Online Reference Center Benefits Teachers

September 3, 2004

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

New Orleans public school teachers now have a powerful ally in their efforts to educate young people.

heckerThe Online Louisiana Knowledge Center, hosted by the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, offers a variety of online and personal reference services previously unavailable to public school educators.

"It's about increasing connectivity and getting people online," says the program's coordinator, librarian Penny Hecker.

Funded in 2003 by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the knowledge center is part of a larger grant called Online Louisiana, which, according to Hecker, is charged with helping "bridge the digital divide in Louisiana."

Tulane's grant proposal was written by four Howard-Tilton librarians: Andy Corrigan, Anne Houston, Jean-Paul Orgeron and Kate Montgomery.

According to Hecker, the Howard-Tilton library had been searching for a way to use the Internet and new reference technologies to provide outreach assistance to public schools. The Online Knowledge Center is directed specifically at teachers, with help for developing classroom lesson plans and materials for professional development.

"What we offer public school educators is free access to a set of K-12 appropriate online databases, as well as access to the many and varied collections within the Tulane library system, such as Special Collections, the Latin American Library, the Hogan Jazz Archives and others," says Hecker.

The databases, which are all donated, are invaluable resources, says Hecker. Among the databases are "Xreferplus," an online reference library that includes dictionaries, encyclopedias and factbooks; "EBSCO," a daily updated database of approximately 60 magazines that can help teachers research current events; "EBSCO Animals," a science source with in-depth information on animals and their habitats; and "Web Feet," a set of high-quality, K-12-appropriate websites.

While the knowledge center primarily benefits teachers, students also can directly access some of the same databases to do their own research. When the program kicked off in 2003, Hecker's first order of business was to get out word about the center to the large number of teachers in the public school system.

Hecker began by pitching the center's benefits directly to certain key educators, such as school librarians and literacy facilitators who coach teachers on how to achieve literacy goals set for the schools. In addition, this summer Hecker is giving weekly presentations at the school system's technology training center on Athis Street, a facility where teachers and staff learn basic or advanced computer skills.

With grant funds, the library also purchased 25 laptop computers as prizes in a contest to raise awareness of the center's purpose and resources. For a chance at a laptop, teachers wrote essays about how they proposed to use the center to enhance their teaching or professional development. Hecker received 34 applications, and the library designated eight team and individual awardees.

The winners attended a workshop at the library, where the laptops were presented to them and they, in turn, gave more feedback to library staff about their use of the knowledge center.

"The awardees were those who showed the most understanding of the center's aims and resources," says Hecker. "They were also those who seemed most likely to spread the word about the center to their colleagues."
The laptops are considered a donation to the school system, says Hecker. Individuals or teams awarded the laptops can use the laptops as long as they teach at a New Orleans public school. A second phase of the laptop contest is now in progress. Hecker and her colleagues are reviewing approximately 40 laptop mini-grant applications.

These laptop computers will be distributed to awardees at a second workshop in August. The publicity campaigns are working and inquiries from teachers are increasing, says Hecker.

"One thing we've been stressing," she says, "is that we are not just a web portal where people can go to consult databases. Teachers also can e-mail questions, phone questions, they can go online and use our live chat reference, or they can fax us for reference or research assistance. "We're also working on an expansion of the program that will allow teachers to have circulation privileges from Howard- Tilton," says Hecker, who hopes to be able to offer even more services to public school teachers in the near future.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000