Saturday 30 May 2020

Creating Teaching Resources: Microsoft Sway

Like many people I've been thinking about how I can pivot the training I offer students to a fully online format. Although I've had plenty of practice creating online resources in recent years I decided that I wanted to try something different. I was looking for something that could replicate the information delivered in a face-to-face session but without having to record a long webinar that I wasn't sure people would watch! I had come across Microsoft Sway in the Office package that Cambridge subscribes to and although I had looked at it briefly I had never had the chance to fully investigate it until now. It's been a useful tool and one I will be using as we move into the next academic year. I know that other academic libraries have used Sway but I struggled to find many examples online so wanted to share some thoughts in case other teaching librarians were looking for a new tool.

What is it?

Billed as an 'online presentation package' and a successor to the much derided PowerPoint, Sway enables you to build an interactive presentation which users can navigate through. The end result is a professional looking site which brings together a range of content including text, images, video and links to more information. I've seen Sway described as a narrative tool and this is a good way of thinking about it. You can create a narrative to guide your learners through a topic, including other content and building on it as they move through.

How are we using it?

As mentioned above, we are using Sway as a way to offer what would have been our face-to-face sessions in an asynchronous online format. As a multinational university our users are all over the world and even with the best planning in the world it would be hard to replicate our content as live webinars which all attendees would get the most out of. I produce detailed presenter notes for any sessions I give (online or in person) and these have formed the basis of the text you see in a Sway.

You can see an example of our first Sway on responsible metrics at the link below:

Go to this Sway

If you look at the start of the Sway itself you will see a set of learning outcomes which deliberately mirror those you would find in one of our face-to-face session. I have also identified the section of the research lifecycle where the topic best fits. As more resources are built up the plan is to map these to each stage of the lifecycle so that researchers are supported whatever stage of their work they are at.

For me one of the major benefits of using Sway is that it allows me to bring together some of the existing online training formats I've been developing such as the Moore Minute videos and the Moore About guides on various topics. These have usually been produced in conjunction with face to face sessions and the replacement Sways will allow this practice to continue with new content produced for the Sway which can then be repurposed to a different format/audience. 

Finally, each Sway will contain activities throughout the module and at its conclusion. This offers users a chance to think about how they can put into practice what they are learning in their own work. This applied learning approach was something that worked well when I used it for the Research Support Ambassador Programme (aimed at library and administrative staff) and I wanted to give learners the same opportunity here. In a classroom situation this might be a time when we had a small discussion about some element of the content or a hands-on exercise to try something out. Obviously in the Sway these activities are optional and I have no way of knowing if people have engaged but in this context that is less important to me. The activities are there if people want to do them and hopefully they will at least offer a moment to stop and reflect.

How to...

I always find it helpful to have some how-tos when I'm trying out a new tool.  Sway is pretty intuitive to use once you have had a chance to play with some of the features. It is essentially made up of two main sections - the storyline and the design.

Storyline is where you add your content such as text and images. This is done by defining presentation sections and then adding 'cards'. Each type of content has it's own card and these can either be static or dynamic - for example a static paragraph of text or a dynamic slideshow of images. As with PowerPoint there are templates which you can use of you can start from scratch. My top tip: plan as much of your content as you can first before seeing how it will work in Sway otherwise it is easy to get sidetracked.

Design is much like the design option in PowerPoint and offers some different ways of presenting your information. Here you can select colour options, change the font and most importantly decide how your content will be presented. There are three main options: horizontal scroll, vertical scroll or slides which operates as a scrolling slideshow. My top tip here: choose a design concept fairly early in the design process. You can toggle between them fairly easily but you might find that your content is displaced if you do this too often.

It is worth noting that you can also convert an existing PowerPoint to a Sway although you might find that you have to play around with the content quite a lot to make it work in the new format. I tried this but on balance decided I would spend less time if I started from scratch!


There are several positives to using Sway. It is an easy to use tool which makes it relatively simple to create an engaging, professional looking product with little technical expertise. The Sway can be embedded easily either as a static link (as above) or a dynamic view of the presentation itself. Again, this is done through a simple link provided by the tool which seems to work well with existing library tools such as Moodle and LibGuides and means that learners don't have to leave the space where they are to access the resource. Sway allows easy embedding of dynamic content such as videos and images, something which works well for us as we already have these and can just include them in the new format which saves time. Being a relatively new tool it was designed to work with mobile devices and some thought has been given to accessibility. There is the usual facility to add alt-text to images and Sway also offers an accessibility view of the resource as a whole - essentially a PDF which retains the dynamic content (a 'normal' PDF can also be downloaded for printing). Although not perfect, it does go a long way in making the resource available to as many people as possible.


Obviously there are also some downsides. Sway is a Microsoft product and so ultimately works best with other Microsoft products. For example, it is much easier to embed a Microsoft Form rather than a Google Form which may be an issue for some and limits what you can include in terms of interactivity. As a Cloud based tool it might be hard for some creators to use, especially with current strains on broadband capacity. Although it offers choices in layout and font these are fairly limited which might not fit with existing branding. In replicating a 45 minute session there is a lot of content to go through and even after careful editing and adaptation of some content the resulting resource is longer than I would like and requires a lot of scrolling. However this may well be my fault rather than the tool itself! The biggest problem that I have come across so far is an inability to link to a specific section of a Sway. So for example in the responsible metrics resource it would be great to be able to link straight to the section on 'metric limitations' for use in other resources. A quick Google reveals that despite being one of the most asked about features there is as yet no way of doing this on Sway which is a real disappointment.

Next steps

Although there are issues with Sway this is true of any tool and in the current environment it is something which I can use to replicate my face-to-face sessions without resorting to a webinar. Time will tell what the researchers it is aimed at will think but the responses I've had so far have been positive and it offers a way to make the best use of the materials we already have.

I've put together a list of some of the main resources I've been using to educate myself about Sway:

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