Libraries Reaching out to Distance Learners

At this year’s IAML UK and Ireland Annual Study Weekend, I agreed to offer a ‘quick-fire’ session about a project that I carried out in 2017, investigating the provision of library instruction and support to distance-learners.  It’s something I undertook as part of the Postgraduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Arts Education, through my own place of employment, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  The certificate was offered using blended learning pedagogy, combining occasional classroom sessions with distance learning.  (In my case, I was never further than four miles away, but we’ll let that pass!) 

Strangely enough, I wrote an article for a Library Association branch magazine in 1991, expressing the opinion that librarians needed teaching skills as well as librarianship qualifications – so when I came to complete the PG Cert, it was with a certain sense of déjà vu! (‘But How do I Tell Them?’ (Personnel Training and Education 8.3 (1991), 56-63)

I began by taking a blended learning short course, the Teaching Artist, in 2014. This gave me credits towards the full PG Cert that I began in October 2015, eventually graduating in November 2017.  I achieved Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy at the same time.

The project was a significant component of the certificate. I wanted it to be relevant to my work as a librarian, and it stemmed from user education sessions, email enquiries, and meetings with students from time to time, not to mention the particular interactions I’d had with my course cohort, when I was simultaneously their library contact and their peer.  I had identified various problems, such as the constraints imposed on us as librarians, often parachuted into classes with whom we’ve had little regular contact, in classroom layouts or configurations not best suited to the kind of teaching we are tasked with providing, or using online technology not best suited to explaining, still less exploring e-resources.   

The title of the project is admittedly a bit long-winded, but it does what it says on the tin: “Effective Ways to Deliver Library Induction and User Education Students by Offering Self-Help Interventions to Supplement and Support Taught Sessions”

I devised a SurveyMonkey Questionnaire, finding out about students’ library habits, their readiness or reluctance to seek help, and any positive or negative opinions they had formed.  I created two short video-clips to provide assistance in bibliographic referencing and using e-resources, and asked students to answer various questions about them after trying them out.  To help ensure that I’d get enough responses, I surveyed the other postgraduates doing the certificate or an MEd, knowing that they’d appreciate the importance of getting answers!  After all that, I interviewed three distance learners so that I could get more detailed insights.  

Some of the answers to my questions were quite predictable: for example, distance learners study in minutes snatched from their already busy lives. They may have had a long break since formal education, and struggle with unfamiliar technology; they may perhaps have learning disabilities of which they had been unaware at a younger age, and/or may have the additional challenge of a distance from a physical library.  Parenthood brings its own challenges: indeed, one of my interviews was conducted whilst the interviewee’s baby munched biscuits, crawling round the office! 

There were also less-obvious findings. For example, people seemed more likely to ask about physical items in the library, than for help with online resources.  I was curious as to which resources students used and/or asked for help with.  However, clearly students were more comfortable with some online resources than others, and they were less likely to ask about those ones.  Access and the Shibboleth process was a predictable bugbear. 

Interestingly, despite the learning styles theories now being discredited, the students themselves still expressed personal preferences for different ways of learning, such as preferring a visual approach.

I learned that with online videoclips, students like to see the presenter, even though I myself hadn’t thought that a “talking head” would be particularly useful! 

Another response urged me to “get to the point”, making me realise that time-challenged students are impatient with carefully constructed metaphors, perfectly able to predict where the introductory slides were heading!

Unneccessary? The gardening metaphor that went flat!

I also learned that students’ demands were quite sophisticated.  I hadn’t anticipated requests for animated cartoons, nor for 24/7 online chat facilities, which aren’t really feasible in a small specialist library that is not open 24/7.

Doing the PG Cert taught me other things too, of course.  I learned some of the pedagogical theory that I needed, and it offered the opportunity to read widely and across other subjects.  It made me more aware of the challenges of being a distance learner, and of working with blended learning students, especially on taught courses. And it gave me an idea of what research is like in the social sciences – quite a contrast to musicology!

Anyone who has been involved with CILIP chartership or Fellowship process understands the importance of reflective practice. We were required to set up our own blogs to record this, and I elected to make mine public, with the exception of my graded submissions.  You could say it’s a question of overtly spelling out what’s going on in your own mind!  I’m continuing to add to it from time to time, although not as frequently as I did when I was on the course. It’s got a fairly extensive reading list on one of the pages, so I mustn’t neglect to add to that.

Reflective blog: Karen McAulay Teaching Artist

And what’s next? I’m planning to write a full-length article, at some point fairly soon. Meanwhile … well, watch these spaces!

Karen McAulay, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland