Guide on the Side: Reflecting on a Successful Initiative


Published: June 10, 2013 by Dr. Michelle Holschuh Simmons

In January 2013 I posted a blog entry here at the CIRI blog about Guide on the Side, which is free, open-source software developed by librarians at the University of Arizona. As I explained then, the Guide on the Side tool allows LIS professionals to develop online tutorials that guide the users in a step-by-step manner through a process such as searching a database. Unlike screencasts that show a user a process without providing the opportunity for hands-on engagement, the Guide on the Side interface provides the opportunity for users to read step-by-step instructions in a box on the side of a live browser window, and then try out these instructions as they move from screen to screen.

There is a lot of enthusiasm for this type of online tutorial right now in the LIS world–especially among instruction librarians. In fact, ALA named it one of the five Cutting Edge Library Technologies of 2013. I wanted to provide the opportunity to work with this software to my LIBR 287 Information Literacy students. This past spring semester (Spring 2013), I taught two sections of LIBR 287, and the students in these classes enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to work with this software, and they produced valuable tutorials. Despite a few little snags that we encountered, this initiative has been a rousing success.

Before I get into our lessons learned, I’d like to share an example (with permission) created by two of my students, Trevor Passage and Michael Szwed, about how to use the Occupational Outlook Handbook. In this example, Trevor and Michael applied many of the best practices and learning theories from the literature that we discussed in class. For example:

  • They specified their audience for the tutorial on the first page (Booth, 2011).
  • They listed student learning outcomes in terms of what the students would learn after going through the tutorial (Booth, 2011).
  • They balanced text with images, as a way to avoid cognitive overload (Tempelman-Kluit, 2006). In Trevor and Michael’s words, “there is a finite amount of information that a person’s short term memory can hold, and therefore internalize into the long term memory. [We] tried to reduce the amount of text in certain panels, and add emphasis with bold face and italic type fonts.”
  • They provided opportunities to check for understanding through formative assessments (small quizzes) throughout their guide with learning-oriented pop-up messages for both correct and incorrect responses (Booth, 2011). To quote Michael and Trevor, “we made the incorrect response message contain a hint as to why the patron reached the wrong answer.”

All of my students did a terrific job, not only producing useful and user-friendly tutorials, but also articulating the theoretical foundations that influenced their pedagogical decisions in their reflections. Additionally, several of my students have been able to use their new-found knowledge for purposes outside of my class. For example, two students, Mira Geffner and Colette Hayes, will be doing a poster presentation about the Guide on the Side at the California Library Association conference in November 2013. Another student shared her knowledge of Guide on the Side with a friend who is an instruction and systems librarian at a large university, and he responded enthusiastically. He, in turn, made a presentation to his colleagues at his institution about Guide on the Side, and they have decided to install the software on their servers and begin using this tool as part of their information literacy instruction program. By all accounts, the students in the classes masterfully undertook the tasks of learning the software, producing useful tutorials, and applying their knowledge outside of our classroom “walls.”

Perhaps most importantly, the students found value in working with this software. As one student, Hannah Schilperoort, remarked, “I loved working with Guide on the Side. It is so easy to use and the product looks so polished!”

Additionally, Stan Laufer, our SLIS Network Administrator who installed the software on the SLIS servers, learned that the installation process was not terribly onerous and that the Guides themselves took up comparatively little server space. Because of the small file size, Stan intends to keep the Guides on the SLIS servers for seven years, which is the length of time SLIS students have to complete their degree. Students were enthusiastic and grateful about this accommodation, since these Guides will be valuable artifacts for their e-Portfolios and/or their job dossiers.

As with any new initiative, especially with open source software, there were a few unexpected snags, though none that could not be managed with work-arounds. For example:

  • Some websites have security measures, called clickjacking defenses, built in that prohibit their use within a frame, and so it was impossible to use these sites within a Guide on the Side tutorial. For example, none of the Google products worked with this software, which was frustrating, since those tools are so ubiquitous.
  • The administrative interface lacks many options for permissions, so everyone who has access to the software (all of my students across many semesters if I continue to use this assignment) can edit or delete any other author’s tutorials. This of course can pose challenges, and so I emphasized repeatedly the need for all of my students to have backed-up copies of their work by copying and pasting their updated tutorial into a different interface. Fortunately, everyone took my dire warnings to heart, and the few issues we had with lost work were easily resolved.
  • Complicating the lack of granularity with administrative permissions is the lack of a built-in function for backing up one’s work, so I asked the students to do manual back-ups, such as copying/pasting into a GoogleDoc. During the semester, an astute student suggested that the print icon provided an easy interface with which to save a copy for backup. Either of these options is really necessary to use so that one’s work is not inadvertently deleted/edited.

The Guide on the Side software has provided my students a valuable opportunity to practice applying learning theories by creating online information literacy tutorials. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to Stan Laufer who worked indefatigably to work out the technical kinks and to provide guidance as I embarked on this adventure with my 50 intrepid students! And of course, I wish to thank the wonderful students in my Spring 2013 LIBR 287 Information Literacy classes who undertook this adventure with enthusiasm, patience, and adaptability!

Below are citations about Guide on the Side or information literacy instruction if you would like to learn more.

Booth, C. (2011). Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators. American Library Association Editions.

Farkas, M. (2012). Adventures in Library Instruction Podcast, episode 35: The Guide on the Side with Meredith Farkas.

Farkas, M. (2012). Guide on the Side: Incorporating Active Learning in Online Instruction. American Libraries, Vol. 43, No. 5-6.

Mikkelson, S. (2012). Guide on the Side: Easy Tutorial Creation for Busy Librarians. Library 2.012 Conference.

Sult, L. A., Mery, Y., Blakiston, R., & Kline, E. (2013). A New Approach to Online Database Instruction: Developing the Guide on the Side. Reference Services Review, 41(1), 10–10.

Tempelman-Kluit, N. (2006, July). Multimedia Learning Theories and Online Instruction. College & Research Libraries, 67(4), 364-369.


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