Make It Work: Online STEM Library Instruction in a Hurry | Peer to Peer Review

At the University of Waterloo, after a year of transitioning content for instruction online, we have had the opportunity to iterate, moving beyond our initial efforts to a more cohesive and intentional instructional design and delivery. Looking back on the last 12 months, we have arrived at six principles that we have used, informally and formally, to guide our practice. 1) Streamline; 2) Be flexible; 3) Be kind; 4) Good enough is good enough; 5) Build comfort; and 6) Don’t get attached.

head shots of Kate Mercer, Kari Weaver, Stephanie Much
(l.-r.) Kate Mercer, Kari Weaver, Stephanie Mutch

As COVID-19 spread throughout our communities, scores of librarians were forced to rapidly move all instructional materials available online. Academic libraries responded to this challenge, restructuring existing content and rapidly creating new content. At the University of Waterloo, after a year of transitioning content for instruction online, we have had the opportunity to iterate, moving beyond our initial efforts to a more cohesive and intentional instructional design and delivery. Looking back on the last 12 months, we have arrived at six principles that we have used, informally and formally, to guide our practice. 1) Streamline; 2) Be flexible; 3) Be kind; 4) Good enough is good enough; 5) Build comfort; and 6) Don’t get attached.

Helping users understand a daunting amount of information is critical to academic success, but what is debatably more important is supporting people in navigating a new world. Traditional in-person information literacy instruction is an effective way to improve the information seeking behaviors of undergraduate engineering students; however, the effects of moving this instruction online are still unclear. With little conclusive guidance from the literature regarding which approaches to online information literacy instruction are most effective, librarians tasked with providing emergency online instruction due to COVID-19 have had to develop our own solutions. Moreover, as we pivoted online, we were also shifting our practice from more traditional information literacy into our new framing for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) contexts of Critical Information Evaluation (CIE). Core to CIE is the idea that students find information they would use in both professional and academic settings, and critique it in a collaborative interactive way in a classroom setting—a concept that comes from our attempts to help students navigate an already overwhelming amount of information in both their personal and academic lives.

Libraries have always been facilitators of knowledge, but how we facilitate that knowledge changes and grows along with society. Fundamentally, as we rapidly moved online our practice remained the same. We already offered services online—modules, resources, and communication were available and encouraged in online modalities—but by building on our existing knowledge base and skills, as well as our core value of adapting to new modalities and circumstances, we were able to rapidly pivot our services fully online to support our users. In parallel, users had to navigate a deluge of information and learn new platforms and ways of learning. Given the importance of information literacy training, it is essential that the librarians responsible for providing this training take the time to reflect on pedagogy specific to their subject areas of expertise, especially when the world changes in remarkable ways. How information is communicated, curated, and navigated is crucial to how people are able to understand it.

Streamline. Everyone is burned out and tired of staring at a screen, watching videos, and going through modules or other online ways of delivering information. One of the most impactful things we have done is to be very intentional about the content we are delivering, how much is needed, and how long it is. Just because you would cover it in an in-person classroom does not mean it is needed, or valued, online. Thinking about minimum required information is a valuable way to ascertain what should be integrated online and separate it from the extraneous.

Flexibility. Online instructional content takes a significant amount of time to create, typically much more than an in-person lesson. Thinking in terms of core concepts meant we could develop materials that could be altered across classes, educational levels, or even academic disciplines, allowing us to devote the needed time to things that would have impact. Within STEM fields, much of the curriculum is intentionally scaffolded across programs, with concepts building as students progress.

Be kind (to yourself and colleagues). Most librarians did not train to take on online education. In fact, most did not train to take on the level of teaching responsibility we have at all. Learning to do new things takes time, effort, and willingness to fail, repeatedly. We needed to approach this work through a lens of kindness, understanding that we would feel inadequate to the task, and needing to rely on each other. Sharing critique and difficulties as learning opportunities instead of insurmountable obstacles allowed us to move forward in positive ways.

Good enough is good enough. In a perfect world, every bit of online instruction would have been polished, professional, and advance information literacy. That world never existed, but especially not during a pandemic. There are only so many hours in a day, and we need to remember that what matters is that the idea gets across, not that the idea gets across perfectly. We had to learn when to say it is good enough to communicate the idea and let go of our bent toward perfectionism.

Build comfort, not mastery, for learners and yourself. When teaching, we are often consumed with assessment for mastery. Has a student demonstrated that they comprehend and can apply a new skill or idea? Within the pandemic context, and online education generally, it became important to focus not on mastery, but on comfort with concepts and content. This translated to our own work, where we made intentional choices to use simple technological options like handouts over complex embedded modules, or relied on embedded links in slide decks for interactivity. This is not to say we abandoned longer, more robust modules if needed, but we made decisions about the content and the presentation medium that focused on the comfort levels of our learners and ourselves.

Don’t get attached. Innovation begets iteration. It is hard to spend so much time on something, only to completely scrap it on a second (or third, or fourth) look. But on reflection we realized that in-person instruction often implied changing (and removing!) aspects of instruction that don’t work. The opportunity to reflect on content in an online setting is much different, and often much more formal and drawn out. It’s easy to catch spelling and design mistakes, but a holistic realization that the content itself is not hitting right can be challenging, especially without immediate student feedback.

Even as vaccines are distributed and students and faculty return to campus, the insights gleaned from our experiences with online information literacy instruction have potential to improve the way we use the internet to support student learning. We are used to reflecting on our teaching right after we teach. We tend to let go of that reflection within a day or two, and often don’t reflect on it again until we teach the same thing again, which in many cases is up to a year later. With online instruction we don’t have an immediate opportunity to reflect, because we are not working with students in real time. After initial creation of content, we moved to a more mindful creation of long-term online asynchronous content. That meant we had the opportunity to reflect not only on our core concepts, but on how they connected more broadly to the curriculum.

In using CIE to frame information literacy in a STEM context for undergraduate student instruction, we created librarian interventions focused on student-driven instruction, with librarians acting as guides, not authorities. Equal emphasis and value is placed on various information sources, including Reddit, Wikipedia, and blogs, alongside traditional academic sources. By teaching students to critique information sources rather than lean on authority-driven judgment calls, we engaged students with the information itself, ultimately building their comfort levels with using more rigorous, credible sources. For example, engineering students learned the importance of critiquing technical documents and white papers, providing them a field-specific example of how different types of information can guide them in making ethical decisions about their practice. In-person instruction allowed students to engage in dialogue with the librarian, as well as with peers. Moving to asynchronous online instruction via recorded PowerPoint decks lost the immediate conversational aspect of this lesson. We realized quickly that these could not be mimicked online, even with discussion boards or message-based interactions. While we were not able to achieve a collaborative conversation online, as we moved through the iterative process of developing online materials, we did start using a software that allowed students to engage with the lesson through different modalities: reading, watching recorded videos, listening to audio, and using other interactive elements. Thus, we were ultimately able to create a tool that could engage students in a meaningful way.

The pandemic forced many institutions’ hands in how we communicate information literacy to students in online contexts and shifted how we approach pedagogical reflection. As we move beyond “get it online now,” we have an opportunity to overhaul thinking around best practices for information literacy—especially in areas such as STEM, where traditional approaches may not always work. We need to take the time to rethink instruction, refine our content, and build toward a kind, comfortable approach to online instruction that supports students and librarians.

Kate Mercer ( is a STEM Librarian and Adjunct Professor in Systems Design Engineering; Kari D. Weaver ( is a Learning, Teaching, & Instructional Design Librarian; Stephanie Mutch ( works in Information Services and Resources; all at the University of Waterloo.

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