This guest post comes from Grace Spiewak, the Instructional Services Librarian at Aurora University.
Virtual instruction is my normal – not my new normal, but the only normal I’ve known since becoming a librarian.
I started my first professional librarian position in August 2020, right after completing my last one and a half semesters of graduate school online. After securing a job focused on information literacy instruction, I have not had to adapt to virtual teaching because it’s all I’ve practiced in the early stage of my career. Even the instruction classes I took in graduate school met virtually, with all our teaching demonstrations conducted online.
For some, the return to in-person instruction may feel overdue and familiar. While I am excited to meet students and faculty face-to-face, I also acknowledge that the transition will initiate a learning curve as I wean off of virtual instruction.
To prepare for the switch, I am reflecting on the assets of virtual teaching that I can implement in the physical classroom. Whether you’re a first year librarian in a similar situation or a seasoned instructor, I hope to initiate conversation on the ways that this year’s virtual experience can enhance students’ learning moving forward.
The obstacles to reading body language during virtual meetings and the awkwardness of staring at faces while waiting for a brave individual to hop on the microphone contributes to my reliance on virtual chat during instruction. Discomfort around using mics can stilt class discussions, and students seem more open to typing in the chat to participate.
In face-to-face instruction, I cannot rely on chat as the primary means of discussion, nor do I want to abandon its beneficial features that invite students to contribute in a less intimidating format. Online tools such as Mentimeter, Padlet, and Answer Garden allow me to utilize the features of virtual chat in any learning environment. Students submit anonymous responses to prompts or questions via their devices, and results display on the screen in real time.
Incorporating these chat-adjacent tools in addition to traditional discussion will increase accessibility and inclusivity for students who are uncomfortable or unable to verbally participate. Varying the format of discussion to garner engagement serves as an essential lesson from the remote classroom.
Make Accessibility a Priority
Due to the pandemic, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) merits a nuanced scope beyond traditional accessibility requirements. The virtual environment increases the difficulty to anticipate and recognize students’ accessibility needs. Students may also have to commute during class, keep their volume low so as not to disturb family members at home, or silence their mic because they are accessing WiFi in a public space.
UDL allows me to prepare for the variety of accessibility needs students may have, even if I am not made aware of them. Offering multiple options for interaction such as using mics, virtual chat, and emojis aims to make participation possible regardless of students’ location. Other UDL strategies I employ include typing directions into the chat in addition to verbal explanation, describing the images I show, and detailing the visual layout of resources I demonstrate.
UDL remains an essential aspect of inclusive instruction, and the acuteness it has taken on during the pandemic emphasizes its necessity. I have the opportunity to pursue this momentum by adapting virtual UDL strategies to the physical environment.
On top of starting my first librarian job, working during a global pandemic, and developing my own instruction practices, the transition to in-person teaching compounds a substantial adjustment in a chaotic year – and an exciting change. I will have increased interaction with students and faculty, the ability to better gauge and respond to students’ needs in real time, and the opportunity for organic discussion in the classroom. I will also need to get used to standing up in front of a class rather than looking at squares on a screen, navigating campus to get to classrooms, and facilitating in-person discussions.
We have all experienced tremendous change in our personal and professional lives since last March. While coming back to campus will introduce fresh challenges, we have the capacity to make them work for us. Recognizing the benefits of virtual learning and applying them to the physical classroom can ease this shift and improve students’ experiences with library instruction going forward.
Face-to-face teaching may be a new normal for me, but the lessons from this virtual year can progress the accessibility and inclusivity of my instruction. After countless hours of virtual sessions, the anticipation of a buzzing campus life far outweighs the bumps bound to accompany this transition.