Tag Archives: teaching

Libraries’ role in teaching the research community – LILAC2017

Recently Claire Sewell, the OSC Research Support Skills Coordinator attended her first LILAC conference in Swansea. These are her observations from the event.

LILAC (Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference) is one of the highlights of the information profession calendar which focuses on sharing knowledge and best practice in the field of information literacy. For those who don’t know information literacy is defined as:

Knowing when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner (CILIP definition)

Showcasing OSC initiatives

Since it was my first time attending it was a privilege to be able to present three sessions on different aspects of the work done in the OSC. The first session I ran was an interactive workshop on teaching research data management using a modular approach. The advantage of this is that the team can have several modules ready to go using discipline specific examples and information, meaning that we are able to offer courses tailored to the exact needs of the audience. This works well as a teaching method and the response from our audience both in Cambridge and at LILAC was positive.

There was an equally enthusiastic response to my poster outlining the Supporting Researchers in the 21st Century programme. This open and inclusive programme aims to educate library staff in the area of scholarly communication and research support. One element of this programme was the subject of my finalLILAC contribution – a short talk on the Research Support Ambassador Programme which provides participants with a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the scholarly communication process.

As well as presenting and getting feedback on our initiatives the conference provided me with a chance to hear about best practice from a range of inspiring speakers. A few of my highlights are detailed below.

Getting the message out there -keynote highlights

Work openly, share ideas and get out of the library into the research community were the messages that came out of the three keynote talks from across the information world.

The first was delivered by Josie Fraser, a Social and Educational Technologist who has worked in a variety of sectors, who spoke on the topic of The Library is Open: Librarians and Information Professionals as Open Practitioners.  Given the aim of the OSC to promote open research and work in a transparent manner this was an inspiring message.

Josie highlighted the difference between the terms free and open, words which are often confused when it comes to educational resources.  If a resource is free it may well be available to use but this does not mean users are able to keep copies or change them, something which is fundamental for education.

Open implies that a resource is in the public domain and can be used and reused to build new knowledge. Josie finished her keynote by calling for librarians to embrace open practices with our teaching materials. Sharing our work with others helps to improve practice and saves us from reinventing the wheel. The criteria for open are: retain, reuse, revised, remix, redistribute.

In her keynote, Making an Impact Beyond the Library and Information Service, Barbara Allen talked about the importance of moving outside the library building and into the heart of the university as a way to get information literacy embedded within education rather than as an added extra. The more we think outside the library the more we can link up with other groups who operate outside the library, she argued. Don’t ask permission to join in the bigger agenda – just  join in or you might never get there.

Alan Carbery in his talk Authentic Information Literacy in an Era of Post Truth  discussed authentic assessment of information literacy. He described looking at anonymised student coursework to assess how students are applying what they have learnt through instruction. When real grades are at stake students will usually follow orders and do what is asked of them.

Students are often taught about the difference between scholarly and popular publications which ignores the fact that they can be both. Alan said we need to stop polarising opinions, including the student concept of credibility, when they are taught that some sources are good and some are bad. This concept is becoming linked to how well-known the source is – ‘if you know about it it must be good’. But this is not always the case.

Alan asked: How can we get out of the filter bubble – social media allows you to select your own news sources but what gets left out? Is there another opinion you should be exposed to? He gave the example of the US elections where polls and articles on some news feeds claimed Clinton was the frontrunner right up until the day of the election. We need to move to question-centric teaching and teach students to ask more questions of the information they receive.

Alan suggested we need to embed information literacy instruction in daily life – make it relevant for attendees. There are also lessons to be learnt here which can apply to other areas of teaching. We need to become information literacy instructors as opposed to library-centric information literacy instructors.

Key points from other sessions

There is a CILIP course coming soon on ‘Copyright education for librarians’. This will be thinking about the needs of the audience and relate to real life situations. New professional librarians surveyed said that copyright was not covered in enough depth during their courses however many saw it as an opportunity for future professional development. The majority of UK universities have a copyright specialist of some description, but copyright is often seen as a problem to be avoided by librarians.

There is a movement in teaching to more interactive sessions rather than just talking and working on their own. Several sessions highlighted the increased pressure on and expectations of students in academia. Also highlighted were the benefits of reflective teaching practice.

There are many misconceptions about open science and open research amongst the research community. There is too much terminology and it is hard to balance the pressure to publish with the pressure to good research. Librarians have a role in helping to educate here. Many early career researchers are positive about data sharing but unsure as to how to go about it, and one possibility is making course a formal part of PhD education.

Claire Sewell attended the LILAC conference thanks to the support of the Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

Published 27  April 2017
Written by Claire Sewell 

Creative Commons License

What does a researcher do all day?

Recently, Paul Jervis-Heath* came to speak to Cambridge Libraries staff about work he had done as part of the Cambridge Libraries user centred design programme during the previous academic year.

This project was trying to establish how Cambridge University administrative services would manage the RCUK block grant provided to the University to support the RCUK Open Access policy. The end goal of the project was to design products and services, so the team of six working on the programme needed to start by trying to understand what academics did and what services they needed.

Information gathering process

During the project the team worked with 56 academics including contextual interviews with 34 academics. Paul noted however that it was also important to see the environments they were working in to ‘get into the headspaces’ of who they were designing for.

To this end the team shadowed 10 academics over a 48-hour period. They followed them through their day, literally sitting next to them. They watched lectures, sat in supervisions and took notes. As researchers did tasks the team asked questions about how they felt about the task – whether it was worth their time for example. The number was small because of the time intensity of this approach, however the process revealed good insights. Paul mentioned that they looked at the workarounds academics have for tasks and were able to determine how academics know what is succeeding and what ought they be doing.

The information gathering phase also included 12 co-design sessions looking at research and publishing tools, where they invited a group of participants to act as a designer. These were one on one co-design sessions. The academics were asked to design the journal they would like to publish in. As part of the process they took notes about how the participants talked about the publishing process.

This process is referred to as ‘bootstrapping’. The project was not pretending to have the full picture of what academic life is like. However the findings are robust enough to form an idea of what academics are doing to then create something and take it back to the participants to be refined  based on feedback.

Wearing lots of hats

Academics have lots of roles and they get split both between the University and their College and between their teaching and research roles. Paul noted that being an academic is really three or four jobs – each person needs to decide what they will be very good at. He observed that academics have to discover things that are new to the world as well as all of their other administration and work.

Many of the academics observed had between six and eight, sometimes 10 different roles. Some of these come with a job title, and others are unofficial because the academic wants to be a good supervisor, tutor, or a good colleague. The longer someone is around, the more roles they collect. The team started trying to graph people’s job titles as part of the project but this proved challenging because academia is not like a company where people have a fixed job title. Paul described it as more like a series of badges where an academic gets new things ‘pinned on’.

Academics are both teachers and researchers. Paul noted it is always interesting to see which one the participants mentioned first, their teaching role or their research role.


Teaching takes up most of the term time and there is no time for research other than, say, putting together reading lists. For most researchers, about 20 minutes is the time length they have available for anything. This is how they carve up their day.

Everybody teaching at Cambridge is a University Teaching Officer – which has four levels. People start off as a Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, then Reader, the Professor. There are additional roles like the Head of Department, which typically rotates as a two year position. Then there are people who are Director of Studies both within a department and in the Colleges. Tutors look after the pastoral element of life in the College. And that’s just teaching roles.


The other side of the coin is the research roles. People start as Research Associates where they are hired for a specific research project which means there is nothing to move onto, so the person might have to move to a new university. Postdocs often don’t have anywhere to go they tend to use libraries, coffee shops and working from home. For many people the College is their office.

Gaining a Junior Research Fellowship is an important step because the University is funding the research in some way, however most positions are a fixed length. Having your JRF means they know where they are going to be. The next step is a Senior Research Fellow, then Principal Investigator. In science research happens in groups and the Principal Investigator leads the project.

Many people likened running a research group as running a small company while remaining research active. The Principal Investigator is similar to managing director of a small company. Some of these activities they don’t have any real training for. No-one has told them how to manage expenditure of a research project, or how to interview people. Several people noted that the hardest thing is recruitment not least because often candidates are abroad and interviews happen over Skype and Google Hangout. There is a big element of doubt about who they have employed.

Often collaborations are across time zones so researchers are fitting in calls in the early morning and evening to allow for time zones.

Academic roles in detail

The academic roles tended to fall into the following areas:

  • College role – Supporting students, Public relations administration, research, consultancy teaching
  • Personal administration – Travel arrangements, updating diary, updating CV and publication lists
  • College administration – committee meetings and reading papers, reviewing and interviewing candidates for the college, selecting the admissions.
  • Supporting students – both academic and pastorally, for example providing information about the college or problems with students not coping with work or taking students to hospital.
  • Teaching
    • Lectures (including preparation and planning curriculum, getting lecture rooms, sorting out timetables.
    • Putting slides and demos and reading list up in the course Moodle.
    • Writing the exam papers, preparing materials they will need.
    • Final issues like meeting the lab technicians, marking the exams.
  • Research
    • Applying for grant funding involves obtaining quotes from suppliers and partners to go into applications, creating budgets meeting funders, writing applications, research project management.
    • Setting up experiments, and gathering data and analysing results.
    • A large amount of writing to tell people about it and published – it doesn’t count unless it is published in a good journal. Lots of work in formatting and editing and the reviewing.
    • There is informal work – peer reviews. For journals official peer review is usually predicated by informal peer review – people will review each other’s papers to increase chances of getting accepted.
    • Managing research groups – running meetings setting goals, managing expenditure, writing job descriptions, recruitment, approving leave
    • Once published all the outreach – including listing the work in Symplectic, seminars, going to conferences and doing speaking engagements. Going to London to be interviewed.
  • Consultancy – meeting collaborators

Disciplinary differences in research

Disciplines differ immensely from one another but not necessarily in the ways traditionally thought of. Rather than there being a Science versus Humanities divide, a more accurate way of thinking about types of research relate to whether the work is being done in a group or by a solo researcher.

The size of the research group is partly determined by the expense of the equipment. Research such as that done by CERN is very expensive and requires grants. In AHSS there is less of a need for external funding (or possibly less money available funding). Note that Junior or Senior Research Fellows tend to be funded by the University but Principal Investigators are often funded through grants.

The pace of the discipline changes how people publish – in fast disciplines there are shorter units of publication, and slower disciplines have longer ones. Physics is very fast discipline so they upload pre-prints to arXiv.org. For example the role of journals in physics is not as important as biology.

Transparency changes across disciplines as well. For example physics is very open and biology is secretive – even colleagues often don’t know what others are working on. Transparency can be measured by the competitiveness of the discipline. It can affect the discipline of the research groups – some are open, others are secretive.

The structure of research groups

Research groups were a surprise to Paul. Members do not work together like you do on a project team. Research groups manifest as a set of researchers following their own interests but generally working in the same area. The researchers share methods and equipment but otherwise they are doing their own thing.

Some groups are supportive with mentoring but others are really competitive. Sometimes this comes from the research group and other times it comes from the people in the group. This appears to be led by the discipline culture of where they come from. It is worth noting that while anecdotally Cambridge people have more freedom, in Cambridge there is a cultural tendency not to show any weakness.

Day in the life graphics

Paul then took the group through the ‘day in the life’ diagrams created out of the shadowing done in Michaelmas Term 2013 (October to December). The graphics he discussed included:

The vertical axis reflects how happy the academic was over the day. High points tend to coincide with having contact with people and talking about their discipline such as discussions with PhD students, or with a research group. However lecturing is not a high point because there is no two-way communication – all the students sit at the back, the lecturer only gets feedback get at the end.

What causes one of the greatest emotional lows for a researcher is being rejected for a paper. They have often put all of their effort and knowledge into a journal paper. If it is rejected after peer review they are being told they have wasted two years of their life. Paul noted that some reviewing boards are brutal and the feedback given is, frankly, rude.

There is a similar low point if an application for grant funding is unsuccessful – it is similar to a rejection. Grant funding applications are worse than a paper as the researcher has to argue why the work is important and why the funder should fund it. Generally funding bodies are not as brutal but they are awarding funding to competitors – so it is a double blow.

Research and publishing experience map

Paul also talked the group through the Research and Publishing Experience Map. As part of the project the team was looking to see if the University was involved in the publishing process in terms of helping it. However the team found that there is no contact with the University during the process of research and publishing. There was no official checkpoint where academics had to tell the University about what they were doing. While there might be a discussion between the person and their supervisor, it is not recorded anywhere.

The research group will know where articles have been submitted, but the information is not captured anywhere – except in their inbox. But in research groups people move on so even a shared memory is lost. So there is no way to collect data, and no place to archive the administration for researchers. While the Research Office knows about the research grant, what a researcher does with the money is up to them. There are not many official touch points with the University.

The result of this work was a need to artificially engineer a touch point with the academics to ensure that they are able to meet their compliance requirements. The www.openaccess.cam.ac.uk upload system is the result.

* Paul now works for a consulting company Modern Human

Published 1 February 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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Tips for preparing and presenting online learning

This week we had a group of library staff contribute to a roundtable discussion about online training. We were lucky to have visiting Australian Tom Worthington* talk to the group. These are some notes from the wide-ranging discussion.

Online approaches

In face-to-face teaching, a unit in philosophy taught over a semester is very different to a single training session in how to find something in a library catalogue. However in practice in the online world they are the same.

Tom noted that five years ago he decided to stop giving lectures and only deliver courses online. It has taken that time for him to feel comfortable with the online delivery.

The electronic equivalent of the traditional lecture is you prepare a reading block, mail it to the students, give them exercises to do, they write it down and you give them comments. But there is an opportunity to do much more. An example is the book “ICT Sustainability: Assessment and Strategies for a Low Carbon Future“, used for an ANU course.

The ‘flipped classroom’ is an approach where the online component is first. However unless you give them a task they will come to the first day full of excuses. The convenor can give students blocks of exercises. At the face to face section you can have the informal discussion and help them with problems. That works well.

Text based courses can use video that someone else has recorded on the topic. The process is the students:

  • Read the summary of the course
  • Do the readings
  • Do the test
  • Then have a discussion online or in person together.

Asynchronous courses ask students to contribute to an online text based forum. As an example, the questions for week one of “ICT Sustainability”.  The students might be asked to answer questions – find a paper or video on the topic, say why it is relevant. They should post to the forum by the middle of the week, must reply to two other posts by two students by Friday. Then use peer assessment to mark each other’s work. It is good if their contribution is used in some way. Usually allocate 10-20% of the marks to their contribution to the marking of each other’s work. Students will go to remarkable lengths to get small number of marks. Needs to make sense to the long term goal of the student.

One way of presenting a course is to provide small ‘units’ of information which are not timed. At the end of a unit the student does a test and when they pass they move onto the next section.

Using traditional eLearning you would have at most 24 people in each group – you usually still have ‘loud’ people you have to tell to stop writing/talking.

Course structures

There are standards for learning materials. The University provides considerable resources for Learning Aims and Outcomes.

It helps to have rigid statements about what the course is about. These should include learning objectives, how the course is broken up eg: two components and three sub components. See the introduction to “ICT Sustainability”.  Without this structure the student does not know where they are up to. You need to show participants there is a plan.

Tom noted it is important to tell participants why the course will be useful to them and how it will be useful to them. It is very important to provide markers throughout the course. Where are we up to and what is this for? Eg: this will increase your chances of getting a paper published.

It is all in the preparation

Academic bravado is ‘I have a lecture in 5 minutes, I had better get something together’. With eLearning you have to design all the materials and exercises in advance before they start. Gather the materials together – but you always need to consider licenses. A repository – equivalent of an electronic book, videos and quizzes.

Don’t add things on the fly. Once it starts you need to keep things stable. You can take online material and deliver it in person easily. It is much harder to do it the other way.

Preparing online courses is very labour intensive and traditional universities do not provide for the preparation time. However the delivery is much quicker. If you are at the distance education university this is built into the system. But in a traditional university you only get paid for delivery. So first time you run a course, it is at a ‘loss’ but each time after that it is easier. So try to minimise the material beforehand.

The question about the inability to get feedback from people was raised. With online fixed courses you don’t have a way to improve the content for your students. Tom suggested observing the test results helps. The dropout rate is an indicator (and you can always ask people why they dropped out). You can look at what they have been accessing. There is considerable research on ‘Learning Analytics’ and products for extracting the data from Moodle.  There may be things they have not been looking at – it might be the link has broken. The flipped classroom will give people the chance to fix things.

Some concern was raised about reusing information. One person noted that ‘internalising the material requires creating it myself’. The group agreed it was important to ensure the information is stitched together well so there is a real narrative. Tom noted we do have standardised educational materials – they are called text books. You can still use text books in an online course. If we have standard published sources then we should use them.

Preventing cheating

If you just give students reading materials online then they will not read it. You need to give them tasks to do and monitor the results. Give them multiple choice using immediately marked systems. Them knowing there is a test at the end increases their education (even if they get all the answers wrong). Even if the test is not for credit, students will still cheat.

Ways to prevent people cheating at online tests:

  • Limited number of attempts
  • Questions are selected from a bank at random
  • Positions of the multiple-choice answers are randomised
  • If numeric answers, the system generates a random set of values so each student gets a different question

Note that young digital natives are still academically illiterate – they do not naturally know how to write things with proper referencing. They write assignments with broken jargon, not proper referencing and will copy things from Wikipedia. Tom said that he doesn’t call it ‘plagiarism’ in the first few weeks, they call it ‘poor referencing’.

Encouraging attendance

The conversation moved to the library training environment, where we often have an opportunity to see people only once face to face. Students need to get feedback on the quizzes – there might not be anything after that.

There is nothing telling the students they have to go to these sessions apart from them thinking it might be helpful. So how do we leverage off a one off teaching slot? In that one off session – eg: ‘How can you become an expert in 10 minutes’ – can we replicate that type of activity online in the same sort of way?

Suggestions for encouraging attendance included:

  • Doing this as part of something for someone they respect.
  • Provide students the materials in the live sessions eg: worksheets and reading and exercises, then collect them into a coherent ebook, step by step.
  • Give them a certificate at the end – shake their hands and give it to them.

Getting university buy-in

Tom suggested that it is a good idea to tap into the national standard for what a student needs to do in a particular area. Each department will have their own way of doing it.

He suggested going to the international standardised skills framework, finding the skill that is relevant, and using the text describing this to be part of the course outline. Accrediting bodies in some areas will be useful for this (for example Engineering). You can use the description from this body. Doing this makes it easier to get a course approved. The Executive of institutions will support that kind of course.

Examples include the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), which  is a computer science based set, and there is the Seoul Accord.

Online course technologies

Cambridge University uses the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment, which Tom noted is the equivalent of buying a Vauxhall – can buy lots of parts and find lots of people to fix it. It is not very exciting. But it is fine.

Moodle is not really built for creating an ePortfolio which shows evidence the students know how to use something. They collect material into your e-portfolio and then you present it. Use simple social media where you say “please work on this and discuss it”. This can shows evidence the student knows how to use something. One tool is the Mahara open source ePortfolio program.

Recording technology

Recording lectures is a challenge at Cambridge where there are not universal recording facilities in lecture theatres. But Tom noted that while sometimes having good technology can be useful – a document camera can show students how equations are done for example – using simple tools can work.

If you are giving a presentation, simply set a recording device on the desk. Students really like the recordings of a presentation. Tom noted that when recording something to go online is it much easier to give a presentation to a live audience rather than to an empty room. Note it is important to consider the legal issues of recording people – when they approach you to speak privately about something you need to turn the microphone off. It is also important to remember to repeat questions asked by the audience into the microphone.

Recording helps international students. They listen to the recording a minimum of six times. If use echo360 active learning program you can see how many views each part of the course is being looked at.

People are prepared to listen for 6-20 minutes. When putting recordings online you can have a talking head or show the powerpoint slides. A good way of presenting a video recording is to show a talking head for the first few seconds to see a human, then flip to powerpoint slides then have the human again at the end. An alternative is to just use a static photograph. People will treat a smiley face as a person.

Tom noted that he has never been to a webinar session at university that worked properly. You spend half the time trying to get the technology to work. It is necessary to train people in the technology. Unless there is a need for a live session don’t do it. Digital native young people still have trouble with the technology.

Examples of good online teaching

Universities UK have Open Learn and the Australian equivalent is Open 2 Study. The way these are set up – you do a short course for free then you can enrol in the longer one for a cost. The courses all started at 12 weeks, and they are now four weeks. MIT have created Open EdX.

Other useful links:

* About the speaker

Tom Worthington, is an independent computer consultant and educator. He is an Adjunct lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University and a member of the ANU Climate Change and Energy Change Institutes. Also Tom designs and teaches on-line courses for the the Australian Computer Society (ACS) Virtual College. He was previously an IT policy advisor at the Australian Department of Defence. Tom is a Past President, Honorary Life Member and Fellow of the ACS, as well as a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Published 23 July 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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