A hook to grab onto: Creating context cues in online instruction

In a recent meeting, I found myself yet again wondering if I had already shared a particular bit of news with my colleagues or was I thinking of the previous meeting? My schedule, probably much like yours, is usually full of meetings. In the pre-pandemic world, my schedule reflected a mix of online and in-person meetings that were peppered in among the classes I taught (almost exclusively in person), hallway chats, and so on. A meeting frequently also meant a change of scenery, whether just down the hall or across town. These days, my physical surroundings from meeting to meeting are largely unchanged: I’m typically at the makeshift desk in my makeshift home office. Just the link that I click on changes. Even on the days when I’m physically on campus per our rotating schedule, meetings still happen online from my office. 

It’s no great surprise that the sameness of my physical environment contributes to my sense that time is simultaneously sticky and slippery. Yet it felt like a moment of realization to first recognize its impact on my ability to recall–or perhaps situate is the better word–details. In such moments of memory lapse, I’m struck by how much I have typically relied on context cues from my physical space to trigger my memory. I might think back to how a room was configured, where I was sitting, where my colleagues were sitting, and so on in order to make a connection or dig up a detail. As I frequently find myself in the same chair at the same desk overlooking the same window, I no longer have such easy triggers to help me differentiate. 

As my information literacy instruction schedule kicks into high gear for the semester, I now find myself wondering how the sameness of physical space is impacting students. My institution is currently offering in-person and online classes. We’re doing all of our information literacy instruction online. Of course, the impacts of the pandemic on student learning are broad and deep. Here I’m thinking, though, specifically about the physical space from which students are engaging in their online classes and its impact on their experience, as well as their perception of their experience.  

This all makes me think back to an interaction I had with a student at my former institution a number of years ago. In that library, we frequently scheduled information literacy instruction in the library’s main computer lab. Often, then, students would visit the same space for any research instruction. On one occasion while chatting with a student before class began, he said to me that he already knew what we were going to do that day because he had been in this lab before. When I probed further, I learned that the student had attended sessions led by different librarians for courses in other disciplines. Yet the student assumed that he already knew what our class would entail. This student’s comment could mean many things, of course. Perhaps the comment suggests that the student was already able to transfer important takeaways about the research process from those sessions to the project at hand. Or perhaps the comment suggests that the student perceived all library research tools and strategies as the same and wasn’t able to distinguish between them in the nuanced way that librarians perceive them. But the student’s comment specifically referred to the association he was making between the content/learning goals and the physical space leading me to infer that the sameness of the space primed the student to think that he was about to learn the same material or participate in the same activities. 

With this new lens on my own online experience, I’m thinking anew about this student’s comment. I’ve often reflected on how a physical classroom, meeting room, or library area is arranged to promote (or inhibit) engagement and communication or guide behavior, but I haven’t before given much thought to how our spaces (whether physical or online) perpetuate a feeling of sameness or carve out a feeling of uniqueness. As our students connect to what may feel like an endless string of Zoom rooms and with no ability to influence the physical spaces from which our students are connecting, I’m now thinking about the small moves I can make to help create a hook for students to grab onto–the little things I can do to help situate a memory, trigger recall, and facilitate connections. In addition to thinking about the learning goals to guide our session and the active learning experiences to achieve them, then, I’m also thinking more about how I pose questions, design slides, format handouts, even modulate my voice to help facilitate context cues and triggers for students. How do you create hooks for students? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Clarinets and crafts: Observations from my apartment

Seven weeks ago, I wrote about week one of teleworking. A lot was changing then, and a lot has changed since. By this point, many of our semesters are wrapping up, we’ve taught at least once in this remote setting, and we’ve found new routines that govern our day-to-day. For me, I’ve led an online student showcase, judged research posters for a virtual undergraduate research exhibition, conducted four virtual interviews for my research project, and sat in on way too many Zoom calls. My eyes are much more likely to go cross-eyed these days and if I don’t need to be on camera, I’ll turn it off. Somedays I’m really jazzed on Zoom meetings, other days, I just don’t have the energy to engage. 

As I experienced seven weeks ago when writing my teleworking diary blog post, it’s hard to know what to say when you’re in a moment. My thoughts on that first week have changed the longer we stay in this holding pattern. I don’t have any big takeaways to share because we’re still in this experience. Instead, I want to talk about two types of experiences I’ve been having, both outside the immediate scope of librarianship, but both informing how I move forward with my own work, in an online environment, during this time. 

Clarinet & the research process

This is the fifth semester I’ve played in the Penn State Clarinet Choir. It’s a choir made up of clarinet undergraduate music education and music performance students, music minor students, one graduate student, and me, your resident librarian. I’ve played the clarinet for over a decade and when I started working a 9-5 librarian job, I emailed the clarinet instructor and asked if there was a way to play. The professor invited me to a rehearsal and ever since I’ve been a (relatively) faithful member of the group. As you might expect, the music folks scrambled in the move to remote, but I would say they know more about sound quality with Zoom than anyone else. The students in the clarinet choir still take lessons, performed for each other at two studio recitals, and are currently in the middle of recording their jury pieces.

In turning everything online, the clarinet choir got interesting. Since we can’t all play together, Tony, the professor, has been using this weekly time to discuss other elements of playing the clarinet. From how to run your own studio, to the qualities of a good reed, I’ve been learning a lot about an instrument I honestly only know a little about. But what I’ve loved the most about these weekly meetings, is seeing their research process.

Traditionally, when I show up to things beyond clarinet choir rehearsal, like a senior recital, my view of their research are the program notes I pick up and read several times throughout the concert. Sometimes there are sources, cited at the bottom, in a variety of citation styles. Those notes don’t really show me how this research influenced the student’s ability to play the pieces or what they thought about in approaching these works. We’ve now had two clarinet sessions where we dissect a classic piece in the clarinet repertoire. We talk about the historical context for the composer and piece, the urtext (original, authoritative intention from the composer) versus the other published editions, difficulties with the piece, how to teach others to play it, and important recordings that shape our understanding of the piece. It’s the research process I know well, just adjusted for the discipline I don’t know as well. In those meetings, I stay muted but in my head, I’m like this GIF.


These online clarinet choir meetings are exposing me to the field of clarinet studies and I’m here for it. It’s nice to see these students, in their natural environments. They change their Zoom display names, wrap themselves up in blankets, eat dinner while we discuss Mozart, and have incredibly oversized posters of the clarinet (we love this).  

Crafts and Readings Via Zoom

I’ve always been a craft person. Homemade birthday cards, elaborate scrapbooks from that one summer between fifth and sixth grade, origami animals for a summer library display, and these days, zines and embroidery. Crafting has been a good way to keep my hands busy. Pre-pandemic, I crafted alone, or with a small group of gals. These days, technology comes into play. I took an online embroidery class from Spacecraft in Seattle, made a zine with Malaka Gharib, stitch with a friend in Cinncinati every Saturday afternoon, and bring friends together to make a zine every Tuesday. All of these moments showed me different ways of teaching and building community in online spaces. Especially for tackling new crafts, how do you help people who are not physically next to you? How do you build a sense of community in an hour-long Zoom call? What’s so comforting about doing the same thing as someone else and why do these virtual calls feel so different from the Zoom meetings that consume my Mondays through Fridays? These calls have become a foundation for these weeks in a way I wasn’t expecting. A small choice to set up a regular time to create has given me markers to help me through each week.

Beyond crafts, I’ve also been seeking out any literary reading events. I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling to get into books these days. Readings are the type of event that can kickstart me again, either into reading or just writing (which eventually leads to me wanting to read). I’ve now attended a couple of readings, each one using a different streaming platform. Some have been better than others, but that’s true, in-person or online. Again I’m struck by the ways people organize these events and how authors navigate talking to a screen, versus talking to a live, in-person audience. I’m curious if the format and organization of the event leads me to be more engaged or bored (and therefore, tempted to leave). Regardless of how much I enjoy it, it’s nice to have something on the calendar to simply attend, and not have to do any preparation before joining the call.

I assume I’ll publish another post in six to seven weeks. I can’t even imagine what things will be like, or what I’ll be writing about next. Just have to wait and see. What about you? What things have you noticed during the past two months? Anything that has surprised you?  

What Does Teaching Online Look Like Now?

This is not a post about tools and software for teaching online, holding class lectures via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, editing on-the-fly instructional videos, or developing interactive lessons in Articulate Rise 360.

Yes, my colleagues and I are doing these things and trying our best at them. But we are also anxious, tired, busy, scared, distracted, lonely, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. You get the idea. We’re all doing the best we can under the circumstances and finding joy in the little things: Playing Animal Crossing, watching our child’s face light up when they figure out a tough math problem from the homeschooling curriculum, holding video chat parties with friends, texting while watching Drag Race together, etc.

We’re also teaching and interacting with students and faculty who are feeling all the same feelings and doing all the things they can stay healthy and comfortable. So what does that mean for all of us librarians now (or continuing to) teach online? What does, or what can, our teaching online look like now?

It is:

Students may have children, parents, or extended family at home. They may be dealing with hunger, food insecurity, safety issues, or depression. They are likely scared, worried, and anxious about their health and the health of those they love as well as their ability to participate in a class successfully. In short, we don’t know students’ situations and we can’t make assumptions about their state of mind, internet access, health, or well-being.

What we can be is empathetic and compassionate. We can build in allowances knowing situations are less than ideal right now. Move from making things mandatory to making things optional enrichment. Do away with synchronous anything and let people learn at their own pace as they are able to do so. We can stop creating hard deadlines and look at ways to learn together.

Pared down
We don’t need to cram in all the content we normally would in a session or in a semester class into the online classroom. What do students really need to know? NO, REALLY? You may find that it is FAR LESS than what standard curriculum dictates.

My son’s teacher sends us a grid every week and asks us to pick a few activities to complete. It’s self-directed, a fraction of what they would learn in the classroom, but it’s enough. My partner is re-evaluating his class content and stripping it way way wayyyyyy down to just the essentials.

The videos, lessons, webinars, and learning objects we create are going to be messy and unpolished and that is good! We might excuse them by saying, “This is not my best work,” but it is amazing work. It’s the best work we can do during a global pandemic and that work is worth celebrating.

If ever there was a time to focus on the human side of online learning, this is it. Don’t make it just about the content. Focus on the students. Give them time and opportunities to connect to one another and to you.

How are you tackling online learning during this time?

Crossing the Bridge: Library School to Library Job

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Nisha Mody, Health & Life Sciences Librarian at the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the summer of 2016, I decided to start applying for librarian jobs. I wouldn’t graduate until May 2017 at the earliest, but a Health & Life Sciences Librarian position at UCLA immediately sparked my interest. Before getting my MLIS, I was a speech-language pathologist. And I love the sun. These two experiences convinced me that I was qualified for this position. I figured this would get me to start updating my resume and website (which now needs more updating). And it worked, I got the job! I was shocked and overjoyed.

Since I was applying to jobs on an earlier timeline, I also ended up starting my position before I finished my MLIS. Thankfully, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has an online learning option to complete an MLIS. So I moved out to La La Land in March 2017 to start my first real librarian job. I have been in my position for a little over 6 months now, and while it took me awhile to understand the myriad of UCLA acronyms, I am finally starting to feel that I have a decent grasp of how things work. However, this grasp has been very (or not very) informed by my experience in my MLIS classes and while working at the Communications Library. I was also able to chronicle several of my experiences and reflections while writing for Hack Library School. Similar to Abby, I took the advice to get as much library experience as possible. I tried my best given that this is my third career, I am in my mid-30s, and I honestly just wanted to get this show on the road.

Now that I have gotten that first library job, I am starting to see what I did learn in library school and working in a library – these lessons have helped me tremendously. However, I realized that there were some learning opportunities I missed. Yet one of the most enlightening aspects of my experience has nothing to do with library school. Rather, I see how the skills I obtained in my previous careers in IT consulting, IT recruiting, and speech-language pathology are transferring to library-land. I’ll outline each of these a bit right here:

What did I learn?

While working at the Communications Library, I gained knowledge about the importance of positive patron interactions (and how to communicate in not-so-positive interactions), outreach, library organization, the integrated library system, interlibrary loan, and the myriad of possibilities to be more critical in all of these areas (and more).

In library classes, I learned the value of intellectual freedom and how this related to control. I learned how various medium of books (print, electronic, and everything in between) are perceived and used. While I don’t ever see myself working in technical services, I gained knowledge about cataloging and metadata which have helped me understand how resources are categorized. My involvement in University of Illinois’ local Progressive Librarian’s Guild chapter allowed me to advocate for issues seemingly outside my immediate library space. I was also able to integrate experiences from library school to my work in a library through an independent study by starting a Human Library chapter.

All of these lessons (and probably more) were essential to how I view the library today. They have given me the framework for my work today and in the future, especially to never remain neutral as a librarian.

What did I miss?

One of the things I loved about my program was that there was a lot of freedom in the classes you could take. However, the downside of this is that I chose to take classes that looked oh so dreamy. As a result, some of the practical classes fell by the wayside. I wish I took classes around collection development and the administration and management of libraries. I never felt the urge to be a collection development librarian, but I do have to start making these decisions within my current role. I know I can learn this on the job, however, having a better foundation would have been helpful.

I am only now really seeing Ranganathan’s fifth law, “The library is a growing organism” in action. But, in my opinion, it is critical to really understand how different functions within a library relate to each other to see this organism in action. After being in less fulfilling careers, I was resolved to take the classes I was passionate about. And while I am happy I was able to do this, I forgot that I am also passionate about the library itself. This required me to have a grounded understanding in all of the different areas of librarianship whether I was to focus upon them or not.

What have I been able to transfer?

While I am thrilled to not directly be working in corporate culture (because, let’s be real, it is always integrated in our work), I did learn valuable skills regarding project management organizational structure, processes, and workflows, that I can infuse into my work today. I also dealt with various stakeholders in these positions; I see how these interpersonal skills have been beneficial when I interact with vendors now. These experiences have also given me critical thinking skills to analyze and navigate through a stakeholder’s motives and desires.

My work as a speech-language pathologist has first and foremost amplified my empathy. Invisible disabilities are real, and I have learned to never assume anything about a colleague and/or patron. While working in the schools, I learned about a lot of economic, family, and social obstacles that many of my students faced. Everyone has a story, and this has been important for me to keep in mind as a librarian. Additionally, being a speech-language pathologist requires one to create tangible goals for patients/students/clients to measure progress. This has easily translated into learning outcomes for library instruction. I realized that I have always been a teacher of sorts, and while the setting is different, the skills are transferable.

I am truly looking forward to contributing to this blog, and I hope that my skills and knowledge are ever-increasing – building upon the past and supporting a growing organism.

Like a Real Library?

I’m a regular reader of Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog over at Inside Higher Ed, and last week he published a post that has had me thinking ever since. His post “Like a Real College” reflects on the experiences that hybrid and online learning in colleges and universities sometimes leave behind, like graduation ceremonies and in-person social interactions. Reed notes:

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

How does this translate to academic libraries? Lots of recent research has shown that many students appreciate what we think of as a traditional library atmosphere for doing their academic work: book stacks, good lighting, table and carrel desk seating, and quiet (see Antell and Engel, Applegate [paywall], and Jackson and Hahn, to name just a few). My research partner Mariana Regalado and I heard similar preferences from the students we spoke to in our research, several of whom also specifically mentioned their admiration for the the very formal, serious library at one CUNY college. To me this suggests that our library space planning and renovations need to balance collections and study space, and acknowledge the importance of books and other physical academic materials for environmental as well as informational reasons.

But what about online learning or competency based degrees, as Reed refers to in his column? How can the academic library contribute to the “real college” feeling that students say they want? Online learning seems to pull apart the collections and workspace roles of the library. And while not always the easiest or most user-friendly experience, online access to our college and university library collections is often (and increasingly) possible.

Is it possible to replicate, or even approach, the traditional academic library experience for studying and academic work with online-only students? One question I have sounds almost too simple to be asked, but also seems fundamental to the online student experience. Where, exactly, are our students when they do their online and hybrid coursework? At home? At the public library? At a coffeeshop (or McDonald’s)?

The college where I work is still very focused on our students in face-to-face classes, and we don’t have any fully-online degrees (though the university that my college is part of does). Anecdotally, we do see students working on their coursework for online or hybrid classes in our library computer labs, though I’m sure they also work on it elsewhere. But I’d be interested to hear about other academic libraries that have grappled with this: are there things we can do to bring the traditional, library-as-place to online-only students? Is the “real library” experience possible?