27 October 2014

What I have learn at the college

As of October 2014, I have left the North Warwickshire and Hinckley College. Just before that, I was approached by a colleague from another college to share my ideas on the college library service development. This is my reply which I have edited slightly. Though it is not a well-polished text, I believe it may be of use to a reflection on what a good college library should or may look like.

The library has to be an integral part of the college. If the college management don't see the library as the key service for developing digital literacy or promoting use of ILT/ICT in teaching and learning, there won't be much librarians can do about it. If e-learning isn't explicitly planted into the LRS structure, the best way of moving forward would be developing partnerships; for example, introducing blogging into learning practice, bidding for funding for purchasing iPads etc. Partnerships allow involving others into the library's concerns, making them co-responsible, as well as benefiting from successes.

Over the years, I have increasingly started valuing working with tutors. Certainly, there is a scope for direct involvement with students, but my experience suggests that unless such involvement relates to the course content directly, students are reluctant to make use of our best offers. To make our work relevant, we have to work with tutors.

More recently, I became more sceptical of the library’s engagement with Facebook and Twitter: having sufficient staff hours for committing to the best practice in this area is non-negotiable; a half-way house is waste of efforts. I observed that our students visited the library website not for fun or useful - as *we* saw it - content, but for what they needed *there and then*, e.g. opening hours, advice on referencing or ebook access. I decided to focus on making such content as up-to-date and easy to follow as possible.

This persuaded me that we had to scale back our ambitions (also, 40% cut in staff hours last summer had to be accommodated immediately) and focus on what is central and absolutely fundamental to the college library service: providing resources and learning space, teaching info/digital literacy skills and offering on-the-spot support. As learning resources transition online more and more, the NWHC library benefited from having a dedicated Systems Librarian. It is an assistant librarian post in essence, but with a strong emphasis on library  systems (LMS, MyPC, ClickView, Shibboleth), digital content and their integration.

Every year, I was bringing something different to information skills teaching. This year, we stopped offering inductions and switched for library tours and tutorials. The difference isn’t clear-cut yet, but the aim is to offer just a warm welcome and orientation tours to as many students as possible in the beginning of the year. And then - longer sessions, up to an hour, which teachers could recognise as proper tutorials. There, we aim both promote the library resources (sometimes, I refer to them as premium-value resources) and offer info/digital skills instruction. One session is never completely alike another - they all are tailored to the course content and assessments. We do struggle with sessions for L1 & 2 - just lack of experience on our part. We have a post of Senior Learning Resources Assistant (User Education) who does most of the tutorials. Systems Librarian and College Librarian used to do all the sessions, but after the structural changes to the service and team the SLRA has to do virtually all the sessions.

The library space and on-the-spot support are of immense importance for developing good communication with the users. If students see us as trustworthy when they are in the library, they'll be more likely to take other offers. Going to classrooms with tutors is great too - whether to help to set up their students’ email access or Moodle: it all contributes to our reputation as people worth of speaking to.

VLE... we are using Moodle, but my library has withdrew its own page/course from there years ago. Instead, everything is on open access, www.nwhc.ac.uk/library. There are pros and cons to that; on balance, we chose to concentrate on building the website. However, we are making a lot of effort to help tutors to link the library resources (e.g. ebooks) to their Moodle pages. We can't reach all the tutors equally and many don't use VLE at all, but the number of good examples has been growing. In our latest annual report (http://nwhclibrary.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/new-annual-report/), the work with pop music tutors is highlighted. I often create reading lists on our LMS and link, or help tutors to link, them to their Moodle courses. For example, a reading list for one of HE course units. This works particularly well with Access to HE and HE programmes where each unit requires a range of resources... Basically, same as universities do - a reading list per unit.

Also, we provide tutors with URLs to either the resources itself (e.g. ebooks), or their LMS records (books, DVDs, streamed video) with instructions on how to upload it onto Moodle. When we receive a new resource, the tutor who requested it, receives an email notifying of the acquisition, as well as the instructions on how to link it to Moodle. Where resources are linked to VLE, they are used far better: tutors place them in the most appropriate unit and students trust their tutors' recommendations.

We’ve been promoting (i.e. chasing tutors, catching them in the library and talking to them etc.) a scanning service; it’s hard work as the concept is pretty unknown in FE, but we scanned about 20 chapters and articles last year – a good start.

Over the years, my focus has been shifting from new tools (we tried lots – QR-codes, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, online chats, iTunesU etc.) and promoting resources (publicity) to simplifying the ways tutors could communicate to the library and get from us what they want; to simpler and better structured ways for library resources to appear in the places where students are anyway, e.g. Moodle. That means, fewer posters, but more emails to tutors. It works! I believe FE students are quite particular: they are very reluctant (and have not been given skills) to leave the tightly defined learning spaces: they may use what the tutors suggests, but hardly anything else. Therefore, it’s important that the library resources come to students; realistically speaking, it doesn’t make sense to expect them to pro-actively look for the library resources. Therefore, competent cataloguing is of such paramount importance: it makes linking catalogue data to Moodle or its re-use in online reading lists so much easier. The web presence is hugely important too – students do look for library information online. Recently, I had less time for new toys and gimmicks (they are fun, no doubts). Instead, improving the ways of how we communicate to the users – both how we listen to and talk to them - had a strong impact on the service quality and certainly kept us all, library professionals, on our toes.

So, if I had another chance to develop and improve a college library service, I’d start with staff and their skills (systems, user education, acquisitions and cataloguing are important and skills-involved areas); info/digital literacy training – calling them tutorials as tutors would know what that means; building partnerships in every area possible – even for tiny projects – and writing about that (blog, Twitter, emails, staff bulletin); making it as easy as possible for tutors to get from the library what they want, but also chasing them for committing to using the resources the library spends the money and effort for. The stronger our partnerships with tutors are, the better we’ll understand their students and more engagement you’ll get from everyone.

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