Library Learning Goes Online

I wrote recently about MOOCs and online learning, so naturally I was interested in the new AL Live webcast, Library Learning Goes Online, and it did not disappoint. The moderator was Sarah Steiner, the Social Work and Virtual Services Librarian at Georgia State University Library, and the speakers were John Shank, Instructional Design Librarian and Associate Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at Penn State University, and Lauren Pressley, Director for Learning & Outreach at Virginia Tech University Libraries.

Similarities and differences between online and face-to-face (F2F) teaching and learning

Online and F2F are “more similar than different,” said Pressley. In both cases, instructors must establish learning objectives and identify learning outcomes. There are more variables online than F2F, and more design options; Shank warned of “options overload,” noting that this may be more of a challenge for public libraries because they tend to have fewer resources and less expertise in this area. Pressley said that the “intentional stance” required for instructional design of online courses “bleeds over into F2F,” and Shank agreed that “technology starts a discussion.”

Costs and benefits of teaching and learning online

“Communication is on a different scale,” said Shank, meaning the instructor has more  reach, but can lose the intimacy from the F2F environment, as well as other forms of interaction, such as nonverbal communication. Pressley agreed, “Whatever you gain from the online environment, you lose something else.” Being online can provide a sense of isolation or connection; more people may be connected, but the connection is shallower.

Shank also noted that the time investment necessary in order to get deep meaningful engagement is a challenge. Pressley reminded instructors and students alike that “it is a real class! Block out time to do work, interactions, and planning.” She also added another benefit of online learning, which is that it can be a great option for distance learning, and for solving space issues (not enough classrooms, or not enough space in classrooms).

Mere convenience aside, there are real advantages to online learning. Shank observed that the online environment can draw out people who wouldn’t speak up in class, and it serves different styles of learners, especially those who prefer to have time to reflect before responding.

Time investment

Inarguably, there is an additional time investment required for teaching an online class: Pressley listed content creation, upfront prep time, and consideration of instructional design principles. Content can be reused in future classes, but communication is time intensive. Shank noted that transparency increases because students can tell exactly how responsive the instructor is. Likewise, depending on the tools being used, the instructor can see the exact degree of each student’s participation.

Student engagement with the material

Here too, there are similarities between online and F2F instruction. Pressley advised, “Present content in an interesting and useful way; let students interact with you and each other; tie the material to real-world need.” Shank added, “Increase conversations and dialogues” with tools such as chat, realtime polls, and built-in activities. Steiner added that students can be engaged with each other as well as the instructor.

Assessment and active learning

Pressley identified three categories of assessment: course evaluation, ongoing, qualitative assessment during the learning process (formative), and learning outcomes (summative). In her classes, she gets feedback “on the fly” using Google surveys or SurveyMonkey, scavenger hunts, and other methods; strategies will be different depending on whether the course is credit-based or a “one shot” class or workshop.

Shank suggested building feedback into any activity, online or F2F. He also does a learning analysis, examining how much students access course content and how that relates to performance. If students are disengaged and not doing well, he shows them a graph of time spent on class work vs. grade in course (“There is always a statistically significant correlation”).  He strips personal data out, of course, but the exercise also has the effect of showing students that instructors can track their engagement and performance.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)

Shank identified the “big three” MOOC providers at the moment: Coursera, Udacity, and edX. MOOCs, he said, are “not new technology, but the timing wasn’t right till now.” Given the limited access to and high cost of higher education, MOOCs seem like a perfect solution in terms of the access and cost. Shank predicts, “[MOOCs] are going to evolve, not go away,” and that the interactivity element of them may increase.

Pressley took a MOOC herself, and said that she interacted with the content and her classmates, but not professor. “It’s a pretty good deal, for free,” she said, but asked, “When you pay for higher ed, what are you paying for?” Pressley said that there are things that instructors in higher ed can learn from the MOOC model, but that MOOCs would not replace higher ed institutions entirely; their impact on higher ed is “not the end of days.”

Shank agreed that MOOCs are “part of the landscape.” Technology, he said, has had its impact on other industries such as music and finance; now it is having an impact on education. He asked, “How can we use this platform to show people what we do as librarians?” Parents and incoming students are a prime audience for academic librarians. Shank stated, “Librarians are more important than ever because we live in the information age.” He also mentioned that public libraries could serve as meetup points for students taking MOOCs, so that they can meet in person as well as online, creating a hybrid/blended learning experience.

Troubleshooting new technology

Shank said, “Test it before you do it! Be prepared.” Pressley advised, “Get there early – give yourself a cushion.” When you have a large audience, she said, “Choose less experimental technology,” go for something more simple and reliable,  and have a backup way of communicating the information. Experiment with newer, more complex, or less reliable technology in small groups. Steiner suggested having a backup person available, as well as backup technology, as least while setting up.

Best practices for teaching online

Shank reminded instructors that “learners have little experience, it’s new technology.” There is a learning curve, and patience is required on both sides. Assessment is also crucial; Pressley said, “Ask strategy questions, not skill questions: ‘What was your approach to finding…’ [rather than] ‘What did you use?'” Technology, Shank said, “Gives us more ways to assess, understand, and communicate.” Analytics about students’ work habits and behavior can be useful to instructors.

Changes in the near future

“Consumers are becoming producers,” said Shank, giving the example of citizen journalists. Open educational resources are also growing, as is content curation. Pressley mentioned the competency-based educational movement, as well as personal learning networks, rich informal learning spaces, and MOOCs. Shank spoke about learner analytics, “bits and bytes instead of people with souls.”

Overall, this was an excellent presentation and I’m glad I watched it. Some of the material was familiar from the User Instruction class I took in grad school, and from my own experiences with online learning in that class and others; some of the content was familiar from reading recent articles on the topics of MOOCs and higher education. However, this presentation provides the unique perspective of librarians positioned within higher ed, which makes it especially worthwhile. Click to watch (opens in a new window):

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