Students, Teaching and Learning

OfS Blended learning review

This summer the Office for Students [OfS] commissioned a review of blended learning aimed at supporting the English HE sector’s understanding of how blended learning approaches might relate to the OfS’s Conditions B2 and B3, both of which concern the quality of education provided in any manner or form by or on behalf of a provider. The review, which has just been published, is aimed at all stakeholders and focuses on blended learning approaches by six English HE providers, concentrating on four broad subject areas: humanities; medicine and allied health; natural sciences and engineering; and the performing arts.

A review panel was appointed by the OfS to conduct desk-based research, collect survey data and interview academic staff and students about each provider. Here are its main findings:

  • There was an “emergency pivot” or switch by English universities to online delivery at the start of the coronavirus pandemic [a diplomatic way of saying that institutions that had not relied much on online learning previously scrambled to piece together remote learning programmes]. The approach to blended learning is now “emergent” [i.e., more measured, but still developing] as providers consider their long-term teaching strategies.
  • In the academic year 2022-2023 – the current one – there will be greater opportunity to develop an appropriate range of learning techniques.
  • The rationale for blended learning approaches has often not been made clear to students.
  • Many students value the flexibility of “asynchronous online lectures”, which enables them to review and re-watch material at their own speed; but many also appreciate on-campus lectures which support peer learning, separate home and study environments, encourage their motivation to learn and help them to engage with challenging course content.
  • During the lockdowns, students felt isolated when studying online and identified a long-term “negative impact” on the academic community and lack of peer network support.
  • Integrating the online and on-campus learning timetable was a challenge for students and sometimes led to course overload.
  • The review panel identified examples of high-quality blended approaches and innovations by both instructors and supplies that ably supported students’ learning, but there were also “pockets” of poor online teaching practice and poor online learning resources.
  • The panel therefore took the view that the balance of face-to-face, online and blended learning is not the key determinant of teaching quality. High quality (or poor quality) teaching can take place across all modes of delivery.

Some key recommendations of the report are:

  • The procurement and delivery of new learning technology systems represents large and complex programmes for university IT departments operating in a rapidly-changing environment. Therefore providers should have in place the necessary project management and delivery expertise to ensure the maintenance of high standards and the observance of interoperability and accessibility requirements.
  • Using more learning technology will require increased numbers of professional staff with expertise in learning technology at universities; they must be able to work closely with senior leaders and course teams.
  • Understanding of the institutional and individual responsibilities of technical and teaching staff to ensure that learning materials are accessible was found to be “patchy”. The word “accessible” is often used to replace “digital” or “available”, rather than aligned with web accessibility standards [the latter is an issue that the HE community has worked hard to highlight and improve in recent years, an initiative that started well before the pandemic]. More work is needed to ensure that all staff in universities are aware of the policy context, regulations, standards and ethics concerning the use of technology, including equality, inclusion, universal design, “accessibility” in the sense it is used in the HE environment, copyright and data use.

These findings and recommendations may seem obvious to the seasoned HE-watcher and academic publisher. However, despite its rather anodyne language, the report makes some very useful suggestions, which can be of great help both to those established academic publishers already developing online learning solutions and new entrants to the market. Of particular help to the latter are the many sections in the report which describe correct approaches and protocols when working with universities. More generally, there is advice to all stakeholders to get their ducks in a row, to work closely together and to make appropriate investments in people as well as technology. Between the lines, there is also a warning to academics to treat suppliers as equals and to commit to working on products and solutions together.

From this writer’s perspective, the most controversial suggestion is that all modes of delivery of teaching are equal. Whilst not in itself contentious, the statement should be internalised alongside the carefully-articulated view that for students face-to-face teaching is important. In other words, if “quality” HE teaching is to be achieved – the goal of the review – a horses-for-courses approach must be taken. It’s not just a question of catering to different learning styles, but also accepting that a variety of teaching modes is needed to fulfil the whole range of learning experiences and needs.

For the full report, see https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/dc1c3c84-269a-4c40-8f87-15bfae0fcced/blended-learning-review-panel-report.pdf

[written by Linda Bennett]

Students

Student Angst – Five questions for today’s students

As this year’s successful A Level students prepare for university and second- and third-year undergraduates get ready to return, they have much to contend with that disturbed previous student cohorts either less or not at all. Here are 5 questions they need to address.

1. What is normal?

Most of us can remember the excitement of our first term at university – making lots of friends, attending parties, optimistically joining more societies than we would ever have time to keep up with. Some of us had second-year mentors to guide us through the bewildering if exciting maze of new opportunities. However, this year’s second- and third-year students have spent much of their time at university either incarcerated, or severely restricted by, Covid rules. If they have enjoyed a social life or belonged to societies, activity has mostly been by Zoom or Teams. Some have spent nearly all their time in dull halls of residence rooms staring at computer screens or the four dingy walls; others have gone home to their parents and worked from there. Either way, they have missed out on the huge people-interactive benefits that university life used to offer; and while the second-years may manage still to get a taste of it, for most third-years it is too late – they will have to buckle down now and work for their exams. Freshers must therefore carve out their own paths and create their own ‘normal’. On the plus side, perhaps they will come up with a better work-life balance than previous generations achieved.

2. How much face-to-face tuition is fair and reasonable?

This question began as a small dot on the horizon long before Covid reared its head. The so-called ‘massification of education’, accompanied by government caps on fees and escalating pressures on academic time, caused most UK universities to begin to experiment with online learning soon after the beginning of this century. It has much to recommend it: it makes study more feasible for part-time and mature students and distance learners; it benefits those new to a topic or slower learners with more opportunities to practise or revise; if used imaginatively – i.e., ‘blended’ with more traditional lectures and tutorials – it can free up academic time to engage students in discussion and debate, leaving more pedestrian ‘fact teaching’ to the technology. However, Covid not only accelerated the use of online learning solutions but for a time caused traditional teaching to be replaced almost entirely by them. Certain UK universities are reluctant to return to previous methods and are openly cutting back on students’ academic contact hours. How much academic-led tuition should students expect for the fees that they pay? Yet more to the point, how much do they need to become well-rounded adults who can contribute original thinking to future jobs instead of being mere fact-retention robots?

3. Should I expect the university to provide all the learning resources that I need?

This question is probably not uppermost in freshers’ minds as they depart for university, but it’s likely to loom much larger as their undergraduate careers progress. Individual universities’ approach to resource provision differs widely. Some make no commitment to ensuring that students have access to basic resources such as textbooks, therefore tacitly expecting them to pay for their own, as students were always expected to do in pre-tuition-fee times; others make ‘free’ textbook provision a selling feature in their prospectuses.  The current trend is to move away from textbooks altogether and replace them with a mixture of other types of resource, including monographs, lecturer-designed content [sometimes OERs, or Open Education Resources], online learning solutions and other web-sourced materials. Students at universities that take this approach can reasonably assume they will be able to obtain the essential resources they need without any additional financial outlay on their part. However, academic library budgets are now being squeezed quite dramatically, meaning that librarians have to find ways of fulfilling everyone’s needs and save money at the same time. Most have been operating ‘e-first’ policies for years, which means they will source an electronic copy over a print one when both are available. Electronic copies allow more students to us the same resource simultaneously. provided that the library has also paid for multi-user access; but some librarians are now saying this is unaffordable, while others say they will no longer acquire backlist monographs electronically if the library already has a copy in print. Consequently, although in theory all the resources the student needs are supplied by the university, in practice availability is restricted. A further pitfall for students is that the less prescriptive the resource lists academics prepare, the more likely students are to conduct Google searches for relevant content and some of the material they find will not be authentic. (It is an increasing part of the librarian’s role to train students how to identify content they can trust.)

4. How do I afford it all?

This is, of course, a question that most students – and their parents – need to be able to answer before they enrol. Currently university fees are capped at £9,250 a year in England (£4,625 for part-time students) and the cost of living for full-time students with no dependents estimated to be between £350 and £550 per month, depending on the university and its location. Most students qualify for help, primarily in the form of a low-interest government loan. This will normally take many years to pay back – many loans will never be repaid because the student’s subsequent employment does not reach the repayment start threshold. There is no easy answer to the affordability question. A more relevant consideration may be that fees can only rise – and universities are now lobbying for ‘realistic’ rises in fees to allow them to meet their costs, some stating that £25,000 a year would be necessary to enable standards to be maintained. If delayed, university education can only become less affordable than it is now.

5. Is it worth it?

That depends …. There is more than one reason for studying for a degree. Most undergraduates, however, embark upon a degree course primarily to get the type of job that would otherwise be unavailable to them. If this aim is not achieved, then patently it has not been worth it. Even if the student is successful, has he or she received value for money; and how should this be assessed? Are degrees being ‘devalued’? Some institutions now award almost all students a First or a 2/1. Does a degree course teach the student to be a competent member of the workforce? Would the student be better off working for a more vocational qualification – e.g., an apprenticeship? And, to turn the argument around, as a society are we in danger of losing sight of the value of scholarship and learning for learning’s sake?

Higher Education is at a crossroads. Rapid changes are under way. We hope to explore some of the implications of this in future articles.

This article was written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf. It was first published on the Bookbrunch Website on 12 September 2022.

Conferences, Covid-19, General, Students, Sustainability

Belated New Year’s Greetings!

Happy 2022 from Gold Leaf!  We apologise for not having sent our new year’s greetings sooner.

We are not offering excuses for being so tardy, but if we were, we could claim that we have been waiting to get more of a grip on the lie of the land as the new year swings into gear (apologies for the mixed metaphors!).  What do we think 2022 will bring to academic publishing?

Here are a few predictions, some questions and some personal hopes.

Predictions

  • Covid and ways of working. Despite all the ifs and buts, the travelling a few steps forwards in 2021 only to fall many paces back and all the prophecies of the soothsayers of doom, we think 2022 will see a return to a greater semblance of ‘normality’ than we have ‘enjoyed’ since the first lockdown in early spring 2020. This is likely to mean more travelling and more face-to-face meetings for all of us. However, we predict that the virtual meeting is now part of the ecology of academic publishing and is here to stay, though hopefully in lower and less enforced doses.
  • Sustainability. The last point leads directly to something that is hardly a prediction: the need to keep on developing strategies that deliver environmental sustainability. The concept of sustainability has firmly stamped its mark on publishing as much as every other industry. It’s a huge subject, but specifics for us are likely to include more targeted travel; paying greater attention to expenditure on energy; using only FSC paper and other sustainable raw materials; deploying local suppliers wherever possible; and continuing to innovate by developing user-friendly electronic products (though comparisons made between the carbon footprint of these and more traditional products may sometimes yield disappointing results).
  • Open Access. Another huge subject. Burning issues include the anticipation and fulfilment of research funders’ next moves; greater commitment to OA for books and how to achieve a sustainable business model to make it work; and how to publish ‘non-book content’ in fully OA journals.

Some questions

  • Events. What will happen to book fairs, conferences and other mass industry gatherings? We think these will probably survive, but in a less flashy (and lucrative for the organisers) way. Pre-2020, book fairs increasingly turned into events to deliver large numbers of eclectic, expensive seminars. It was the tail wagging the dog. Should book fairs become truer to their original raison d’être, i.e., used primarily to facilitate meetings between people from different parts of the industry and different countries for the discussion of business and closing of deals? Some of this can be done remotely – the fairs are likely to be smaller than in the past – and some of it can’t. Likewise, should conferences be shorter, fewer in number and more co-ordinated: should they be be organised for specific groups of people to share and explore information about genuine topics of interest, not hi-jacked by exhibitions to showcase materials, spawn costly dinners that cause the organisers to eke out the programme for an extra superfluous day, etc.?
  • Undergraduates. Have the experiences of the last two years, combined with the continuing withdrawal of government support for non-STEM subjects and fluctuations in the job market, disillusioned young people to the point where they no longer want to commit the time and expense to gaining a degree? Will those undergraduate courses that survive change completely in nature and become almost solely vocational? And are government measures to make universities more accountable and their teaching achievements more measurable truly aiding the quality of higher education delivery or stifling it?
  • Partnerships. Post-OA, post-‘transformative agreements’, post accelerated delivery of completely online or hybrid courses, what kinds of partnership do publishers need to forge with universities and what are the barriers to success? Where do we draw the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’?

Some personal hopes

  • Meetings. At Gold Leaf, we very much hope to be able to meet all our clients and the many friends who support us during 2022. We celebrated our 20th birthday in 2021. It was necessarily a low-key affair. We hope to be able to celebrate person-to-person with all of you during the course of this year.
  • Success, happiness and above all health for all our readers. It’s a big wish – we’ll need to be in the Good Fairy’s good books to achieve it. But we do mean it most sincerely. We hope this year will be the best ever yet for you, both personally and professionally. No one will be more excited to hear of your successes and more genuinely pleased than we shall.

Please keep in touch with us and let us know how things are going!

Warmest best wishes,

Annika and Linda

Academic Publishing, Case Studies, Digital Publishing, Open Access

The German new university press: small and perfectly formed or an enterprise in transition?

Gold Leaf have published a new report on German University Presses, which can be downloaded below or through the DOI 10.5281/zenodo.5584519

Innovations in publishing technology and staunch commitment to Open Access have combined to produce a proliferation of “new” university presses in recent years. Often run by the university’s library by seconding a tiny group of heroically-dedicated librarians, their ethos is very different from that of the traditional university presses – so different, in fact, that the two entities sometimes co-exist and collaborate within the same institution.

This paper examines the objectives, ideals and activities of 6 “new” German university presses, TU Berlin University Press, Göttingen University Press, BIS-Verlag, The Universitätsverlag Potsdam, Universitätsverlag universaar and universi (the University of Siegen Press). All are primarily engaged in Open Access book publishing. The paper explores their ethics and philosophy and the constraints and opportunities which they experience; their relationship with authors; the operational logistics they deploy; and the extent to which they can or may choose to use the services of third parties, including other publishers.

It concludes with an assessment of what the future might hold for these presses and others like them, including whether it is in their interests to grow larger, engage with additional ancillary activities, such as systematic marketing, or find other ways of generating greater revenues.  What are the options open to them, if the priority is not to compromise their Open Access ideals?

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

(cover photo for this blog post by Lezan @flickr)

Bookselling, Conferences

Back Together Again: The Booksellers Association Conference 2021

After more than eighteen months of a face-to-face industry events famine, Back Together Again, the 2021 BA Conference which started with the Gardners Trade Show on Sunday 12th September and continued with the conference itself the following day, was an absolute triumph. It demonstrated that independent booksellers are not only alive and well, but despite all the obstacles put in their way during the pandemic, they’re flourishing – and kicking. As the conference programme unfolded, it became clear that the BA has played no small part in both orchestrating the survival and promoting the bounce-back of independent booksellers throughout the UK and Ireland since the catalogue of extraordinary events which began with the cancellation of the London Book Fair in March 2020.

Andy Rossiter the current President of the BA, raised a laugh when he said he was the first president to have introduced himself to its members eighteen months into a two-year tenure. A former Waterstones employee who with his wife now owns three bookshops in the English / Welsh border country, he described their lucky escape in managing to pull out of a deal on a fourth just as the pandemic struck.  He had huge praise for Meryl Halls, MD of the BA, and Nick Bottomley, who had co-ordinated “intense rounds” of talks with publishers on behalf of booksellers throughout all five of the BA’s constituent countries caught up in the fall-out from the pandemic.

Meryl herself compared the last eighteen months with Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling I am, I am, I am, in which the author describes her fifteen brushes with death – and emerges from each of them triumphant and very much alive. She said she had watched with awe as booksellers recalibrated their businesses.  Booksellers have emerged from various lockdowns as braver, bolder – and greater in number.  The BA now has more than 1,000 bookseller members, most of whom are running or working in independent bookshops.  This almost restores the membership to its 2013 levels.

Chris Gregory, of the Institute of Place Management, Manchester Metropolitan University, showed how his consultancy had teamed up with the BA to help revive and develop High Street bookselling. Footfall in bookshops is still only at 80% of pre-pandemic levels, but it is improving all the time, helped by careful research and analysis into what turns a good bookseller into a superlative one.  Factors include opening times (the longer the better), clear methods of book classification, strong and original leadership, offering welcome at all times (e.g., by allowing anyone to use the lavatories, regardless of whether or not they are a customer) and being a force for good in the local community.

Richard Osman, TV personality turned successful crime writer (if you haven’t yet read The Thursday Murder Club, I recommend it wholeheartedly), spoke next.  He was eloquent in his praise for what bricks-and-mortar bookshops have achieved: “You have competition that undercuts you at every turn and yet you are taking market share from them – this is something extraordinary – it happens in no other industry.”  He said his journey after publishing The Thursday Murder Club had been a remarkable one and that meeting real booksellers was a “genuine joy”.

The theme of booksellers-fighting-back-against-internet-giants was continued by Mark Thornton, Bookshop Partnership Manager and Kiri Inglis, Editorial and Marketing Manager, of Bookshop.org, a company that introduced itself to the UK ten months ago (it has been operational in the USA for somewhat longer) to enable bricks-and-mortar booksellers to extend their reach to people who might not be able to visit their shops, extend their range by enabling them to offer titles they don’t stock and extend their hours by enabling them to sell books when their shops are closed. It also offers exciting solutions for individual authors and for publishers which are well worth investigating.

Fever Pitch, the one-hour session in which publishers pitch their top Christmas and spring titles, was as vibrant and entertaining as usual.  Many of the titles also appear in the BA Christmas catalogue, but some of the bigger books featured are not scheduled for publication until next April or May. Not all the publishers were big, powerful ones: the Independent Alliance presented on behalf of several small publishers. Fairlight Books showed some titles.  Fairlight enjoyed a particularly good conference – unusually, its staff manned a stand throughout the entirety of the event, showcasing beautiful and original titles and speaking to people who dropped by with great courtesy and good humour.

Among the many points worth noting from Fever Pitch: historical fiction is in the ascendant; crime and literary fiction continue to flourish; memoirs and books about lifestyle choices are likely to be big this Christmas. It is also fascinating that many publishers now offer special editions or specially-signed books to enable independent booksellers to make unique offers to their customers.

A further conference highlight was In Conversation, a debate between Meryl Halls and Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, which was chaired by Philip Jones, Editor of The Bookseller. Allison took up her appointment 8 days after America accepted that a pandemic was in progress. She said that it quickly exposed some cracks: it became apparent that 20% of the USA’s bookshops were in danger of folding. However, booksellers have received huge and concerted commitment from local communities.  Sales are bow 75% up against 2020; but additional costs caused by the pandemic still remain high.

Meryl agreed that there was great cause for optimism about the future of bookselling. During the pandemic, “the whole world had had to live with not having a High Street” and there could have been no better way of demonstrating the importance of “shop local”.

Meryl Halls talking to Allison Hill

Emma Bradshaw, Head of campaigns at the BA, gave a spirited Bookshop Day Update, during which she displayed this year’s Bookshop Day bags.  Bookshop Day this year is on Friday 8th October.

And then the formal part of the programme was over. A veteran of many conferences and events, I can truly say that never have I gone away from one feeling as happy and uplifted as I did from this one. It wasn’t only because it was the first opportunity to socialise with like-minded people for eighteen months – though that, of course played its part – but also because it was exhilarating to feel part of something so creative, successful, ambitious, and – yes – in a good way, defiant.

This blog post strays a little from Gold Leaf’s heartland territory of academic publishing and bookselling. Is it possible to draw conclusions for academic booksellers and publishers from Back Together Again? I would say so: my own takeaways include make all your publications, whatever their nature, beautiful; believe in and love what you sell; love your customers even more; and above all, never accept defeat. Generic lessons for all booksellers, publishers, authors and “others”, whatever part of the industry they inhabit.

And in the UK and Ireland we can burst with pride in the reassurance that the Booksellers Association is always there, working tirelessly to back up all this endeavour. 

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

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“.

Mental Health, Students, Universities

Supporting student mental health at Nottingham Trent University

Paul Dodsley and Leah Wareham together form the hub of the student support service at Nottingham Trent University, where 30,000 students are studying at any one time.  Paul describes the service as “prevention-led” – its aim is to take hold of opportunities to support students before they slip into difficulties, rather than afterwards.  It has been running for about fifteen years and addresses a range of issues – sexual health, drug and alcohol, nutrition – but mental health awareness takes up approximately 70% of Paul’s time and all of Leah’s.

How can two people make a difference to such a large body of students?  Paul and Leah have been extremely innovative in their approach and established an impressive variety of ways to enable them to punch far above their weight. Firstly, the service partners with specialist organisations to make its resources go further – the NHS, for example, and Student Minds. Some of these partner organisations themselves deliver services on the campus.  Secondly, training is a big part of what Paul and Leah do.  They train academics to recognise signs of distress in students and how to help; they train the student Mental Health Champions – other students who help in a myriad of ways – and offer Student Minds – Look Out For your Mates workshops to all students, which awards students with a nationally recognised certificate and, it is hoped, gives them essential life skills.  

Leah’s specific role is to focus on communication and innovative ways of delivering the message about the types of support available. She says she tries to be as creative as possible.  At the start of the first lockdown she posted “top tips” for preserving a healthy mental outlook on the Student Support Instagram. From these have progressed Instagram “takeovers” which talk about mental health and how the service can help; and also adaptation of formerly in-person activities to allow them to take place online, such as Time to Talk – a big virtual event which included input from many of the partner services involved. She has also organised virtual events of all kinds.  Some are designed to work as occupational therapy – tie-dye tutorials on Instagram, for example, and cookery videos; life-drawing classes and yoga.

Leah (along with Zoe Mallett from the NTSU) is responsible for recruiting and training the Champions.  There were only two when she joined the university staff less than three years ago, having just graduated in Photography; now around 400 have signed up.  She says that the peer support they provide is invaluable: “It is really effective for students to get support from other students.” Some of the ways in which they deliver are “quite funky”.  Many of them are very engaged and themselves think of all sorts of ways of contributing – for example, by creating podcasts.  Some are gaining work experience.  Together with Paul and Leah, their aim is to improve attitude to self-care:  Paul mentioned each person having “a kitbag of support”.  All the work they do is completely voluntary – though Paul says their commitment is so great that he would like to be able to find a way to pay them.

Asked what kinds of advice and support students need, and whether he feels they are more dependent than students used to be in the past, Paul is supportive of the present student generation.  He says the level of support that is now available is brilliant when compared with, say, twenty years ago, when he was a student at NTU.  University attendance has always brought its own challenges, even before the various lockdowns. To these have now been added more uncertainty regarding jobs for graduates and what will happen after they graduate.  He believes that one of the key contributions of the service is to enable students to leave the university better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them next. 

The impact of the pandemic and consequent lockdowns has been significant.  “Each lockdown has put an increased burden on mental health,” Paul says.  “It’s difficult to know whether it’s worse for the first years, who have never known ‘normal’ university life, or for the second and third years, who have experienced what it was like and therefore know what they are missing, for some or all the remaining time they have left here.” Students are not used to isolation. In non-lockdown circumstances, they meet regularly and this gives them a sense of belonging, of being part of a community.  Many students have welcomed the online support now on offer.  Paul says he recently read a comment in a study issues by the Mental Health Foundation about the present situation which struck him as particularly apposite: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”  The message he and Leah want to get across is, “If you’re struggling, that’s OK and perfectly understandable, but don’t suffer in silence.”

Asked what has made her most proud, Leah says it is the work that the champions have done.  “They get the student voice across, especially now they have started becoming more involved in online activity through social media and our events that run peer-to-peer sessions online. The work they do is amazing and they keep up with it – it doesn’t dwindle over time.”

Asked how he sees the future, Paul says he thinks the service will keep on building up its identity and raising awareness of “what we do”.   He would like to be able to focus more on promoting positive health and mental self-care.  “And of course, we need more staff.” That is perhaps undeniable; but it’s also undeniably true that what Paul and Leah have achieved is also “amazing”.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Mental Health, Students

The mental well-being of our students

Whilst at Gold Leaf we believe it is alarmist – and not at all helpful – to call the present generation of students “lost” because of the impact of the pandemic and various lockdowns on their education – in our experience most young people are astonishingly brave and resilient – it has to be acknowledged that everyone who has enjoyed working for a degree in happier times must sympathise with their plight.  Even though many universities around the world have done sterling work in supporting students as much as possible with online learning and blended learning and librarians have both rapidly increased their electronic holdings and made sure that academics and students are well-versed in using them, it cannot be denied that students are missing out on many of the things that make university special: for example, fieldwork expeditions and collaborative lab-work; trips to the theatre, concerts and art galleries and the other rich cultural experiences usually available to undergraduates; even simply hanging out with their peers. On top of this, students may be worried that degrees awarded under today’s restricted studying conditions may be “worth less” than “normal” and that even if the qualifications are recognised, there will be few jobs waiting for those who have qualified.

It is therefore not surprising that concern for students’ mental well-being has increased substantially throughout the past year. A significant amount of research has now been undertaken on this issue. One study, led by the University of Glasgow and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that thoughts of suicide among undergraduates encouraged by 8 – 10% in just three months.  A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that students now report considerably lower levels of personal well-being than the population as a whole. Dartmouth College, in the USA, detected spikes in student depression and anxiety as early as March 2020, when students were first encouraged to leave the campus and conduct most of their learning online. In January, French students organised a series of nationwide protests to draw attention to rising mental health problems caused by the pandemic.  Special mental health counsellors appointed at the University of Lyon say they have been overwhelmed by the demands placed on their services.  Two undergraduates at this university have already taken their own lives this year. An article in The Lancet points out that not much is known about the effects of large-scale pandemics on the health of children and adolescents[1]. As well as having a profound impact on their education, social distancing may exacerbate the risk of other threats to young people, such as physical, mental or sexual abuse. If their parents lose their jobs, this also undermines their sense of security.

Last year UNESCO started its Minding our Minds campaign. Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka, wrote: “It will take all of our collective effort and focus to ensure that students are getting the care they need to succeed.” To highlight the importance of the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the mental health of marginalized communities, UNESCO New Delhi has created five awareness posters, which are available in four languages English, Hindi, Sinhala and Tamil.

Clearly undergraduate mental health is vitally important to everyone: today’s undergraduates will be the scientists, politicians, artists and writers of the future.  Over the next few weeks, we are therefore planning to dig a little deeper into how some universities are supporting the mental health of their undergraduate communities.  If, having read this post, you would like to contribute or comment, we shall be delighted to hear from you.

[written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]


[1] Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19 – The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health