Adventures of an Online Distance Learning Librarian

by Sarah Ison, Online Distance Learning Manager and Online Distance Learning Librarian

Time flies when you’re passionate about your work—or maybe it’s just a side effect of spending too much time on Zoom.

A cartoon image of a generic librarian.
Image generated by Adobe Firefly

This November, I’ll celebrate six years as the Online Distance Learning (ODL) Librarian at Sussex, a role that has been both challenging and rewarding. Over these years, I’ve had the joy of supporting over a thousand distance learning students, ensuring they have the resources and guidance they need to succeed.

Our ODL journey began in 2018 with the launch of our first Master’s program in International Marketing. We started with just five students, and it was a celebratory moment when they graduated. Another milestone came in 2021 when we welcomed our 1000th student, ahead of schedule. Today, we offer nine diverse online courses, catering to an ever-growing community of learners.

We welcomed our 1000th student
ahead of schedule

I joined in 2019, just in time to get my bearings before the world turned upside down with the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, my role was perfectly suited for the transition to remote work. Armed with a borrowed laptop, I continued teaching via Zoom and collaborating on Teams. The transition was smooth, even if working from home with two young children (then aged 5 and 2) added a bit of chaos to the mix.

About 40% of our ODL students are based in the UK, while the rest are spread across more than 150 countries. I meet with them regularly through live sessions at the start of each intake. Given their busy schedules, often balancing work and family commitments, I keep my sessions short and to the point. Topics include search skills, advanced search techniques, referencing advice, plagiarism avoidance, and academic tips like note-taking and reading long documents. I also highlight the many useful guides created by our on-campus library team.

The pandemic pushed many universities to make all required readings available online. For ODL, this was already our standard practice. Our reading lists draw on the vast online resources of the University of Sussex Library. Each module, spanning seven weeks, includes 2-3 essential readings and up to 12 optional ones, fitting within the 20 hours of study time recommended per week. With six different start points each year, I offer live orientation sessions for every intake. These sessions, recorded and shared later, introduce students to library resources and support services. All recordings are available on the Study Online Student Support site, which I’m currently updating to make it more user-friendly and comprehensive. Students can also arrange 1-2-1 meetings with me for bespoke support, and can email our dedicated support email address too for their specific questions, often around finding access to hard-to-find articles and resources, tricky referencing questions and lots of other enquiries! I love being able to support students and help them find what they need, with one student recently referring to this ‘superpower’ of finding resources- it’s what Librarians do best!

While many ODL students may never visit our campus, they’re always welcome to use the library facilities if they’re nearby. However, most will experience student life from afar, which is quite different from the traditional on-campus experience.

I’m fortunate to work with colleagues who help keep our ODL reading lists up-to-date and ensure we have the resources needed for nearly 100 modules, with about 20 running each intake, six times a year. As I reflect on these past six years, I’m proud of our achievements and excited about the future of online distance learning at Sussex. I was delighted to receive the ‘Inclusive Sussex’ award at this year’s Education Awards, after being nominated by ODL students and colleagues.  Here’s to many more milestones and the continued support of our fantastic students.

The adventure continues…

Posted in Educational Enhancement, Inclusive teaching, Online Distance Learning (ODL)

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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