How to develop inclusive reading lists for distance and blended learning

Jude Wilson offers advice on how academics can work with their university library teams to ensure course reading lists are accessible and inclusive for all students

Jude Wilson 's avatar

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Arden University

Arden University
15 Jul 2021
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Advice on creating accessible inclusive reading lists for students

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Engaging students in readings and microlectures
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Navigating a learning module in a programme that’s been developed without consulting the university library can feel a bit like tackling a maze.

Just like the twists and turns of a labyrinth, the library catalogue can suck you into hours of searching for items that cannot be accessed through the university’s online subscriptions. You can follow the maze’s paths deeper and deeper, thinking you have found the way out, that you’ve found the article you’re looking for. The title and the author check out, the abstract is there, you have struck gold! But, wait, where is the link to the full text? No, it’s another false exit: a paywall demanding £35 to access an article, £139 to access a chapter of a book.

Over the past 10 years, the academic publishing landscape has become increasingly complex. As publishing houses continue to rationalise revenue-generation models alongside the move from print to digital and the slow move towards open access publishing, many outside the UK higher education library sector would be surprised, even dismayed, by the sometimes staggering costs involved in providing students with electronic access to academic sources.

While a university library team has a range of tools at their disposal that can help to ensure students are able to access the resources they need, in some instances reading list items cannot be provided digitally. This is usually due to lack of availability in the desired format for institutional purchase, licence restrictions or excessive cost. There is a tension in the sector between a desire to provide students with seamless access to academic sources and the resources available to make this a reality. This is particularly prevalent in the context of distance and blended-learning programmes, where all the resources must available online.

In order to best provide for these students, it is vitally important library teams work closely with module development teams and module authors to ensure the references to reading within learning modules are available to students at the point of need. Our main requirement and guiding principle is that all the items on a module reading list must be available digitally and must be available for students to access through their learning module via an authenticated link. Collaboration is key to ensuring reading lists are fully online, always available and developed with students’ needs in mind.

However, there are other aspects that institutions must be aware of to ensure distance and blended-learning students are being best catered for.

Be concise and considerate of a student’s time

A student might choose to study a flexible, distance or bended-learning programme above more traditional modes of study for a range of reasons. Usually, there is a requirement to fit study around other commitments, such as work, family or caring responsibilities. A well-formed reading list is just one way we can help students to be efficient with their time. Ask yourself these questions as you consider the items on your reading list:

  • Is it an essential part of the learning experience of the module and is it helping to ensure the module’s learning outcomes are met?
  • Do you require students to read the item in full or can you focus their reading on a chapter or section?
  • Are all the older references required? Could some be removed or replaced with reading that is more contemporary to the field of study?

Consider the structure of your reading list

A well-structured reading list is vital to guide students’ learning and help them optimise their time. It is particularly important if you have a list with many items. It might be worthwhile to break down the reading into subsections of importance. We suggest structuring lists as follows:

  • Key: reading the student must complete alongside their learning on the module
  • Essential: items that will form part of the course delivery and may be embedded in course activities
  • Wider: useful for reading around the subject but not necessary for all students to read.

By structuring your reading lists in this way, you are being concise without stripping the number of references back to a point you are uncomfortable with. You are empowering students to make informed choices about their learning, and by including a wider reading section you can still give them broader context for their own research.

Be flexible and ready to exchange reading list items for suitable alternatives

Your university library will do their best to source as much of your reading list as they can, and they can employ resources such as the Copyright Licensing Agency’s (CLA) scanning licence to digitise articles or small sections of books for many items that would otherwise not be available electronically or that are not readily available in your library collection.

There may, however, be occasions when an item requested cannot be supplied, and this may require creative thinking and flexibility. The most challenging lists we have worked on contained references to foundational research that, unfortunately, could not be sourced in electronic format or digitised. However, we did source more contemporary articles that outlined and discussed the original research. So, even if you’re not able to provide a link to the original research, it is still very much worth coming up with alternatives to facilitate students learning of the key concepts.

We found the reading lists produced this way were more accessible due to the more familiar language in contemporary pieces and the reflective element. It is worth considering whether students might gain a better understating of a topic by reading original research or if a more contemporary piece exploring or discussing the research would help with their understanding.

The past year of pandemic teaching has brought into sharp focus the need for institutions to develop long-lasting strategies that will enable students to study and learn online. A well-constructed, accessible reading list goes a long way to improving students’ experience of studying online, helping them to be efficient with their learning and building their confidence. As educators we can support students to navigate their way through the labyrinth and come out confidently on the other side.

Jude Wilson is director of library services at Arden University.

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