Please provide your institutional context and discuss why you decided to develop VRR and/ or VTS services.

Special Collections staff at the University of Manchester Library (UML) deliver object-based teaching seminars and workshops across many disciplines for undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Manchester. In particular, our specialist curators deliver two modules for the MA in Medieval and Early Modern Studies which are entirely dependent on collections held by the Library. For security and conservation reasons, the bulk of teaching traditionally takes places in the John Rylands Library and is contingent upon access to its world-renown collections of rare books, manuscripts, archives and visual materials. By the summer of 2020 it was clear that face-to-face teaching was unlikely to happen during the next academic year and we needed to think of an innovative solution to delivering object-based learning online. Our aim was to provide the 2020-21 cohort with both live interaction with the curator and to experience the 3D physicality of an object. We were also committed to delivering other teaching sessions from a Beat Writing seminar to sessions for PGCE History students. Thanks to the development of a Virtual Teaching Space (VTS) we were able to continue our specialised teaching and enhance the student experience during lockdown.

If you are already offering VRR and/ or VTS services, please describe what takes place before, during, and shortly after a ‘typical’ session (e.g. engagement with users, delivery of the session, feedback gathering). If you are currently planning to offer such services, please discuss how you envisage a ‘typical’ session.

Our Virtual Teaching Space is a semi-permanent arrangement. Setting up the various pieces of kit and ensuring that all the cables are correctly attached would be an onerous task if one started from scratch for every session. Instead, with a copy of our bespoke guidelines in hand, the curator plugs in the equipment and switches on the cameras, the lights, the Roland Mixer and the laptop. They will also attach their lapel microphone (for Covid security these are not shared). A typical workshop lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes. Our sessions are team taught – we insist that tutors are present to share subject-based knowledge, promote student discussion, admit late comers and to field the chat. We start the Zoom call 15 minutes prior to the session to check sound levels and switching between cameras. If short videos are to be played during the session these are tested. Timings will also be checked. Evaluation: It is good practice to save the chat field as there is often useful information there which can help to improve the session going forward. The tutor may decide to record the session and upload to the University Video portal so that the students can access the recording. We also create a bespoke evaluation survey for each session using Qualtrics which has the option of creating both a QR code which is displayed on the last slide and a link which is placed in the chat field and recirculated by email after the session.

Please discuss how the development and offering of VRR and/ or VTS services intersects or will intersect with other services and practices in your institution (e.g. digitisation, content creation, cataloguing).

Our VTS provision is also reliant on support from the imaging services team. Tutors are able to request that materials regularly used in class are digitised and added to our image viewer, Manchester Digital Collections. This means that students can revisit the source materials in their own time, whether for revision purposes or to write an assessment. Digitised materials held in Manchester Digital Collections are accompanied by detailed metadata which deepens student learning and engagement with a specific object. Students are also encouraged to use our Virtual Reading Room to complete course work and to access books and manuscripts which are not yet digitised (they may also request material that is in our image viewer if they need to obtain a better understanding of the physicality of an object, its size, shape and construction). Both services are a boon for postgraduate students not resident in Manchester and were invaluable during Covid restrictions and national lockdowns.

What are the benefits and challenges of developing and offering VRR and/ or VTS services (e.g. cost, skills requirements, impact assessment etc.)?

Benefits: VTS presents opportunities to reach a larger audience (previously physical collection encounters were capped at 20 students); all students get a closer view of objects; the same kit can produce content for multiple uses (eg public engagement events, handling videos); student satisfaction – in the words of one MA student ‘we felt that we mattered’. The VTS at the John Rylands Library won a University of Manchester Teaching Excellence 2021 Award which has raised our profile across the University. Challenges: Ideally a VTS needs a semi-permanent space as setting up the kit from scratch takes time and involves many cables and leads. Standard institutional IT support is probably insufficient and instead you will need to involve AV technicians and specialists. Once you have taken bespoke advice and ordered the kit you will need someone tech savvy within the team willing to lead on set up, training and documentation.

Are there any lessons you have already learnt from planning, developing, and offering VRR and/ or VTS services in your institution?

The following tips might prove helpful to other institutions establishing a VTS:

  • Make use of support from University Media/AV support teams if you have them.

  • Don’t just go for standard equipment such as document visualisers. Cameras and camcorders might not have the same macro zoom capabilities but are much better at capturing movement.

  • Good, portable lighting is an important part of the kit.

  • We recommend video equipment with HDMI and USB connection.

  • To easily switch between multiple cameras we use a Roland Mixer.

  • Zoom is very flexible in handling multiple video inputs (MS Teams may improve soon).

  • Bluetooth lapel microphones are preferable to be wired particularly if you will be moving around between objects and cameras. We have found table microphones work well.

What advice would you give to anyone who wants to develop and offer VRR and/ or VTS services through their institution?

If you work in a large HE institution with a central media services team get them involved at the start. Curators are experts on object based learning but in a virtual world you need to foster good relations with technical experts. Start with a clear brief on what you would like to show to the students and how (different formats, size and types of object, zoom requirements etc.) Start small and spend time experimenting and gaining confidence with the kit. Practice is important, especially when recording content. The shorter your video the longer it takes to get right!

Finally, what do you see as the future of VRRs as bespoke research infrastructure, or what role do you think these services might have in the future? What is your vision for your service? 

We hope to work with course leaders for first-year survey courses in History and English to deliver live interactive collection-based seminars which can be beamed to a lecture hall on main campus. One of the previous barriers to our reach across the University of Manchester was the small size and limited number of teaching spaces available within Library buildings, and the distance between the collections and the main campus lecture halls. This new innovative blended approach to collection-based teaching removes these traditional challenges. We also plan to use the Virtual Teaching Space equipment to create standalone videos on high-value, regularly requested and fragile objects, such as the Gutenberg Bible, the 14th-century Rylands Haggadah and an Ottonian Gospel Book of c.1000. Perhaps, as objects are conserved, used in exhibitions, or retrieved for teaching sessions, it will become routine to create videos capturing their physicality.


Janette Martin, Research and Learning Manager (Special Collections), The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester

Relevant links:

The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, University of Manchester