Talking about Learning: Virtual Networking Event (April ’21)

Gareth J Johnson

Discussions focussing on teaching and learning, especially in an online environment, formed the core of the latest virtual networking meeting

In April the Collaboration were delighted once again to host the latest in our series of virtual networking events, with Sarah Pittaway (Worcester, MSDG) and Gareth J Johnson (Mercian Collaboration) co-facilitating discussions. This time the initial discussion focus was placed on learning, teaching and communicating with library users, although as always participants’ interests drove debate forward. From the discussions a number of clear themes of experience and comment emerged:

Platforms & (Re)Engagement

Chat functions seemed to be a big winner in terms of successful delivery of information, enquiry resolution and student engagement. While library staff had become more generally adroit at using it, which was as well given the increasing number of interactions now handled through it, in many cases it had exceeded email as the point of first or regular contact. Nevertheless, the loss of more social relationships and interactions with students had created issues for effective teaching and service delivery. In one example, supporting students’ mental well-being through these kinds of social engagements was commented as an intangible but deeply valuable area of library value which had proved to replicate or scale to an online environment. Additionally, some students simply preferred face-to-face engagement, which made reopening and continuing to offer hybrid teaching and services a valuable proposition.

Notably though, the demographics of enquiries in some libraries had changed, and it was reported how now they were no longer dealing mainly with access questions but were shifting to more complex learning and supports needs. However, this might reflect the movement through the academic year to exams and project activities and away from teaching sessions.

Staff Matter

Library staff and teams had been impacted working remotely, as the serendipitous, happenstance connections and discussions emanating from a passing encounter in the corridor had been lost. These random, but valuable learning and update opportunities had proved hard to replicate effectively through online engagements. Regular, scheduled meetings were perceived as a limited replacement for opportunities of beneficial social staff interactions, as often only a few voices dominated conversations. However, where efforts had been made to continue to ‘humanise’ staff’s work, positive strides had been made in keeping team cohesiveness, staff focus and overall moral: far better than where efforts had rested on simply ‘delivering on targets and objectives’.

Challenging Environments & User Difficulties

As in previous virtual networking sessions, some of the challenges faced by users and staff relating to distance support and engagement were explored. Many different elements were highlighted, from rising student expectations for delivery and responses ‘right here and now’ through to uncertainties of escalating trickier enquiries and even particular difficulties still faced by those staff less comfortable with technological interaction. In particular, the lack of a ‘singular solution’ or platform had caused consternation in some quarters, meaning vital messages could be missed where users or staff failed to recognise user’s communication preferences. However, simply all transmitting content and messages on ‘every available channel’ was agreed as risking information overload, and hence didn’t represent a suitable solution. Simply bombarding people with too much information was not an effective route, but with users preferences being so varied, it suggested more nuance was needed in terms of marketing and communication to achieve sufficient coverage.

It was recognised there was a portion of the student body who might be missing out on training, as a result of being reluctant to engage, insufficient technological familiarity or confidence or simply suffering from platform or network access issues. Reaching the ‘unreachable’ therefore remained a concern for ensuring equality of educational experience and opportunity. Additionally, teaching librarians reported because many students preferred to be ‘camera/mic off’, this reduced social interaction. As a result the quality of questions asked during sessions were more basic, and lacked the richer, contextual discussions of a physical class room, to sessions detriment.

Return to the Library

Libraries varied in how long they had been physically reopened, with some closing down only for a brief period, but for others the return to campus services had been a longer road. Nevertheless, with an increasing return to physical engagement and delivery, while maintain COVID-safe spaces and providing effective services remained a challenge which was not going away anytime soon. In some instances, elements of previously available services and access remained withdrawn as there were no easy ways to make them COVID-safe within current working practices or building configurations. Notably, it was commented how some students remained unaware their libraries had now reopened. This introduced discussions about new and emerging user preferences for distance delivery alongside considerations about more effective marketing communications for services.

Looking Ahead

Now students were, on the whole, used to online delivery, expectations were present how they would need to form a greater part of future teaching formats. It was suggested though that redeployment of staffing resource could help enable this, without the need for extensive additional investment. With less time spent on physical stock (for example), available staff time could be redistributed suggested towards more teaching and learning related activities, rather than processing work. However, while some staff would welcome such changes in their roles, others might not, and hence there were training and recruitment needs likely needing to be addressed. Nevertheless, questions on equality of access and experience for library patrons, especially for those in ‘digital poverty’ or who preferred physical interaction, shouldn’t be ignored or side-lined in a rush to offer a ‘digital first’ or  ‘online only’ library environment.


Designed as an informal space for wide-ranging discussions, virtual networking events are entirely driven by participants interests. These sessions are designed to appeal to staff working at all levels and sections of the academic libraries, with conversations ranging from the informal to the deeply detailed. Participants should always come ready, willing and able to chat with a small group of colleagues from across the region, to get the most out of the sessions.

For more information on future virtual networking events, or to be alerted when we announce the next one, contact the Officer, Gareth J Johnson (