Event report: Supporting online learners, what works?

Aston Teachmeet on ‘Supporting online learners, what works? A discussion of innovative methods in providing distance learners with information literacy and library skills’

Joe Carey, Enquiries Assistant at Aston University Library, has kindly provided a report on their recent Library Teachmeet event, sponsored by the CILIP Information Literacy Group.

Our recent Teachmeet came at an exciting time for Aston, as we prepare ‘Aston Online’, an entirely new set of courses without any on-campus attendance. The number of online learners is rapidly increasing as universities become ever more globalised, attracting students who are not only international, but actually gain their degrees through a webcam! The Information Specialists at Aston University Library are understandably eager to prepare a smooth pilot for these courses, so were pleased when an invitation to discuss how we can assist online learners was met with significant interest. After several weeks of preparing, the day came with a pleasant, librarians’ buzz in the air!

First to speak were ourselves, Richard and Joe – Richard being the Information Specialist responsible for the event, and Joe an Enquiries Assistant at Aston. Richard gave a quick and warm introduction, including some of Aston’s best practice with online tools. He then opened up a couple of problems which we, as an online course provider, are facing. An interesting example of this is the illegality of ‘YouTube’ in China, which is forcing us to reconsider our mediums for certain learning material. Joe then briefly asked attendees to consider the importance of social media, outlined what Aston is doing to foster a positive online community, and encouraged later discussion of others’ social media practices.

Afterwards, Paul Biggs of Staffordshire University demonstrated a range of interesting learning resources, emphasising the importance of embedding these wherever possible. Some of the highlights included ‘Sway’ and ‘Office Mix’, which offer fun quizzes and videos. The interface which Paul showed us certainly looked engaging!

Following this, Liam Bullingham of Sheffield University Library gave a talk on their use of Adobe Connect for induction videos, lectures and one-to-one meetings. Considering the fact that many universities are underusing their online potential, Liam wants to push forward with more dynamic, digital learning spaces such as these. He also offered some advice on ‘Kaltura’ and highlighted the benefits of flipped learning, especially concerning EndNote. Indeed, Endnote webinars appeared to be a key point of focus for Liam and his team.

Next up was Paul Catherall from the University of Liverpool. Paul talked us through how he supports online students alongside a commercial provider, Laureate, in partnership with the University of Liverpool. Alongside LibGuides/support resources Paul works closely with enquiry teams for remote access support. One of the recent issues they have faced is the growth in internet control, e.g. recent changes and criminalisation of VPN use in UAE, resulting in the need for great care and consideration when issuing advice and supporting students in this kind of situation.

In the final talk before a tea-break, Amanda Closier of the Open University spoke to us about how they’re injecting fun into the online learning experience. For example, they have held widely viewed ‘Facebook Live’ sessions, as well as ‘Fake News Thursdays’ which are both enjoyable and educational.  Indeed, the Open University has good reason to advise others – their online following is, of course, enormous, with at times almost 200 participants in online training sessions!

Now it was time for a well-deserved round of nibbles and tea. Everybody got a short while to stretch their legs and have a chat – Joe, for instance, managed to collar Amanda and a few others to discuss social media within academic libraries! We weren’t stopping for long, though, as we had a host of presentations still to come.

Francesca Cornick of the University of Warwick talked us through their exciting new development at The Shard in London. Whilst it definitely looked sleek and professional, though, Francesca talked us through some of the challenges having a remote library had posed. Not the least of these are the commutes between Warwick and London for inductions, student attendance at which is, of course, never guaranteed! Despite logistic obstacles, however, the library has been a success, and the photographs certainly impressed us!

Following this, Aston’s own Disability Adviser, Deb Tovey, spoke to us about the importance of micro- or bite-sized learning is for students with learning difficulties. Of equal importance is the role of the learner – for example, they should have some control over the pace of study, as well as their own goals. It’s interesting to consider how library staff may incorporate such principles into their online learning platforms.

To round off the day, Wendy Parry from the University of the West of England showed us through their Library ‘online workbook’, a fantastic section of the university’s wider website which offers students a great deal of self-driven learning opportunities, as well as the standard library tools. Wendy welcomed all at the event and beyond to use this resource in their own practice.

Throughout the event, Richard and Joe were documenting via Twitter, and having conversations with other interested followers of ‘#Astonlib’. As well amassing a positive number of comments online, as well as some discussions between library staff, ‘tweeting’ in this way allowed us to build a Storify image of the Teachmeet – a helpful aide to share with others.  In the run-up to the event, a Padlet had also been made so that attendees could engage their conversational juices, primed for the day.

Overall, feedback from the day was very positive. The topic of distance learning or online learners seems to be one which many are eager to flesh out and discuss. The range of speakers was also well-praised. If we were to do it differently, however, we might change the pacing so that people had more chance to reflect upon and talk about the ideas presented. As well as this, we’d like in future to feature more interactive activities. Nevertheless, the event was a great success and we look forward to seeing how LIS staff tackle the online learner ‘problem’, going forward. Finally, the very notion of an ‘online’ or ‘distance’ learner, and the difficulties of defining each, made themselves apparent in feedback. Perhaps, in an increasingly online world, the idea of a distance learner is becoming outdated; do we need to adjust to the idea that, as students across the world are only a click away, none are really at a ‘distance’?

Resources from the day:
Paul Biggs’ presentation (Staffordshire University)



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