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In March of 2020, when NYC went under “stay at home” orders, and CUNY campuses closed, instruction librarians had to spontaneously reconceptualize library instruction, alongside everyone else in education. As other librarians on this blog have documented, the teaching faculty on our campus were so overwhelmed by having to move their entire lesson plans online that most of them did not take us up on our offer of zoom lessons. And so the rest of the spring semester (April and May) became instead a blur of instructional curation and creation: videos showing students how to search for articles, enhanced FAQ pages, multimedia LibGuides, free or free-for-now resources for faculty to share with students. It’s hard for me to remember exactly how many instructional videos we posted initially, but I would estimate it was around 15. It was a strange time: far-flung librarians isolated in separate homes, searching for videos we could share or quickly make ourselves.
I can’t overstate how little I wanted a global pandemic to descend on our city, but I was not sad about moving some instructional content online. The truth is, I had been thinking about how to better serve our commuter student campus already, and I was already convinced that we needed to boost up our online instruction presence. Our library instruction team had previously built a suite of tutorials using the CUNY-installed Guide on the Side software, and while they technically perform the duties of online instruction (information, side-by-side searching, assessment) for me those modules lacked something that would make them truly effective. For instance, when I was a kid, I learned that I was an audio/visual learner. I never did well on tests or worksheets, I think because I found the work too dull to captivate my mind. However, any time our assignment allowed us to be creative, I would overachieve and create elaborate home movies (I taught myself claymation as a kid and rendered the themes of The Lord of Flies through moving clay figurines, for instance). In high school I figured out that if I had to memorize huge sets of facts for a test, I could not retain the information by ordinary studying. However, if I set up my microphone and pretended to be a radio DJ, I could recount the information aloud and play it back, which further cemented the information in my mind. This is not because I think I’m an excellent radio DJ, just that audio and visual learning styles work better for me. So I had been thinking we needed a more dynamic audio/visual online learning software for library instruction, but a few obstacles existed. The most obvious one is that the most popular video editing packages (Captivate and Camtasia) cost money, and I was never successful at getting CSI to pay for it. (CUNY finally got a license this year during the pandemic, but by then I was at home, using my apple laptop for work, and it has imovie installed on it already). But the other obstacle, for me, is the expectation that these videos be scripted and directed, using animation and images, the campus logo, maybe a clever catch phrase. I know I just bragged about making claymation clips in middle school, but now that I work in a full-time academic position that mostly encompasses professional committee meetings, conference appearances, publications, and on-the-ground librarianship, flexing the amateur directing skills I honed in middle school felt at best ambitious and at worst dreadfully embarrassing.
This is where this blog post gets a tad controversial, but I’m just going to say it: I find many amateur librarian videos clunky and slow. There are also some out there that are very slick and impressively professional, but I’m not sure how libraries make truly professional videos without hiring filmmakers on their teams. I’ll just speak for myself: every time I have tried to stage direct a movie on iMovie or Camtasia, I find the experience frustrating and the end result is cringy to watch. The conventional wisdom in our media services unit on campus and in librarian literature generally is that you have to write up strategic goals, align them to specific learning outcomes, and make a script. When I read from a script, however, my voice is stilted and robotic–I need spontaneity to keep my voice light and energetic. I can’t successfully read a script and be interesting at the same time. A lesson plan, yes. A verbatim script, no.
Meanwhile, back in my office which was also my apartment, my wife had lost her job at a high-end restaurant that closed its doors forever on March 13th. She was stressed out, walking in circles in the apartment, and doom scrolling the news, so she decided to lean in to her Poshmark side hustle. It turns out, she’s really good at locating high ticket items in old thrift stores and marking them up 30-40 times what she paid for them. She also found solace in watching “thrift haul” videos on YouTube. Young [mostly] women commune with their fellow poshers and shoppers by sharing videos of themselves describing their recent purchases, what they like about the clothes, and how they plan to price them. Because my office is right next to my wife’s now, I overheard a lot of these videos and developed my own favorites. “Ooooh, is that Becky talking? I love her!” is a statement I said frequently. Becky may have a ring light and a charming style of discourse, but there is nothing professional about her videos. She just sits in front of the camera and talks about her thrift haul. Another example: during the pandemic I started sewing cloth masks, and because sewing is new for me, I learned how to do it by watching YouTube videos. Would I have watched a video if the sewer pulled up a powerpoint screen and read the words verbatim from the screen “I am going to show you how to sew a cloth face mask…”? I WOULD NOT! In these videos, I just wanted to watch people sewing, live, right there on the screen, while talking off-hand about the process so I could hit pause and bust a move on sewing my own masks. This video style is refreshing to me, and tells me a few things: 1. one can be interesting and engaging off the cuff, and 2. Gen Y and Z are used to watching videos made in this casual style. Why would we need to create corny powerpoints and script videos for students at the end of the generational alphabet, whose own styles are the opposite of scripted?
At a LILAC meeting, a fellow librarian Meagan Lacey showed us her videos using a screencasting software called Loom, and it clicked for me. My favorite thing about her videos is that the screencast captures a video of her, as well as her screen, so the viewer can experience a taste of what it’s like to be in a classroom with her. I felt pulled in to the videos, like she was literally telling me how to locate an article directly, and not like I was watching a poorly directed amateur powerpoint film. I downloaded the software and made a quick video of myself describing the instruction webpage and how I hoped to change it for my chief librarian, and then emailed it to her. She wrote me back and said [paraphrasing], “Wow, that video made me feel like you were right here in the room, showing me the website. I could right away see the issues.” The combination of video/audio worked better than describing the issue in written form, and better than telling her on the phone via disembodied voice (that’s what I call phone-calls, by the way. “Shall I email, or call you with my disembodied voice?”) This is the other thing about my teaching style, which I hadn’t thought of before the pandemic: I teach with my whole body. I gesture wildly while speaking, I move around the room to emphasize the concept of internet space. When describing Boolean operators, I put my arms up one on top of the other and then move them around like they are search terms telling the database secrets. Sometimes, when the students seem to be losing interest, I do a little dance. I’ll say something like, does anyone know the answer when I do this [insert dance]? And so for me, the physical body is an instructional tool, something one loses when the video shows the screen but not the person talking.
Since then, I’ve been using Loom to make casual, direct videos that show students how to use databases and locate articles. I’ve also used it to make quick videos showing faculty things, like how to link to an article using the permalink, or how to get your free NYT Academic Pass. A colleague of mine started using Loom internally, to make a video for colleagues when they have questions about creating a LibGuide, or whatever. My videos are probably still a bit embarrassing, but guess what: I didn’t have to apply to film school to make them! There is a lot more I would like to do to amplify this unstructured style of video-making, like embed internal responsive quizzes to make sure the student is following along, and insert final quizzes to inspire faculty to use our videos in their lessons (faculty love assessments).
Anyway, if you have tips you’d like to share, please do so in the comments! All I ask: don’t tell me to write a script! I’m never going back!