What I know about being human and a librarian and teaching online

So, a lot of librarians are looking at teaching online, maybe for the first time, or maybe as a larger part of their role than usual. And it can all be a bit intimidating, especially if you don’t consider yourself much of a teacher, or teaching technology is unfamiliar territory. I hope I can reassure you with these tenish tips that help me enjoy online teaching (seriously, I jump out of bed excited about it) while contributing skills and many other valuable things to my students.

First of all, you are creating a learning community. It does not matter that your students are all over the planet, or studying different disciplines, or more or less advanced in technical skills than you, or that you are only together for 30 minutes – set the tone of this community. I usually aim for welcoming, collaborative, and practical. You can create whatever works for you and your students.

Be yourself. Students online are often relieved and delighted to meet a real, live human being on the other side of their screen.

Planning is essential. Have a clear idea of your learning objectives and how you intend to work with your students to get them from where they are to where they want to be. I like to state these objectives up front and check in with students to make sure that is what they signed up for. If not, I can adjust and carry on.

Be prepared to go off-script and respond to the real needs of the real students that turn up to your class. An example: I never do canned searches any more, even when I know the assignment topic. Asking students to think of keywords and trying a few databases encourages interaction and provides a realistic search experience. This is how students learn to do the secret library stuff and do special, tricky things, like looking for journals in other databases, and tweaking Google Scholar. And they get to see how creative and messy and fun (and time-consuming) creating a search string can be.

Welcome your students, introduce yourself, and let them know how the session will go and how they can interact with you. This may include explaining how to turn their microphones on and off or use chat. Acknowledge that some students may be at work, or on the train, or some other situation where using their microphone is impractical. Let the students know they can communicate however works for them.

Tell the students whether you are recording the session or not. If not, you will point them to further help on the library website of course! I don’t record my classes as we have plenty of great resources online that are better quality than a recorded tutorial and I don’t want to create any fears around asking questions.

It is fine not to be perfect. Because, even though of course you test and practice with the technology, sometimes things fall apart. If things fall apart a little, you have an opportunity to model how to be graceful under pressure. You may just say something like, ‘Well, the databases can cope with English spelling and American spelling but they really don’t like it when you combine them – watch out for that!’ If things fall apart a lot, apologise and work out a way to make up for it. Try something like: ‘Sorry everyone, it was my intention to give you an excellent session on finding information today and have you all feeling confident that you can find everything you need – but it looks like this tech issue is not going to allow that. Would you like to…reconvene at the same time tomorrow, email me for a recorded PowerPoint..’, (or whatever you can offer in your context.)

Include a teaching partner. Your partner can manage chat by answering questions or by redirecting chat questions to you verbally. They can also listen out for something you may have missed, or glossed over, or for spoonerisms. I make plenty of spoonerisms and don’t even notice them. A partner can clarify for students. A well-chosen partner will also add their expertise, wit, warmth, and/or wisdom to the session and this is often exactly what your students wanted to hear.

Ask the students for help, especially when you need it. Many students like to help you, they do not expect you to be a technical genius. A student was pleased to teach me today that Alt +Tab allows you to choose whichever screen you want to pop on top – how have I lived without that? If you have a big crowd and no partner to help with chat, tell the students that and ask them to un-mute and tell you if there is a question in chat as you don’t want to miss anyone. Just like in a face-to-face class, you can even ask someone directly, by name.

Evaluate your teaching. If you can set up a student survey, do so.  Keep it simple. It is an opportunity for students to let you know what worked for them and what did not. Don’t be afraid, students who have gotten to know the real human being that you are will tend to be very appreciative. It is way harder to get the constructive criticism you need to grow your teacher-self than to collect praise. If you have a teaching partner, ask them how they think you went. Let them know what you are aiming for with your session – make it measurable if possible. Did everyone have a good time – who knows? Did I provide ample opportunities for students to ask questions? Better.

Share with your colleagues. I read and listen and soak up research and anecdotes and whatever information I can find that will help me be a better teacher. Your experiences, good, bad, or ugly are valuable to our community.

Finally – just remember you have something very useful and valuable to share with your students. Yes, library skills and knowledge, but also more than that. According to all the research I have read on teaching online, students are very likely also turning up for connection, inclusion, social engagement, call it what you like. I imagine that many students at the moment, unexpectedly thrown into online learning – and whatever other chaos COVID-19 is causing – may appreciate these elements even more. This connection is what you, a real human being, generously taking a risk and bringing your best to this online teaching gig will provide. You’ve got this!

A picture of me, teaching online with a virtual background of the Northern Lights masking the fact my home office is also a spare room.
Me, teaching online via zoom with a groovy virtual background.

Can an online course enable a transpersonal experience?

I am excited.

I used to think no way, there is no way online learning environments can allow the same quality of interaction as face-to-face classrooms. It isn’t possible and I’m not going to try.

Of course this is not true, It’s just I had to learn some stuff.

I had to find a teaching philosophy that encouraged me to communicate authentically with students and invite them to do the same (I’m practicing with Watson’s Caring Science at the moment). And I had to learn how to use some online conferencing software that facilitates active learning in groups: allowing students to talk, message and share their screens with each other (zoom is good, I’m guessing there are others).

And my teaching got better and the students learned more and enjoyed the experience too.

But just now I had a transpersonal experience as an online learner — and in an asynchronous environment too. I posted on a MOOC discussion board that I was feeling a bit vulnerable (yes, my word of the week) about all the caring stuff I am getting myself into and I got this response from Linda:

“I agree, Rowena, that that can feel a vulnerable place but if you think of vulnerability as being ‘without a shell’, then it helps to understand that it’s easier for new ideas to penetrate when we aren’t wearing our ‘shells’ – and that makes for a more equal relationship between student and teacher” (1).

Linda is another student in the class. She has no inkling as to my snail thing. She just hit upon the perfect metaphor for me though. And she extended my idea – I hadn’t thought about how removing my shell makes me more open to new ideas.  And when I read Linda’s words I felt so excited, just like I would in a face-to-face classroom. I have expanded.

And see: this whole interaction supports Linda’s words! I am excited again!

I’m even thinking that in a face-to-face classroom, Linda and I may not have had this interaction… Linda may live across the world from me. And perhaps a face-to-face classroom may not have provided us with the time to think and compose a thoughtful response. Or maybe I would not have spoken up in a classroom in the first place.

And now I am wondering: Is it possible that an online learning environment can provide not just equivalent transpersonal caring spaces, but unique or even expanded ones?

If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.

photo of a slug aliding across a reflective surface. The slug is grey on top, becoming more salmon coloured at the bottom. It is a beautiful photo.
SlugWilfbuckSome rights reservedFlickr


  1. Welch, Linda (17 May, 2018). [Reply to comment on theories of learning]. Retrieved from Futurelearn Course: Introduction to teaching and Learning in Higher EducationWebsite. Linda kindly gave me permission to reproduce her comment here.