Advice for Teaching at a Distance

Considering current events, our guest bloggers for the month of April agreed that offering advice on designing instruction at a distance might be helpful. In this post, Stacey McKenna, Reference and Instruction Librarian at The Ohio State Newark campus, and Jane Hammons, the Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian with University Libraries Teaching and Learning Department, provide their advice to librarians providing virtual one-shots and other forms of instruction, as well as fun tips for being quarantined. Please ask any questions, or leave any comments below!

– – –

Stacey McKenna:

Creating instructional videos to assist professors and students has gone from being a cool extra service we offer, to being completely necessary. However, creating these videos can be tricky, especially if you’ve never tried your hand at it before. The following are some of my tried and true tips for creating a successful video or screencast.

1.) Make sure you are on the same page as the professor about the research requirements

To help me better understand tricky assignment prompts I will ask the professor to send me the list of students’ topics to make sure I’m on the right track.

2.) Make your videos short and concise

There’s nothing worse than having to slog through an hour long recorded lecture from a professor, and since we can’t do our normal in class activities, there’s not as much to break up our talking time. Create videos that are around ten minutes or less to keep students’ attention, and so they can easily go back and review a research concept that is tricky for them. Make sure your titles clearly label what concept you are discussing in that video.

3.) Ask if you can create a supplemental quiz or assignment to go along with your video

There should always be some sort of assignment attached to any instruction you ever do, be it virtual or in-person. If the professor is worried that students will skip over your instructional videos, request adding a short supplemental assignment.

4.) Demonstrate the reference chat feature

Always, always, always demonstrate the chat feature if your library has one. This is a tool that many students have never used before and can be a grade saver. Before doing this, make sure a colleague is currently on chat and can respond right away so that your video flows seamlessly.

5.) Practice your searches ahead of time

I have heard both sides of the argument on pre-planned searches, and both sides have merit. However, I find it best when recording, to have my search terms and showcased articles planned out in advance since there isn’t the interaction there is in an in-person class.

6.) Use your resources

What’s my favorite part of being a librarian? The fact that each of us has a wealth of knowledge on specific topics that we can’t wait to share! If you’re having trouble recording, reach out to one of your more techy colleagues! Having trouble choosing the right search terms or database for a specific query? Hit up your incredibly knowledgeable and friendly subject librarians!

Recording instructional videos is a lot like doing research. It takes several tries and several failed attempts before it really starts to take shape.


Fun tip for being quarantined:

Movie Bracket: Draw out a basketball bracket on a piece of paper with as many head to head matches as you wish. Choose movies to go head to head that you can watch and argue about which is superior. Make sure you don’t include more movies than you think you can watch during the quarantine! You can do this with anything. If you like having enthusiastic debates, do this with anything! Most instrumental character in Star Wars (baby Yoda, obvi), tv show that had the worst finale, most delicious beer, most annoying family member. Be creative!


Jane Hammons:

Some other ways you can support course instructors, other librarians, and students during this crazy period:

1.) Keep accessibility in mind

If you create videos, make sure that your videos have captions or transcripts, or both. If you provide a PPT or slides, be sure that the contrast is good and the font size is readable. Some resources that can help include:

2.) Provide alternatives, if possible

This is more important than ever, since most students have lost the ability to use campus computers. They now may be using an older computer or sharing a single computer with family members. They may not have broadband access or may be watching everything on their phones. Think about alternative ways that they can get the same information or complete the assignment. For example, you could create a narrated PPT as a video, and make the PPT (with notes) available to students who are unable to watch the video. Or, you could provide an annotated bibliography or a Word document with screenshots to go along with a video. Some resources that could help include:

3.) If you have time, offer to serve as a practice audience for instructors or other librarians as they try out new technologies

Some instructors or librarians may be feeling nervous about using Zoom or some other technology, especially for a live session. It can be helpful to have a chance to practice first without the pressure of a student audience.


Fun tip for being quarantined:

Go back to your childhood or teen years. Spend some time watching those movies or tv shows that you haven’t watched in years (or decades, perhaps?). Have a themed movie day—best movies starring the first actor or actress you had a crush on. Or, listen to music by that band that you absolutely loved when you were 13. Play older video games (I have made it my goal for this period to once again be able to make it all the way through the original Super Mario Bros. If I could do it when I was a kid, I can do it now, right?) Pull out the old board games. Have fun!


An 8 am Class: Good or Bad

By Pat Wood, Interim Head Librarian of The Ohio State University at Marion regional campus library


“I did it! I’m still alive!” These are my thoughts sometimes after teaching an 8 am library instruction class to college students. Although this is one of my favorite times to teach, students don’t always arrive with the same sunny disposition as me.

When I first started doing library instruction, I fell into a false sense of security by thinking that if students were looking at me, I had captured their attention. However, I have learned that students’ faces, and body language are not a good indication of that.

Over time, after experiencing blank stares, bobbing heads, or side conversations while trying to capture students’ attention, I have tweaked my sessions using comments and suggestions from surveys that I have students do at the end of any teaching session.

Here are some things that have worked for me from a sample teaching session:

When asked to teach library instruction at 8 am with a time-frame anywhere between 60-90 minutes, I usually arrive to the class instruction session 20 minutes early to set up the room based on the instruction requests of the professor and put out any handouts. This also gives me the opportunity to greet students with a friendly smile as they arrive.

As I am introducing myself while walking around the room, I’m aware of the importance of capturing their attention so I usually add a fun fact about myself that sometimes gets a few laughs which lets me know they haven’t fallen asleep yet. Time for the ice breakers!

Some ice breakers that I have used include Kahoot, which, for those who aren’t familiar is an interactive computer game where you create questions based on a subject (library information) and students answer using an electronic device (I always have a spare or 2 just in case the room doesn’t have technology or a student doesn’t have any). This can be 2-3 questions that can be fun stuff, or information they may not know regarding the library and its services. This is usually 5-7 minutes in length.

I also have done an activity where I write one word on the board (example: baseball) and then I have students make a list of keywords that relate to it. My word selection is usually related to the discipline of the class (example: History course). This activity usually has students talking amongst themselves, which is perfect. I usually give them 3-5 minutes for this activity. We then talk about the importance of good keywords and how they play a role in creating search statements

Now that I have their attention, the real work starts. Here is where I show students how to do academic research related to their assignment. This includes websites such as Google and Research databases from the library catalog. Students get to see the differences in searching and what features each resource must assist with their selections. They also learn how to construct good search statements through trial and error.

Once finished with this task, usually 20 minutes, the students then start doing research on their chosen topic while I wander around the room to answer questions and assist with anything else they need. This type of instruction also includes handouts on the three types of sources as well as the different types of periodicals to choose from. The time frame for this part is usually 30-45 minutes. The wrap up includes a survey of two questions: what information was helpful and what information was confusing.

The above activity is one of my favorites because students learn the difference between using Google and a research database while getting a good understanding as to the benefits of each type of search. Many good talking points have come from these sessions because most students are freshmen and they really don’t know what a database is. Google has been their best friend up to this point, so learning there is something better is sometimes a shock.

Lessons learned from 8 am library instruction sessions include:

Greeting students as they come into the class works well. This seems to help with interaction during the instruction session.

Make sure that you confirm exactly what the instructor is looking for from the session. Asking them detailed questions about what they want from the library instruction session is also very helpful. I once had a professor send me their syllabus in an email that said teach from the first lesson on the syllabus. My response was “WHAT?” We then exchanged many emails to determine what was needed.

Teaching search strategies from multiple sources, and showing students how to verify scholarly information has been a huge success, because today’s assignments seem to be giving students more freedom on their source selection. From my experience on our campus, depending on the course, students’ assignments aren’t requiring a lengthy list of scholarly sources as in the past.

The bottom line is that 8 am library instruction is not the worst thing in the world. Yes, it is true that in some cases no matter how you begin the session or what you plan to teach, you will have disengaged students. The goal is to be successful, sharing great research strategies so that students can complete their class assignments to the best of their abilities.

Resource Links:

The Internet is Down: How to Succeed in an Unexpectedly Low Tech Classroom

Guest Blogger: Hanna Primeau, Instructional Designer

Welcome to your worst teaching nightmare. You walk into a course or workshop, you have the usual amount of time to set-up before everyone has settled in and you can begin. And then it happens. The internet is down. Your presentation for the day depended on being able to demonstrate how to access a database, how to filter searches, and to get your students actively working with you as you work through these steps.

Photo Credit: Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893)

The long and short of it is, I’ve been there, and there isn’t much you can do in the moment, although all hope isn’t lost, which I will get to in good time. The good news is, this is just a nightmare, and you can wake up and take some precautions to keep in your back pocket, just in case this becomes a reality.  If you have been asked by an instructor to come to a class or workshop it is nearly a guarantee that you will be heading into the web at some point, but the good news here is you can pre-record your actions! No need for fancy devices, high tech programs, or even the know how of how to make videos in order to make a recording of your already planned demonstration. As a matter of fact, the “hard work” is more than likely already done, and done by you!

The first step to this process is to know what you want to show, and presumably, because you’ve spent time prepping for this course, you know exactly when and where you will depart from your presentation to the web and what you intend on showing there. Some find that storyboarding helps this portion, storyboarding is a process of visually or verbally putting down what each screen looks like and describing the actions taken on that screen, including pauses. You can see below what a quick scribbled out version of a storyboard may look like, but there is no right or wrong way to approach this. You can go as complicated as taking screenshots for each one and typing out your plans, or scribble on a scrap of paper each step. All this is is a visual map to have before you move on to the next step, recording!

There are endless technologies that can facilitate the recording of your screen, better known as a screen-capture, but I am just going to focus on a basic one. Screencast-o-matic is a free, up to 15 minute screen recorder, that has the option to add captions to all video, and will automatically upload it to either the screencast-o-matic webpage or to YouTube, with little action on your behalf.  It’s finally time to record, once open Screencast-o-matic allows you to simply select the browser screen you would like to record, and begin recording with a click, stopping with another. This is the point that if you created one, to utilize your storyboard as you slowly navigate through the web that you intend on demonstrating to students. You may find that it helps to speak as if you were in front of a class as you record, allowing you to time how long to pause between clicks. The goal here is not to have a fully polished video, and certainly not one with audio, but a video that once embedded into a presentation can play behind you as you narrate live.  This gives you the opportunity to not just speak knowledgeably about your demonstration, but most importantly, allowing you to no longer be held captive by a mouse and screen, and go to stand before a class, gesturing to the parts they should know physically pointing to things rather than using a mouse which is poor for these purposes.

Having a selection of these videos in your back pocket may seem like an intimidating task, but the amount of tension and stress they can save you in a pinch is worth it. These demonstration videos don’t have to be made all in one go, but one at a time as you prep for new classes. Keep them short so you are able to combine multiples, rather than repeating many of the steps anew just to demonstrate a slightly different process. Once you have started this process, it’s easy to make this part of your teaching, making short snippets for every use to be used in every case, or just in case.

But what of getting students to practice the skills you are attempting to teach? Active learning thankfully can happen with the simple aide of a pen and paper or a whiteboard with markers. Looking to other instructors via the ACRL Sandbox, we can find in examples of in-class activities that are easy to adapt to the most basic of situations. Having one activity in your back-pocket ( or on your flash drive in your back-pocket) for each of the Frameworks you tend to teach should help you when your worst nightmare becomes reality. Let’s look to a worksheet uploaded by UCONN library, the Research Question Generator. It is focused on asking questions to make students think deeper about their topic in such a way that leads students to formulating a more structured research question. This process can easily be adapted to make students think deeper about keyword searching, having them do the hard work of playing with Boolean, and even limiters, before even touching a database.

Needless to say, with a bit of forethought, your worst nightmare can just be another day in the class!



Best Practices:

  • 5 minutes or less
  • Make sure to put in pauses for you to speak!
  • Don’t share access with students or instructors if you have no subtitles or audio, accessibility standards are important.
  • Use incognito mode in order to ensure a similar experience to a student repeating
  • Have your videos saved in the cloud, box works well for this, and a flash drive as back up. You never know when the web will be working fine but it’s a moment that EBSCOhost is down.
  • Students tend to be very patient, don’t fret about set up time, pauses longer than you would like, or other weird quirks that can happen. They have probably experienced a similar situation and tend to have compassion.

Helpful Links: