Over the past year, you or someone you know has probably attended school or college classes conducted over the internet. Online learning, sometimes called distance learning or remote learning, is not new — people have been using their desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones to access learning content for years. However, the pandemic has separated learners from their classrooms in an unprecedented way. For many of us, including librarians, this sudden change pushed us out of our comfort zones and we had to adapt to this “new normal” whether we liked it or not.
There are two main types of online learning — real-time (synchronous) instruction and instruction that allows learners to learn at their own pace (asynchronous). While some people may feel isolated due to a lack of in-person interactions, online learning is not without benefits.
With an internet-connected device, people can learn from anywhere, whether from another state or the opposite side of the world. Taking online classes can also save travel time and accommodate those who have family or work commitments. Additionally, research has shown that a well-designed online course can facilitate learning just as effectively as in-person instruction.
But what does online learning have to do with libraries? If people are taking classes from their bedrooms, don’t brick-and-mortar libraries become irrelevant? While traditionally known for housing physical books, libraries, especially college and university libraries, have expansive offerings for remote learners, and we can look at the University of Idaho Library as an example.
First, let’s talk about our collections. While we have electronic books that people can use online, most of our book collection is in a physical format. If students live in other parts of the state or country, we mail books with return shipping labels to their off-campus addresses. We can also borrow print materials and media from more than 30 other academic libraries in the Pacific Northwest and mail those items to off-campus locations
While we can’t digitize a whole book due to copyright laws, we can scan some sections (a chapter, for example) if people submit a request, and we then deliver the digital files to them via email. We can also request and deliver electronic copies of materials held by other libraries across the world.
Besides books, we have other digital collections including journal articles; theses and dissertations; local, national, and international newspapers; streaming video for education and leisure; unique digital collections such as resources related to Idaho history and jazz; and more that can be accessed online.
The University of Idaho Library also offers a variety of services to support online learning. We provide stable Wi-Fi and rooms and study spaces equipped with videoconferencing technology for online collaborative work in the library building. Librarians also teach workshops on various topics for professional development and continuing education every semester in both online and in-person formats, and resources from past library workshops are readily available on the library’s website.
Finally, besides calling, texting, and emailing us, anyone (yes, anyone) can use our online chat service through our website to get assistance 24/7. All these resources and services are just a few examples of how we support online learning.
One final note — you can also find other library resources even if you aren’t affiliated with a university. In addition to your local public library, did you know that anyone who lives in Idaho can access thousands of magazines, reference materials, newspapers, and more for free through lili.org?
As more schools and colleges move to online lessons, supporting remote learners may have been an overdue task for some libraries. While the way we learn has changed over the years, libraries will continue to provide access to information and spread knowledge as part of our core missions, and supporting online learning is just one of the many services that will continually improve and evolve.
Hanwen Dong is the Instructional Technology Librarian at the University of Idaho Library.