Critical Reading – Moving the course online

This post outlines how the Critical Reading workshop (previously blogged about here) was moved to an online course.


The Critical Reading workshop at Cambridge was designed to help students read, summarise, and discuss scholarly works critically. It was inspired by a similar project at the University of Manchester, after Cambridge library staff participated in a session run by UoM staff in early 2019. A project group then formed as part of the Cambridge Information Literacy Network to adapt the Manchester course for the Cambridge context. The Cambridge version was piloted by library staff in mid-2019, adapted to respond to feedback and then piloted with students in colleges in September 2019. After the success of the initial sessions, the workshop was fully launched in January 2020. Between September 2019 and March 2020, we ran 8 sessions in 6 different locations, and taught 110 students.

The workshop was designed to be delivered face-to-face, as almost 50% of the content is either individual reflection or interactive group work. However, once the Covid-19 pandemic reached the UK in March 2020, in person teaching sessions were no longer possible, so we had to reconsider how the workshop might be delivered.

The Project

The project to move the Critical Reading workshop into an online course started in October 2020. Libby Tilley secured a few hours of Learning Design assistance from Skilled Education to help move in person courses into the online environment. The Critical Reading workshop was an ideal example to take forward and as Skilled Education had already used Moodle in work with other institutions in the University this platform was chosen.

We had several meetings with Skilled to brainstorm ideas. They were keen to ascertain how the face-to-face workshop operated, and we shared our slides, notes, and feedback from the workshop. We mapped the workshop into an online format, thinking about what was essential to keep: timings, and how we could make the content interactive, as the group work element was a fundamental part of the face-to-face workshop. Skilled created a sandpit course in Moodle using the grid format and created and imported images using Canva. The team (Laura, Lucy and Paul) worked through several iterations to get the content right before we moved into testing.   

One of the most important elements to get right was interactivity. We created the videos using the slide record function on PowerPoint and used Panopto to host them. Accessibility was embedded, with transcripts and alternative video formats available on Moodle, and all images contain alt text. The tasks needed to be engaging and varied through the course. We used Padlet to gather ideas on the main task and LibWizard to collect data on the learning outcomes and how well students had understood the content.  LibWizard also collected feedback on how useful the course was. We were able to re-purpose content from the original workshop to create a downloadable ‘question checklist’ and a Cornell note making template.

Once we were satisfied with the content, we introduced the course at a meeting of the CILN Advisory Group and asked members for feedback. We also received feedback from the Libraries Accessibility Service. We collated the feedback into a shared document and made amendments as necessary. A limited launch to History of Art and Clare college students in early March intended to gather qualitative feedback from students. None was forthcoming, but we could see that 11 students had enrolled on the course. Three of those made it through to the LibWizard quiz at the end and each of them answered the questions correctly, in addition to giving the course a ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’ score.  This gave us the confidence to launch to a wider audience.  


The Critical Reading course was launched just before the start of the Easter vacation in the middle of March 2021. Librarians across Cambridge were asked to promote the course to their students via email, social media and word of mouth. As a result, the first month saw approximately 250 students self-enrol and engage with the content we produced. The benefits of using online teaching tools are that the organisers can see statistics about the usage and engagement with each of the activities. We can therefore see that 86 students watched the first video in its entirety, and some watched it twice. It is also possible to look at the Padlet and assess the answers given to the questions we set throughout this course; this provides an interesting insight into the perceptions of the students and their thought process throughout the course. Finally, we used LibWizard for students to record what they will take away from the course and provide a score for how useful it has been. The results show that the participants remembered the key aspects of critical reading (such as ‘taking notes’, ‘engaging with the purpose of the article’ and ‘look for the context and identify a purpose’) and 94% found the course either ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’.

The results demonstrate the positive impact of the Critical Reading course and the level of engagement which it has attracted. We will continue to use the data to review the course and seek to find ways to gather qualitative data from students who have participated.

Lessons learnt

The creation and launch of the Critical Reading course taught us some important lessons, including:

  • Time: This project took a lot of time to create, test and launch. The group met for eight hour-long meetings and divided work which averaged about three hours each time. We were also fortunate to receive support from Skilled (five meetings) which cut down on the time we dedicated.
  • Test: We depended heavily on the opinions and views of library staff, the accessibility team and students. We learnt a lot from students who had attended the live events before the pandemic and we fed this into the online version so that it remained as interactive as possible.
  • Launch: We learnt that it is important to plan when the course is launched. Ideally, this should be when students are on site (so they can give anecdotal feedback) and to avoid any major events (like inductions and exams). We would also advise working backwards from your planned launch date and setting interim deadlines for different stages of the project to ensure you stay on track for completion.

The future

The Critical Reading course has retained an interactive element throughout and we would like to find a way to continue this. The group aims to offer part of the course as a synchronised online course so that students can engage in group talks, solving problems together and support one another.

We are working with Libby Tilley and Chris Baker in the Technology Enabled Learning (TEL) Service to determine if the Moodle course can be converted into a template, to prepare future library courses based on this model. A detailed ‘how to’ instruction guide is also a future aim.  

Finally, the course is live on Moodle and we encourage you to promote it to your students – Critical reading course

Written by Paul Cooke, Laura Moss and Lucy Woolhouse, May 2021


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