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

Before the pandemic, the Special Collections service was heavily involved in teaching and supporting student projects at UCL, drawing on our collections of rare books, archives, manuscripts and records to enhance student learning. In the last academic year before the pandemic, the team delivered 77 classes, embedded in the UCL curricula, to a total of over 1,200 students. When UCL pivoted to online learning following the first lockdown in March 2019, we set up a working group to look at how we could continue to offer opportunities for collections-based learning in a virtual environment. We decided to take a dual approach, and develop what we termed asynchronous teaching resources, such as item videos and digitised images of heavily used collection items, as well as test and use the software and the technological equipment that were available to us for synchronous (live) teaching. Although we offered scanning on demand to researchers, we decided not to launch a VRR, so this case study will focus on our VTS.

The Virtual Teaching Space (VTS) service at University College London (UCL) Library
Special Collections, University College London (UCL) Library

The Virtual Teaching Space (VTS) service at University College London (UCL) Library

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.

At a typical session, a member of staff will be on-site in their office or a seminar room with the relevant collection items, foam rests, a computer with a mobile visualiser plugged in, and a mobile phone. Using both a visualiser and a phone allow us to show items flexibly, switching between using the visualiser to show items in their entirety and the phone camera to show specific details and convey the materiality of the items in a more dynamic way. Much as we did in our face-to-face teaching, the presenting member of staff will talk to the students while showing the item(s). We engage students by asking open-ended questions, encouraging them to respond using the chat function, and including polls and quizzes. After the session, we share a link to an online feedback form, although we have found that the take-up is generally low.

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).

We have incorporated cataloguing and digitisation in the planning process for virtual teaching. Tutors are asked to select collection items for the classes ahead of the start of term, so that our digitisation team can ensure digital surrogates are available on time. For existing images, our retrospective cataloguing team enhances the metadata for the digital surrogates where needed so that they are discoverable in our public-facing digital content management system. The success of this approach is very much dependent on tutors finalising item lists much earlier than they would have done before the pandemic, which has not always been possible due to a variety of reasons, such as researchers being away to conduct research over the summer, and the fact that tutors often only receive confirmation of whether modules are running at a late stage.

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

One of the biggest challenges we have come up against in developing our VTS is the lack of a dedicated teaching space. We have had to be flexible and deliver sessions from a variety of spaces, which is more time-consuming, both because of the logistics involved in arranging to take collection items to and from different spaces, and because a suitable set-up needs to be found for each space. Another challenge has been a lack of staff time. We have found planning and delivering a virtual teaching session to be much more time-consuming than is the case for face-to-face teaching. Digitisation and cataloguing work needs to be factored into the planning process, testing and setting up the technology is another additional task, and sessions we have delivered in the past need to be reworked and adapted to the online environment. The benefits include the fact that virtual teaching is not subject to constraints posed by room size or layout or the need to minimise handling of fragile items, the possibility that the online environment offers to collaborate with other institutions from across the world with related collections, and the fact that once they have been developed, digital resources can be reused.

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

We have learnt that contrary to some of the reservations we had at the start of the process, it is possible to deliver effective and engaging object-based teaching sessions virtually. On the flip side, we have learnt that even with dedicated equipment and staff training in how to use it, there are significant technological challenges to be overcome when using the equipment in different locations and with different laptops.

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

We would advise others to spend enough time in advance of launching a VTS to develop and test a workflow for the VTS that includes digitisation, cataloguing and academic liaison, to test different platforms and pieces of equipment, and to train all staff involved in teaching in the use of these. We would also advise others to factor in enough staff time, as we have found developing and delivering online sessions to be much more time-consuming than face-to-face sessions.


Ms Erika Delbecque, Head of Rare Books, University College London (UCL)

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University College London (UCL) Library