It’s been eighteen years and I can’t believe this is still an issue.
In 2005, I started my first professional library job as a distance learning librarian. At the time, half of Norwich University’s students were in fully online graduate programs and when I started in this brand-new position, very little had been done to reach out to this population. In many ways, it was exciting for me because I was able to build relationships and make massive amounts of progress in a very short time; much more so than I have in any other job I’ve held. I got to develop knowledge in such diverse subject areas as nursing, military history, business, and engineering. I got to build an online portal and tutorials and embed in online classes. I loved the relationships I built with the students, the faculty, and the program staff. It was deeply fulfilling work so much of the time. But there was one thing I found frustrating beyond measure. We were a pretty lean team – there were 6-7 of us in liaison librarian roles – but I was expected to be the liaison to half of the students at the University. Questions from online learners were frequently passed on to me, even when they were just research questions that any librarian could have answered. And yet, in addition, I was expected to teach face-to-face classes and work with students in-person at the reference desk. While I was passionate about serving online students and also really enjoyed the work I did with on-campus students, in terms of staff resources, we were really short-changing our online student population.
And I remember back then advocating for more resources to be devoted to our online students and programs. I remember showing my boss the ACRL Standards for Distance and Online Learning Library Services and showing how insufficiently we were supporting this massive population at our University. But I don’t remember making progress on anything beyond creating lots of documentation to get my colleagues to answer emailed reference questions from online students themselves (rather than passing them all to me).
I think I’ve always been so focused on serving online students because I know what it’s like to be an online student distant from one’s campus. After doing my BA and MSW in-person and in light of being pretty bound to the place I was living, I chose to do my MLIS online through FSU. And I remember how crappy and isolating the experience was in my program; how little support and community actually existed for online students versus those on-campus. My dream was to become a distance learning librarian because I wanted to right those wrongs and to treat the students as just as important as the ones I could see in front of me. And I was lucky that my approach was so supported by the online school of graduate studies, which had a very high-touch model for student support with community-building baked in. Even if the library was not devoting enough resources toward the population, my approach was definitely in-line with the ethos of the grad program faculty and staff. I think schools sometimes treat online students as cash cows (much like international students). They sometimes pay additional fees (because of the tech) and often get less in terms of support, community, and opportunities to engage beyond the course content. But students at Norwich got quite a bit. And maybe it’s because of my experience as an online grad student and supporting online grad students at Norwich that I’ve never fully understood why we do not devote as much effort towards serving online students as we do those we see on our campuses.
In the intervening years, online learning has obviously become much more common and normalized. It is no longer niche and it is no longer new. But I still think most libraries greatly prioritize the students we can work with face-to-face. At my place of work, we still put the bulk of our effort into the same service models libraries have had for decades, just with a few techie tweaks. We focus nearly all of our efforts on students who come to us for help and students we can reach through synchronous instruction. We continue to do that even as our reference stats shrink, we teach fewer and fewer instruction sessions, and our population of online students increases. Even before COVID, around 20% of our students were fully online and our online courses were 100% asynchronous. While our face-to-face enrollment is finally going up, it’s been the norm since COVID that asynchronous online classes fill first, followed by online classes with synchronous meetings, and then face-to-face classes. A lot of students who had not taken online classes prior to COVID discovered that they offered flexibility that fit better into their lives as busy community college students with families, jobs, disabilities, etc. Yet we often treat supporting online learners like it’s optional. It wasn’t until the start of COVID that we started offering online consultations on Zoom. Before that, online students either had to come to campus or use chat or email, both of which are really insufficient for in-depth research help.
I remember when we started trying to embed librarians in the online sections of the foundational Reading and Writing classes at the College, it was a “coalition of the willing” model. Librarians could sign up to work with classes but no one had to participate. Everyone was expected to participate in synchronous teaching and reference services, but only those who were interested in embedding in asynchronous online classes did so. Only the people who were motivated to create tutorials to support online classes (often the same people who embedded) did so. Even during COVID and to now, this work has been treated as voluntary, as optional.
And, look, I get it. I enjoy teaching face-to-face more than I like teaching online. You get instant feedback and make stronger connections with students. Teaching in person is just easier in so many ways. And I LOVE LOVE LOVE working with students one-on-one. Those online consultations with students on Zoom during COVID gave me life! I love building relationships with students and seeing them develop skills and confidence over time. It’s deeply rewarding. Even if you create an interactive tutorial that is successfully embedded in courses and can actually see students doing better on their assignments as a result, it’s much less satisfying than actually working with the students directly. The Anthropology faculty did an assessment where they compared the papers of students in ATH 101 who went through a tutorial I created (I was also embedded in those classes) to the papers of students who didn’t (whose classes I was not embedded in) and and found that students who completed the tutorial scored on average 50% higher on the paper rubric. While that logically feels huge and great, I never got to meet any of those students and only interacted with a few of them over email. Mostly, I was sending instructional content out into the void and hoping it stuck (which clearly it did), and that doesn’t feel as satisfying as it would have been to work with each of those classes in-person. But then it really shouldn’t be about our feelings, should it?
I also understand that there are a lot of library workers who are uncomfortable designing learning materials for online students. They may be brilliant instructors in a classroom, but creating a tutorial or even compelling static materials to support an online class may just not be in their wheelhouse. I’m not of the opinion that every librarian should be forced to develop interactive tutorials and instructional videos. I’m a big believer in collaborative tutorial development – working with disciplinary faculty and other librarians to develop tutorials that reflect our collective expertise and knowledge of student needs. We can play to our strengths and work together. But that means that library workers who do have these skills need time to do that sort of time-consuming work (the collaborative, creative, and technological aspects take a TON of time). We can’t be expected to do as much synchronous teaching, spend as much time covering reference, and then somehow squeeze this “optional” work into the cracks and crevices in our days. The work is not only more time-consuming, but it’s the least-suited to doing in 30-minute chunks here and there.
Although my position is a general reference and instruction librarian (all of our jobs in the Reference and Instruction department are), I have been involved in online instructional design work since coming to PCC. Since I’ve been using tools like Camtasia since 2004 and spent a lot of time doing instructional design and supporting online learners in all of my previous jobs, as soon as I got here, people were eager to collaborate with me on work like that. In my first two years, I was involved with two grant-funded projects to create tutorials which gave me the release time to do so. They were amazing collaborative projects that led to the creation of videos that are still in use 7 years later. I hear from faculty all the time that they use them in their teaching and one of them has over 41,000 views. I’m immensely proud of that work. And really, tutorial development work, while it can hugely benefit students taking online asynchronous courses, can benefit all students. It can be a more sustainable way to integrate information literacy into the curriculum because even if we could convince faculty to let us provide synchronous instruction in every class, we don’t have the human resources to do it.
Since then, however, there has been no real support for online instructional design work. I’ve tried at numerous goal-setting meetings to convince my colleagues to make it a library priority, but I’ve failed. I’ve had to fit the development of tutorials into the bits and pieces of free time I can find in my work day. I’ve worked beyond my contracted hours to get things done. I spent so much time supporting my colleagues and other classes with online instructional design work and mentoring when COVID started that I was a crappy mother to my son who needed me. I’ve had to beg colleagues to cover reference shifts so I could create videos explicitly requested by faculty. And while I hear from library colleagues about how valued the content I create is and how they use it in their own teaching, the work is never prioritized at a library or departmental level. I’ve gone to my library dean numerous times asking for explicit release time to focus on online instructional design work or to give up some of the very high-demand social science liaison areas I have and she hasn’t been willing to make any changes. And it’s not as if anyone ever explicitly says that supporting online learners is not a priority or is not important, but there’s no energy or will to prioritize the work. So it’s on individuals to decide whether or not they want to prioritize the work themselves.
Two colleagues (who are also passionate about tutorials) and I decided to create a Tutorials Working Group back in 2019 to see how we could best manage the work and support our colleagues. We’ve developed guides and templates to support online teaching and shared best practices for tutorial-creation. We’ve offered to support colleagues with projects. But we can’t really make progress on much because none of us has explicit time to create tutorials (save one of us who is in a 12-month role in our digital services department but only has time to work on tutorials when the library faculty are off-contract in the summers, wah-wah!). This group could be immensely effective in collaboratively-developing learning objects with our non-designer colleagues and disciplinary faculty that are deeply embedded in the curricula of online courses and programs if we only had the time. We already have a successful model for conducting this sort of work having done it with one of the grants. All we need is time! Two of us on the Tutorials Working Group actually worked together at PSU previously in an instructional design group that was amazingly productive and successful in the collaborative development of numerous projects that directly benefited students (and not just online students, but all students!).
This summer, I participated in a peer mentoring program for mid-career library workers and the final project was to develop a five-year plan to help meet a specific professional goal. At first, my goal was going to be to find ways to create boundaries in other areas of my work (like asking people to teach synchronous classes in my liaison areas) so I could eke out time to focus on online instructional design work and outreach to online classes. Very quickly in conversations with others, I realized how ridiculous that was. Why was it my job to find time to prioritize something that was supposedly valued but was not in any way prioritized by the library? Why was it my job to tie myself in knots to put a band-aid over a systemic problem? Talking with my peers helped me realize that those of us who well-meaningly do stuff like this actually allow the organization to not prioritize the work because “someone is doing it.” We’re doing the organization a disservice long-term because there will never be sustainability if the work is solely dependent on the good will of individuals with already full plates. Plus, few things are as sure a recipe for resentment and burnout as doing work that is valuable but not prioritized or supported in any way.
I convinced myself long ago that if I did enough (built enough tutorials, supported colleagues, provided evidence, etc.), we’d make this work a priority. I think that notion comes from lies we’re told in our capitalist culture that anything can be achieved if you just work enough at it — and if it doesn’t happen, it’s clearly your fault. I remember in 2020 really thinking that the extraordinary data I got from the Anthropology department would convince my colleagues of how valuable tutorials really can be in supporting student success. But it didn’t. It’s been nine years that I’ve been trying to convince people to make this work a priority here and I think I have to accept that I’ve done all I can. So I’ve decided to stop trying to make online instructional design happen. No more creating new tutorials. No more updating existing ones. No more putting any time or emotional energy into this work, even if only for my own mental health. (The catch is that my sabbatical project is to research best practices for developing culturally-responsive tutorials, but my plan is to learn stuff, produce a report, share it with the relevant folks, and let it go.) It’s depressing to see that while so much has changed in the landscape of higher education and online learning in 18 years, I’m still fighting the same battle, and unsuccessfully at that.
I know it’s hard to deprioritize existing work, even in the face of evidence of its declining utility. It’s especially hard when it’s the work that is most personally enjoyable. And we’re all stretched so thin that it’s hard to step back and consider moving in a different direction. But if we care about equity, we should care about serving online students equitably. Students who choose online classes often lead the most complicated and busy lives. Many live with disabilities. They often have greater support needs, especially at a community college where so many students come in lacking basic technology skills (the idea that students who choose online classes are more tech-savvy is laughable). We could partner with disciplinary faculty to weave information literacy instruction (and perhaps also digital literacy) into their courses so students have support in developing the skills and habits of mind they need to be successful in their degree programs and in life. In my many, many years of doing this work at multiple institutions, the biggest barriers have been a lack of time and a lack of will to consider it critical work.
So, friends, are there any places doing this right? Are there any good models for the support of online instructional design work and/or the support of online learners? I’d love to hear some success stories!