4 September 2020

Library teaching online: Building a community of practice in a socially distanced world

It’s some understatement to say that this was not the year any of us were expecting. Almost overnight, Universities made the transition to online teaching and learning on an unprecedented scale.

Teach meet

Students, researchers, academics and professional services colleagues have adapted quickly, mastering new skills and new modes of learning and teaching. 

In the Library we have adapted our planned programme of Information & Digital Literacy teaching and learning support resources in light of these new circumstances, delivering webinars via Blackboard Collaborate, meeting with learners via Google Hangouts and developing guides, videos and tutorials remotely from our homes. 

We made it through, and whilst the move to online delivery has been a success, it’s valuable to create some time and space to reflect on what we’ve done, the things that have worked well (and those that haven’t) and how we can develop our teaching and learning support as we move into the next academic year. 

Library TeachMeet 2020

Each summer, Library staff with a responsibility for supporting Learning and Teaching at the University of Sheffield meet to reflect on the past year, share good practice and consider how we can develop our skills, services and teaching in future.

This year was no exception, although we had to adapt our usual away day format to an online environment. In July, members of the Library Learning and Teaching Services and Faculty Engagement teams met via Blackboard Collaborate. We shared in group discussions, exercises and presentations on a range of themes including embedding Information and Digital Literacy and decolonising reading lists. More on these themes will come in later blog posts. We also felt it was important to take the opportunity to share and reflect on our recent experiences of delivering and supporting teaching online. 

Reflecting on our experience of online teaching

During the teachmeet, we spent some time reflecting individually on our experiences this year. We shared these reflections with the group via a Padlet, which was then used as the basis for small group discussions, centred around the following questions:

  • What does good online teaching look like?
  • What could we do differently?
  • How can we best support our academic colleagues’ online teaching?
  • Is there anything we can’t do online? How do we address this?
 Distance learning
Reflecting on our experience of online teaching, using padlet.

What we found…

For synchronous online teaching that happens in real-time using virtual tools

There was some discussion on the extent to which online teaching differs from face-to-face teaching. Technology aside, many felt that the factors which make for a successful session apply equally to all teaching, regardless of the delivery method. These include:

  • Building in frequent, relevant and appropriate opportunities for learners to actively engage with, question and discuss the subject matter and learn from each other.

  • Ensuring that teaching is designed with the learners’ needs in mind. It’s important to spend time prior to the teaching to understand learners’ current level of understanding, their expectations and desired outcomes from the session, and ensure your teaching delivers on this.

  • A well-structured session, with a clear progression or narrative, divided into easily-digestible chunks will likely be more successful than an ‘infodump’

  • Supporting the session with appropriate supporting materials before, during and/or after the teaching will help learners make the most of the teaching. Flipped and blended learning approaches can help ensure learners arrive at your session with a similar level of understanding, ready to engage with the teaching.

However, most felt that online teaching presents some unique challenges and opportunities

  • Online learning platforms provide a range of features such as polls, chat, breakout rooms and digital whiteboards which can increase interactivity and engagement. However, it was felt that such features could also present challenges, and should only be used where they enhance (rather than distract from) learning. Getting to know the technology beforehand and providing clear guidance will help you and your students make the most of these features. Delivering teaching in pairs can help to manage the technology and troubleshoot any issues that arise. Having someone else on hand to monitor and respond to any questions and chat messages also helps to assess students’ understanding and identify points that need clarification.

  • Live webinars should offer learners something more than the experience offered by pre-recorded videos or lectures. Think carefully about what value can be added by teaching in a live setting. Build in opportunities for students to ask questions and to interact with and learn from each other. 

  • It can be challenging to maintain energy and engagement when talking to a laptop rather than a room full of people. Switching on your webcam at the start of your session, and at intervals throughout, can help to make the session feel less impersonal. Building in time at the start of the session for learners to share and contribute ideas using the chat box can help foster a sense of community and encourage engagement throughout the session. Providing questions or activities beforehand can help students prepare their responses and encourage them to contribute from the start.

  • Build-in space for reflection – you don’t have to be talking the whole time. Individual and group activities are a good way to break up a session, keep users engaged and give yourself time to recharge.

For asynchronous online teaching that focuses on self-directed learning using digital resources

Online learning and teaching provide a wealth of opportunities for flipped, blended and self-directed learning. Live teaching activities are just one strand in a suite of learning resources such as videos, online guides, tutorials and quizzes which learners can work through at their own pace, at a time that suits them. 

The inherent flexibility of online learning, in which learning is not limited to a specific time or place, may improve the student experience and offer greater choice. Flipped and blended learning approaches, where online learning resources complement and build upon live teaching and vice versa have been part of HE for some time, but the current circumstances may prove a catalyst for developing these approaches further, building towards a more holistic, agile learning experience.

The Library provides a wide range of resources to support self-directed learning.

Our services are available via different digital platforms: 

The Information and Digital Literacy Tutorials site houses all our online tutorials.

The Information and Digital Literacy Kaltura channel hosts our videos.

The Library Subject Guides lists subject-specific academic tools and resources.

The Resource Lists link to course materials recommended by teaching staff.

We were ready to deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and focus on the digital delivery of services to students and staff. In fact, it didn’t seem to make a big difference to the way we were already working. There was certainly an increase of the pace of production of our digital resources which we were ready to face thanks to our flexibility.

Conclusions

What we’ve learned this year will probably change how we do things forever. Taking the time to reflect has enabled us to identify the things we want to keep and how we want to change as we move towards a return to face to face teaching.

Ultimately, blended, and even more, hybrid teaching and learning is here to stay. Not only out of necessity but for the intrinsic positive aspects that it brings to the whole student experience, especially in the enhancing of student agency:

“hybrid learning …  students themselves have a greater degree of choice as to how they engage with their learning and can move between onsite and remote delivery seamlessly”. (Jisc, 2020)

Caterina Sciamanna – Digital Skills Advisor

Oliver Allchin – Liaison Librarian for Science

References

Joint Information Systems Committee [Jisc]. (2020). Developing blended learning approaches. Retrieved August, 26, 2020, from https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/creating-blended-learning-content#

The Quality Assurance Agency [QAA]. (2020). Building a Taxonomy for Digital Learning. Retrieved August, 26, 2020, from https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/guidance/building-a-taxonomy-for-digital-learning.pdf

For more like this, head to the Student Learning blog pages!

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Email: library@sheffield.ac.uk

Phone: +44 114 222 7200