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Research Guides@Tufts

Supporting Online Students: Tools & Techniques

Key Concepts

Keep in mind that providing consultations to online students can take many forms, including phone calls, online conferencing, chat, and email exchanges. Please be sure to adjust your LibCal appointment request form to take different modalities into account and to let students choose their preferred format. Remember, if you don't feel comfortable using a particular technology to provide a consultation, limit the options you offer to the online contexts in which you are most comfortable.

Below you'll find some recommended tools for providing these consultations as well as suggestions for using them most effectively.

What tool should I use and in what context?

Keep in mind that, no matter the online mode of consultation, you'll want to gather as much information from your LibCal appointment form as you can, including the patron's email address, the topic of the consultation, and, if possible, a copy of the assignment. If you gather that information first and follow up with an email that addresses the question in advance of the meeting, that might actually be all that the user needs!

Following is a list of consultation modes with suggestions for using each one.

Web-based consultations (Zoom, WebEx, Jabber, Skype)

  • Be aware that there may be an audio or video delay in web consultations, which can be a result of the strength of both internet connections, the device being used, and the number of people simultaneously using the same platform. 
  • Once you're connected, be sure to agree on how you'll proceed if the connection is broken during the consultation.
  • If you're not screen sharing, check to see if the user is able to follow along online. If that is the case, since browsers can differ in display and compatibility, be sure to have them tell you which browser they are using and open the same browser on your end. 
  • Be patient, speak more slowly than usual, and wait for verbal responses.
  • When screen sharing, check-in frequently to make sure everyone can see your screen and follow along.
  • Be sure to check in on understanding as well. After explaining and demonstrating a concept or technique, review what you just explained and make sure everyone understands.
  • Before ending the consultation, make sure to check in to see if the user got what they needed. Always volunteer to follow up with an email that includes the information you shared so that users have a record of what you did together. 
  • Remember that web-based consultations can be conducted in a number of modes: audio only and screen sharing; audio, video, and screen sharing; audio and video only; audio only; and live chat only. Confirm the mode and type of consultation before the scheduled appointment so that everyone knows what tool/mode will be used and is comfortable using that tool.

Telephone-based or audio-only consultations (Phone, Zoom)

  • Be aware that there may be an audio delay or interference in phone consultations, which can be a result of the wireless provider, compatibility between devices, the strength of the signal, and many other factors beyond our control.
  • Once you're connected for a consultation, at the beginning of your conversation, be sure to agree on how you'll proceed if the connection is broken during the consultation.
  • Check to see if the user is able to follow along online. If that is the case, since browsers can differ in display and compatibility, be sure to have them tell you which browser they are using and open the same browser on your end. 
  • If the user is following along online, be sure to start at an agreed on point--for example, the library's website, so that you can move through the screens together. It always works best to start at the very beginning--even if the patron seems comfortable with online library resources.
  • Because you can't see each other's screens in this format, proceeding relatively slowly and walking carefully through step-by-step makes it much easier for users to follow along. Be sure to check in continuously about what the user is seeing on their end to make sure you're in the same place at the same time.
  • Before ending the call, make sure to check in to see if the user got what they needed. Always volunteer to follow up with an email that includes the information you shared so that users have a record of what you did together. 

Email-based consultations

  • If you're conducting an email-only consultation, be sure to provide step-by-step instructions for any tasks--such as search strategies and using limiters, that you are describing. 
  • Always start at the beginning of a process unless the user has indicated otherwise. For example, if the user mentions a specific resource, start at the beginning within that resource. But if a user asks a more general question about how to find something, start at the library's home page and describe in detail the best strategy for navigating to a resource (or research guide), logging in to that resource, connecting keywords, using limiters, and any other advanced strategies that are appropriate for that individual.
  • Try to eliminate library jargon as much as possible in any online communication, whether verbal or written. It is better to assume that the user doesn't know something rather than assume that they do know. If you're worried about sounding condescending, you can always preface your instructions by saying things like, "You probably already know this," or "You've probably already tried this" and then let them know that it's easier for you to start at the beginning.
  • Use screenshots when appropriate. If you're trying to explain how to use a complicated resource (with navigation that isn't terribly intuitive), use screenshots to show users where to look for links, limiters, advanced search, and more. Jing is a really simple tool for creating and annotating screenshots.
  • Use short videos when appropriate. Jing can also help you create short screen capture videos that can walk users through a process for accessing and using a particular resource. Sending a link to a Jing video in your email lets users go back and watch as many times as they want.

Chat-based consultations (LibChat, Jabber)

  • If you're planning to use Jabber for consultations, you might want to refresh yourself on chat reference protocols, particularly if your chat might take longer than a few minutes.
  • If you need to do test/sample searching, check back in frequently to let the user know you're still there and just working on the question.
  • If the user is following along online, be sure to start at an agreed on point--for example, the library's website, so that you can move through the screens together. It always works best to start at the very beginning--even if the patron seems comfortable with online library resources.
  • Because you can't see each other's screens in this format, proceeding relatively slowly and walking carefully through step-by-step makes it much easier for users to follow along. Be sure to check in continuously about what the user is seeing on their end to make sure you're in the same place at the same time.
  • Before ending the chat, make sure to check in to see if the user got what they needed. Always volunteer to follow up with an email that includes the information you shared so that users have a record of what you did together.