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.

Jean Watson’s caring science and online library instruction #2

This is the second post describing how my Learning Advisor colleague, Bronwen Dickson and I used the ‘caring science’ pedagogy to provide online library instruction to nursing students.  I’m going to talk about how we provided opportunities for our students to express caring – for themselves, their student colleagues and for Bronwen and me. If you want to know how the workshops came to be and how Bronwen and I used four principles for online educators as described by the ‘cybercaring’ framework to guide the whole experience, you can find that in part #1.

Cybercaring provides learners many opportunities to demonstrate caring (See Sitzman & Watson, 2016). Invitations to care can be given via explicit instruction, by creating activities activities and resources that prompt caring behaviours, and by modelling the desired behaviours. Following is Sitzman and Watson’s (2016) list of the seven opportunities for students to demonstrate caring (pp. 68-9) and how each unfolded before, during and after the workshops. I have included pertinent student feedback as a reminder to myself and to indicate the kinds of things other facilitators of online learning might like to consider.

consistently demonstrate full presence through the creation of high-quality work and communications

Much of the workshop took place as small group (2-3 students) activities. Students worked together to solve APA referencing problems and then reported their results to the larger class. Bronwen and I visited the groups during the activities and observed the students working together to complete the work, communicating verbally and via chat to navigate resources and find answers. Production of ‘quality work’ may be a stretch for our circumstance, but we got the sense that students were giving their best attempt. Student feedback indicated that some time pressure focussed the groups however, too little time was discouraging. In response to our observations and student feedback we reduced the number of activities in later classes to allow more time for each activity.

communicate clearly, kindly and respectfully

Communication was vital for the success of the workshops. Therefore, I provided suggestions on how to introduce yourself and communicate with the group, and Bronwen and I modelled this when we introduced ourselves and responded to each other’s introduction. Students were always kind and respectful, however clarity of communication was improved when Bronwen and I explained how to use zoom effectively, including checking-in on group members without a microphone and using the chat function to include these participants. Again, we did this in response to student feedback.

reach out for help early

Bronwen and I repeatedly encouraged students to ask questions to their groups and to the larger workshop. We always responded with ‘great question…’ or similar validation.  We found that students did ask questions during the workshop and we both received emailed questions from time to time after the workshops. Again, more questions were asked when Bronwen and I responded to student feedback to wait a little longer for people to ask a question. Students let us know that it can be tricky to find the microphone button while trying to compose a question – or hold one in your head – especially for our students learning English as an additional language.

respond to messages promptly

Most students did respond to the invitation to participate in the workshop promptly and let me know which date would suit their schedule. It is not clear whether this was due to my carefully worded request, or to the workshop being a requirement for these students to progress in their course.

share personal and professional experiences to enhance learning for all

Bronwen and I invited students to share with their small group their confusion about APA referencing and/or any tips that they thought might help others. The sharing shaped the direction of the workshops, allowing Bronwen and I to spend more time on topics students found difficult and demonstrate how to use the resources effectively. Students told us that this sharing was very enjoyable – it provided relief from any belief that they were on their own in this situation. Perhaps this helped them learn.

As an aside, many students wanted more time to share. One external student even told us that this was the first time she felt really connected to other students in the course.  I think there is an invitation to us as educators here, to embed opportunities for students to connect with each other and with each other’s experiences.

pursue learning with commitment & enthusiasm, evidenced by full engagement

In the workshops students were invited to work together to solve APA problems using authoritative APA tools. Bronwen and I were able to check in with the groups to assist if required. The groups we observed did work together, sometimes with a self-nominated leader, sometimes with all participants working and chatting together at once. As mentioned earlier, students in the initial workshop told us that they would like more time to complete group activities, and so we removed one activity and modified the remaining ones to allow more time.

acknowledge shared humanity of instructor & students

In our introduction and through the workshop, Bronwen and I shared pitfalls we had experienced. We wanted to create a collaborative, problem solving approach rather than an automatic ‘run to the expert’ approach. Students may have expected to be taught by APA experts, but instead they got two human beings. Students seemed to respond well to this expression of our humanity, by listening and responding and by volunteering stories of their own. As mentioned above, the sharing seemed to create a feeling of connection to each other.

reflection on what we learned from providing students opportunities to express caring

I was initially a little concerned that using this approach – and especially the sharing -would backfire. It was not how I had ever experienced or run a library class before. I thought the students might be impatient and just want to get the class done. However, this was not the case at all. Students appreciated the sharing, they called the class inclusivecollaborative and fun.

The other interesting thing for me was the quality of the feedback the students provided, even though we used a standard feedback form. I would usually expect appreciation: ‘I liked it.’ ‘The librarian is nice.’ Or not: ‘Too long!’ ‘boring’ But these students went further, their feedback was useful and Bronwen and I were able to improve the workshop just by following the student advice. Students also told us what they liked about the class, what made it worthwhile. Students appreciated that they could use their new skills and they enjoyed the affective elements informed by caring science.

some conclusions and things I want to do in future

I want to keep using caring science in my teaching and other interactions with students and colleagues. I am currently considering how I can incorporate caring science within the online learning objects (tutorials, videos, PowerPoint slides…) I create. This is an interesting thing to consider!

I am also exploring how the library creates a sense of belonging and connection with the 70% of our students who study externally. What else are we doing that works? What else and how could we do more?

I’d be very happy to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, or any aspects of this post 🙂


Sitzman, K., & Watson, J. (2016). Watson’s caring in the digital world: A guide for caring when interacting, teaching, and learning in cyberspace. New York, NY: Springer.