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Every Learner Everywhere

How College and University Instructors and Librarians Can Collaborate for Equity in Online Learning

During the growth of online learning in higher education, vital components of good course design such as information literacy may get short shrift, particularly during the emergency transition to remote learning at the start of the pandemic. As that emergency phase subsides, now is a good time for instructors who are continuing in online courses — or using more digital learning modalities in their hybrid or face-to-face courses — to revisit the resources they have available in their campus librarians.

Tatiana Bryant, Research Librarian for Digital Humanities, History, and African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), says March 2020 prompted campus libraries to create their own emergency responses to assist faculty and students in keeping coursework going. For example, libraries:

  • upleveled their online technology training support and revised loaned equipment programs;
  • dramatically increased the purchase of online materials;
  • accelerated the digitization of collections;
  • invoked emergency procedures to increase interlibrary digital collaboration; and
  • built momentum toward using open education resources (OER).

These short-term responses, says Bryant, are going to have profound ongoing changes in how librarians, faculty, and students collaborate.

Responding to the crisis

Some of the support libraries provide is invisible, so making the switch to a fully remote environment revealed challenges and opportunities to expand accessibility, equity, and inclusiveness.

For example, “We often have students who come to campus whether they’re in the library or their cars because they don’t have wifi access at home,” says Bryant who is one of the consultants in the Every Learner Everywhere Expert Network. The pandemic ruled out that kind of access, so libraries started thinking about adding mobile hotspot devices to their laptop loaner programs.

Laptop loaner programs themselves needed to be revised. Before the pandemic, the loan period might be a few hours or a day, a policy that made little sense during emergency remote learning lasting an indefinite period.

Some colleges and universities have dedicated educational technology centers that support instructional design, online course design, and the school’s learning management system. But on most campuses, the library is the source of this support. According to Bryant, faculty commonly ask librarians to help think through equipment accessibility and provide training for themselves and students. Naturally, all of that training transitioned to video conferencing platforms, a trend that probably still has a place even when meetings in the library are possible again.

Librarians see and consider the diversity of the whole campus community. Their services must reach not just full-time faculty and full-time residential students, but also part-time instructors and students who are balancing school with work and family responsibilities. Providing online training and support with information literacy and technology workshops is critical to supporting the evaluation and cognitive skills of a course. The work can be as simple as showing someone how to navigate a website or as complex as mastering citation management tools.

Either way, this kind of specialized support is a critical component of equity-centered learning. “Libraries fill that technology gap without a lot of fanfare,” Bryant notes. 

A surge in the OER movement

Libraries always have space constraints, so moving to digital collections has long been a priority. Additionally, most publishers charge campus libraries exorbitant rates for materials, making the impetus for OER clear. The pandemic semesters made these economic pressures more vivid and energized conversations about how libraries can support OER.

“Our focus became looking at the entire ecosystem of what the library can provide and pulling materials together to support courses without asking students to buy expensive textbooks that they may not be able to get or afford,” Bryant says. The conversations “just increased tenfold during the pandemic, as print textbooks and materials are no longer viable for most online classes. Faculty, students, and administrators are finally able to see the benefits of the advocacy and hard work libraries have always done.”

Nationwide, processes that were already in place were dramatically strengthened by increased virtual collaboration. For example, the HathiTrust, a consortium of college and university libraries that share a digital collection of ebooks and online resources, implemented the Emergency Temporary Access Service. This waived certain rules and alleviated copyright restrictions so students and faculty would have access to materials necessary to teach, learn, and research without disruption. 

UC Irvine also shifted to purchasing books from sources (including Amazon, Alibris, and both domestic and international publishers) that ship directly to library users’ homes, which Bryant credits for helping faculty and graduate students access much-needed materials that are not available as ebooks. 

Once campuses fully reopen, these specialized programs may end because of budget and copyright limitations. However, Bryant urges libraries to look into ways at least some of these processes can continue.

“I think that the supports that surfaced and were strengthened during the pandemic to serve the majority of campus should continue,” she says. “Students who have needs around accessibility or who have different types of constraints around their own personal lives where they need flexibility in their education deserve ongoing accommodation.”

An invaluable faculty resource

Before the pandemic, it was common for faculty to work with librarians on course syllabi to determine where information literacy supports can be integrated. This became critical during the pandemic as many more faculty were planning online classes for the first time or relying on more digital materials.

Traditionally, most instructors leave reaching out to a librarian for support to just before the semester starts, but Bryant encourages faculty to start thinking about their collaboration as early as possible — months, not weeks ahead of time. If you’re new to an institution, she recommends finding out if there’s a dedicated librarian for your discipline and, if so, to start building a relationship.

College and university librarians also play a part in program-level design. For example, at a previous institution, she says, the Dean of the School of Continuing Education and Professional Studies sought her help transitioning a new online B.A. program into a zero-cost degree. She worked with faculty to incorporate OER platforms like Pressbooks and Manifold to make books and materials available for no cost.

Giving campus librarians time to weigh in on the coursework also supports subtle yet essential improvements to the educational experience. For example, many students do their work on mobile devices, but not all LMS features or online materials are mobile-friendly. Streaming media may have rights that need to be procured, which can take months. And librarians have experience creating alternative assignments that don’t require access to physical materials. 

Online learning modalities are here to stay, from fully online classes to face-to-face classes with students who rely on digital resources to control costs, manage complex schedules, and sustain their academic progress. To create equitable learning environments, providing access to free and low-cost digital materials and enriching digital literacy experiences is no longer a nice-to-have — it’s a must. As Bryant notes, your librarian is the axle that ensures the wheels of equitability, accessibility, and inclusivity continue rolling.

“It’s literally our profession to support these different needs on campus,” she says. “It’s not a burden on the library if faculty and students request support. Start these conversations now.”