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:

Monday 18 May 2020

Moving Your Teaching Online

Many of us are having to adapt to delivering training and other interactions online instead of face to face. This is a situation likely to continue for some time and it can be daunting to know where to start if you are new to developing online materials.

I have recently joined a team running a teaching course for librarians at Cambridge and my first task was to curate a list of resources on how to move training materials online. It's far from exhaustive and mainly represents what I have come across on Twitter or online but I'm sharing it here as a starting point if you are looking for similar resources. Please add any others you have found useful in the comments section and I can add them to the list.


The current circumstances mean that there is an increased emphasis on the development of online educational materials. With traditional face-to-face training unlikely to resume for some time, many teachers will be thinking about how they can adapt their existing content for online delivery. This process is not as simple as just replicating the physical environment online or copying and pasting the content. It is worth spending some time thinking about the best way to deliver the training you can with the resources you have. The most important things to consider are the needs of your students and how you can meet these online.

General guidance on moving teaching online
Many teachers and trainers with experience in online teaching have shared their insights over the last few months. The following sources are particularly useful:

Moving classes and seminars online - Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning. 
CCTL has prepared a comprehensive guide to many different aspects of online teaching including accessibility concerns, dealing with interactions and how to prepare online materials.

Excellent blog post from Veronica Phillips from Cambridge Medical Library on her experiences of adapting her training for online delivery.

Teaching online in a time of crisis - Jane Secker and Kathryn Drumm.
Blog post from City University detailing their experiences of moving training online and including top tips for others looking to do similar.

Developing online instruction according to best practices – Ashley Lierman and Ariana Santiago.
This article from the Journal of Information Literacy contains a useful literature review and outlines some best practice for developing asynchronous online instruction.

A longer read but contains lots of thought provoking questions to encourage readers to consider how you can make the best use of moving teaching online.

Useful guidance on what you need to do to move to online sessions in a hurry.

Recording lectures
Creating videos is one of the easiest ways to adapt existing content, especially if you are presenting a lecture style session. All you need is a slide deck, your notes and some type of recording software. Many of the tools you will have been using for online meetings can be used to record lecture videos. These often use screen sharing to show slides whilst the teacher adds a narration. The teacher can choose to be seen on camera or hidden as they wish.

Webinars can be a little boring for the listener so try to make them as engaging as possible. This advice from Jisc is a good place to start if you are new to developing or delivering webinars. People have shorter attention spans online so consider recording a long webinar as shorter sessions e.g. four fifteen minute videos rather than an hour long session. If you do create a longer session consider adding an index to topics in the description. You can see an example on this YouTube video from the Moore Library (you will need to click on See More in the description section). This creates a clickable index so that viewers can go straight to the appropriate section.

Shorter videos
You can create effective videos outlining key concepts which can be used either on their own or as part of a larger resource/session. The advantage is that these videos can be viewed again if learners want to refresh their knowledge. There are many tools available to produce short videos, depending on the feel you are aiming for. Some suggestions to investigate are Animotica, Lumen5, Powtoon. You can find more details of some of these tools in this CILIP MMIT webinar (with slides).

In order to produce successful videos it’s important to understand how students learn online. This article on creating Effective educational videos by Cyntia J. Brame explains some of the theory behind developing good videos that help people learn.

Where your sessions involve live demonstrations of software or websites it might be a good idea to think about recording screencasts which can be included in online training. This involves capturing a recording of your screen as you perform a task (such as finding an item in the catalogue) and can be narrated if you feel this is needed. If you’re new to screencasting Screencastomatic and Screencastify are easy to use tools.

It is a good idea to keep these screencasts short if possible. Software and web platforms frequently change and it is easier to update shorter videos than re-record long ones, especially if you don’t have access to video editing software. This guide to free online video editing tools is useful if you want to investigate editing.

It’s important to think about how you can build interactivity into your sessions. This may be led by you as the teacher, students talking to other students or it may just be a reflective activity which students complete themselves. This interactivity can help students to relate otherwise abstract concepts to their own circumstances and help to embed learning. This graphic from Jo Boaler from Stanford University outlines some of the key principles for making online teaching interactive in small and easy to manage ways whilst the article 6 steps to effective online group work by Peter Hartley and Mark Dawson has some great tips on getting people to work together as well as a useful table comparing common tools that learners may have access to.

Top tips
There are plenty of lists with top tips for online teaching. Here are just a few:
Edited 30/5/20
Since I wrote this post I've found additional links which might be useful. These are included below: