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Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference, May 2020

Last week, I attended the first ever Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference (CALC). This was meant to have been hosted at Coventry University, however due to lockdown, the event was shifted to be fully online.

This was my first ever online conference, and I thought it was brilliant! The organisers (the ever-awesome Michelle Bond and Darren Flynn), did a phenomenal job setting up the online conference, reorganising everything to enable it to take place online, and moderating the whole day.

I took copious notes throughout the day, and have plenty to follow up on. Recordings are now available on the conference website. So I’m not going to recap the content of the presentations here. Instead, I thought I’d share my overall impressions and key takeaways from each presentation I attended.

Opening keynote: Quinn Roache

The opening keynote was from Quinn Roache, Policy Officer for LGBT+ and Disabled Workers at the Trades Union Congress. H discussed the research the TUC has conducted into workplace discrimination experienced by disabled workers and LGBT+ people. The findings shared were sobering, if not surprising! I won’t recap them here, but I strongly recommend reading both reports:

One of the things that struck me most from Quinn’s talk was his mention, early on, of the concept “nothing about us, without us”. This is a key slogan of the disability rights movement, and it emphasises the importance of involving marginalised communities in both research and decision making. Quinn mentioned that whenever he sees research conducted about disabled people, for example, and no people with disabilities are represented on the research group, that raises questions.

I think this is something that we in libraries would do well to remember. Librarianship as a profession is overwhelmingly white and middle class. There is always a risk that we fall into the trap of being well-intentioned white ladies imposing “solutions” on a community that we haven’t consulted and can’t speak for.

The other thing that stood out for me was the importance of unions! I’ve been a member of Unison since starting work at the University of Huddersfield, but this is the first workplace I’ve been at where there was a recognised union that I could join. The difference in working in a unionised workplace is striking – the pay, benefits and job security are miles ahead of anywhere else I’ve ever worked. We’re in for some rough times ahead, in probably every workplace and sector, so there’s never been a more important time to join a union, and get actively involved to help stand up collectively for better workplace protections.

Ageism and Libraries – Sheila Webber

The first parallel session I attended was Sheila Webber’s excellent talk on ageism in libraries. Sheila noted that although people can experience ageism at any age, drawing from personal experience she would focus on ageism experienced by older people.

Sheila noted how easy it is to slip into negative stereotypes about age, particularly about older women. She noted that information literacy and media literacy initiatives tend to focus on the information needs and habits of young people. Where older people are discussed it tends to be using a deficit model, and casual ageism is common in discussions about fake news (e.g. assuming technical illiteracy).

In discussing ageism in the workplace, Sheila noted that because the powerful people in an organisation tend to be older, that can lead us to assume that all older people are powerful. In fact, older people can be discriminated against for not having “moved up” the hierarchy. It’s assumed that as you get older you should have moved into management positions, so if you haven’t done this then it must be because you are lazy/incompetent.

It strikes me that this must be an issue for libraries, which tend to have flat hierarchies and little room for progression! I’ve certainly seen unpleasant, thoughtless comments about older librarians “blocking” posts that could be held by younger, newer professionals.

Read at Leicester – Heena Karavadra

Unfortunately Heena was unable to deliver her presentation in person due to illness, but thankfully she’d been able to record it in advance, so during the session we watched the video and then had a short discussion amongst ourselves. I was really interested in this presentation as I am jointly responsible for the leisure reading collection at Huddersfield, HudReads, so am really keen to learn from other academic libraries who have leisure reading collections.

The Read at Leicester collection grew out of an initiative that had been running for a few years, where the University had provided a copy each of the same book for each new first year student, to provide a shared reading experience. When the funding for this scheme ran out, Heena wanted to keep the interest in leisure reading going by setting up a permanent collection within the library.

Heena started by repurposing fiction that was already in the library (and not on any reading lists) and moving this into a new, prominent location. However, she quickly found that this did not result in a diverse, representative collection! So she approached the alumni association to request funding to allow the library to purchase some more diverse books for the collection. As the funding had to be spent by the end of the academic year, she did not have time to consult library users for suggestions, so selected the stock herself.

However, she was able to argue successfully for additional funding for the 2019/20 academic year, which enabled her to set up Represent, a scheme which collected suggestions for diverse literature from students and staff at the University (Heena noted the inspiration from Huddersfield’s Broaden my Bookshelf campaign, which made me happy – we’re very proud of this scheme!).

It was interesting to hear that Heena had experienced many of the same challenges with Read at Leicester as we have experienced with HudReads. In particular, the challenges of promoting the collection: despite a prominent location, a survey of library users found only 42% were aware of the collection. We found something similar with a survey of our own users last year!

Heena also discussed some ongoing challenges with format, such as deciding whether or not to buy foreign language materials, or ebooks or audiobooks (the latter two being particularly important now that physical collections are inaccessible due to COVID19!).

At Huddersfield we made the decision to only buy print for HudReads, due to the cost and availability of fiction in digital formats. Instead, we promote the online collections available from the local public library service, which has a much larger online fiction collection than we could hope to build! It will be interesting to see if Leicester, or any other academic libraries with fiction/popular reading collections make a different decision on this.

Sick systems: is cruelty the point of HE? Hannah Hickman

My last session of the morning was Hannah Hickman’s excellent discussion forum about “sick systems” in the context of Higher Education. I hadn’t come across the concept of sick systems before, but having now explored this concept a bit, I can absolutely see how it applies to HE! Sick systems are defined by four criteria:

  1. Keep people too busy to think
  2. Keep people tired
  3. Keep people emotionally invested
  4. Reward people intermittently

(I should note that I can also think of at least one former workplace that was not in HE where all these criteria applied, so I don’t think any of these problems are exclusive to HE!)

Hannah discussed the fact that value in education is tied to constant assessments, both for students and staff. For students, your grades are linked to your future employability, but this is undermined by a combination of grade inflation and a depressed job market. She referred to this as “cruel optimism”: attachment to outcomes that are either toxic, or simply impossible to meet.

For institutions, there is the tyranny of metrics! E.g. the REF and TEF. These exercises remove all human factors from research and teaching, and boil success down to easy to measure, but ultimately meaningless (and easily manipulated) factors. I recently came across the concept of the McNamara fallacy, which this seems a perfect example of!

After Hannah’s initial overview of the topic, we were split into breakout rooms to discuss the topic, and if we could see a way forward for HE institutions. From our group’s discussion, two main points stick out in my memory. The first is about 24/7 library opening, which Hannah had mentioned in her opening talk. It’s arguable that 24/7 availability of libraries upholds the idea that work, study and productivity are and should be your main priorities, and there is never a reason not to be working.

I have often wondered this myself: does 24/7 library provision enable unhealthy study habits, e.g. all-nighters? However, I am also well aware that for many students (e.g. those with caring responsibilities, shift workers, etc.), overnight may be the only time they have available to study, and many do not have the space (physical or mental) to be able to do so from home. So would removing this option be a paternalistic attempt to manage our students’ health for them, while also disadvantaging those who were already marginalised?

This made me think of the situation we were in just before the initial UK lockdown was announced, where in many cases university libraries were remaining open (albeit with reduced staff/hours) while the rest of the campus was closed. The rationale sometimes given for this was that without libraries, many students would have no way to complete their work. This was certainly true, but it struck me as reinforcing the impression that even in the face of a global pandemic, there was no reason to miss a deadline or prioritise something other than work or study.

The other point was about the effect we can have as individuals within the system. On a personal level, I know I have in the past tried to reassure scared and worried students that their worth is not tied to assessments or grades – but then they’re immediately spat back into a system (HE, but also CAPITALISM) that will and does judge them on this basis. So is there much we can really do on an individual level when we’re all inside a broken and cruel system?

Needless to say, we didn’t actually come up with any answers to any of this! But it was an excellent discussion, and I’ve found the concept of sick systems to be a helpful way of framing some of the aspects of HE that I find troubling.

Afternoon keynote: Dr Zainab Naqvi

The title of the afternoon keynote was “Academic libraries: a critical postcolonial feminist perspective”, which got my attention straight away! And the talk more than lived up to the title.

Dr Zainab Naqvi is Senior Lecturer in Law at Leicester De Montfort Law School. She started her keynote by talking about how her feminism and her antiracist practice informs her legal scholarship (she is editor of the journal Feminist Legal Studies). She said something great near the start of her talk about tending to go and research things that make her annoyed!

She said far too much for me to recap in enough detail to do justice to here, so I strongly recommend watching the recording. This twitter thread is also a good summary of the key points.

My key takeaways from the session: we need to remember that libraries are historically sites of colonisation, rooted in harmful ideologies, enforced assimilation and oppression. Education and knowledge production were key tools of colonisation, used to divide communities and instil the belief that white, western knowledge was logical, objective and neutral, and therefore the only acceptable form.

Citation is a political act, and the focus in academia on citing peer-reviewed scholarship excludes marginalised voices. If students look outside of conventionally published academic work and seek out marginalised voices, is this critical work recognised by lecturers, or will they be penalised for it?

Libraries themselves are often intimidating spaces. The architecture and the ways in which historical power structures are commemorated (e.g. by naming the buildings after powerful white men) can reinforce the view of libraries as places of elitism, exclusivity and class privilege. Zainab ended her talk with a plea: to think about the trauma and violence suffered through encounters with the library, both historically and into today.

How witches use the libraries: The information behaviour of contemporary Pagans and ritual magicians – Joanne Fitzpatrick

After the keynote was Joanne Fitzpatrick’s fascinating talk on the information behaviour of contemporary Pagans and ritual magicians. I know a little about contemporary Paganism from some exploration of Wicca when I was a teenager (yes, I know, along with every other teenage girl in the 90s…), but I had never thought about the information literacy implications of this kind of practice.

Joanne argued that IL is fundamental to most Pagan practice. There is no authority, no sacred text, no official theology in Paganism (which term covers a wide range of beliefs and practices), so all practitioners are reliant on their own self-education.

Joanne gave a brief overview of the ways of knowing and information seeking within Paganism, including “non-rational” ways of knowing such as divination, intuition, gnosis. These would typically be dismissed within an IL framework as “just guessing”, but Joanne challenged us to consider these as important and valid forms of knowledge. She talked quite a bit about the importance of serendipity and coincidence within Paganism, which made me think about browsing behaviours and how we try (not always successfully!) to replicate and enable these kinds of knowledge encounters in online settings.

Coventry University Decolonisation Read, Reflect and Discuss Group

The final session I attended was a discussion group. We’d been asked in advance to read this paper:

White, H. (2018). Decolonizing the Way Libraries Organize. IFLA WLIC 2018, Kuala Lumpur. Retrieved from http://library.ifla.org/2221/1/207-white-en.pdf

As a non-cataloguer, I found this really interesting but challenging to discuss. I’m used to using Dewey in my library, and am more than familiar with its problematic aspects, so it was interesting to discuss what practical effects this has.

In the comments, someone also shared the documentary “Change the Subject”, about student activism to challenge the use of the term “illegal aliens” in Library of Congress subject headings. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet but it looks really interesting and useful, so I’m leaving the link here as a reminder to watch later!

One of my main takeaways from the article and discussion is that tackling the legacy of fundamentally colonialist and racist classification schemes like Dewey is reliant on having staff who are a) trained in cat & class, and b) have the time and the power to do something about it. Sadly, in my own library (and I suspect many others), we have neither. We buy our catalogue records ready-made, so we are reliant on the classification decided by the supplier, which isn’t always suitable or appropriate for our users or collection. We can amend this at order point if needed, but we usually don’t have the time (or knowledge, certainly in my case!) to do this for every order.

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Visit to Fujian Normal University, Fuzhou, China

Last month, I was lucky to be able to visit China as part of a work trip. The University I work for is preparing to run one of our degree courses via a partner institution in China, so I was part of a validation visit aimed at assessing the resources of the partner institution.

It was a fantastic trip, if a little short! We only had one full day there: we arrived in Fuzhou on a Wednesday lunchtime, spent Thursday at the University, and flew home Friday evening. So the whole visit is a bit of a blur in my mind really!

I wanted to blog about my impressions of the library. My role in the trip was to assess the library resources and facilities, and I was really excited to see how a university library in another part of the world functions. I was really impressed by the library at FNU. In particular I think they’ve done a fantastic job of using their special collections and archives in an engaging, public-facing way.

The main library building at Fujian Normal University

The main library building

The library itself is an impressive, modern building. We saw one of two main campus libraries – I understand that the one we were shown around was the larger of the two. Each faculty also has its own satellite library.

The entrance to the library as very wide and open, with various displays which I will talk about in more detail below.

Wide, open library entrance at the main library of Fujian Normal University

The library entrance

Archives & special collections

In the entrance to the library are various displays showing some of the University’s special collections. The first we were shown was a large plasma screen with a digitised photo of the first graduating class of the University, in 1908. This was opposite a green screen, which superimposed you onto the photo in the middle of the graduating class. You could then download a copy of the photo with yourself in it by scanning a QR code. This display had been put in place to celebrate the University’s 110th anniversary.

Two members of staff from the University of Huddersfield stand in front of a green screen, while two members of staff from Fujian Normal University show them a downloaded photo on a phone

Trying out the green screen

I really liked this idea: it was a great way of highlighting the institution’s history, and making it accessible to a wider audience. On a similar note, there was also a display of digitised PhD theses from one of the founding institutions that merged to become the FNU. The covers of these were displayed on touch screens lining the walls. if you tapped one, you could actually page through and read the full document (if you had time!). You could also scan a QR code to download a PDF of the document to your device.

A man stands in front of a plasma screen, on which can be seen a few pages of a digitised PhD theses, and a QR code

Digitised PhD theses on a wall display

You may be sensing a theme here: QR codes were absolutely everywhere! And not just in the University: when we were taken sightseeing around the local area, tourist information signs all had QR codes on them too, as did advertising posters and shop signs. I even saw people actually scanning them! That might be worth considering, for Universities with a lot of Chinese students: they are likely to be already used to scanning QR codes, so this may be a helpful way to present information.

As well as seeing the digital displays, we were also shown around some of the physical special collections. The founder of the University, Chen Baochen, was the teacher of the last Emperor. The University holds the collection of his books, which formed the basis for the first library at FNU. These books are all held in purpose-built boxes made by the founder to fit his books. I particularly liked the miniature book boxes that he had created for travelling with: sort of a 19th century version of a Kindle!

A collection of 19th century books in custom-built wooden boxes

An archivists hands wearing white gloves hold open a miniature book, in front of a small wooden travel case.

One of the miniature books in a custom-built travel box

Digital strategy

As evidenced by the prominent digital displays in the library entrance, FNU library invests heavily in digital resources. In fact, I was surprised to discover that the library doesn’t often buy print books at all. When they showed us round the English-language print collection (the degree course is going to be delivered in English, so we needed to make sure the library resources were sufficient to support this), the books on the shelves were all very old: mostly 20+ years old at the least, from what I saw.

Our guides explained that their students are heavy eBook users, so print stock tends to go unused. I asked what they would do if a core text was unavailable in e-copy (I have been checking the reading lists for the course to be delivered in China and am aware that a significant proportion of the recommended books aren’t available electronically). The response was that they would get hold of books on request through their inter-library loans service.

This seemed really odd to me, as I can’t see how using ILLs to provide required course reading could possibly be sustainable. I was also unclear from the conversation whether the digital-only strategy was for all books, or only the English language collection. I did see students working in the library with Chinese-language books which looked newer, although I couldn’t tell if these were current versions or just in better condition, or if they were the students’ own copies that they’d bought themselves.

The provision of ebooks was excellent though, so clearly the lack of print books wasn’t considered an issue! There was also a lovely interactive ebook display in the library entrance, referred to as a “book waterfall”. This was three freestanding pillars with touch screens on them, each had ebook covers cascading down them like a waterfall. You could tap on one to stop it, and scan a QR code (again!) to open it on your device. It looked fantastic, and the two (very senior!) members of Huddersfield staff I was visiting with were equally impressed – so much so that I wonder if we might be asked to do something similar in our library!

Three tall pillars with plasma screens onthem, displaying eBook covers. Two are showing QR codes

The “eBook waterfall”

I wasn’t clear how access was managed for this: when I asked I was told that only university staff and students would be able to open an ebook, but when demonstrated it seemed like the ebook opened up instantly, so I’m not sure how they’d have prevented non-users from doing this. I could see that being a concern for our ebook vendors if we were to try something similar.

It’s possible some sort of authentication was set up in the apps they were using. They used WeChat to scan their QR codes, so I wondered if there was a way of recognising registered users via this app. The library had a WeChat account that they used to communicate with users, and had created their own WeChat app, which looked fantastic. WeChat, if you’re unaware (I was!) is the most heavily used social media app in China. It’s a combination social media, messaging, and mobile payments app.

The library uses it to post messages, take comments and suggestions from users, and the app appeared to connect with their library catalogue so you could search for ebooks without leaving WeChat. WeChat also has a built-in QR code scanner, which it has been suggested is one possible factor in the continuing popularity of QR codes in China! It looked a really useful app, and it made me wonder if we ought to consider setting up a WeChat account for our library, to connect with our Chinese students.

Library space

Despite the digital-first strategy, the physical library space was still very important. Before the trip, I asked on the SLA (Special Libraries Association) forums for anyone with experience of Chinese HE libraries to get in touch with any insight as to what to expect. One of the things I was told was that libraries in Chinese universities are seen primarily as places to work and study. One person said she remembered from her own undergraduate in a Chinese library that competition for library workspaces was always fierce!

I noticed when looking around that it certainly seemed to be busy. There was seating in pretty much every area of the library we visited, and it was probably about 50% full from what I saw. Given that we visited in mid-June, after the main exam period, that seemed like quite high usage for the time of year.

The study spaces we saw were all individual, silent-study spaces. We were told that there were bookable group study rooms available, although we didn’t see these. I have heard from Chinese students here that they tended not to do group work in their home colleges and universities, so it makes sense that individual study was the main use of FNU library. It occurred to me then that our library at Huddersfield, which has silent study spaces but is mostly set up for quiet conversation or group working, must come as a bit of a shock to our Chinese students if they are used to working individually in silent libraries.

There were a few more social spaces in the library, although I didn’t see many people using them at the time we visited. For example, there was a nice seating area to browse print magazines, journals and newspapers. It had comfy seating as well as a few desks around the sides. I’d love something like this in our library – we’re always being asked for comfy seating areas!

A section of the library with low shelving displaying recent issues of journals, magazines and newspapers. There are comfy seats and a woman in standing in the middle with her back to the camera.

Journal browsing corner

An opposite view of the journal browsing area, showing some students sat in the comfy seating and at desks around the edge.

Seating in the journal browsing area

Finally, one of my favourite things I noticed when we went around was this book steriliser. Anyone who works in a library knows that books can get pretty gross – paper absorbs everything, and I can’t be the only one who wonders about the germs from everyone who’s handled a popular library book! The book sterliser was available in the library foyer, next to the self-issue and return machines. It looked a bit like a small fridge, just with a rack inside that you could put a few books on. When you closed the door and set it going, you could see the pages being riffled through, and light shining on them – I think it used UV light to kill germs. Then after about a minute you could take your books out, freshly cleaned. They even smelled nice!

A book steriliser, with front door open and a couple of books visible inside

Book Steriliser

Final thoughts

Despite it being a real whistle-stop tour, I really enjoyed the visit. It was a fantastic opportunity to visit a part of the world I’d never seen before, and learn a bit about the experiences of Chinese students in their own universities. We have a lot of Chinese students at Huddersfield, so it’s good to know a bit more about what their expectations of a library service might be.

I’m glad I did a bit of research before I went, which gave me a bit of an idea of what to look out for. I’m really grateful to all the people from SLA who responded to my forum post and shared their recollections and experience of HE and librarianship in China.

I also did manage to do a little sightseeing while I was there, even though it was such a short trip! Our hosts kindly took us out to see some of the local area on the day before and day after the validation visit. My photos are all on Instagram (part one and part two), if you are interested!

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Reflections from LILAC 2018

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC) in Liverpool. I usually try and at least start to write up my reflections pretty soon afterwards but as I went to Spain for a week the day after LILAC (impromptu visit to see my partner’s mum), I’ve had to wait a week before getting a change to blog about it.

That’s actually worked out quite well for me, as it’s given me time to step back from the experience and let a few things swirl around in my brain for a bit before writing them down. I always feel like my brain is a a bit over-stuffed by the end of a conference, especially a multi-day conference with a packed schedule like LILAC, so it’s been good to have a chance to digest some of the new ideas and themes over the past week. Although, as much as the enforced week off has turned out surprisingly helpful, I would not recommend catching a 7am flight (requiring you to be at the airport for 5am) the day after a 3-day conference. That was in no way fun…

I’m not going to do a full recap of every session I attended at LILAC. If you want to see my real-time thoughts and impressions, all my tweets are on Wakelet (which I’m really liking so far as a replacement for the soon-to-be-defunct Storify!). You can check out all the presentation slides and papers in the LILAC conference archive, as well as watching recordings of the three keynotes (which I would strongly recommend – as usual for LILAC, the keynotes were fantastic!). My general impressions and reflections are below…

Using theory in practice

“Putting theory to work in practice” was the theme of Ola Pilerot’s excellent keynote (watch the video!!) on day 2. He spoke about models of information literacy, information seeking and information behaviour, and how these can (and should) inform our practice as librarians. I came away from that session with a very full reading list, but also with a renewed appreciation for actually using all these theory models that I sort-of remember from library school! As usual, Lauren Smith said it best:

This year I’ve been studying towards a PGCHE qualification (kindly funded by my employer!) and honestly, one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the excuse it’s given me to actually spend time reading the literature in teaching and information literacy, and immersing myself in theory again. I was having a conversation about this recently with some of my fellow students on the course: I’m the only librarian in the class, all the others are recently-hired academic teaching staff, as my institution requires all teaching staff to be HEA-accredited.

Of the other teaching staff on the course, there are varying attitudes towards the requirement to make reference to pedagogical theory in our assessment, with some considering it a bit of a tick-box exercise to pass the course. My argument, in conversation with a few of the theory-skeptics on the course, is that “theory” is really just a fancy way of saying “why I’m doing this thing in this way”. Engaging with the published literature of your discipline should ideally give you one of three things: a moment of recognition (“oh yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve always thought but couldn’t articulate!”), a new way of thinking about an old problem, or something to argue against (“that’s garbage, AND HERE’S WHY”).

Happily, LILAC has a good balance of theory-based sessions along with the practical workshops, so I went away from the conference with plenty more added to my reading list! In particular, Amanda Folk’s session Drawing on identity and prior knowledge to join the conversation in research assignments introduced me to the idea of “funds of knowledge”, which I intend to read up about. Kathleen Langan’s session on the final day, Code in the IL classroom: moving towards a trans-discipline information literacy, book-ended this nicely, by talking about code/algorithm bias and how this should be addressed within IL teaching.

Jane Secker and Emma Coonan’s workshop on the final day, on ANCIL and the Reflexive Practitioner, also provided lots of references to follow up on about how we think about teaching in libraries, and how we can map our teaching. The workshop also included lots of opportunities for discussion, which was perfect for the final day of the conference!

Recognising different ways of being information literate

The second theme that kept cropping up was about what it means to be information literate, and what expectations we have about what information literacy looks like. This first occurred to me in a parallel session with Meggan Houlihan and Beth Daniel Lindsay, from NYU Abu Dhabi, on some research they’d conducted into the research skills of their international students. They found lots of interesting and useful information about the perceptions that their students held about their own research skills, and what they came to university already knowing (see their slides for full details).

However the bit that really stuck out for me was when the authors mentioned that one of the skills their students were lacking was how to construct a Boolean search. This made me think: is this really a necessary, never mind essential, skill for most students to have? This may be librarian heresy, but I honestly don’t believe it’s useful for the majority of our students to know how to construct a Boolean search (with the possible exception of health/medicine students who may need to construct systematic reviews, but that’s quite a specialist case). This blog post and the research it refers to has informed some of my thinking on this topic. Is it a good use of time to focus on advanced searching skills that are not required for the majority of databases and search engines our students use, and will almost certainly never use after University?

Having had this first thought inspired by this parallel session, the same theme kept occurring to me later on, in unrelated talks. In particular, in Ola Pilerot’s keynote, he mentioned a paper he has currently in press about a comparison between the information literacy of undergraduates in two disciplines, nursing and product engineering design. By analysing the references from 9 theses from each discipline, it was found that nursing students were far more likely to use scholarly sources such as monographs and peer-reviewed journals, and to include more references overall. Engineering students were very unlikely to use peer-reviewed articles (only one was cited out of all nine theses!), and used four times as many websites as the nursing students. (See clipped slide below for the full results).

Clipped slide from Ola Pilerot's keynote at LILAC 2018. Table showing the reference analysis from 9 theses from Nursing undergraduates, and 9 from Engineering undergraduates.

At first glance, this is worrying. I’ve certainly fallen into the pattern previously of thinking that because Engineering students aren’t using scholarly, peer-reviewed sources, that means they’re doing research “wrong”. But as Ola went on to argue, this isn’t necessarily the case. Although the two disciplines are working from essentially the same instructions on how to write a thesis, in reality student nurses are preparing for a community of practice where the body of evidence is in published, scholarly research, and design engineers really aren’t. I tweeted a quote from Ola’s talk that struck me – I was doing this quite fast so I can’t guarantee it’s word for word, but this is what I noted:

We can’t just assume that there is only one way to be information literate, and only one way to do research. Of course, if the websites cited by the design engineering students in this study are poor quality, and not given any kind of critical appraisal by the students, then that is a problem. However I don’t believe that is is sufficient to use “number of peer-reviewed articles” cited as a proxy for information literacy.

Finally, in Barbara Band’s keynote (video link), I was struck by a point she made about schoolchildren being set assignments to “find something out online” about a topic, without being required to evaluate or summarise what they’ve found. As a consequence most school leavers over-estimate their skills in finding and evaluating information online, and are likely to believe information they find online. This made me think of anecdotes I’ve heard from many friends and family who are parents to young children:

I’d never really thought about it from that perspective, but it must actually be quite frightening to realise that something you’d always taken for granted (you can answer any question by Googling it) turns out to not be true. I can’t say I blame our students for being resistant to the idea!

Ideas to steal

As well as all the thought-provoking stuff above, I also picked up a few nice, practical ideas for teaching activities that I would like to incorporate into my own practice. Here’s a couple:



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CILIP Chartership for procrastinators

Having recently become a Chartered librarian (through the professional registration scheme run by CILIP, the library and information association in the UK), I thought I’d share some of the lessons I learned along the way.

When I was working on Chartership, I read lots of great advice from other librarians that had completed the process, or were working towards it at various rates. However, one thing I never saw was a guide for people like me: procrastinators. People who will never complete in a day what could be spun out to take weeks or even months.

So here it is: the definitive guide to making Chartership last as long as possible. I took a solid nine years to complete mine, but by following these tips, you could easily stretch it out to a full decade!

Illustration of road sign with two arrows. One pointing right says "Now", and the other, pointing left, says "Later"

Always take the left path. Am I right, procrastinators?

Tip 1: Don’t look, just leap!

To ensure the maximum time possible is spent on Chartership, it’s really important to just sign yourself up as soon as possible, without considering whether it’s actually the best time for you, personally or professionally, to do so.

For example, I registered for Chartership basically straight after submitting my Masters dissertation, when I was in the middle of changing to a new role at work, training my replacement, and really starting to consider what kind of librarian I wanted to be. A few months later, I changed jobs entirely and moved across the country, ensuring I had to restart the Chartership process all over again – in what became a repeated pattern over the next 5 years of changing jobs, changing sectors, and needing to re-frame my Chartership development each time.

Has I given myself a bit of a break between finishing my Masters and embarking on Chartership, I’d have missed out on years of false starts, re-starts, and wasted time. And that would never do!

Tip 2: Why commit when you can over-commit?

Another key factor in ensuring a process like Chartership takes much, much longer than you’d think would be possible, is over-committing to professional responsibilities and CPD. As a rule of thumb, agree to as many things as you can realistically squeeze into your daily life, and then agree to do a bunch more things on top of that.

Remember, you can justify each and every one of these commitments by saying “they’ll be great evidence for Chartership” (even if they’re entirely unrelated to your selected areas of the PKSB!), while AT THE SAME TIME, ensuring that you won’t have any time left to actually reflect on or gather evidence related to any of it.

This approach has the bonus side-effect that, if (or when) life throws something unexpected your way, rather than being able to keep on with normal professional life with a few adjustments, you’ll instead go into a massive panic and end up dropping everything just so you can cope. Which can easily spin out the whole process for two or three extra years, as by the time you’re able to pick it up again you’ll have forgotten and/or moved on from everything you’d been doing previously!

Tip 3: Keep your mentor in the dark

Anyone involved in Chartership will tell you how important your mentor is to the process. What they won’t tell you is that your mentor definitely doesn’t want to be bothered with any problems you might be having. No, they literally only want to hear from you when things are going fine and everything is on schedule. Why would they want to know otherwise?

So if and when you find yourself losing direction, unsure of what to do next, or just struggling to keep any CPD going, make sure to maintain radio silence with your mentor. They definitely wouldn’t have any advice for you anyway, and you’d only upset them if they knew you’d missed your last few self-imposed deadlines.

Tip 4: Reflection is a dish best served cold

Everyone will tell you that reflection is vital to the Chartership process, and that you need to get in the habit of reflecting on CPD soon after completing it. But if you are serious about dragging out your Chartership for as long as possible, then leave the reflection until later!

The best way is to wait until months and months have passed, ideally until you can’t put it off any longer and you’re actually assembling your final portfolio and starting to write your evaluative statement. That way, you’ll have forgotten what most of your CPD actually was, what you learned from it, and what (if anything) you actually managed to put into practice.

Bonus points if you never made a note of what you’d done or what area of the PKSB it related to at the time, so you have to go back through your diaries/calendars/email to work out what you can write about.

So there it is, my foolproof plan for dragging out your CILIP Chartership process way beyond the point where you can remember why it was a good idea in the first place! Fellow procrastinators, has anyone else managed to drag out your Chartership for as long or longer than mine? Feel free to share your time-wasting tips here too!

Postscript: For the avoidance of doubt, yes this “advice” is all tongue-in-cheek. I am really pleased and proud to have finally completed Chartership last year, but I am more than a little annoyed at myself for letting it drag on for so long. I think it’s totally possible to get done in a year or less, and I think I’d probably have got a bit less negative about the whole process if I hadn’t faffed about wasting time for so long! This post is my attempt to share some of the mistakes I made, in the hope that I can help others avoid the same fate.

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Reflections on 2017

So, 2017. That was… a year, wasn’t it? Yes, definitely a year.

Global political and social events aside, on a personal and professional level it’s been an interesting one for me. I was just reading back over my review from last year, and I’m really struck by how glum I sound. I was clearly trying pretty hard to strike an optimistic note to start the year off, but to my eyes at least (although perhaps less obvious to anyone who is not me?), it’s clear I was struggling to put a positive spin on things.

Looking back, I spent the latter half of 2016, and the early months of 2017, in a grey fog. Now it’s more or less cleared, in retrospect I think I was suffering with a bit of mild depression.

I wish I could pinpoint some kind of reason for this: I have my suspicions that it was probably the cumulative effect of a number of things, but I don’t really know why it happened when it did. I also don’t know why it’s (touch wood…) gone away. I did try to take better care of myself last year, and doing simple, practical and mindful things like gardening really helped a lot.

I never sought any professional help with my mental health, partly because I didn’t really know how to go about that, and partly because I didn’t feel like it was bad enough to bother anyone about. I am now wondering if I should have done though, or if maybe that’s something I should explore in future?

Anyway. I am happy to say that I am in a much better place now than I was this time last year. The past few years have involved a lot of upheaval for me on a personal level, and for the first time since I can remember, I actually feel pretty much fine. I was talking to a friend about this recently, and I’ve realised I can’t pinpoint the time when I started to feel ok again, but I’m pretty confident I am at that point now. I almost feel like a different person to who I was a few years or even a year ago. I feel like myself again. Which is nice 🙂

I had intended to write this post about my professional development over the past year, rather than spend so long talking about my personal feelings and mental health! But among other things, I have realised that I can’t really separate out the two. I can’t commit to my own professional development if I am not coping on a personal level.

Luckily, I have a lot to look back on over the past year that I am very proud of, and lots to look forward to in 2018! In no particular order, here are some of the things I achieved in 2017:

  • Finished CILIP Chartership (finally!)
  • Worked on a UX research project, with Computing students about their use/non-use of the library
  • Reviewed and rewrote (and aided on redesigning) our Library website
  • Co-organised and hosted a couple of Wikipedia editathons, and spoke about these at the Northern Collaboration conference in September
  • Continued as Secretary for the Information Literacy Group
  • Started a PGCHE, which I’m really enjoying so far!

And the things I am looking forward to in 2018:

  • Speaking at LILAC in April, about our UX research with Computing students
  • Running more Wikipedia editathons (including one for librarians in February – bookings open if you’re interested!)
  • Finishing my PGCHE
  • Possibly training/registering as a CILIP Chartership mentor
  • Hosting the next USTLG meeting at Huddersfield, in May

As I said last year, I am no longer setting myself annual goals, as they just pile more pressure on me and lead to me being upset and disappointed with myself when I don’t meet them (even if it’s because I’ve done different things instead!). So I’m just going to finish this post by repeating my message from last year: here’s to a happier, healthier and kinder 2018.



My approach to behaviour management

This week on the PGCHE, the subject under discussion was behaviour management. I have lots of Thoughts about this, so decided it would be a good idea to try to get some of them down in blog form.

Behaviour management is something I’ve always struggled with a little. I’m not a naturally authoritative person, so where disruptive behaviour has cropped up in classes I don’t feel hugely comfortable in dealing with it. My own experience with education has always been as the stereotypical nerdy swot in the front row: it literally would have never occurred to me to disrupt a class, so I’m always at a bit of a loss as to why it is happening when it occurs!

That being said, I’ve never had any major incidents to deal with. The worst experience I’ve ever had in a class involved an online polling tool I was trying out: one of the features was a “back channel” allowing anonymous questions to be posted. As possibly I should have predicted, the students quickly started using this channel to post rude comments about each other, their lecturers, and me. Nothing was said out loud at any point, it was all online, but it was pretty clear from early on that they were not paying attention as they were all nudging each other and grinning at comments on their phones rather than engaging with the lecture.

That wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t the worst that could have happened! Most of the behaviour problems I’ve ever had to deal with have been that kind of low-level disruption: people talking at the back of the lecture and distracting other students, using social media on their phones, and refusing to engage with learning activities.

In this week’s class, one of the things we discussed was understanding what lies behind “challenging” behaviour. It’s very easy to take an authoritarian view that learners are there to pay attention to the teacher, and anything outside of this dynamic is disruptive and unwelcome. However this view places all the responsibility on the learner and none on the teacher.

My own view, developed over my past few years’ experience teaching, is that it is my job as a teacher to keep my learners engaged. It is impossible to pay attention for a 50 minute lecture if you have nothing to do in that time except listen. Naturally, your attention will wander, and if you have a device in your pocket that can connect you to any form of information or entertainment you want, then it’s only natural to reach for it.

This is why I don’t have any time for the argument that laptops, phones and tablets should be banned from the classroom. Quite apart from this being ableist (some students may depend on these devices to be able to do their work, and it’s not fair to single them out or force them to disclose their status by insisting devices should only be allowed in the case of a disability), I also think this is counterproductive.

Students’ attention has always drifted during lectures or boring work (I particularly like these comments in the margins of manuscripts, from bored monks complaining about the laborious task of copying them out!). The only difference is that where in years gone by, students would have just drifted off, doodled, or passed notes to each other, now they have a far more accessible form of distraction easily to hand.


The result of a Pixabay search for “bored students“. Do those expressions look familiar?

In some ways, this could be an advantage to the teacher. Part of the skill of teaching (particularly in a lecture theatre) is learning to “read the room”, notice when your students are switching off, and use that as an opportunity for a “reset button”, an activity or change of pace to keep students engaged. If you’ve spotted that half the room is browsing on their phones, that’s a pretty clear indication that you need to shake things up a bit.

Another point I think is important to bear in mind is why students may be switching off. Among adult, post-compulsory learners, you have to assume that they do have some motivation for being there, so if they are disengaged it’s worth asking why. I like this quote from “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”, Fry et al, 2015:

are students not turning up because they are bored by classes? Or because many of them are working 20 hours a week in supermarkets? Are they failing to prepare because they have not yet been taught that universities expect them to study autonomously? Or because they just don’t understand what to do? Are the classes so teacher-centred that they have nothing active to do? Or because they are, seriously, studying the topic in parallel with what you are doing? (p162)

When I look back at times when it’s been clear the students in my class are not engaging, I think a lot of the time it’s because they don’t understand why they are there, and how what I am talking about relates to the course they are studying. To tackle this, I now always begin my classes by explicitly linking what I am teaching them about information skills to the assignment criteria they are going to be marked on.

For example, the criteria usually includes something like “using a wide range of academic sources”, so I use this wording and continually link what I am teaching them about scholarly information back to this point. I believe this has had a noticeable impact on behaviour in my classes.

The other problem is that, quite frankly, lectures in particular tend to be boring! I’ve always tried to vary the content of my lectures by using things like video clips and live database demos, so I’m not just talking at them for 50 minutes, but what I hadn’t taken into account previously is that even varying the content like this isn’t varying the activity they are doing, which is passively listening.

I now make it a rule that I will not let more than 10 minutes go by without changing what they are doing: whether it’s using an online quiz, discussing a point with their neighbours, or just asking the students to take a minute to write down (on paper or on their phones) some key points.

I also think more carefully about the level I am pitching the content of my lectures, and build in some flexibility if the learners are either more or less advanced than I’d expected, as I think that boredom at content which is too basic, or frustration if it is too complex, is the root of a lot of disruptive behaviour. I certainly think this was the case in the lecture mentioned above where I had lots of rude comments posted online: I had misjudged how much they already knew, and made the lecture too basic for their needs.

The most common problem I experience is people talking in classes or in lectures. In smaller classes I find this is actually fairly easy to manage: I just stop talking and look at the people who are chatting until they notice me and stop, which usually doesn’t take long. I also find that in smaller classes, other students are more likely to tell each other to shut up if they’re finding other people’s conversations distracting.

However in lecture theatres this approach doesn’t work so well, I think because in a large group students assume you don’t really notice a few of them chatting. I think they also probably don’t realise how far their voices carry, even if  they think they’re being quiet!

When this happens (and it always does in a lecture), my approach is to call on the people who are talking. I start from the assumption that they must be talking about the content of the lecture. Because for all I know, they could be – they might be struggling to understand a point and trying to explain it to each other, which I wouldn’t want to interrupt!

So I start by saying something like “Does anyone have any questions so far? How about you three at the back there: you look like you’re discussing this, is there anything you’re unclear on?”. I say this as a completely friendly, genuine question (not in sarcastic teacher voice!). Nine times out of ten, the people in question will look sheepish, shake their heads and stop talking: it’s been effective in letting them know that I can see/hear them, and I’ve called on them directly without telling them off. Occasionally, I have had the chatty students actually ask a question at that point.

Occasionally this acknowledgement doesn’t work, and the students go on talking over me. If that happens, my next approach is to ask again if they have any questions. If they still say no, I’ll then say something like “Ok, well I can tell that you are trying to talk to each other quietly and not distract anyone, but I’m not sure you realise how far your voices carry in here. We can all hear you, and it’s making it difficult for others to hear my lecture. We’re going to have some discussion time shortly, so please could you keep comments to yourself while I am speaking, so that everyone can hear?”. I then just carry on with the lecture.

This approach has almost always worked for me. However I did have a lecture recently where a particular group of lads at the back were talking continuously throughout, and didn’t respond to my usual attempts to remind them to be quiet. I ended up calling on them three separate times, to no avail.

They actually left the lecture early (a few students had told me at the start that they had to leave early due to other commitments: when the students I knew about left, so did the chatty group. I have no idea if they had the same commitments, or if they just saw others leaving and decided to follow!), so removed themselves as a problem. The last 15 minutes of the lecture passed without incident.

Had they stayed any longer, I’m not sure exactly what I would have done. I think I would have had to be firmer with them, as my usual polite approach was clearly having no effect! I discussed this with a colleague who had observed me for this lecture: her suggestion was that after my first couple of attempts had failed, I should have asked them to either stay quiet while I was talking, or take their conversations outside.

I’m nervous at the thought of this: I don’t like the idea of asking people to leave the lecture, partly because I’m actually unsure if I have the authority to do this, and partly because I think that would back me into a corner if they then refused to leave.

Does anyone else have thoughts/experience on how to handle this? I’d particularly like to hear from other librarians or support staff who do one-off guest lectures, as I think the dynamic and the ways of handling this behaviour is totally different with a group you see regularly.


Using Mentimeter for lecture exit survey

For the past couple of years I have been using a standard feedback form to gather brief feedback after classes and lectures. This was created by a colleague in the library, and consists of three prompts, printed on one side of A5 paper with space for comments:

  1. I learnt something from this session that will help me improve the way I work (yes/no tickbox)
  2. The most useful thing from this session was:
  3. I am still unsure about:

I have found this effective in conducting an “exit survey” from the class, and getting an idea of what has been well received and what I could have explained better. I record the responses after each class and use them in planning future sessions.

However, a paper form is impractical to use in large lectures. It is manageable in smaller classes, where I can distribute the forms along with any other handouts, and collect them in at the end by asking students to fold them into paper aeroplanes and throw them at me (this makes a nice, fun end to a class, and ensures everyone takes part!), but this doesn’t work well in a lecture theatre with a large group of students.

I have tried various methods for distributing and collecting paper forms in the lecture theatre, but it is inevitably time consuming, and doesn’t result in meaningful feedback: usually only a handful of the forms I collect in have anything written on them at all, and the ones that do tend to only have a couple of words.

I decided to create an online version of the feedback form using free polling tool Mentimeter. The free version of Mentimeter allows for two questions, so I dispensed with the first yes/no question, as I would rather focus on the more meaningful free-text questions.


I use online polling tools (such as Kahoot) throughout my lectures, so asking the students to complete one more at the end of the session doesn’t come as a surprise, and is usually quick to get them into as they already have their phones/smart devices out as they’ve been using them already.

I use the free-text question option on Mentimeter, which allows them to write as much as they want. I show the Mentimeter quiz on screen so they can see the questions and the code to enter to get into the quiz, but I keep the answers hidden, for two reasons. The first reason (and the one I tell the students) is so they can be honest with their answers, as they will not be seen by anyone other than me.

The second, slightly more cynical reason is that I know from past experience that if my students know what they type in will appear on the big screen behind me, I just get a wall full of profanities! So telling them upfront that their answers will not be displayed removes that temptation.

I have now used this technique twice. The first time I tried it, in a lecture to my final year Informatics students, I showed the quiz right at the end, while I was telling them how to get further help. I got some feedback, but not a huge amount: about 30 out of the 150 students in the room filled out the Mentimeter quiz. However this is a greater proportion than usually fill out the paper forms after a lecture, and many of the comments I received were far longer and more detailed than I’d ever seen from a paper form, so I considered this a success!

The second time I used it was in a lecture to the final year Engineering students. This was a smaller group: I initially had about 70 in the room, although quite a few had to leave early (it was a last-minute, rescheduled lecture so I think they had a timetable clash), so by the end of the lecture there were only about 50 in the room.

This time, rather than introduce the Mentimeter right at the end, I did so about 5 minutes before the end. I very deliberately introduced it by saying “We’re coming to the end, and I have two things left to discuss with you. The first is another online quiz…” (we had already done a Kahoot quiz earlier in the session).

I showed the Mentimeter on screen and asked them to complete the two questions, then went back to my slides to go over the last point I had planned to cover (about note taking and referencing). I included the Mentimeter URL and access code on each one of my last few slides, so even after going away from the live Mentimeter screen, they could still see the access details.

This worked well: of the 50ish students I had left at the end of the session, 28 of them left feedback on the Mentimeter. I had also mentioned that if they wanted a response to their “I am still unsure about…” answer, to put their student number on it and I would get back to them, and two students did this so I was able to follow up with them via email after the lecture.

I think introducing it early, and making the point that I had more to tell them after this, worked well. Usually the “Any questions/feedback” line is taken as a cue for everyone to start packing up to go, so if there are any questions they are drowned out by the noise of everyone leaving! But in this case, because I had been clear that this was not the end of the lecture (and possibly also because I’d told them exactly how much ground there was left to cover, so they knew what to expect?), no one made a move to leave until I explicitly told them that the lecture was over!

I still think using paper forms works well in a smaller class, so I will continue to do this where feasible. However in a lecture theatre, this has gained the best response I’ve ever had to requests for feedback, so I’m definitely going to continue using this technique. My next step is going to be thinking about how the questions themselves are worded, and if there’s anything different/better I could try here.


Using a blind Kahoot quiz in info lit teaching

This week I gave a lecture for the final year Informatics students (all computing undergraduates within the School of Computing and Engineering – courses range from Computer Science and Computing in Business to Web Design and Games Programming), on using library resources for their final year project (the equivalent of a dissertation).

I had been quite nervous about it, as historically this has been my most challenging group. I had a particularly bad experience in my lecture with last year’s final year project students, so was anxious not to have a repeat of the same.

It’s also just a difficult format to teach in: up to 200 students, in a lecture theatre, with a wide range of background experiences and topic proposals. This cohort is also among the least likely to actually use library resources: most of their work up to this point will have been primarily practical work, so the majority of them will not have used library resources for research (or indeed, done any literature-based research) before this point.

One of the techniques I wanted to try out was a blind quiz, using Kahoot. Kahoot, for those unfamiliar, is an online quizzing tool. You devise a multiple-choice quiz, which you then put on screen during the session. Students vote on the answers using their mobile devices. It’s easy to set up, and really engaging – it includes a competitive element, as a leaderboard appears after each question ranking the top quizzers. Points are scored for correct answers, as well as for how quickly they responded.

Students I’ve used it with have always really got into the competitive aspect, and I usually offer a small prize for the winner – in this case it was a “goody bag” of stationery from our freebies cupboard. It doesn’t seem to matter what the prize is really, in fact I didn’t even tell them what the prize was beforehand in this case, they just like to compete!

Usually, you’d use a Kahoot to test knowledge/understanding of something you’d already told them about. However, I decided in this case to run a “blind Kahoot”: testing them on topics we had not discussed, to gauge their prior knowledge and get a starting point for discussion.

The topic for the quiz was types of information sources. I usually include some slides going over this in my lectures: I’ve found previously that final year project students on these courses often haven’t made much use of things like journal or conference papers before, and don’t really understand what they are or why to use them. They also don’t tend to distinguish between different types of online sources: often referring to anything they’ve found online as a “website” even when it’s actually, say, a PDF company report. I’ve also found in one to one appointments that they don’t give much thought as to where the information they’ve found online has actually come from, i.e. who wrote it and why.

So it’s all important stuff to cover, but just talking through slides about it is DEATHLY dull. I bore myself doing it, so I’m certain the students must be bored! If I have smaller classes (which is rare, most of my teaching is lecture-based) I try to have a conversation with them about these points, but I hadn’t yet found a successful way of doing this in a lecture theatre. I hoped the blind Kahoot might be that opportunity.

You can see a screenshot of the questions and answers I used below (give me a shout if you use Kahoot and would like to use/adapt this, I can share it with you so you can create your own copy). Because Kahoot only allows short questions, I created the definitions by writing them in PowerPoint and then saving each one as an image. Link to download the PowerPoint is below, in case anyone can’t read the definitions in the screenshots.

pageshot of 'Kahoot! - Kahoot details' @ 2017-10-00-1640'36

Source descriptions for Kahoot (ppt)

Each question gave a definition of a particular source type, followed by two options to choose from for what the definition was referring to. The only exception was the question about peer review, which I simplified by asking what it was and giving two definitions to choose from. I did this because I know from past experience that the majority are not familiar with peer review as a concept: they do some peer-mentoring on most of the courses, so many confuse peer review with this.

After each question, once the timer was up and the correct answer was revealed, I talked a bit about each source and related it back to how they might use it in their final year project. I then asked an open question related to each one, usually “Can you think of any downsides to using this type of resource?” and used that as an opening for discussion.

I was genuinely blown away by how well this worked. It was a little disruptive to set up at the start: Kahoot requires players to enter a nickname when they join the game, which appears on the big screen, so of course they all put in silly names which caused a lot of laughter and chat within the room, so it took me a minute to regain control of this so we could actually start the quiz! I had expected this, so had built in time for it.

I had also thought about what I would do if there were offensive nicknames: Kahoot has a profanity filter, but it doesn’t always pick up everything (e.g. more modern or regional slang, or variant spellings/substituting numbers for letters). It does allow you to kick off individual players by just clicking on their names, so I’d decided I would quietly do this if there were any particularly objectionable names, without commenting or (hopefully!) drawing attention to it.

In the end, there were only one or two borderline offensive nicknames, so I didn’t bother kicking anybody off. I’m actually not sure I would have been able to, to be honest: with about 150 students joining the game, the names were appearing so quickly I don’t think I’d have been able to click on one as I saw it. I think I made the right call here. Mostly they were just the usual messing about names, e.g. the inevitable Bantersaurous Rex and Archbishop of Banterbury made an appearance, as did Donald Trump, Jimmy Savile and Kim Jong Un. (Honestly, I do long sometimes for some original jokes from my students…)

Once I actually started the quiz, they settled down pretty quickly. There was an explosion of conversation after each question, as the correct answer appeared. I struggled at first to get their attention back after the first question, to start a discussion – I had to tap the mic a couple of times to get them to quiet down enough so I could speak. However, once they got the idea that we were going to talk about each one, they started paying attention again pretty quickly.

The quality of the discussion was fantastic. It took a bit of uncomfortable silence from me to get a response to my first open question, but once that first one was out of the way, they were all really forthcoming. I even got some people calling out answers from towards the back of the room, which almost never happens!

Having these open discussions, rather than me just talking them through what was on my slides, allowed for a much more nuanced view of information types than I am usually able to give. The quiz meant I didn’t have to spend time going over things they already knew, e.g. the percentage of correct answers pretty clearly showed they understood what a journal article was, but were unfamiliar with conference papers and the concept of peer review.

The discussion after each questions allowed me to focus on what they were actually interested in. E.g. we talked about things like publication bias in journal articles, and the nature of research as a scholarly conversation. These are things I might have tried to bring in during a classroom discussion, but have never talked about in a lecture before, as it’s a bit pointless to try to explain publication bias if you’re not sure they are clear on what a journal article actually is!

I would definitely do this again with my final years, and I’ve been thinking about how I could do something similar with my first years. The one thing I do need to bear in mind is that this took waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay longer than I expected it to: I’d allowed 15 minutes for the quiz, but it took more than 30 minutes! This meant I had to drop a couple of things from later on in my lesson plan, but actually I think I’d tried to cram too much in anyway, so I don’t think that was a loss.

The feedback I got seems to support my approach to this session. Comments included “the quiz was informative and good” and “interactive sessions made it more engaging”. I also got this comment, which made me want to cheer as this was exactly what I was going for:

Comment reads "The quiz - really made you think, challenging questions and then went in depth with the answers"

I also got this comment, which despite being a tad double-edged, made me smile too. I would have been in my first year of teaching when I saw these students in their first year, so I certainly hope my teaching has improved since then!

"I came to one of your lectures a couple of years ago. This one was much more engaging. It's good that we can come see you in the library"

When I do this again in future (and I will), there are a couple of things I would do differently. I will probably re-word some of the definitions slightly, and maybe drop the number of questions in the quiz. I will allow more time for it, and won’t try to cram so much other material into the lecture!

I would also think about how I could evaluate what the students have learned from the quiz. I think it was a great tool for introducing concepts, checking prior knowledge and stimulating discussion, but I don’t really have a way of knowing how much they learned. I think it would be good to have a second, shorter activity, aimed at getting them to apply some of the concepts we discussed. I’m not sure how to do that in already limited time though, so would have to give that some thought!

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PGCHE Week 3: Teaching large groups

This week on my PGCHE, we covered teaching large groups. This is one of the sessions I was most looking forward to, as pretty much all of my library teaching is to large groups, mostly in lecture theatres. In fact the usual definition of “large groups” for teaching is anything over 30, so given that most of my library lectures are to anything from 100-250 students at a time, that does mean a significant shift in teaching strategy!

I’ll be honest: I do not like lectures. I didn’t enjoy them as a student, and I don’t enjoy delivering them as a teacher. Particularly as a teacher-librarian, I find having to come in to do one guest lecture, in which I am expected to impart high-level skills in information literacy and critical thinking, a nearly impossible task. So I was hoping to get some strategies from this class that could help me cope with this.

We started off by discussing what the advantages and disadvantages of lectures were, from the point of view of the teacher, student, and the university. I found this a useful place to start as I’m very used to considering the negatives of the lecture format, so it was good to have a nudge to think about what the actual benefits would be! After all, lectures wouldn’t have endured as the dominant form of teaching in HE for so long if there were literally no benefits…

The main benefit, of course, is from the University’s point of view: they are cheaper. Economies of scale are at work: it is cheaper and easier to have a teacher deliver one lecture to 200 students, than to have them teach ten classes of 20 students. For that reason alone, lectures will never go away, so we do need to find ways to do them well.

Other advantages for teachers included less prep work (planning one lecture rather than lots of classes), and consistency of delivery (you can assume all students have been given the same information, allowing you to build on this). Advantages for learners included that same consistency, plus an opportunity for less confident students to “hide” – not everyone likes being made to participate in an active class! Although of course this is as much a disadvantage as an advantage.

I feel like I hardly need to list the disadvantages, but for the sake of completeness: lack of opportunity for engagement and active learning, lack of application of knowledge to develop higher order skills, challenging and disruptive behaviour from bored students. Plus of course, potentially lower pass rates and NSS scores from underachieving and disengaged students – leading to all kinds of negative impacts on the university as a whole!

Essentially, the traditional lecture is a passive way of learning. My problem with this is neatly illustrated by this well-known quote (usually mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but apparently derived from the writings of the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi):

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand” – from Zaneology on Flickr, shared under CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/uSTGXC

Our instructor, Wayne, was keen to stress throughout that he is not anti-lecture per se. He is, rather, anti-didactic lectures, where the teacher simply stands at the front and talks at the students, flinging knowledge towards them which it is their responsibility to catch. So, we spent the rest of the session discussing ways to incorporate active learning into large group lectures.

A lot of the techniques we discussed were things I already do in my own practice: which was reassuring in some ways, but also a little frustrating. I think that, although I know there isn’t a simple answer to this, deep down I’m still hoping there’s just a trick I haven’t learned yet that will unlock it all for me!

Some of the techniques were things that wouldn’t work for me at all, as they were about developing a relationship with the group over time. For example, the first time Wayne sees a new group, he spends the first 15-20 minutes of the lecture getting them to come up with a list of their rights as learners, and then getting them to come up with a corresponding responsibility. He then makes a laminated copy of this list, and refers to it throughout the year wherever there is disruptive or disrespectful behaviour from the group.

I love that idea, but I only see each group once a year (and sometimes not even that!) so I don’t have that opportunity. I talked to Wayne about this, and asked if he thought there was a way to do this in a one-off session. He suggested I might be able to do a really short version of this, to set expectations at the start. For example, when he does guest lectures, he states at the start what his expectations are of the group, and what he will deliver in return. I would like to try doing this, so I’m going to have a look for examples of the kinds of wording I could use to set learner rights and responsibilities in a one-off session.

My conversation with Wayne was probably one of the most useful things from this session actually, if only for acknowledging that I’ve got a really hard job to do and there are no easy answers to it! He actually said straight off that doing only one-off lectures, where you’re “parachuted in” to an established cohort, is the hardest way to lecture. He also said that in his experience, Engineers and Computer Scientists (the School I support…) are the hardest groups to engage in this way, which was again both reassuring and disheartening! Reassuring because at least it’s an acknowledgement that it isn’t my fault, it is just that difficult… Disheartening because it suggests that however hard I work, it’s not going to get much easier!

A couple of bits of advice he gave me were to make use of the course lecturers when it came to managing behaviour in my lectures. He said that if he’d invited in a guest speaker to a lecture and the class weren’t engaging with it, he would be addressing that with them, so I should be able to expect that of any class I am going in to. I pointed out that the lecturers almost never stay in the classes I’m teaching, so he said that I really should be insisting that they do, or asking why not.

I guess I’ve never really had the confidence to do that before, but it does make a massive difference to my lectures when their usual lecturer is in the room. When it’s just me alone, the students will act out in ways I’m certain they wouldn’t if their usual lecturer was there. So, I guess I’m going to have to bite the bullet and start asking a bit more of the lecturers I work with!

Other than the general validation of knowing that others agree that the one-off lecture format is bloody difficult, I also picked up some useful tips and techniques from this class that I am going to try in my lectures. One was about structuring a lecture: I’ve always tried to break up my lectures, either with activities or videos, so I’m not just talking solidly for 50 minutes, but I hadn’t really thought about how to structure the lecture around that. I just try to introduce an activity whenever there’s a natural break in the topics I am talking about.

Wayne’s suggestion was to have an activity, a pause, or a change in teaching style (he calls these “reset buttons”) at set points throughout the lecture. In a standard 50 minute lecture, he suggests a reset button after 20 minutes, then after another 15 minutes, then at the end as a sum-up. I’ve had a look back at some of my previous lesson plans with this in mind, and that seems to be the rough format I’ve been instinctively following most of the time, but I will try to formalise this more!

We talked about various strategies for “reset buttons” that we could try out, some of which I’d used before, and some which were new to me. One I particularly liked, that I can definitely think of a few upcoming classes it would help with, is a mini reporting back activity. To get students to engage with the notes they’ve been taking, 20 minutes into the lecture, ask them to turn their notes over and spend two minutes noting down two key points from what you’ve told them so far. Then pick 3-6 people (depending on how much time you have) to report back. It’s a very quick activity to do, but effective in making sure people are paying attention, and checking what they’ve understood so far.

All in all, this was a valuable session for me. Although I think it’s raised more questions than answers, it has given me a few ideas of strategies I could try, as well as a bit of reassurance that it isn’t just me being rubbish – it actually is that hard!

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PGCHE Week 2: Learning Theories

The second session in my PGCHE (see my first post on this for context) took place this Friday, and covered an introduction to learning theories. I knew a little about some learning theories going in (e.g. behaviourism, social constructivism and cognitive constructivism), but it was useful to have a refresher on this and discuss some of their practical applications.

We did a group exercise that gave us some practice in applying learning theories. Each person was given a card of a different colour. Red cards had a learning problem on them (e.g. you are dealing with low-level disruption in your classes), yellow had a group of learners (e.g. 18-20 year old Business students), green cards had a particular learning theory, and blue cards had an intervention (e.g. a pop quiz, or other learning activity).

People with the red “problem” cards had to gather a team of “friends” around them, consisting of one yellow card, one green, and at least one blue. As a group, the “friends” then had to come up with a solution for the problem, using the learning theory on the green card, suitable for the learners on the yellow card, and using as many blue intervention cards as they deemed appropriate.  We then had to pitch our solution to the rest of the group, and vote on who came up with the most cohesive and effective pitch.

It was a really fun activity, and worked well for getting us all to consider what learning theories might be suitable for solving particular problems, and how this would actually inform practice. The cards we used are available online if anyone wants to look – we were promised the link would be emailed around to us, so I’ll add a link in here when I get them!

One of the learning theories we touched on, although didn’t go into much detail with, was humanism. This is the approach that looks at the learner in a holistic way, and takes into account the experiences and knowledge they bring with them, and any barriers to their learning. I hadn’t heard of this theory by that name before, but it immediately made me think about critical information literacy. In particular, it brought to mind Char Booth’s keynote at LILAC in 2016.

Char talked about information privilege, the cost of educational materials such as textbooks, and the effect this has on who is able to access education. At one point in her keynote, which has always stuck with me, she talked about asking her students what they would be able to afford if they didn’t have to pay for their course textbooks.

Some of the answers were funny (e.g. “a cat that doesn’t hate me”), some were practical (e.g. rent, parking), and some were just heartbreaking (one surprisingly common answer was “new teeth”. NEW TEETH!!). The screenshot below is a word cloud showing their answers, from Char’s presentation which is available on Slideshare:

Word cloud showing responses such as

Answers to the question “What would you be able to afford if you didn’t have to buy textbooks?”, from “Why Reflect? The Holistic Practice of Stepping Back“, keynote by Char Booth at LILAC 2017, Dublin

I think there is a clear link to the humanist approach to learning. If your students are distracted by dental pain because they can’t afford new teeth, how much attention are they able to pay in class? If they are having to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet, and/or have caring responsibilities, will they have time to do the critical appraisal of information that we insist is essential?

At the close of the session, we did five minutes of “generative writing”. This is an activity that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a go at NaNoWriMo: to avoid the trap of trying to endlessly polish the same sentence rather than getting on with your writing, you set a timer and just write non-stop without going back to edit. You then go back and tidy it up later, but by then you’ve done the hard work of just getting your thoughts down, even if in a messy way!

Here’s what I wrote, unedited:

I think my teaching is really constrained by the environment in which I teach. My inclination is to take a humanist and socially constructivist approach, but having to teach only large lecture groups, and seeing them only once a year, forces me into a behaviourist approach. I don’t find this a natural fit, so this could be the route of a lot of my current discomfort with teaching.

Where I have seen smaller groups, e.g. the foundation engineers or Alex’s computing groups, I have taken a more socially constructivist approach. I encourage and facilitate collaborative learning, enabling learners to reach their own conclusions rather than prescribing a “right” way to be information literate. I hadn’t come across the humanist theory before, but it instinctively feels right to me. How can you possibly teach information literacy without considering the whole person?

I would like to find out more about humanism, and see if anything has been written about it from an IL perspective. It seems to be a natural fit with critical IL to me, so I’d be surprised if there was no literature on it from this perspective.

Reading list

My plan is to finish each of these weekly blog posts with a round-up of what I am currently reading, or planning to read to follow up the ideas from each work.

I have started using Mendeley to save my reading: partly because it comes highly recommended by a colleague, self-described “Mendeley fangirl” Alison McNab! I also wanted to learn a new referencing tool as another way to better support my students: I know my way reasonably well around EndNote and RefWorks, which are the two subscription products we use at Huddersfield, but I do occasionally get questions about Mendeley which I’ve never felt confident enough to answer. So far I really like Mendeley: it’s more intuitive than EndNote, and seems more consistent than RefWorks!

Currently reading

Alder, R. (2011). 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students | Edutopia. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/scaffolding-lessons-six-strategies-rebecca-alber

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2015). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315763088

Smith, M. K. (2016). What is teaching? Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/

Smith, M. K. (2016). Key teaching activities. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/key-teaching-activities/

Planning to read

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. London; Routledge.

Rogers, C. R., Kirschenbaum, H., & Henderson, V. L. (1990). The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable.

Smith, M. K. (2004). Carl Rogers, core conditions and education. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/carl-rogers-core-conditions-and-education/