The Impact of Remote Learning on Campus Libraries

Shifting instruction and campus services entirely online in a matter of days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a near-Herculean feat for the nation’s colleges and universities. But for institutions that have developed robust and forward-looking library programs, the transition has proceeded more smoothly.

Campus Libraries Play a Critical Role in Supporting Remote Learning

In a recent webinar, library directors described the impact of COVID-19 on their operations — and the lessons they’ve learned in response

Shifting instruction and campus services entirely online in a matter of days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a near-Herculean feat for the nation’s colleges and universities. But for institutions that have developed robust and forward-looking library programs, the transition has proceeded more smoothly.

In a recent webinar sponsored by Ex Libris, visionary leaders from four U.S. campus libraries talked about how they were able to move services fully online to support remote learning, the lessons they learned in doing so, and how they think campus libraries might be forever changed by this experience.

How well prepared were campus libraries to shift services online?

While libraries were able to draw upon their disaster preparedness experience in shifting services entirely online, COVID-19 marked an entirely different challenge in many ways, simply owing to the sheer scale and duration of the response. Libraries that have invested heavily in online databases and services found themselves best able to support online learning.

For instance, with a long history of supporting e-learning, Drexel University Libraries has evolved toward a hybrid approach to offering library services, said Dean of Libraries Danuta Nitecki.

“During the past two decades, the libraries here at Drexel have moved away from a collection-building approach, purchasing and housing physical materials in proximity to where our clients came to us,” Nitecki said. “We gravitated to increasingly license-prioritized access to resources … to [give] students access to readings from wherever they were.”

The in-person support that Drexel librarians provided within libraries and classrooms is supplemented by online support through Zoom, as well as email support and webinars. As much as 97 percent of the library’s acquisitions budget is now spent on electronic licenses and resource sharing agreements. These innovations have positioned Drexel’s library program as well as possible to support the move to remote learning, Nitecki said.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has invested $8 million to implement open educational resources (OER) across the state’s public universities, which has reduced students’ reliance on print textbooks and physical reserve services, said Timothy Jackson, resource sharing and fulfillment program manager for the State University of New York (SUNY) Shared Library Services division.

Jackson’s division has used its portion of the funding to create an organization called SUNY OER Services (SOS), which has helped faculty use open digital content in more than 4,000 courses throughout the state. Library staff within SOS curate high-quality OER content and train faculty how to integrate these materials into their instruction. Amid the pandemic, SOS personnel were able to step in and provide training and support for faculty in moving their courses online as well, Jackson said — such as showing faculty how to use Zoom to hold synchronous class meetings and discussions.

“The OER initiative has been a godsend during this crisis,” he said.

What lessons did campus libraries learn from their experience?

Having to support students and faculty remotely has taught campus librarians a number of important lessons. For instance, COVID-19 has served as a stark reminder that not all students have reliable access to online learning from home, Jackson said.

“The popularity of computer labs and laptop lending programs really shows how reliant many students were on libraries for computer and internet access,” he observed. “Going forward, it’s something that I think we’ll need to think about a lot more — making sure that all of our students have online access wherever they are.”

Jackson’s organization has also fielded many questions from faculty about copyright restrictions, fair use laws, and how these are being interpreted during the pandemic. He said this reveals a need for more centralized guidance from the library system on what is acceptable in making digital copies of materials for teaching remotely.

Dennis Swanson, dean of library services for the University of North Carolina’s Pembroke campus and a former police officer, noted that effective emergency response relies on three aspects: planning, preparation, and practice. One change he plans to make when students and staff return to campus is practicing for this kind of contingency in the future by shutting down the library’s in-person services periodically to test its capacity to respond.

In addition, he said, deploying resources more strategically could help support students if the university had to shift to remote learning again.

“We have computer labs with old desktop machines, which are pretty useless in a situation like this,” Swanson explained. “I’ve suggested that when we replace those machines, we replace them with laptops that are locked into docking stations, so if something like this happens again, we can just turn keys and have a large number of laptops available that we can disseminate to students.”

For Elijah Scott, executive director of the Florida Academic Library Services Cooperative (FALSC), the most important takeaway has been understanding the toll an event like this takes on library staff — and finding ways to manage the stress they might be feeling.

One thing FALSC has done to support its employees’ need for emotional connection is to hold virtual coffee breaks two or three times a week. These are half-hour blocks of time where staff can join a web conference just to socialize at their leisure. “There’s no agenda, there are no set topics,” Scott said. “It really is just a check-in for people to say, ‘Hey, how’s everyone doing?’”

How will campus libraries be different moving forward?

Webinar participants agreed that the shift to remote learning will have lasting implications for campus libraries moving forward.

“One of the upsides to all of this is that students and faculty are going to realize the online capabilities that libraries have been providing for some time,” Swanson said. In the future, he added, “I think we’re going to see more students taking advantage of these services.”

Librarians can build on this momentum by advocating for greater investment in digital content and services so their institutions are better prepared for remote learning in the future, participants agreed. With possible budget cuts looming as the economy heads into a recession, this advocacy will become even more significant.

“Communicating what the library does is always important, and certainly in times of upheaval,” Nitecki said. “Libraries must be able to clarify what among all they do is essential to the university’s mission — and we have to be able to communicate that well.”




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