Digital Content and Digital Spaces for Transforming Library Instruction at Pitts Theology Library
by Brady Beard/
November 05, 2020
Like theological libraries around the world, Pitts Theology Library faced new challenges and changes to the regular operations due to COVID-19 health guidelines and restrictions on in-person learning. Chief among these challenges was rethinking library instruction to fit a sudden shift to virtual learning. In the measure of a few short weeks, library patrons, students, faculty, and librarians were learning, teaching, and researching from their homes. To address the challenges of remote learning and research, Pitts instructional staff and reference librarians shifted learning into an entirely remote and virtual system.
By a happy coincidence, Pitts’s Weekly Workshop program had already finished when Emory University announced an elongated Spring Break and, ultimately, the cessation of in-person learning and a switch to remote learning. This left us with the extra time that we could devote to reimagining instruction. While no official plans for Fall 2020 would be announced until summer, a cursory glance at the tea leaves suggested that we would, at the very least, need to rethink our instruction services to account for those who might be restricted in their travel, quarantined, enrolled in remote learning, or even provide an option for library staff to provide virtual instruction. We explored the possibility of doing some in-person instruction for classes that were meeting in-person, but after discussing the issue with instruction librarians across the university, and assessing the process for offering in-person instruction, we quickly learned that this would require extraordinary planning and coordination with faculty. An additional instructor on any given day, for instance, could set the person to room ratio out of balance. In the end, we concluded that simply transitioning the entire process of library instruction into the virtual realm was likely the most efficient step.
Transforming Library Instruction
By the end of the spring semester, Pitts instructional staff were, like most of us now, proficient at Zoom. We could schedule meetings from Outlook, screen share and annotate each other’s slides on the fly, and even change our backgrounds so we’d be Zooming from the beach or any location other than our living spaces. While Zoom was perhaps the lowest-common-denominator in terms of familiarity for staff and patrons, we wanted to avoid being lost in the mist of Zoom fatigue, guard against Zoombombings and other disasters, and find an easy-to-use registration and analytics system for our own stats. More than anything else though, we wanted a painless way to store and promote recordings.
During the summer, we worked closely with other instructional staff including the Director of Digital Learning at Candler School of Theology and the Library Instruction working group at Emory by enrolling in online instruction training for disciplinary faculty. After assessing learning goals and patron needs, Pitts settled on using Big Marker for hosting and storing all of our online library instructional content. Used widely throughout a variety of industries including the education and nonprofit sectors, Big Marker prides itself on its easy-to-use interface and responsive customer service, both of which drew us to this platform. Best of all though, the Big Marker platform offered greater controls over our content and the hosting platform, which we thought we could use for a variety of instructional webinars, how-to videos, and online events.
We tested the platform by offering instructional webinars on digital alumni resources, citation, and library orientation. Pitts instructional staff also taught the program to Candler School of Theology faculty, program directors, and event coordinators as a way of better learning the program and encouraging user familiarity across the board. Working from best practices for online education, we tried to limit the length of our webinars, often cutting our in-person presentation time in half, and remained in close contact with the Director of Digital Learning at Candler. During this process, we found that prioritizing short, simple, and straightforward content, rather than pedagogical innovation, served the needs of Zoom-weary students and patrons.
In the fall, we offered four webinars. The first, Research 101, covered research basics like formulating a research question, using the library catalog, and using proper academic citation when needed. The second, Reading for Writing, focuses on developing reading skills for academic purposes at the master’s degree level. The third webinar, Information Overload, was new to our cycle and uses Habits of Mind to develop information literacy skills. Finally, the fourth and most popular webinar, Exegesis, introduces seminary students to the concept of exegesis and points them toward resources that they will need for exegetical projects at Candler School of Theology.
Apart from the third webinar, library instructors taught a version of each of these workshops in person in the past. But, because we were promoting and running them online, we were able to expand our audience and host learners from the master’s programs and Doctor of Ministry program at Candler as well as alumni. For a few of the webinars, we even had non-affiliated participants from South Africa and Australia. Working with faculty, we were able to incorporate the recorded webinars into several course LMS sites and circulate them internally. These webinars were supplemented by a summit of videos on using the library remotely and new policies for the semesters impacted by COVID-19 distancing measures.
Big Marker provides an attractive and easy-to-customize landing page for all of Pitts’s instructional video content. Related items can be published in series, which allows patrons to register for all the live sessions at once. We created two series for the Fall semester, one devoted to our Weekly Workshops and the other about using the library from a distance. We wanted registration pages for every event to be simple and standardized so that patrons and students could quickly learn the ins-and-outs of the platform. By working closely with library outreach and logistics, we were able to approach library instruction and online events in a wholistic way, while strategizing publication of the events across social media platforms.
Big Marker grants webinar hosts an enormous amount of control in the webinar room. For instance, hosts can set the defaults for chats and Q&A interactions. One of the most useful features is the ability to sort and publish chats and questions as they arrive. For highly specific questions that come in the chat field, we could convert to a Q&A and respond privately so that the patron could get the answer they need while the presentation could continue without needing to veer off topic. Likewise, for questions that would obviously be useful to a majority of presenters, we could answer the question publicly and pin the question and response to the top of the chatbox.
The most important feature, however, is the ability to track registration and participation analytics via unique access URLs. These insights helped us learn how people were registering for events, whether by social media, the library homepage, or direct invite, how long they participated, and if they accessed the recording after the live event. It even records how long patrons remained in the webinar room, tracks individual levels of engagement, and creates an average for overall event engagement. Analytics tracks the number of unique visitors to the webinar’s landing page, organic and referred interactions, interactions from the email campaign, and breaks down the referral sources for each event. These analytics can be downloaded as a report, and we plan to use them in our year-end reports and analysis. Big Marker also allows hosts to create an end of event survey that automatically sends to attendees at the end of the event and then incorporates into the event analytics.
One of the most useful features of this platform is the ability to transition all live instruction content into On-Demand or Evergreen videos. By converting live instruction into recorded On-Demand videos on our Big Marker institutional site, patrons and students can view any instructional content at their leisure, and we can still track participation numbers. Once a live webinar wraps up, hosts can download, edit, and share the recording across social media platforms.
One of the major benefits of transitioning library instruction to a fully online format came about when we realized that we could open these workshops to anyone and that participants no longer had to be on the university campus to participate. Because we advertised on social media, we garnered international participants, reconnected with alumni, engaged with area clergy, and strengthened ties to our patron base beyond the university when campus access was limited to currently enrolled students.
An obvious downside to an online instructional model is that we are limited in our “drop-in” instruction, which, in the past, made up an enormous amount of patron and student interaction and publicity for more formal instructional events. Such instructional support is especially important to first-year students for whom reference and instruction librarians were a major point of contact outside of the classroom. As we transition to the Spring Semester, we plan to continue offering instructional content through the Big Marker platform and will also incorporate “drop-in” hours to encourage more informal, live instruction. Our hope is that by combining asynchronous, synchronous, and drop-in instructional hours we can reach even more students, which is always the goal for instruction at Pitts. We learned important lessons during the shift to remote learning and we will be sure to continue offering instruction online once we return to campus.
Enjoying the Atla Blog?
Subscribe to receive email alerts of new blog posts of a specific type. Members, subscribers, publishers, or anyone interested in the study of religion & theology are welcome to sign up to one or all alerts to keep up to date with the Atla community. If you or your institution are a member, the Atla Newsletter delivers a monthly curated email of top posts to your email inbox.