When information is digital, it is nothing but strings of 1s and 0s. Unlike printed text or analog recordings, those 1s and 0s can be rendered in many different ways without changing the underlying information. This flexibility has the potential to throw the doors of disability wide open, letting in those who cannot see or hear or move as most people do. But to fully open these doors, those of us designing online materials – course lessons, web pages, LibGuides, screencasts – have to be vigilant in using the features that render the 1s and 0s fully accessible.
For two years now, I have been designing materials for a legal research class that is taught entirely online. Many other librarians are teaching online as well. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, any institution of higher education that sees any federal dollars pass through its coffers has to ensure that no disabled student is “excluded from the participation in, … denied the benefits of, or … subjected to discrimination” on account of their disability. In effect, this means that we are legally required to ensure that our online materials are as accessible and meaningful to a student with low/no vision, low/no hearing, or motor skill challenges as they are to a student without these needs. Legal requirements aside, meeting the needs of our students is pedagogical and even moral imperative as well.
Are we doing what we need to do when we design online materials? My guess is that many of us are not. Through a combination of inexperience and time constraints, we do not know how to make our materials universally accessible. Nor are we aware of what happens when we don’t. Most law librarians have not encountered a JAWS reader, a refreshable Braille display, or a mouth stick.
Principles of universal design provide a basic paradigm for inclusive environments – including online environments. The idea behind universal design is it benefit everyone. As an example, consider nesting “fly-out” menus – those drop-down menus where submenus expand to the side when you hover over an item. As Raymond Chen, author of the Microsoft Developer’s Network’s “The Old New Thing” blog, explains, “Menu navigation has turned into one of those mouse dexterity games where you have to guide your character through a maze without hitting any of the walls or you die and have to start over.” And that’s for people without vision or motor restrictions. For those with disabilities, the maze might as well be pitch black with walls that are continually closing in on you.
Designing fully-accessible online instruction is not hard, but it does require planning, gaining the necessary knowledge, and consistently application. A full discussion of best practices is well beyond the scope of this blog, but here are a few action items you can implement today.
- Keep the display clean, simple, and logically structured.
- Use styles to create your headings.
- Text readers don’t pick up the logical structure of the text if you simply format the text of your headings to be larger and bold. Instead, use Heading styles. Text readers “read” these and communicate the structure of the information to the user.
- Make sure all menus, form items, etc., are text-based rather than images.
- Text readers can’t read images. This may be acceptable for images that are for visual effect only, but it is a showstopper if your menus, form items, links, and other essential items are images rather than text.
- For any image, provide alternative text that a screen reader will read.
- When you do use an image – either for design or instructional purposes – always fill in the alternative text (alt-text) with a meaningful substitute. If the image is for visual effect only, you can use the alternative text to let the use know what the image is and that its use is essentially illustrative. If the image is essential to the instruction, use the alternative text to fully describe the visual so that the user will learn as much as possible from the description. If a picture is worth a thousand words, someone with a visual impairment may need your thousand words to master the material conveyed in the image.
- Similarly, captioning images increases their value to every user. Most users don’t have text readers that will read the alt-text fields, but a visible caption on every image is a long-standing (probably as long as the written word) practice that can exploit a teachable moment to the fullest.
- For any audio or video with audio, provide a transcript or captions.
- Hearing impairments are one of the most prevalent disabilities and are relatively easy to accommodate with transcripts and captioning. Text alternatives to audio can also be a boon to nondisabled students who retain information better when they read it rather than listen to it or those who do their studying in an environment where sound is not an option.
In keeping with the theme of the evolving role of the law librarian, it may be time for law librarians to start thinking about online legal research instruction.
Currently, Standard 306 of the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools allows for no more than a total of 12 credit hours in online or distance education toward the J.D. degree for courses qualifying under the Standard.
However, with the news that law schools are starting to dabble in online LL.M. degree programs (sub. req’d) and with the advent of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC, there may be a time in the very near future when librarians might see themselves integrated in an online class.
After a survey of the literature on topic, the following is a list of initial considerations that a law librarian should undertake when performing online instruction:
- Collaborating with faculty
- The course management system (CMS) – Blackboard or TWEN, for example
- Working with a learning designer
- Delivery of tutorials, videos, guides, and webinars
- Linking to library material
- Facilitating discussion
Generally, libraries want services for distance learners to be equivalent to those provided for students and faculty on campus. It’s important to continue to increase student awareness of library resources and services. And librarians embedded in online classes keep the library visible and increase student comfort with the library.
But online classes present challenges that traditional on campus interactions do not. Hoffman & Ramin note that librarians must become involved in online education at the course level, or they risk being bypassed by the CMS technology and also risk losing relevance with students and faculty. Therefore, it is important for librarians to collaborate with faculty about their role in the class early in the planning stage.
In addition to collaborating with the faculty, a librarian may want to discuss their instruction methods with a learning designer. Learning designers are professionals charged with creating a seamless online learning experience, and if your institution is lucky enough to employ learning designers, they are a great resource that should not be overlooked.
Most of us can agree that student instruction is well received when a librarian instructs on the research topic assigned to the class. The students are engaged when they are learning about a pressing issue. This means that the librarian can do things like create videos, guides, or webinars specific to the issue. And the online students can watch the instruction live or asynchronous. There are various tools for creating online content, and I particularly like Adobe Captivate for videos and WebX for webinars.
The librarian can also create a research guide for the class that links to the various library materials on point. One of the key recommendations is to create a library-specific discussion board to answer questions regarding research issues. The discussion board facilitates discussion between all of the students and the librarian. It is helpful if students post their questions to the discussion board because all of the other students in the online class can see the question and answer thread as well.
As an alumnae of an online M.L.I.S. degree program, I can see the potential for law librarians to really integrate into the online learning experience. If you are aware of online or distance programming at your institution that could benefit from a librarian presence, please speak up and advocate for librarian involvement.
For further reading reading, please see the following:
Starr Hoffman & Lilly Ramin, Best Practices for Librarians Embedded in Online Courses, UNT Digital Library (2010).
Victoria Matthew & Ann Schroeder, The Embedded Librarian Program, Educause Quarterly (2006).
Julie Cornett & Lisa Fuller, Embedded Librarian: Fostering Research Skills in Online Classes, ITC Newsletter (2013).
Editor’s note: Post written by Jeff Woodmansee
Although we have long incorporated elements of teaching into our “toolkit” of skills as librarians, there is an increasing trend of academic law librarians having formal teaching duties inside traditional classrooms. In today’s rapidly changing information environment remaining relevant means librarians must understand our role (and ourselves) as library and information professionals. We have roles beyond those of traditional encounters at the Reference Desk. And whether we’re at the Reference Desk or inside a classroom, we must strive to understand the complex behavioral processes that information seekers experience during the search process.
Law librarians serve a variety of roles as legal information professionals, especially in today’s day and age of advanced software and online technologies. Still, in the end, our traditional functions as being the people best equipped to help others access the information our patrons need and providing them with the tools they need to perform efficient research themselves remain paramount to what we do. We must always appreciate the roles we serve within the library and the overall mission that library serves for its users, regardless of all of the new “outside the library walls” duties we have now incorporated into our more traditional daily routines.
Of course, with that comes a new responsibility to not remain static and merely wait for today’s patrons and our new students to seek us out. Instead, we must be able to evolve constantly as technology demands and users and their needs adapt accordingly over time. Today, while we concern ourselves most with how to best serve our primary users and patrons to serve their information-seeking needs, we are now serving a much more diverse group of users and find ourselves having to adapt to their constantly-changing needs.
It’s important to note that even with all of the formal change seen in academic law libraries, many information professionals, even those not in the academic setting, generally acquire some pedagogical teaching skills along the way in their education—or will need to pick up these communication skills in other ways to effectively assist the wide range of patrons headed their way. We know that a lot of what we do in this profession involves “mini-lessons” with our users, and to be successful at that, one must be adaptable to various user learning styles. Each user is unique, and we need to be able to adjust to meet those needs in the best manner possible. Though we may serve unique individual users, we can also become better at what we do by picking up on general trends displayed by users to be better prepared when common needs arise. This is even more important when adding so much online technology in the mix because we find that we’re not just demonstrating the process of how to navigate the library’s resources, but often having to teach basic computer software and online researching skills as well.
For further reading, please see the following:
Beatrice A. Tice, The Academic Law Library in the 21st Century: Still the Heart of the Law. School, 1 UC IRVINE L. REV. 159 (Mar. 2011), available at http://www.law.uci.edu/lawreview/Vol1No1Articles/Tice.pdf
Michael Rogers, Turning Books Into Bits: Libraries Face The Digital Future, MSNBC: The Practical Futurist (Sept. 2005), available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8258453
Go ahead. Fill in the blank. And then think about it for a bit. As librarians, we spend a lot of time preparing for many things, be it the next one-on-one patron meeting or an instructional training. We spend a lot of time working on pedagogical issues and rightfully so. We are cutting edge on many things – why not be strong in best teaching methods and willing to try different things to get the point across. But these are not the only aspects of our jobs. I may spend a normal day on a variety of projects and tasks ranging from answering emails on library policy, taking a reference desk shift, or even getting things settled for a pizza order for a student group session. Where does everything fit in? Let’s just say it fits in.
With that said, there are three skills that librarians need to be willing to embrace, and they all deal with the idea of preparation. They may not seem like traditional librarian skills but are very important in our wide-ranging career field.
Project management: When I practiced law, I did a large amount of real estate work. We would get the request and have a certain set of deliverables by given dates. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being forced to develop project management skills that have served me well as a librarian. Keep in mind that getting that project from the beginning and working it until completion can be a time consuming task with many different road blocks along the way. But after a few times, you will get much better at plotting out a course, and it will even help your ability with the next topic. And for an excellent discussion on project management with a librarian slant, see Ted Tjaden’s recent Spectrum article.
Time management: This is not a new theme but deserves repeating. Everyone struggles with time management, but there are many tools out there to help. Michele Thomas did a wonderful job discussing just a few in an earlier blog post, and Shawn Friend followed up with additional ideas. If you take a look, I bet your university’s Human Resources department offers classes on the topic. It can never hurt to keep thinking about organizing your time. We only have so many hours in the day and we need to be productive at work – and then we all need to go home and experience the rest of our lives.
Perspective: I can’t spend all week preparing for that next class. I can’t spend all day on one email. That faculty request needs to be completed in one hour not two days. While we always want to put forth a professional work product, we need to remember that not everything is earth-changing, and too much time spent on certain tasks is not the best use of our time. Keeping the right perspective on a task is key. It needs to receive the attention it deserves.
It seems to me that all three of these skills go together as getting better at one will help with the others. But they may take work and time to master. Be willing to stay true to the process and the rest will follow.
Do you have other tips? Please share them in the comments.
The information on this website may not be up to date: The government shutdown and free access to legal information
“Since the birth of this country, legal materials have been in the hands of the few, denying legal justice to the many….We are working to change this situation.”Non-Profit “Free Law Project” Formed to Create an Open Legal Ecosystem, Sept. 24, 2013, http://freelawproject.org.
One week ago, the federal government shut down because Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on a spending bill. One result is that many federal websites – the most official and widely available websites for free legal information – are either shuttered or in stasis, not being updated or maintained until business resumes. Although it is hardly news that electronically-stored information is vulnerable to all sorts of hazards, the shutdown of the government has prompted me to think about the vulnerability of free access to legal information.
The federal government websites themselves are just one strand in the web of information, of course. But other websites that freely provide access to laws and legal information often rely on federal websites for some or most of their data. The CourtListener project is a good example; it provides one of the few free citator services – and it pulls opinions from federal court websites. Search engines such as Google Scholar’s opinion search also scrape data from federal websites. As you can imagine, the shuttering of government websites is likely to have a cascading effect.
Other sites that provide free access to legal information may not rely on government websites. Rather than pulling directly from federal websites, the Legal Information Institute (“LII”) at Cornell has created its own databases of sources such as the Code of Federal Regulations. Presumably, it would be less vulnerable to the effects of a government shutdown, but other hazards could threaten. The LII relies on donations, support from the Cornell Law School, and advertising. Just over a week ago, the developers of the CourtListener platform announced the establishment of the Free Law Project, an umbrella non-profit that would encompass Court Listener and other projects to make legal information freely available – and they are seeking grants and donations to make this possible. What if these sources of funding fail? It’s a tight economy, especially in legal education and the legal profession. Are we comfortable with access to legal information being dependent on generosity and a strong economy?
Cornell’s LII has been a wellspring for the Free Access to Law Movement (“FALM”), and other LIIs have been formed around the globe. Some of these have succeeded thus far; others have failed. It is not just funding that causes free-access-to-law sites to fail. Any such site is also vulnerable to organizational, personnel, time, and infrastructure limitations. See Isabelle Moncion and Mariya Badeva-Bright, Reaching Sustainability of Free Access to Law Initiatives, Aug. 15, 2011, VoxPopuLII, blog.law.cornell.edu/voxpop/tag/sustainability-of-free-access-to-law-projects.
The vulnerability of electronic access to free legal information is worrisome enough, but in the past week I have had three separate conversations about reductions in our print collections. In my library, we no longer have either Shepard’s or the Decennial Digests. We have cancelled print treatises if they are available online. And soon, it is possible that other digests and the regional reporters will be on the chopping block soon along with other rarely-if-ever-used treatises. From what I hear, many other libraries – academic, court, and public – are taking similar measures.
If we’re not keeping print and online access to free information is vulnerable to political showdowns and the vagaries of fund-raising, the public’s access to legal information is in jeopardy. It may not seem dire. After all, the ILL at Cornell has been running successfully since 1992 and the reporters and codes still line our shelves. But without information, there can be no justice. Universal access to laws should be on every librarian’s priority list.
The recently released book, What the Best Law Teachers Do, is the culmination of a four-year study that sought to identify extraordinary law teachers. The book gives evidence-based examples of “the best” in legal education based on a national qualitative study of 26 law professors nominated as “the best” by their peers and students.
According to InsideHigherEd, “[a]lthough they vary in style and specialty, the professors share a common set of characteristics.” Those commonalities became the themes and sub-themes that are the basis of the book, fleshed out with examples.
Below are some of the common characteristics of “the best” law teachers.
- Personal Qualities:
Thoughtful, authentic, passionate, enthusiastic, positive, energetic, empathetic, expressive, humble, responsible, attentive, creative, knowledgeable, and inspiring.
- Relate to Students:
Mutual respect; concern; focus on student learning and success; see promise, potential, and have confidence in the students; care; be accessible to students; go beyond the call of duty; and view students as collaborators.
- Expectations for Students:
Clear expectations; confidence that every student can excel; inspire preparation, engagement, and excellence; model expectations and work ethic; depth of preparation and class participation; and responsibility.
- Preparation to Teach:
Prepare as if teaching for the first time, goal driven, take the student perspective, detailed teaching plans, and reflect on teaching.
- Engage the Students:
Four step process: (1) consciously structure class sessions to achieve learning goals, (2) show they care about students, (3) make classes relevant, and (4) are extremely effective with their chosen teaching method.
- Feedback & Assessment:
Provide opportunities to practice and get feedback, meet with students, and provide positive feedback and constructive criticism.
This book works as a wonderful example for other law professors, as well as anyone charged with the teaching and instruction of law students – namely law librarians.
Law librarians can apply some of the same principles while teaching legal research either in class or in other sessions that “the best” law teachers practice. We can remain passionate about the topic and continue to believe in and inspire our students through engagement and feedback.
The authors devote Chapter 10 to suggested uses of the book. They suggest using the book to set goals. “As you read and think about the teaching ideas in this book, identify one to three concrete aspects of your own teaching that you would like to improve during the semester or year.” It is simple, sound advice that anyone in front of a class should do every semester.
This book inspired me to be a better legal research instructor, and I hope it does the same for you.