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Case study: shifting your IL teaching online – Sarah Smyth

Photo Sarah Smyth
Sarah Smyth

Sarah Smyth is an Assistant Librarian at Ulster University, supporting staff, students and researchers across Ulster University Business School. In this case study she shares her experience of leading subject-based support sessions remotely, using a variety of media.

What sort of information literacy sessions have you run during the last few months?

Since lockdown, I have been leading subject-based support sessions using a variety of media, including phone, email, Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business for video calling. I have used Panopto to record short videos as part of a suite of formal guidance materials, and as an ad-hoc solution to individual queries. I have also used Collaborate Ultra for online classes to support all types of students – from First-Year Undergraduate Business Studies undertaking a foundation business skills module, to MSc Management and Corporate Governance students preparing their Management Project.

A common theme that has run through all my ‘lockdown’ sessions, is that they are much more informal than my typical information literacy session. Instead of a session entirely focused upon IL, I joined the Module Co-Ordinators in a longer, more wide-ranging discussion as part of their normal class. The students were still given guidance on sources, search techniques, referencing, etc., but this was interspersed with guidance from the Module Co-Ordinator about how IL skills could be contextualised within the framework of their assignment. This team approach – where I was given a platform within module teaching – was a crucial benefit of my online sessions. The students were able to see how IL contributes to their development within the course.


What’s gone well with shifting to online teaching?

Throughout lockdown, Ulster University Library has been able to provide continuity of support to all our students, helping them through a very stressful time. We have been able to send the message that we are still ‘open for business’. Our comprehensive electronic resources have been incredibly valuable in this regard, with many students engaging with academic databases for the first time. Academics have seen the value of reading lists favouring e-format; I am hopeful that this crisis will prompt a step-change in attitudes, with reading lists being constructed with a view to making every cited text available to all students, regardless of location or study mode.


What’s been your biggest challenge?

An ever-present stumbling block to running online classes and consultations is technology. Many participants will not have used the tools before; their broadband may be too slow or unreliable; their equipment may be old, lacking vital software and in need of updates. Students may just find it hard to engage with online teaching. 

The biggest issue, however, is with accessibility for students with enhanced needs. As an institution, we at Ulster are tackling how to make synchronous online teaching work for those people, for example those with visual impairments. My priority this summer is to explore solutions in preparation for the academic year ahead.


Can you share 3 top tips for others planning to teach information literacy sessions online?

  1. Be prepared for it to go wrong! We are all up-skilling at a very fast pace to keep up with the demands of the ‘new normal’, so give yourself and others a break.
  2. Its always useful to have a quiz or something handy to keep participants occupied if you have a shaky moment. Consider using free online tools such as Kahoot, Nearpod, etc. as participants can complete them in a separate window.
  3. Take time to explore and understand the tools available within your teaching medium. There are usually a host of interactive options to keep your participants engaged and give you a break. Remember too – make the most of any professional support that’s available within your institution. Our Instructional Design Consultants are a goldmine of helpful ideas.


This case study was produced in response to a survey being carried out by the CILIP Information Literacy Group Chair, Jane Secker, and one of the CILIP Information Literacy Group’s School Library reps, Sarah Pavey, who are carrying out some research into the shift to online teaching that has taken place in UK education in relation to information literacy teaching.

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