highest priority.

With the arrival of Skype, we had a reliable tool for audio communication, but we still needed a way to find partners for our students. I decided to create the Mixxer, a social networking site that would be solely for those interested in language exchanges via Skype. The initial version was extremely simple. It was little more than a searchable database with the front end created using the .NET framework and an Access database on the back end. Users could search profiles that were separated into two categories: individual learners and teachers. Individual learners could search the database by native language and language sought; teachers could search for other classes based on language criteria and student ages.

The initial challenge was garnering publicity for the site in order to populate the database with enough language learners and teachers so as to be useful. Looking back, I could have developed a far more effective marketing strategy by taking advantage of the blogosphere, our own Web site, listservs, and other social media. Instead I haphazardly searched forums for posts of people looking for language partners and offered my site as a suggestion. I was, in effect, recruiting users one at a time. Fortunately I did eventually reach a critical mass and the site was able to grow on its own. Even more importantly, Skype, which was barely out of beta at this point, began receiving a tremendous amount of publicity. Educational blogs began writing about the possibility of using the service as a language learning tool. Because the Mixxer had been created very early on in the development of Skype, it ranked very highly for searches such as “language exchange Skype,” “learn language Skype,” etc. This created a cycle of links for the Mixxer, a high ranking in Google searches, and more users.

Once we had a sizable database of language learners and teachers, we were able to find partner classes for many of our language classes and offer students the possibility of conducting language exchanges outside of class. For one year, Japanese conducted class-to-class exchanges with an English class in Japan. However, maintaining these exchanges was difficult. The time difference meant that our students, myself, and the professor had to meet at 9 p.m. to speak with the class in Japan. In addition, the number of students who would show up on their side and at what time was very unpredictable. At times, we would have students show up in the evening and be unable to speak with anyone for the entire hour. Over time, this proved to be a fairly common experience. Class-to-class exchanges were often difficult to maintain over various semesters due to schedules and time zones, but also because of varying expectations. While it was a required and integral part of our courses, other schools sometimes viewed the exchanges as optional for their students and were unsupervised by their instructors.

Because of these difficulties, Professor Meguro began utilizing a Japanese social networking site, Mixi, to recruit individual native speakers who were interested in practicing their English. Mixi makes this possible through community and event functions that allow users to create groups and organize themselves around a common topic. Professor Meguro started a group focused on English language practice, that she then used to propose an “online meeting” for the community. Our class time would be posted as the time for the online meeting, those interested would send me a message via Skype, and their names would be distributed to our students.

This method worked well, but once the community became very large, we wanted to set up a registration system allowing us to match the number of native speakers with our class size. We set up a registration and event function within the language exchange site, the Mixxer, in order to do this. By adding this functionality to the Mixxer, we were also able to offer the same function to any language class on campus with relatively short notice.

Drupal as a Development Platform

For two years, the site grew at a very good pace. With over 20,000 users in the database, I was able to offer language exchanges to any foreign language professor at the college interested in connecting their students with native speakers. Last year I began looking at expanding functionality. I wanted users, including our students, to be able to maintain blogs on the site that could be reviewed by their professor or native speakers. I also wanted to allow users to create groups, whether they were peer study groups or classes created by professors for their students. Finally, I wanted teachers and professors outside of Dickinson to be able to arrange language exchange events for their classes. Up until then, I had organized all of the exchanges by running a query on the back end database that sent an email to potential language participants. If I were to open up this process to other institutions, I would need to develop a front end that automated this process.

Because I was the only person working on the site and my time for the project was restricted to summers, creating the additional features in VB.NET was not feasible. Starting over in a different platform seemed daunting as well, but I knew the change would only become more difficult as time passed. I began looking at platforms that would allow for the easy creation of a social networking site and would be fundamentally customizable, since the entire site was oriented around each user’s target and native language–not the type of criteria that comes “out of the box” with pre-made sites. I also wanted to use something that was open source and had an active user base. This would ensure that I could obtain the software for free, be able to make any necessary changes, and hopefully be able to rely on future upgrades and avoid having to switch platforms in the immediate future.

I looked at ELGG and Joomla, but I finally settled on Drupal. Both Drupal and Joomla have an active user base and are module based, which allows the creator of the site to customize the site by adding functions created by the community. When I made a list of the additional functions I needed to recreate my current site along with the groups, blogs, and event creation, I felt Drupal provided the best collection of modules. And since we already had a previous version of Drupal running on campus, there was the possibility of help from colleagues if I ran into trouble.

The transition of the .NET site to Drupal, including content and the additional functions, took me about two months, which was better than I had expected. Until this point, not only was I unfamiliar with Drupal, but I had also never written any code in PHP, used MySQL, or worked with Linux. Most of my time was spent sifting through possible modules and testing their functionality along with configuration settings. In the end, I added less than ten lines of custom coding to the site. The rest of the changes were made by uploading modules and selecting configuration settings on a form. It would have taken at least twice as long for me to have created the additional functionality from scratch in .NET on the old site, and now with my understanding of Drupal and its parts, additional changes will come much faster. Once I had created the new site, I was also able to find modules that allowed me to import the content from the old site. When the new site went live, I had some performance issues since I was unfamiliar with PHP caching or diagnosing slow queries in MySQL, but these proved to relatively minor issues. Both have since been resolved as our server group has learned more about LINUX, and I have gained additional experience working with a MySQL database.

The new Mixxer site in Drupal has been a great success. Traffic is up 66% from this same time a year ago and we doubled our user base. Because professors can now organize events on their own, we greatly increased the number of classes that integrate exchanges into their classes from a handful each semester to fifteen or twenty classes. At the same time, I’ve been able to reduce the time I spend organizing and starting each exchange. I would recommend Drupal to anyone looking for a system that allows users to organize themselves and collaborate on a given subject.


Foreign Language Instructors Interested in Using the Mixxer

The Mixxer is open to any language learner or teachers. Teachers are asked to create an account at and then send me an email requesting a teacher account. Once registered, they can search for other classes interested in having an exchange or to set up an event for their own class by inviting individual students to contact their students during the class hour. The process for doing so is simple. The instructor creates a page describing the time and topic of the exchanges, and then invites Mixxer users who match the language profile. It is recommended that these invitations are sent at least one week in advance. In the message, a link is included where the native speakers can register using their username, Skype name and e-mail address. When enough native speakers have registered, the teacher closes the registration. An email is automatically sent to those who have signed up one day before the event to confirm the exchange and instruct participants to send a Skype text message five minutes before the event to the instructor’s Skype address. On the day of the exchange, these Skype names are collected and distributed to the students as they enter the computer lab. In case that the number of students and native speakers do not match perfectly, students can participate in a Skype conference call, that may include two students and one native speaker. More detailed instructions about setting up an exchange are posted on the site.

I also recommend that the students produce something from these exchanges such as a summary of their exchange. One option is to have students send their reports directly to the instructor; however, it is also possible to have them report on their exchanges via the blogs within the Mixxer. Students and their partners are then able to read each of the reports and provide comments that frequently encourage further interaction outside of class. In order to encourage this interaction, students may write a “thank you” message to their partner as well, so that the partner can find the student’s profile within the site. Once they’ve made this initial contact on the site and become Mixxer “friends,” they will each be notified when the other posts additional content. After several exchanges, the students become members of this virtual community and their relationships will extend beyond the classroom. We have had students maintain contact with their language partners over several semesters, or even a couple of years until a semester abroad, when they were finally able to meet in person.

Some professors also have their more advanced students conduct content-based interviews with native speakers. In this case, students sign up as individual learners on the Mixxer. They then contact native speakers about doing an exchange and set up a time to meet. It is important that students contact more than one native speaker and do so well in advance of the actual due date of their project, and that they also fulfill their promise to give their partner equal time practicing their target language.


Our principal goal in having the language exchanges was to increase the amount of verbal practice in the target language. This was clearly a success with students fully immersed in the target language for roughly twenty-five minutes each class. But we were also interested in additional benefits provided by the exchange, particularly on student motivation in the classroom and their interest in study abroad opportunities. In fall 2008, we surveyed eight classes and 103 students who had used the Mixxer for language exchanges. Results were quite positive. Roughly 90% of students stated that they enjoyed the exchanges and found them useful. Equally encouraging was the 89% positive response rate to the question whether their confidence in speaking had increased. Finally, and somewhat of a surprise, 30% of students said the exchanges made them more likely to decide to study abroad; 70% said the exchanges had no effect and 0% indicated a negative response. Professors also reported anecdotal evidence that students using Mixxer were more motivated, knowing they would be applying what they learned in the classroom to a “real-life” situation. Several students in each class maintained contact with their partner outside of class. In some cases, these additional exchanges amounted to several additional hours of practice within the target language each week. Also of note, we had two students this year who reconnected with their former Skype language partners while studying abroad.

The effect these exchanges have on the format of the instruction of the classes depends mostly on their frequency. For the Japanese department, these exchanges form the communicative goal for each chapter. They have a language exchange every two weeks with questions and conversational topics drawn from the material they’ve learned in a given chapter. Other languages such as Spanish and German will only have two or three language exchanges per semester and the exchanges are often used as supplemental cultural components for the course.

This coming year I hope to extend the language exchanges from roughly fifteen to twenty intermediate courses to include more beginning level courses. We organized exchanges for second-semester Spanish students this year and the professors were surprised not only by how well the students did, but also by their reactions to the exchanges. The faculty had feared some of the students would feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the experience; instead the students asked immediately afterward about future exchanges.

I am also hoping to increase the number of professors from other institutions involved in exchanges. Outside of Dickinson, several colleges and universities have used the system to find partner classes, but only Oberlin College, Franklin and Marshall and Illinois Wesleyan use the site regularly. This is partly due to lack of awareness, but an improved interface and better description for setting up the language exchange events–improvements planned this summer–would also help. Anyone interested in connecting their language students with native speakers should feel free to contact me at

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Second Life

by Jack Green Musselman and Jason Rosenblum


Pause for a moment and imagine that your life consists of shadows on the wall of a cave, though to you “cave” just means the world you see at the bottom of a long tunnel. You know nothing of the world outside since you are chained next to others who are sitting beside you on a rock that faces the cave wall. There’s a fire burning behind you, but you don’t know that it’s there. There are figures outside who stand in front of the fire at the mouth of the cave–they’re the ones whose shadows are in front of you. But, you don’t know what the figures are–or that they even exist. Imagine you could free yourself and walk outside. What would you see? What would you think of your life inside the cave? What would you say to those you left behind? Would they believe you if you told them they still lived in a cave? What would you think of the world, once you were free to look around? Now imagine that you are taking a philosophy class. What if you could really come one step closer to experiencing Plato’s Cave? What if you (or your virtual representation) could play the role of someone in the cave, see the shadows, walk outside and reflect on the experience?

Figure 1. Outside of the Second Life cave, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, St. Edward’s University

The Cave allegory is the famous story from The Republic.1 This allegory is often used in philosophy classes to represent the state of ignorance we experience until we are educated in college by leaving our own personal caves and learning about the world around us. While that’s a useful allegory, Second Life (SL) lets students experience a virtual cave, escape, and then try to convince others that the world outside is brighter than they think. Students can be asked to describe what they missed by not leaving the cave, why they won’t return to live in that dark and limited world, and what else in their lives is like living in ignorance in the cave. The point is to help students realize that we all live in caves of ignorance or half-truths unless and until we can get up and go out to see and examine how things in other places and walks of life really are.

Why Second Life?

SL is often described as a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE)2 or virtual world. According to Dieterle and Clarke, MUVEs are virtual environments that allow for synchronous communication between multiple people, interaction in a virtual context with “digital artifacts” and experience “modeling and mentoring” real-world problems.3 From a teaching and learning perspective, SL is also a learning environment that offers what Bransford et al describe as a “system of interconnected components” that provide a learner with knowledge and assessment-based focus.4 Our application (known as a sim) of Plato’s allegory requires learners to challenge their existing attitudes and beliefs as they participate, while simultaneously receiving expert guidance and–outside of the cave– having opportunities for formative assessment. This application of the Cave allegory therefore enables the instructor to construct a SL environment that is both learner- and knowledge-centered.

Instructor interaction is critical to the student experience. From the time students emerge in the cave, they follow a preset instructional sequence and are guided through their experience in and out of the cave. This type of guided instruction is not only active5 but also experiential. According to Kolb, “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it.” 6 It is our intention that students understand Plato’s allegory as a participant in it while being guided through a process to examine their perspectives on life–and even reshaping them.

Role-play is critical to student success in this application of SL. Research into enactive roles to foster argumentative knowledge construction in SL reveals that students who engage in virtual discussions “identify closely with the character they are enacting within the SL virtual environment and are better able to develop multiple perspectives…”7 To support students through the role-play process, they will be repeatedly prompted to reflect on their experience. Moreover, Scanlan and Chernomas suggest that the process of reflection is cyclical, starting with an awareness of the present that through critical analysis connects the present with the past and future.8 As they play the role of a cave resident, students have the opportunity to reflect on their life chained inside the cave while looking at shadows on the wall, and once freed will look back on their experience in the cave and speculate as to what others still living inside think of life on the outside.

Figure 2. Philosophy students reflecting on their Cave experience

Students who learn the Cave allegory can, of course, imagine how experiences in the world are like living in ignorance, usually by projecting themselves into the lives of the prisoners that Plato paints in The Republic. For example, students who read the Cave allegory might think that until they thought about their religious faith in college courses, they were comparatively uninformed or not yet really enlightened about how rich and robust that faith could be, much like Plato’s characters until they climb out of the cave and see the light. There is also empirical evidence to suggest that adding Second Life experiences as instructional supplements to academic texts improves learning, while supporting “multiple modes of information”9 delivery. Thus, we propose teaching the allegory in an academic course (to a group of students) while adding a guided reflection in a Second Life Plato’s Cave (as an option for some students) to determine if there is any difference in assessments of learning as measured by formative pre-test and post-test written assignments.

Learning and Assessment in Liberal Arts

Such a formative assessment of learning is not limited to philosophy classrooms. St. Edward’s University is a liberal arts college with a mission to teach students “critical and creative thinking as well as moral reasoning, to analyze problems, propose solutions and make responsible decisions.”10 Since the creation of universities in Europe, critical thinking and moral reasoning have been taught in philosophy courses due to their emphasis on logic, ethics and the history of ideas. In some courses, Plato’s Cave has been used as an allegory for how reason can enlighten the mind and reveal the truth behind one’s everyday experience. Many philosophy instructors no doubt teach Plato’s Cave by comparing it to the way we experience film in a dark theater, pointing out that the real objects in the film are not actually present but rather pictures on the screen. However, Jack (who teaches philosophy courses) wanted a more robust account of Plato’s Cave that would bring it to life beyond such straightforward textual and logical description, thus making the Cave’s powerful philosophical point in a more vivid, thus effective, way.

As a result in our discussions about what Second Life could offer teachers, we focused on Plato’s Cave. When Jason (an IT staff member specializing in research and development of emerging educational technologies) suggested creating Plato’s Cave in SL and using it to provide a more sophisticated, first-hand visual experience of what the cave feels like for those trapped inside, it seemed like a perfect fit. Recent reports published by the Pew Internet & American Life project support this approach, for young adults are likely familiar with both social media11 and gaming applications.12Thus, it is feasible that the use of these tools implies a familiarity with the experience of “virtual identity” both online and in game-play, making it easier for students to identify first-hand with the prisoners in Plato’s Cave. We hope this association will provide a rich comparison to off-line states of ignorance and truth in a way that lectures and discussion, by themselves, do not.

Figure 3. Philosophy students in class engaged in the Cave simulation

Starting then in fall 2010, all twenty-eight students in Jack’s ethics course will read and discuss Plato’s Cave early in the semester. All students will write a one-page, double-spaced paper where they address both what they take to be Plato’s main point in the allegory and how the class will have (by that date) enlightened them, getting them out of their cave (or not) on some ethical issue. Toward the end of the semester they will re-write that paper as well. However, before writing the second paper, half of the students selected at random will obtain Second Life accounts and training with their new SL avatars and, after signing the appropriate institutional review board approval and consent forms, will have a guided session with the instructor in the SL cave. The instructor will then use the same grading rubric to assess every student’s two Cave papers. The four-part rubric scores, on a one to five scale for each category, a clear and narrow thesis; accurate use of moral theories; logical argumentation; and clear and grammatical English.

With these students’ permission their essays will be part of a proposal for a presentation at the 2012 bi-annual conference of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT). Students taking part in the cave exercise will also be asked to provide qualitative, formative evaluations about how well the SL cave did (or did not) serve course objectives.

Working and Sustaining Project Development 

This project was built on the St. Edward’s University SL space, located on Teaching 3, in the New Media Center (NMC) Consortium SL space. (We also recently learned there was a different project on the Cave, developed by faculty from the University of Massachusetts on the Caerlon sim in Second Life, that was available in Spring 2009.)13 Our Cave simulation was inspired by other SL simulations such as Dante’s Inferno, Genome Island, the Edgar Allen Poe House and the Exploratorium, but in our case was directed at improving instruction in those classes, especially in philosophy but in other disciplines, too, teaching the Cave.

All of these SL simulations in particular demonstrate how immersive experiences can be built to support learning. Interacting with the “conversational rocks” in Dante’s Inferno or conducting an “experiment” with genetic crosses in Genome Island are examples of this type of interactivity. An overarching vision guiding the development of the SL cave was building a virtual version that presented a believable environment allowing students to interact and participate in the Cave simulation. We hope that type of immersion will spark the imagination and promote a sense of fantasy to support an immersive learning experience.14

Three main development challenges came to mind: where would we build the cave on the St. Edward’s University sim? How could we build a cave that was prim-efficient (a prim is the basic building of SL objects and is limited in size)? And finally what would be needed to make the sim interactive? Jason chose to double the size of our SL plot to 8192 square meters and devote half of the space to the cave, building it above ground using sculptys (prim objects shaped using an image map). The rocks that make up the cave wall and the structure inside are made using layers of sculptys. These basic sculpty building blocks were purchased and then manipulated with standard SL building tools. This process resulted in using fewer prims than would be possible with standard SL building tools.

Figure 4. Cave components designed with sculptys

Using this approach, Jason designed a cave that was theoretically large enough to hold a class, and with seating to accommodate seven students. Animation “poseballs” were purchased and attached to a virtual “chain” that ran the length of the rock bench, positioned in front of the cave wall.

Figure 5.  Rock bench inside the cave

Participants interact by “sitting” on a poseball, which moves their avatar in a seated position with their hands pinned behind their back. The avatar’s view is then directed forward, facing “shadows” that appear on the wall.

Figure 6. Using a poseball to “sit” in the cave

The shadows were constructed from public domain images of President Obama and others in his administration. The images were first edited in Adobe Illustrator and a particle animation technique was used to randomly display any one of several images. Several “emitters” were used in SL to spray the shadows along the wall of the cave. A large campfire object was then purchased and placed at the entrance of the cave.

Figure 7. A particle emitter was used to display cave shadows

The process to research and develop the cave in SL took Jason (a part-time IT staff member) roughly 500 hours from beginning to end, and spread out over just under a year. Software costs were nominal. The research and development process consisted of brainstorms, proposals, research into existing SL sims, and climbing a technical learning curve. Basic knowledge of SL land management, building techniques, and scripting using Linden Scripting Language (LSL) were required to understand how objects and animations in SL are built and managed. However, we anticipate that ongoing technical costs to maintain the sim (aside from land lease fees) will be nominal unless new features are added.

Challenges to Integrate Into the Classroom

One of the main challenges will involve soliciting and training traditional undergraduates for the exercise. Our ethics course is a required class in our general education curriculum and may be the only ethics class students ever take. As such, the reading and writing requirements in moral theory and applied ethics can be demanding. Other philosophy classes could face even more challenges if they cover classical, modern and contemporary texts in ethics, history, epistemology and metaphysics. In his course, Jack does not want to overtax ethics students and will therefore select, at random, fourteen students in one class to train in SL and learn in the SL Plato’s Cave, offering as incentives free avatars in SL through the NMC, a more robust learning experience and one point extra credit on their paper. The University’s expert IT training staff will be also available to help orient students to Second Life. It may well be difficult for even half of the fourteen to train at the same time, so some may do so one-on-one with IT staff members. The students will also be asked not to enter the SL Plato’s Cave until they take part in one of the two guided instruction sessions during a class period–one for each group of seven sitting in the cave–prior to the deadline for the second paper.

Outcomes and Evaluation

Outcomes from one trial exercise in March 2010 with graduate students in a curriculum course suggest the SL teacher should provide explicit, “play-by-play” instructions from start to finish. Teachers should begin with specifically asking each avatar to only sit facing the shadows in the cave. Students should then be guided through each step of the role play to get the most out it.

Another trial run with four students in a spring 2010 ethics course suggested something similar. After two participants had forgotten their SL passwords and three could not get their headphones to work, Jack ran a 25-minute exercise using text chat for Socratic dialogue. Instead of only facing the shadows to experience life in the cave, some students also opened other computer programs or read hard-copy textbooks during the trial run. Thus, instructors might want to create a short exercise for participants to complete as they enter the cave to keep them on task.

Figure 8. Philosophy students participating during the cave exercise

Next fall the students’ first and second Plato’s Cave papers will be compared, using the same rubric, to help determine if the SL experience improves learning. These results will not, strictly speaking, be the function of a large-scale rigorous valid and reliable statistical study in part due to the small number of students participating. That is, fourteen undergraduate students out of twenty-eight in one class are not properly representative of the 3,537 traditional students, average age 20.4, enrolled at our college.15Likewise, as researchers have noted in similar studies, SL students may do better because they spend more time thinking about the written exercise in the first place.16 The SL students may also, due to a social experience of the cave off-line students do not have, learn better because of this very collective (as opposed to online) experience.17  Thus, it may not be the SL cave per se, but other causes like extra time or social learning that provide better explanations for future results. Other studies might include larger, more randomly generated samples characterized by demographic data from collegiate major to GPA to provide more scientific explanations of outcomes.

Apart from such studies, we hope instructors who find Plato’s Cave an instructive allegory for explaining how people travel from ignorance to truth will also find the SL cave an engaging and vivid landscape for painting Plato’s allegorical picture in a way that is worth a thousand words. For teachers who want students to understand the point of Plato’s text and also to feel that they are making a personal trip from darkness to light, we hope the SL cave provides a powerful pedagogical tool for how education can transform our views of the world. To that end, access to the St. Edward’s University space in Second Life is not restricted and the Cave simulation is open to all teachers simply by contacting us.18


1. Plato, in The Republic Book VII, 514a-520a. [return to text]
2. John Waters, “A ‘Second Life’ For Educators,” T H E Journal 36, no. 1 (2009): 29. [return to text]
3. Edward Dieterle and Jody Clarke, “Multi-user virtual environments for teaching and learning, Encyclopedia of multimedia technology and networking, 2nd ed., ed. M. Pagani (Hershey, PA: Idea Group, 2005), 1. [return to text]
4. J.D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, and R. Cocking,  How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, ed. J.D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, and R. Cocking (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999), 122. [return to text]
5. Bonwell, Charles C. and James A. Eison, “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom.” ERIC Digest, ed. E. C. o. H. Education (Washington D.C., 1991): 3. [return to text]
6. David Kolb, Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development: (Prentice-Hall, 1984), 41. [return to text]
7. Azilawati Jamaludin, Yam San Chee, and Caroline Mei Lin Ho, “Fostering argumentative knowledge construction through enactive role play in Second Life,” Computers & Education 53, no. 12 (2009): 327. [return to text]
8. Judith Scanlan and Wanda Chernomas, “Developing the reflective teacher,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 25, no. 6 (1997): 1140. [return to text]
9. Phillip C. Wankat and Frank S. Oreovicz, Teaching Engineering (Knovel, 1993);  Joel S. Greenstein, Harskin Hayes, Jr., Benjamin R. Stephens, and Chris L. Peters, “The Effect of Supplementing Textual Materials with Virtual World Experiences on Learning and Engagement,” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 52nd Annual Meeting (2008): 5. [return to text]
10. “Mission Statement: St. Edward’s,” (accessed Mar. 15, 2010). [return to text]
11. Amanda Lenhart, “Social Media and Young Adults” (2010), [return to text]
12. Amanda Lenhart, Sydney Jones, and Alexandra Macgill, “Adults and video games,” (2008), [return to text]
13. Georg Janick and Gary Zabel, “Where in Plato’s Cave is Second Life?” (2009), (accessed 4/12/2010). [Return to text]
14. Paul Toprac, The Effects of a Problem-Based Learning Digital Game on Continuing Motivation to Learn Science, Curriculum and Instruction (Austin: University of Texas, 2008). [return to text]
15. “St. Edward’s University Facts and Figures,”, (accessed Mar. 18, 2010). [return to text]
16. Joel S. Greenstein, Harskin Hayes, Jr., Benjamin R. Stephens, and Chris L. Peters, The Effect of Supplementing Textual Materials with Virtual World Experiences on Learning and Engagement, Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 52nd Annual Meeting (2008), 622. [return to text]
17. Ibid, 623. [return to text]
18. To visit SEU’s Cave in Second Life: Navigate to: and click “Visit This Location” to launch Second Life and teleport to the sim. [return to text]

The ERIAL Project: Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries

by Andrew Asher, Lynda Duke and David Green


Librarians and teaching faculty often think they know how students conduct their research and many have specific ideas on how students ought to conduct their research. However, with the increased ability to access information online and the corresponding changes in libraries, the question of what actually happens between the time a student receives a class assignment and when he or she turns in the final product to a professor is especially compelling, and one that is not as straightforward as it first appears.

Two years ago, five Illinois institutions (Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), DePaul University, Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU), University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS)), began working together to investigate this issue. The Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) Project was organized around the following research question:

What do students actually do when they are assigned a research project for a class assignment and what are the expectations of students, faculty and librarians of each other with regard to these assignments?

The primary goal of this study is to trigger reforms in library services to better meet students’ needs. Traditionally, academic libraries have designed library services and facilities based on information gleaned from user surveys, usage data, focus groups, and librarians’ informal observations. While such tools are valuable, this project employed more user-centered methods to form holistic portraits of student behavior and needs, directly resulting in changes to library services and resources.

Genesis, Planning and Development of the Project

In 2007, while attending the Library and Information Technology Association National Forum, Dave Green, Associate University Librarian for Collections and Information Services in the Ronald Williams Library at Northeastern Illinois University, had the opportunity to hear Dr. Nancy Foster and her colleague, David Lindahl, make a presentation on the ethnographic studies conducted at the University of Rochester Libraries.

In February of 2008, the Illinois State Library, a Department of the Office of Secretary of State, announced the availability of Library Services and Technology Act Grants, using funds provided by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Based on the intriguing work done by Dr. Foster and her colleagues, Green was eager to pursue an ethnographic study of NEIU students. After a flurry of email exchanges and phone conversations, Dr. Foster agreed to advise on the grant development, as well as act as a consultant for its execution.

With approval from the NEIU library dean, Green began working with the Metropolitan Library System in Chicago and Dr. Foster on a grant proposal. It became obvious that having several institutions partner in the research would make the proposal more competitive and greatly enrich the study. Green contacted colleagues at four universities (DePaul, IWU, UIC and UIS) and they agreed to participate in the project. Each university would have its own research team, consisting of a lead research librarian and two to five other individuals, the majority of whom would be librarians. The submitted proposal included a funding request of just under $180,000.

Initially, the most challenging aspect of the project was the crafting of a project schedule based on only nine months of funding. The tight timeline created two potential choke points for the project. The first was trying to hire two full-time anthropologists by mid-November, only six weeks after the beginning of the grant. The second challenge was getting the institutional review board (IRB) approvals in a timely manner. From previous multi-institution projects, Green knew that the timing of IRB approvals is sometimes unpredictable. As we awaited to hear a decision regarding the funding of the proposal, we turned our attention to these two concerns.

In order to hire the anthropologists by the target dates, Dr. Foster helped us devise several pre-grant tactics. During the summer, we sent announcements to relevant graduate departments at universities in the Midwest, announcing the potential of two full time positions in late fall, contingent upon confirmation of funding. In addition, because no activities could be funded by the grant if they occurred prior to October 1st, Green requested funding from the NEIU dean to place advertisements for the positions in September, in case we received advance notice that the grant would be funded.  Even with these tactics in place, six weeks to interview potential candidates and bring them into the project was a tight schedule.

In late summer, the Illinois State Library contacted Green asking if parts of the grant proposal could be modified, based on reviewers’ comments. This signaled to the team that the proposal had a high chance of being funded, and in late August we were awarded the grant, with funding beginning on October 1st. A week after the grant formally began we started reviewing applicants for the two resident anthropologist positions. Dr. Foster reviewed the applications, identified the most promising candidates, and conducted telephone interviews with a handful of applicants. The top candidates were then invited to an in-person interview at the campuses of the hosting institutions (IWU and NEIU).

As a result, two excellent anthropologists, Dr. Andrew Asher and Susan Miller, were hired and we were able to meet our first project deadline. The anthropologists’ first major goal was to help each research team develop their IRB application. There was a lot of ground work that needed to be done to prepare for the research, but no research could begin until IRB approval was granted. As anticipated, the process went more smoothly for some teams than others.

Project Implementation

The grant proposal included a detailed project timeline and organizational structure. Each library had a research team consisting of several librarians, one designated as the lead research librarian for the group. In addition there was a coordinating team which consisted of the project manager and the two resident anthropologists, with Dr. Asher taking responsibility for the integrity of the project’s research design and data collection methodologies as the lead research anthropologist. Miller became the resident anthropologist for the three Chicago-area libraries, while Dr. Asher became the resident anthropologist for the two central Illinois libraries.

Figure 1. Project organizational structure

One of the major structural goals in the project was to streamline administration. The easiest way to do this was to centralize budgetary and reporting functions. All hiring, billing, equipment purchase, contracts, etc. were done by NEIU. Nothing was subcontracted to the partnering institutions. This significantly reduced the amount of potential bureaucratic gridlock for everyone.

On the other hand, managing the research process was ultimately in the hands of the two anthropologists working with the lead research librarians of each research team. The anthropologists were responsible for coordinating the efforts at the five institutions, maintaining a consistent methodological core to allow for cross institutional analyses, while simultaneously helping each institution to explore areas unique to their institution. In a sense, ERIAL consists of six projects.

Figure 2. Project research structure: five studies with a common core

The structure of the research was designed so that no one institution depended on the research of another. Thus, if an institution found that they could not continue to participate, it did not threaten the larger project. In fact, one institution was unable to receive IRB approval in a timely manner and if the project had not been awarded a second year of funding, they would not have been able to conduct any research.

By the end of January 2009, four months into the grant, it became clear that designing, implementing, and analyzing the results of the methodologies for a project with the size and scope envisioned by the research team would require work to continue beyond the June 30th deadline. In February, Green began conversations with the State Library about the possibility of a second year of funding. After submitting a second proposal, in March of 2009 we received notification of a second year of funding, this time for $160,000.

Project Management and Coordination

Even though the ERIAL participants are geographically scattered, the primary means of communication is face-to-face, supported with telephone conferencing. During the course of a month, there are on average about thirty regularly scheduled meetings:

a) Each institution’s research team meets on a weekly basis with their respective anthropologist.
b) The coordinating team meets once a week (the project manager and the resident anthropologist for the northern libraries meet in person and the resident anthropologist for the central libraries participates by phone).
c) The two resident anthropologists have a conference call once a week.
d) The coordinating team meets once a month with all the lead library researchers (the Chicago participants meet in person and the central teams participate by conference call).

These regularly scheduled meetings provide the backbone of communication for coordinating the grant efforts. Of course, in addition to the above activities, there is considerable ad hoc electronic and phone communication. To facilitate the work of the research teams, we used a secure Web-based project management and collaboration tool called BaseCamp. We also found the Web-based service DropBox useful for document sharing between sites (although we were sometimes frustrated by its weak version control). ConferenceCaller proved to be an inexpensive and reliable telephone conferencing service.

Although we had originally planned to rely on video conferencing for communication between remote sites, we found connecting different platforms with varying degrees of reliability to be unsatisfactory. During the first year of the grant, all team members met in Chicago for extended multi-day training sessions, (in January and May of 2009). Given that we had spent considerable time together in person working on various training activities, we could easily connect faces to voices and found phone conference calls to be entirely satisfactory and more efficient.

Research Methods

In order to obtain a holistic portrait of students’ research practices and academic assignments, the ERIAL Project developed a mixed-methods approach that integrated seven qualitative research techniques and was designed to generate verbal, textual, and visual data.1 While all five participating institutions committed to a core set of research questions and shared research protocols, the research teams at each university chose which methods would be best suited to their needs. The methods utilized by the five ERIAL institutions are summarized in Table 1 below.

Ethnographic Interviews 57 54 56 61 55 283
Photo Journals 11 13 10 10 10 54
Student Mapping Diaries N/A 24 10 N/A N/A 34
Web Design Workshop Participants N/A 49 44 N/A N/A 93
Research Process Interviews N/A N/A N/A N/A 19 19
Cognitive Maps 37 44 37 N/A 23 141
Retrospective Research Paper Interviews N/A 9 N/A N/A N/A 9
Total 115 223 167 81 107 693

Table 1The ERIAL Project’s principal methodology was a 45-60 minute ethnographic interview which was conducted with students, librarians, and teaching faculty at all five universities. These interviews followed a common structure and utilized open-ended questions intended to elicit specific examples describing students’ experiences undertaking research assignments, as well as how librarians and faculty members interact with students during the research process. In total, 161 students, 75 teaching faculty, and 48 librarians participated in these interviews.

Two additional interviewing methods focused on students’ research practices: the research process interview and the retrospective research paper interview. The research process interview asked students to allow an ERIAL anthropologist to accompany them while they conducted research for an assignment they were currently working on. Participants were asked to proceed with their research as normal and to reflect aloud about the processes they used to locate resources and materials. This activity was one of the most successful techniques of the ERIAL Project and was especially useful in gathering firsthand data about the approaches students employ to find information. In the retrospective research paper interview, students were asked to give a step-by-step account of how they completed a previous research assignment while drawing each step on a large sheet of paper, thus producing both a narrative and a visual account of the assignment from beginning to end.

To gain a better understanding of everyday student life, the ERIAL Project utilized photo journals and mapping diaries. In the photo journal activity, students were given a digital camera and a list of photographs to take, including views of work spaces, communication and computing devices, books, and favorite work/study locations. These photographs were then used as prompts in an interview that addressed the processes and tools students used to complete their assignments. In the mapping diaries activity, students were given a campus map and asked to record their movements over the course of a day, noting the times and places they visited and their purpose for going there. Students were then asked to participate in a follow-up discussion of their map in which they were asked a series of explanatory questions about locations they visited.

In order to investigate the characteristics that define students’ “mental image” of their university’s library, the research teams utilized a cognitive mapping activity in which participants were asked to draw a map of the library from memory. Students were given six minutes to complete the task, and asked to change the color of their marker every two minutes, an approach that provided both spatial and temporal data about how students conceptualize library spaces. Students completed this activity away from the library itself, so that the results would not be affected by visual cues.

Finally, faculty, students, librarians, and library staff participated in Web site design focus groups, in which participants were asked a series of brainstorming questions to generate the features that would be included on a “perfect” library Web site. Participants were then asked to design a mock-up of a library homepage and to describe why they chose particular design elements.

The data collection for all institutions was completed in February 2010, with just under 700 data collection events. All the research activities were recorded and transcribed, followed by content coding using Atlas.ti, a qualitative analysis software package. The results were then analyzed for themes and patterns by the five institutional research teams. For institutions interested in the details of this process or conducting similar investigations, the ERIAL Project is developing a methodological toolkit which describes the development of an ethnographic study from start to finish. The toolkit will be available in June 2010.  For more information, see the project’s Web site,

Summary Findings

At the beginning of the ERIAL Project, we expected to find students struggling with the technology of library searches: the various and fragmented databases and interfaces contained in any university library. However, we found that once students had some training with the library’s interfaces, they were not generally struggling with tools and technology, which, with some exceptions, worked well and were reasonably user-friendly. Instead, we observed widespread and endemic gaps in students’ understanding of the basic concepts of academic research, including: (1) an inability to correctly read and understand citations, (2) little or no understanding of cataloging and information organization systems, (3) no organized search strategies beyond “Google-style” any word, anywhere searches, and (4) poor abilities in locating and evaluating resources (of all types).

Almost without exception, students exhibited a lack of understanding of search logic, how to build a search to narrow/expand results, how to use subject headings, and how various search engines (including Google) organize and display results. As one student mentioned while conducting a search of library databases, “Apparently you don’t have much on Rock and Roll,” not realizing if she changed her search term (i.e. to rock music), she would have encountered excellent sources for her assignment. Similarly, another student lamented the dearth of information while searching library databases for information about women in 1940’s era baseball-–all while her mouse was hovering over the subject heading “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.”

Although technological solutions that provide more intuitive research tools might allow instructional focus to be shifted from dealing with mechanical problems to addressing conceptual issues, these solutions are still unlikely to effectively address students’ needs. In fact, easier information access and more robust search capabilities provided by tools such as federated search, Google scholar, or Web-scale discovery tools, may actually compound students’ research difficulties by enabling them to become overwhelmed even more quickly by a deluge of materials they are unprepared to evaluate.

Addressing the shortcomings in students’ information literacy and critical thinking abilities will therefore require broader educational and curricular solutions in which the library is a key player within a multifaceted approach that involves many university stakeholders, including students, faculty, and administrators, as is illustrated in the following example from the ERIAL study.

Why Don’t Students Utilize Librarians?

While the majority of students we interviewed struggled with one or more aspects of academic research, very few students sought help from a librarian. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the ERIAL study was the near-invisibility of librarians within the academic worldview of students, and is symptomatic of students’ general belief that librarians do not possess the disciplinary expertise necessarily to provide sufficient assistance with research assignments. When asked if she had ever asked a librarian for help with a paper, a sophomore in international studies replied, “Not really actually. I’ve never done that. I always assume librarians are busy doing library stuff, and it’s just not the first thing that pops into my head when I think of a librarian, like helping with papers or paper writing.”

Confusion about what librarians do and who and where they are hinders students from asking questions and obtaining the help they need. A senior psychology major noted, “I don’t know where the librarians here are. There’s someone that sits at the information desk, and I don’t know if he’s a librarian. I see him help people with research a lot so I think he is. But I would never go to [a librarian’s] office and knock on their door and say, ‘help me out’ which [would] just [make] me feel bad.”

Despite this confusion about the academic role of librarians and caution in approaching them for assistance, the minority of students who had developed a relationship with a librarian reported high levels of satisfaction with the help provided, returned repeatedly for help other assignments, and recommend librarians to their peers. Furthermore, students who had participated in instruction sessions with a librarian exhibited markedly better research skills than those who had not (although even these students often did not remember basic or specific concepts, or apply them correctly). One student commented, “I understand that [librarians] are not magicians or something, but sometimes they seem like it.”

These observations, of course, beg the question of how to raise the profile of librarians in students’ academic practices. Finding a way to leverage students’ positive experiences so that they recommend library services to their peers is certainly an important outreach area for the ERIAL libraries. However, our research suggests that a more effective approach requires the involvement of teaching faculty.

The ERIAL Project observed that professors often play a central role in brokering the relationship between students and librarians. Students routinely learn about librarians and library services directly from a professor’s recommendation, or through librarians’ in-class information sessions. These introductions are especially important during freshman year, when it is critical for students to build effective study habits and academic relationships. A psychology student observed, “It would probably be nice if the professors worked the librarians into the classes when people are freshmen. When they first get to school to kind of go over all that kind of stuff. That way [librarians] have the opportunity to tell you things. Because I guarantee you that I didn’t know that there was a psychology librarian staff member until first semester, junior year. And by then most of my study habits were formed, or [my] study approaches for research were formed.” Students view professors as experts, and when the professor specifically recommends a librarian, students highly value this advice. Professors therefore regularly act as gatekeepers who mediate when and how students contact with librarian as they are working on research assignments. In this way, the attitude of professors towards librarians is a key determining factor in developing student/librarian relationships.

Based on our observations, addressing students’ instructional needs in academic research, information literacy, and critical thinking requires principally social solutions. Given librarians’ structural placement as marginal to students’ academic world, librarians cannot effectively address these needs without active participation from teaching faculty. As librarians build relationships with teaching faculty, they will also build relationships with students. Administrators can also contribute to these relationships by supporting curricular initiatives that reinforce collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty, and that promote the participation of librarians throughout students’ course of study.


The ERIAL Project has provided much needed insight into how our students engage with the process of research. By utilizing ethnographic research methods, rather than more traditional methods, we have developed a more nuanced, robust view of our students and their relationship with the library.

Although the specific mission of any given liberal arts institution will differ, there are a few core goals that one expects to see included in most mission statements. For example, Illinois Wesleyan’s mission statement includes the desire to foster critical thinking, effective communication and a spirit of inquiry, to deepen a student’s knowledge in a chosen discipline and to prepare students for democratic citizenship and life in a global society. Like most libraries at liberal arts institutions, the Ames Library faculty and staff are committed to furthering these institutional goals by serving the scholarly needs of the Illinois Wesleyan University community. In particular, library faculty strive to teach students core information literacy skills, elements of the research process, and how to use the tools of scholarship. A student’s ability to master these skills is critical for achieving many of the stated goals of the institution.

Based on our findings, the Ames Library is actively engaged in re-thinking how we offer some of our services, what new resources we need to make available, and how to build stronger relationships with teaching faculty across the curriculum. We are confident that the changes we are implementing as a result of this study will significantly enhance our ability to connect with students and support the mission of our institution.

For more information about The ERIAL Project, see


Funding for this grant was awarded by the Illinois State Library, a Department of the Office of Secretary of State, using funds provided by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, under the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).
1. For the photo journals, mapping diaries, Web design workshops, space design workshops and retrospective research paper interviews, the ERIAL project adapted protocols developed by Nancy Foster and the “Studying Students” research team at the River Campus Libraries of the University of Rochester. For more information on the University of Rochester study, see Nancy Foster and Susan Gibbons, Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester (Chicago: Association College and Research Libraries,  2007), [return to text]