Marcia A. Mardis, EdD
Educational digital libraries are sources of innovative teaching resources in schools. All too often, digital library developers create collections of resources in the absence of rigorous examinations of educator and learner needs. The literature surrounding teacher development suggests that teachers have very specific information needs relating to mastering the curriculum content and the behavioral structure of their classrooms for a diverse range of learners. An investigation of search string logs from 2004-2006 from Michigan Teacher Network confirmed the findings reported in the literature and also resulted in directives for digital library developers, professional support staff, and school library media specialists. With the majority of searches conducted during the school day, classroom management was an overwhelmingly popular search as were searches relating to mathematics and science topics. In the years since the data were collected, the nationwide focus on student achievement and teacher accountability has increased, suggesting that the classroom needs of educators remain important primary design and collection concerns.
Using Transaction Logs to Characterize User Needs: Search Analysis of a Digital Library for Educators
This article reports the quantitative analysis of search strings entered by users into the Michigan Teacher Network (MTN) educational digital library between 2004 and 2006. Founded in 1998 as a statewide clearinghouse of educational materials, MTN metadata records and links to over 8,500 professional learning, professional support, and curriculum resources correlated to the Michigan Curriculum Framework. The digital library received about 500,000-700,000 visits per day that were from users who browsed, users who searched, and other kinds of visits, like those from search engine indexing robots. Users executed 750-1000 searches per day by typing terms, or search strings, into the site's search box.
MTN was advertised to teachers through conference presentations, workshops, and professional journal articles. A team of teacher librarians with classroom teaching experience performed collection development. The project team also audited search logs as a method of directing collection development. At the close of the digital library in February 2007, the researcher sought to understand how the search strings could be characterized over time and how closely users' search behavior mapped to understandings of trends in K-12 education.
In order to set proper expectations for the investigations and contextualize results, the researcher explored literature relating to the concerns of teachers, teachers' use of technology, and teachers' information seeking behaviors. While not exhaustive, this review of literature summarizes the researcher's main understandings.
The research surrounding teachers concerns is wide-ranging, well-established, and representative of a number of nations. In an early metasynthesis of the international research surrounding issues facing teachers, Veenman (1984) found that eight main issues that were perceived most often, especially for new teachers at any level, were:
[C]lassroom discipline, motivating students, dealing with individual differences, assessing students' work, relationships with parents, organization of class work, insufficient and/or inadequate teaching materials and supplies, and dealing with problems with individual students. (p.143)
Forlin (2001) amplified items on Veenman's list with the results of a survey of Australian teachers. The results demonstrated that the dynamics of the inclusion of special education students in the general education classroom were sources of teacher stress because these situations often called into question teacher's professional competence in dealing with the behavior of the child with the intellectual disability.
Mathematics and science teachers share this list of concerns, but also expressed additional concerns about teaching out of their immediate field. That is, a teacher with expertise in geometry was asked to teach calculus and a teacher with expertise in physics was asked to teach biology (Adams & Krockover, 1997). These content-area concerns seem unique to teachers of science and mathematics. Hodson (1993) disputed the long-lasting influence of content angst by pointing out that even those teachers who are teaching within their strength area of science do not consistently plan inquiry-based activities in relation to that knowledge, concentrating instead on the immediate concerns of classroom management and on concept acquisition and development.
Teacher use of technology
In a survey in the United States, a group of researchers led by Smerdon (2000) found that though 99% of teachers had access to computers in their schools; 88% of them, especially younger and newer teachers, used computers and the Internet most often to find resources for planning and independent learning.
Perrault (2005) found that science teachers, in particular, tended not to use tailored technology-based resources in favor of the open Web. Recker (2006) discussed the relationships between guidance offered to teachers to use technology-based tools and resources and their willingness to build student-centered, engaging learning experiences.
Teachers' information seeking behaviors
In 2007, Mardis and Perrault synthesized the literature on teachers' planning, professional development, and information seeking behaviors and found that, overall, teachers have characterized their experiences with using the Internet as frustrating because of poor quality and overwhelming results. In particular, science teachers, though confident in their search skills, use few online resources specifically designed to support their teaching and learning activities.
Teachers also reported limited time to invest in gathering resources. But when, with professional development and support, they have located and used high quality, relevant Web-based learning materials, they reported greater satisfaction with the lesson taught and student interaction experienced (Williams, Grimble, & Irwin, 2004). Yet, teachers' ability to proactively seek this support may be limited by a number of professional and organizational factors, one of which may be career phase; younger teachers may be more willing to use the Internet to find classroom materials, but they may lack the savvy to select appropriate resources and to plan challenging activities to accompany them (Mardis, 2007).
Based upon the literature foundation, the researcher investigated two main questions:
These questions were investigated using the following data sets and methods.
Data sets and analysis
Searches were executed against MTN's database index. The index, refreshed nightly, was comprised of all of the content of the metadata and the first 5,000 words of the item's Web site. So, anything typed into the search box would be matched against contents of each item's record as well as to the item itself.
The default search function was Boolean using the AND operator; search results were displayed to users in order of search term proximity.
Three time-period windows were extracted from the search string log. For 2004, the set includes time and date stamps and strings from February 19-March 6; March 26-April 9; and April 29-May 14, for a total of 18,854 cases. For 2005, the set includes time and date stamps and strings from January 1-December 31, for a total of 140,014 cases. For 2006, the set includes time and date stamps and strings from January 1-December 31, for a total of 178,730 cases. The sets were combined into one large set that included all 337,598 cases.
The analyses were performed using Frequencies and Descriptives functions in the Statistical Package for the Social Science (SPSS). SPSS was also used to generate charts and tables to illustrate the findings.
The first investigation related to finding out which searches were most commonly executed. As Table 1 illustrates, the phrase "classroom management" was the most frequently entered search string and is echoed by the corresponding search of "classroom techniques" further down the list. Overall, the most frequent searches appear to relate to the art and craft of teaching as well as to research about teaching-related issues. The prevalence of reference service-related searches suggested that teachers search for ready access to authoritative answers to questions that arise in their daily practice.
The search frequencies clustered around the top two searches, then dropped substantially for the remaining searches.
Obvious curriculum area-related searches did not feature prominently among the results, with the exception of the word "photosynthesis." However, when the top 10 percent of search strings for each year were examined and coded by curriculum area, science- and mathematics-related searches were most common as Figure 1 illustrates. Foreign language learning-related searches were the least common.
The final investigation related to determining the most common time of day users conduct their searches. These data suggest that users conduct their searches in the afternoon, after student lunchtime.
The overall mean time of day was 2:30 pm, during the school day. Therefore, these searches were largely being conducted during the school day, in the school building. And, when this result is combined with the literature finding that younger and newer teachers use school technology for planning, it is very possible that these users are represented in these mean times.
The analyses create a picture of a typical educator-user of MTN as a busy, young, early-career science teacher experiencing common stressors and classroom control issues who takes moments during lunch periods and soon after school to look for resources to improve the content and disposition of the classroom for a diverse set of students, as well as to stay abreast of credentialing requirements and gain research support.
These results confirm a solid foundation of research into teacher development in which it has been found that teachers in their first three to four years respond to a number of challenges. During this time, teachers struggle to establish classroom routines, a sense of curriculum content and schedule flow, and school culture. This initial period is also the time of great attrition; only 54% of new teachers make it through their first five years (Darling-Hammond, 2002). Research into teacher development and user search behavior in this digital library appear to be very tightly coupled.
Limitations to the study
As with any study that concludes with extrapolations from a limited set of data, it should be remembered that these search strings were culled from a single digital library for a definite period of time. The data set should have been substantial enough to demonstrate user consistency over time; however, without the ability to track unique users, this conclusion is somewhat questionable. Likewise, more extensive coding of the entire data set may reveal trends that contradict the conclusions drawn from the most frequent searches.
Implications for School Librarians and Professional Support Staff
Two major factors affect new teachers' success: school-based support and training in the selection and use of instructional resources (Darling-Hammond, 2001). With their resource expertise as well as a school library media center collection that takes into consideration young teachers self-consciousness and reluctance to ask for help, teacher-librarians have a tremendous opportunity to establish relationships that will support these young teachers. In this way, teacher-librarians can assume a pivotal role in teacher retention.
For school library and professional support personnel, these findings have implications for the way in which they engage with teachers. The findings suggest that in their role as information specialists, school library media specialists be conversant with science topics and resources. In addition, school librarians need to maintain strong, current, and well-publicized professional collections pertaining to classroom discipline, educational research, and local credentialing requirements. As instructional partners, school library media specialists should target early career teachers, since the findings suggest that they need additional content and pedagogy support. Finally, as program administrators, school library media specialists must ensure that they and their facilities are available during lunch periods and after school for professional consultation.
This study was supported by National Science Foundation grants DUE-0333632, DUE-0434892, and DUE-0226323.
Many thanks to Michigan school librarian Emily Newton for her assistance with subject coding these data.
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Copyright © 2009 Marcia A. Mardis