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Supporting distance learning

Emma Dodd
Shift to Online

Many universities have students who study distance courses. There are a variety of reasons for this including mature students, part-time students who are also working, and geographic factors. In light of the current situation with COVID-19, an increasing number of universities have had to change their approach and move to 100% teaching online. We reached out to the team at the University of Exeter, who are well experienced in this, to ask for their top tips.

Sue Abbott and Simon Foote from the University of Exeter have shared their recommendations below: 


Copyright is definitely an issue and something that involves a lot of staff time and specialised knowledge. Be prepared to have one or more dedicated staff members working on copyright issues and challenges. 

They need to be able to understand the complexities of copyright and communicate these clearly but in a supportive manner to academic staff running the distance learning courses.

Design of Distance Learning Courses

An excellent distance learning course must include strong elements of the following themes: proactive teaching – socialisation – cognition. The Library play’s its part in each of these. Our digital reading lists help to enhance proactive teaching by providing access to digital resources. 

Our Library support team provides an element of socialization through our CHAT service, phone support and emails. Finally, the Library’s online LibGuides, digital support, reading lists, and access to online databases support student’s cognitive development. 

As Librarians we are as much facilitators of knowledge and teaching as the academic staff and this should be reflected in our training and skills development. As online distance learning courses develop, as librarians we need to equip ourselves with teaching and training skills and qualifications (such as Aspire).

The Unknown/Unexpected Challenges

This category would include those issues that may not always be aware of or would consider in our dealings with students on physical campuses/libraries. For example:

  • What are the demographics of online distance students? 
  • Are they generally older? 
  • What does this mean about how they access online resources and help? 
  • They may not always be working on their course during normal office hours, i.e. how do they seek help outside of normal office hours? 

They may have limited time to work on a course particularly if they are working full time or have a family to support. Does this impact on the amount of time they can spend reading? These are issues we may not always consider as librarians but may need to in the future with how we design our support services.


We would like to thank the team at the University of Exeter for sharing their experiences with supporting distance learning. Talis will continue to support our universities as workflows and processes evolve to support more distance learning. 

There are some fantastic resources being pulled together by the Higher Education community. We’d like to highlight this list of digital resources from Jane Secker and Chris Morrison to support online teaching. We’ve written other blog posts in this series to support our community during this time, you can see them here.

If you have any suggestions or best practice you would like to share with our wider community, do let us know or comment below.

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