Thinking Outside the (Print) Book

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Creating an online textbook for your legal research course

By Terrye Conroy and Alyson Drake
October 16, 2014

At the end of our spring 2013 semester, after reading student evaluations, we found ourselves evaluating possible textbook options. Shockingly, our students did not like reading about legal research! However, we ran into some issues. First, none of the existing textbooks on the market truly met our specific needs because we cover state materials in the fall and federal materials in the spring, while the typical legal research textbook focuses primarily on federal materials. Furthermore, most of the textbooks we reviewed included materials, like legislative history, that we do not cover in the first year. 

Ultimately, we decided to create our own online textbook. Doing so would allow us to emphasize certain skills and use our own examples that we had tested and knew worked well, as well as add content on free alternatives to electronic databases for state materials. In addition, writing our own book would allow us to decide how and to what degree we would address print and electronic resources.

Why We Created an Online Textbook

As we began planning how to write the textbook, we realized that the best format in which to present our materials would be online, for the following reasons:
  1. Online textbooks allow us to tailor our specific content. First, we could organize the textbook to present South Carolina materials in the fall and federal materials in the spring. We could tailor the content to resources students would be using to write their spring memos. This worked particularly well last spring because the problem required students to research a policy interpretation and the Congressional Record, both of which normally are not covered in the first-year legal research curriculum.
  2. Online textbooks are easily adaptable. Having an online textbook means we are able to easily update the content when needed. For example, when Westlaw or Lexis roll out their inevitable upgrades every summer, we can make changes without waiting for the new edition of a print textbook to be released. Also, when we find a relevant example from yesterday’s news that works well for the current unit, we can add it to the book the morning of class.
  3. Online textbooks are more interactive. With an online textbook, we were able to add videos, quizzes, graphics, and flowcharts, such as our own checklist of the research process outlining the specific steps we discussed in class.
  4. Online textbooks make the “flip” easy. We knew we were going to flip our classroom, and choosing an online textbook meant we were able to upload all of our materials in one place, including our pre-class, in-class, and post-class activities, along with any handouts, PowerPoint slides, and other supplementary materials we created.                                                                     
  5. Online textbooks are cost-effective. We did not have to convince our administration to make the change to an online textbook because there was no additional cost to us, as we already used the LibGuides platform for research guides. As an added benefit, the online textbook was free to the students!
  6. All the cool kids are doing it! We initially became interested in the concept of an online textbook when, while attending the 2013 SEAALL Conference, we saw the poster session that our friends at the University of Kentucky presented on using LibGuides to teach their 1L legal research class. Since then, we have compared notes on teaching with an online book with our colleagues at UK and have presented our findings at the 2014 SEAALL Conference and at this year’s CALI Conference.
Why We Chose LibGuides

The decision to use LibGuides as our platform was also an easy one. We were already familiar with the technology, which is very intuitive. Typing text into the LibGuide was similar to writing in a Word document, and there was no need to learn HTML code.  LibGuides made interactivity simple because we could easily insert images we captured in Snag-It, embed videos we created in Camtasia and hosted on our server with Panopto, and create quizzes using the survey function available in LibGuides CMS. It was also easy to teach the LibGuides platform to our colleagues. LibGuides also allows us to password protect our content. While LibGuides has worked well for us, other law school librarians are using alternative platforms, such as Blackboard, to write their online legal research textbooks.

Steps We Implemented to Create Our Online Textbook

We shared the responsibilities for creating the online textbook based on each librarian’s strengths and interests. We completed the following tasks over the summer and into the fall and spring semesters:
  • Selected the content and interactive features we wanted to include
  • Selected and learned the technologies we needed to create the content
  • Wrote the textbook, including inserting images and links 
  • Wrote the quizzes
  • Wrote the video scripts
  • Proofread the text, the quizzes, and the video scripts
  • Recorded and edited the videos
  • Embedded all the interactive content
  • Uploaded PowerPoints, in-class exercises, and handouts (many of which were materials we tweaked from the previous year for our flipped-classroom approach).

What We Learned and Next Steps

In an anonymous survey, our students overwhelmingly approved of the online textbook format. Students reported that the textbook prepared them well for in-class exercises and assignments. Based on the constructive feedback we received from the survey and comments from our students throughout the course of the year, we plan to make the following improvements to the online textbook: 
  • Different quizzing software. Students wanted immediate feedback on whether they answered questions correctly, which is not possible using the LibGuides survey function. The library decided to purchase Classmarker, a quizzing software with great interactive features and immediate feedback, which we will link to from the textbook.
  • More interactive quizzes. Students actually requested more difficult quizzes that require them to use their analytical skills! This will prevent students from using the “control-F method” of reading the book to answer the quiz questions. Our new quiz questions require students to practice their research skills rather than simply answer bibliographic questions about specific resources.
  • Less clunky table of contents. LibGuides will automatically generate a table of contents when you select that box type. However, we found that a global table of contents was too lengthy to be easily navigated by our students. To remedy this, we are creating a table of contents within each unit using the Links and Lists box type. Our old table of contents (left) and new table of contents (right) are pictured below.                                                                                                                                                                      
  • More visuals. While our current textbook includes many images, our students want even more! In our survey, flowcharts and checklists were the additional features most frequently requested by our students.
  • Video quality consistency. The biggest overall concern of our students was the inconsistent quality of the videos we created to demonstrate the electronic databases. Due to technology snafus and sound inconsistencies, the quality differed from video to video. We have appointed one person to be in charge of quality control for the videos and have worked out our technology issues to ensure good sound quality. We are also creating shorter videos to better keep the students’ attention.
We also learned lessons from our colleagues at other universities. After discussions with our colleagues at the University of Kentucky, we learned to hide the upcoming units from the students so they cannot work too far ahead. We are also planning on including the objectives for each unit in the online textbook, as recommended by the University of Florida at the 2014 SEAALL Conference. One final change that we decided on is to have one textbook as opposed to individual textbooks for each instructor, which will save us a lot of time when we come across those inevitable typos. To allow for flexibility in the classroom, our revised online textbook will include a subpage for each instructor to insert his or her own in-class exercises and other supplementary materials.

You Can Do It, Too!

The bottom-line: Do not create an online textbook simply because it is the newest fad in legal research instruction. Do it because it fits your pedagogical needs. Once you decide to create an online textbook for your legal research course, plan, plan, and plan some more. Creating an online textbook is a huge time commitment and requires productive collaboration among the legal research instructors. Get to know the technologies that you need to create and implement the textbook, and anticipate pitfalls even with the best-laid plans. Remember that you do not need to create all new materials from scratch; you can adapt much of what you already have to the new format. Have fun with it, because you are an author now!

Terrye Conroy (, Assistant Director of Legal Research Instruction,  Coleman Karesh Law Library, University of South Carolina Law Center, Columbia
Alyson Drake (, Reference Librarian, Coleman Karesh Law Library, University of South Carolina Law Center, Columbia