Academic Publishing, Students, Teaching and Learning, Universities

The 2021 – 2022 Academic Year: Covid, academia, academic publishing and Gold Leaf’s birthday!

Covid is still with us, along with many restrictions and quasi-restrictions, even though this summer has in some ways appeared to be more “normal”, at least in the UK, than last. “Freedom Day” happened, although it was a bit of a damp squib – essentially, it consisted of the government telling us that it is now up to us to behave responsibly. Masks, social distancing and not gathering in large groups are no longer legally enforceable, but we have been warned that reckless behaviour might cause the numbers of infection and deaths to climb so rapidly that the government might have to impose another lockdown (despite the fact that formerly it was adamant that it wouldn’t). Shops, pubs and theatres have opened again, but have been encouraged to impose their own safeguarding rules; travelling abroad has been possible, but less so than last year, achievable only if you are prepared to jump through the many paperwork hoops created by almost all countries, including our own; are fully vaccinated; and prepared to spend quite hefty sums on lateral flow and PCR tests. So, a mixed picture, but perhaps with some light at the end of the tunnel.

And so we have reached the autumn and the start of a new university year. What will be significant about this academic year? What will distinguish it from its predecessors?

A key point that jumps out is that many students who had planned to begin their studies this year have now decided to defer. In certain subjects, at certain universities – e.g., Medicine – they have been offered a hefty financial incentive to do so.

Also in the news recently was that some British universities, including some from the Russell Group, have chartered planes to enable overseas students to travel to the UK without problems – in effect, creating a sort of “academic corridor” akin to the holiday corridors of summer 2020.

Most UK students who are planning to start or continue their courses this year have been told that while there will be more face-to-face teaching than last year, online learning will remain an important component of their tertiary education. Some seem to be dismayed or indignant about this, while others appear philosophical or even pleased. Parents, on the whole, are more vociferous in their disapproval. They perceive online delivery of lectures to be a substandard form of teaching, a “cheat” which does not merit full payment of the now-hefty tuition fees.

Finally, this year’s new cohorts of UK students have not had the traditional A level exams to arrive at their grades. Instead, these have been awarded largely on teacher recommendation. It has been controversial. Were the grades artificially inflated by over-indulgent teachers (or, in some instances, owing to the demands of pushy parents)? Or did the greater reliance on coursework and teacher judgment produce fairer results?

These four issues together are likely to produce a very different kind of student experience from that of pre-Covid years (last year cannot be counted as a comparator – it was hopefully a one-off!). Taken together, the first two issues are perhaps the most sensitive.  Is it truly the case, as some educational commentators have asserted, that UK universities are keener on giving precious places to overseas rather than home students because they bring more money? Substantiating such a claim would require a great deal of granular course-by-course, university-by-university analysis. More broadly, it does suggest that, for whatever reason – lack of reliable digital infrastructure in overseas countries, unwillingness of overseas students to miss out on the physical experience of studying in the UK, the limited appeal that online lecture consumption has so far succeeded in achieving – universities are still far from being able to deliver a satisfactory online learning experience. This is reinforced by the lukewarm reception with which announcements that some teaching will remain online has been greeted.  It overlooks the fact that if some UK students are admitted to British universities this autumn without the level of competence required to cope with first year work, online foundation / revision courses could offer them their best chance of getting up to scratch.

Publishers have a role to play here, as well as academics. It has long been recognised that technology could be put to much more creative use to deliver a better teaching and learning experience; at the same time, the development of such technology requires time and money – both in increasingly short supply to both academics and tertiary institutions – as well as a profound understanding of the mechanics, dynamics and legal issues attendant upon successful, compelling dissemination of content. Some enterprising publishers – not necessarily the ones that typically spring to mind as inspirational innovators – are already exploring ways of working with academia to develop exciting new kinds of content for undergraduates and attractive ways of delivering it. Gold Leaf hopes to publish occasional blog posts devoted to this topic.

We’re delighted to be able to continue to bring you news and insights in what promises to be a very interesting academic year. It’s also our twentieth birthday year, so there will be posts that celebrate this, too.

Officially, Gold Leaf was “born” on 1st September 2001. We’d like to thank all our clients, past and present and those about to work with us, for your support and we look forward to continuing to work with you. Let’s raise a glass to the next twenty years!

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Covid-19, Learning from Libraries, Teaching and Learning

Learning from Libraries: UK academic librarians support their teaching colleagues during Covid-19

Introduction

 “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” Dr Samuel Johnson, English lexicographer, 1775

Dr Johnson’s words were more prophetic than he knew.  He lived in an age which thought of libraries as storage houses for thousands of codex volumes. And that, of course, is what libraries continued to be until the digital revolution which began in the 1990s with the digitisation of journals, and has become ever more sophisticated, until today some of the resources obtained from academic libraries are multimedia constructs which amalgamate “reusable objects” – or extracts – from many books and journals, the latter also available in several formats. Most university libraries in the UK now have “digital first” policies. The amount of budget devoted to print is small and shrinks annually.

The librarians who take care of these complex resources are themselves not simply guardians, but also skilled disseminators, negotiators and teachers – some have formal teaching qualifications and “team teach” with academics in the classroom, primarily to demonstrate the resources available and how they should be used.

Covid strikes

Covid 19 struck the UK in early spring 2020. Most universities allowed restricted access to the library and other buildings on campus at first; eventually the government ordered them to close completely.  Given all the effort and expense that had gone into building digital collections over the last twenty years and the rise and rise of remote access and distance learning, it might be thought that moving lectures and research online and relying mostly on digital resources would cause few problems. Was this indeed the case?

Gold Leaf contacted senior librarians at four UK universities to find out. Two – we have called them Sonia and Rosemary – work at traditional ‘Russell Group’ universities; and two – Frances and Heather – at post-1992 universities (or former polytechnics).

Academic (non)familiarity with digital resources

The first thing they noted was that most academics were not nearly as familiar with digital resources and how to deploy them as had been believed. Academics were nervous. They wanted “reassurance” from librarians. (Frances). “They did not know how to access resources off-campus.” (Heather).  “Very few had experience of delivering online or conducting seminars online.” (Sonia). “Many needed to upskill on the use of the video recording software that had previously only been used within on-campus teaching rooms.” (Rosemary).

Librarians to the rescue

Librarians already knew that academic proficiency in accessing digital resources and using Learning Management Systems [LMSs] was uneven, but they were surprised by how many academics turned out to be absolute beginners. “One of our Library teams, Learning Technologies, runs most of our Institutional support for our learning platform, Moodle, and they were heavily involved with training and support.” (Rosemary). “They were all asked to record their lectures in advance (to offset connectivity and access issues) and there was immediately an obvious need for a captioning service, which wasn’t widely available across the university at that time … the library teams supporting lecture capture and captioning required additional resource and an internal bulletin board to help facilitate moving [library] staff resource around to where it was most needed.” (Sonia) “We spent a lot of time creating and recording asynchronous sessions/presentations for staff to then add to modules on NOW [the LMS] for the students. For many courses, recorded material replaced some of the ‘traditional’ sessions we would have delivered face to face; we still did a lot of sessions ‘live’ on Teams, especially inductions for new students, but for the more detailed sessions there would often be a recording for the students to watch, followed up by ‘live’ Q&A sessions.” (Heather)

Resource management and acquisition

As important as helping academics to become competent in online delivery was for librarians to ensure that the resources they needed were available.  It was quickly discovered how many core texts were not available in e-format.  In the UK, librarians were massively aided by the Jisc free e-textbook programme, to which most of the big academic publishers contributed at the start of the first lockdown. However, this was discontinued by the start of the academic year 2020-2021, after which some e-textbooks proved unaffordable – the charges some publishers made for simultaneous user access sparked protests from librarians across the UK.  Certain libraries, predominantly those serving Russell Group universities, persevered with their policies of not buying textbooks, which triggered renewed interest in Open Access Resources [OERs], especially open textbooks. Libraries organised a range of coping strategies to deal with these problems, including themselves digitising as much content as was allowed under the terms of the Copyright Licensing Agency [CLA] licence; making greater use of Inter-Library Loan [ILL]; and setting up click-and-collect services to enable access to print books from the library.  

What helped academics most

We asked Sonia, Heather, Frances and Rosemary to name between three and five things they did that really helped academics during this period.  Aids mentioned by most of them included reviewing resource lists and obtaining as much of the content as possible in e-format; setting up a scanning service; encouraging academics to think early about the support they would need in the next academic year; and making the case for extra funding to cover all these new initiatives. Others were more individual: “We have started to see academics (especially in HSS) start to realise the benefits of Open Access. They have worked with the library to get a better idea of what is open to them and how to access it. And these are subject areas that have been pathologically against OA up to now.” (Frances). “Helping academics who had themselves paid for access but then had no idea how to make it discoverable or how to handle authentication.” (Heather) “Working in partnership with one of our book suppliers, we set up a service for postgraduate students and academic staff, where we ordered print books to be delivered directly to peoples’ homes. When we were able to re-open the library, we replaced this with a postal loans (and free returns) service.” (Sonia) “From Week 1 we set up an online temporary Webpage Support Hub, one each for Academics and Students, with FAQs and direct links to the library teams best placed to help.” (Rosemary)

What kinds of help do academics most need?

Asked what help academics still need as restrictions are only gradually being relaxed more than one year after the first lockdown, Frances says they still have a long way to go before they understand properly the business models and pricing principles operated by publishers. Heather says they still need help with resource list management and how to create their own online content. Sonia says she and her colleagues will work hard to introduce them to more Open Access materials. Rosemary says that long-term strategic teaching plans need to be put in place, because “it seems likely that off-campus study will be with us to stay – in some [subject] areas for the longer term – and that this will never fully revert.” 

Librarians’ standing rises

However else the Covid 19 years of 2020 and 2021 are viewed by historians of academia in years to come, one thing is surely clear: that academic librarians swiftly stepped up to the plate and made possible the continued undergraduate education of countless students, by supporting new kinds of teaching with their resourcefulness and know-how.  Nor has this gone unnoticed by their  contemporaries:

“I just wanted to say, as the Summer Term/exam season kicks off, what a wonderful job the library continues to do throughout this pandemic. I am extremely impressed with the breadth of support provided, and the sustained efficiency with which the team responds to queries/requests/issues.

“I have been especially pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the Purchase Request process – it’s perhaps due to the nature of the works I request, but I’m consistently impressed by the speedy and helpful responses. It’s so encouraging to see how readily the library invests in requested resources, and I really appreciate the effort you go to to identify alternative ways to access a resource when purchasing it isn’t possible. Postal loans arrive promptly, and the process of requesting them is wonderfully straightforward – I have used this service a great deal, and my research would have suffered without it. My sincerest thanks to everyone in all corners of the team for your hard work and support 😊.” [Academic based at Sonia’s (Russell Group) university]

Dr Johnson would have been astonished.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

This article was first published in German language on 26 May 2021 in “Digital Publishing Report, Sonderheft Bibliotheken” as well as on 7 June 2021 in “Digital Publishing Report, Sonderheft E-Learning“.