Panlibus Blog

Archive for September, 2009

Making libraries accessible to all

mountain_of_booksYesterday, the Society of Chief Librarians made national news with their new initiative attempting to make libraries accessible to all. The collections of more than 4,000 libraries across England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be open to any member of the public by showing their existing library card, or proof of address, to join or access any library they are visiting.

Tony Durcan, formerly president of the Society of Chief Librarians explains:

“If you’ve joined one library service, why do you have to go through the bureaucratic process of filling in forms to join another?”

The Society’s Chief, Fiona Williams supports this further by saying:

“Libraries are a public service for everybody. We want people to know that all libraries are open to them, not only the libraries where they live. This is an important step towards making libraries even more accessible to all.”

Though items borrowed must be returned to the library from where they came, so far the initiative has generated positive feedback and appears to be welcomed across the board. However, questions are now emerging including those raised by Mick Fortune of Library RFID Ltd.:

“Should I now be lobbying Oxfordshire to cancel their subscription to online information services because I, and everyone else in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, can now access them by joining say, Manchester online? How will the companies providing these services stay in business if only one authority pays a sub? Will Manchester council tax payers be prepared to pick up the tab for the whole country?”

This begs the question whether this initiative really is the significant move forwards that it has been painted to be? Have the consequences highlighted by Mick Fortune been taken into serious consideration? Watch this space as the debate continues.

Image published by framework_zend on Flickr

University of the West of Scotland talks with Talis

UWS LibraryIn this podcast, Sarah Bartlett talks with Gordon Hunt, University Librarian at the University of the West of Scotland.

As Gordon explains in the podcast, the University of the West of Scotland is a very young institution, having come into existence in 2007, as a result of an institutional merger.

We talk about the challenges of running a multi-site library against a backdrop of significant organisational change, ensuring that an equivalence of experience is obtained for all students regardless of location. We take a broad view of how the library works with the rest of the university and helps to meet corporate objectives. In so doing, we discuss a wide range of topics such as the changing role of the library in teaching and learning, the budgetary challenges of the present and future, internal partnerships, external community engagement, and the student experience.

We also consider the distinctiveness of Scottish Higher Education, and how the Scottish context also impacts the library’s operations.

Oxford University 2.0

CILIP logoAt Monday’s Mobile Learning conference, I had little idea of what to expect from a session entitled “Even august” by Melissa Highton from the Learning Technologies Group at the University of Oxford. However, since I visited Adam Marshall at the same institution for some VLE research I was carrying out this year, I’ve been very intrigued by the adoption of learning technologies at Oxford.

The title, in fact, came from this brief excerpt from the Demos Edgeless University report, which I blogged about here.

“Even august institutions such as University of Oxford now produce podcasts.”

Melissa speculated briefly on the sentiments that might lie behind such a statement (is the very idea of Open Oxford an oxymoron?) before turning her attention to the complexities of the relationship between mobile learning and a 900 year old university that is almost defined by its physical estate. The quads; the punts; the Bodleian… all of this combines to form an environment that students have deliberately chosen, and they don’t want Oxford to mess with it.

And yet, once you start delving into the learning technology initiatives underway there, you start having to re-examine your preconceptions of what Oxford University really is. For a start, 15,000 people a year participate in one of Oxford’s Continuing Education courses. Whilst the commercial VLEs can’t be adopted by an institution where the underpinning concept of a module has no meaning (this was one of the findings of my conversation with Adam Marshall), Oxford is instead making good use of collaborative data environments and academics and students work together in them. It shouldn’t be surprising, as Melissa pointed out, that world-class academics and students researching in a world-class institution should be making use of world-class technologies.

For me though, the real surprises lie in the fundamentals of the institution and how eminently suitable they are to a model for elearning. As Melissa explained, at Oxford the pedagogy is based largely on small group teaching plus extensive one-to-one contact. Lectures are entirely optional at Oxford, negotiated with your tutor on the basis of your individual learning life. In this intensive environment, as many as half of the students may be publishing in peer review journals by their final undergraduate year. Meanwhile, dozens of research lectures, open to all, take place every evening, as Oxford’s researchers communicate their latest findings.

As Melissa underlined her mission of ensuring that Oxford’s students are free range and find their own paths through the immersive learning environment, it became clear to me that Oxford is the template for Education 2.0. If online learning could replicate that model, it would attain its own ideal, in my opinion.

To reinforce the idea of Oxford as an institution that really gets the whole 2.0 thing, Melissa outlined four projects currently underway:

iTunes U: 200 of Oxford academics are willingly recording their free talks onto podcasts, 500 of which, covering all disciplines, are now freely available on iTunes U as well as on a non-proprietary portal. They hit one million downloads after 44 weeks. The academics readily understand that tthis is an appropriate way of communicating their knowledge. Meanwhile the Centre adds value in terms of metadata, technical standards, legal sign-off and workflows.

Erewhon: Using geo data, around 1300 locations have been mapped in Oxford. As a result, students can now identify, using their mobile device, the nearest available copy of a book on their reading list, bearing mind the user entitlement to and opening hours of the library, and also the distance between the student’s current location and specific libraries.

Steeple Project: An aggregated podcast fed around the big questions and topics.

Open Spires: Large chunks of Oxford content, licensed as Open Educational Resources, thus facilitating reuse.

What you get, then, is mobile learning, personalised but not isolated, in the context of a vibrant learning community. So all in all, Oxford University may be set in its physical location, but there’s a recognition that its content and learners are mobile, informed by a sense of place, as Melissa summarised.

Mobile learning: The bigger picture

CILIP logoIf anyone ever delivered the bigger picture at a conference, it was John Traxler from University of Wolverhampton. The insights came so thick and fast at one point that I struggled to take them in.

Traxler’s opening point was that mobile learning can enable us to take learning to communities that are out of reach in any one of a number of ways. This can be geographical – there are parts of Southern Africa where there is only infrequent mains electricity, for example. But constituents such as NEETs (disengaged 18-24 year olds who are in neither the formal education system or employment) are closer to home.

With such users, though, there’s a risk of what Traxler calls the “deficit model” or using technology to make up for something not there. Whereas we want to use technologies to transform enrich and extend the education experience. In a PDA pilot study, supporting fieldwork in the Lake District, the immediate value of preserving data when it rains (no soaking wet paper) were overshadowed by more transformational benefits – on the same field study, data was collected, and because mobile devices were in use, analysis on the fly was enabled, and as a result, participants were able to take more measurements in situ on the basis of findings thus far.

Traxler also gave a very realistic picture of the challenges that mobile learning faces at the current juncture. Adoption has not scaled. Instead, all we’ve seen over the past few years is small projects, with small groups of enthusiasts. Not all projects receiving funding have proven sustainable, and in the new funding climate, we need to be measured and stop throwing money at education in the vague hope that it will get better.

He also made some very interesting observations about the nature of mobile devices themselves. One problem, Traxler explains, is that mobile devices are (paradoxically) fixed in nature – you can’t plug things into them. What this means is that iPods, PlayStation consoles, SatNav devices and so on all have a dedicated purpose. You can’t turn a sat nav into an MP3 player, for example. Contrast that with the multi-purpose PC. This is very problematic for elearning. Related to this, mobile technology currently lacks the stability of PC platforms, and so we can’t build onto the device in the same way that we can with a PC.

Andy Powell from Eduserv noted that with the iPhone, the application store is the plug-in. So in this instance, it is software that is providing the plugability rather than hardware. He added that larger devices are now browser-enabled, so that may turn out to be the universal element that transforms the possibilities for mobile devices in education.

The past present and future of mobile learning

CILIP logoJohn Trinder from University of Glasgow rattled through some key historical developments in mobile technology from Apple’s Newton MessagePad in 1993 onwards, but once he’d listed some of the array of mobile devices available in 2009, it was time for a second key message of the CILIP Multimedia and Technology Group Annual Conference – namely, that there’s no “best” mobile technology; there’s only the best one for a specific context.

He spoke about a recent project at University of Glasgow, evaluating students’ use of mobile devices through automatic logging. He reinforced a point that many of us are aware of – students aren’t as techno-savvy as they may appear or claim. They also have limited pocket space (I’m assuming that this applies only to male students) and this can be a problem if the institution gives a mobile device to its students for learning purposes, because if some other mobile device comes into fashion, then the institutional device can find itself relegated into oblivion. This is what happened on this project when the iPod came along.

John spoke engagingly about a number of emerging technologies that are impacting the use of mobile devices, including QR codes, RFID, GPS and Augmented Reality. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in going home and trying out Augmented Reality technology on the web for myself. John believes that Augmented Reality in particular will give mobile devices a kick, and get many more people interested in them.

He also had some harsh words to say about the obstacles to widespread adoption of mobile learning in Higher Education. He believes that development by committee is endemic in the sector, but in reality, there’s just not the time for this. He also asked the audience whether they had an Innovation Prevention department in their institution. A number of people shouted out “Yes! IT!”

On the other hand, he advised sensitivity towards the possibility that fear of technology may drive students away immediately and possibly permanently. Today’s student body is very much a diverse one, and we have to take into account varying degrees of comfort with mobile devices.

Mobile learning: What exactly is it?

CILIP logoThe CILIP Multimedia & Technology Group Annual Conference, which took place yesterday at Aston University (a 10 minute train journey for me – just what the doctor ordered on a Monday morning), posed the question “Mobile learning: what exactly is it?”. And Mike Sharples from University of Nottingham, the man who wrote the definition on Wikipedia, was on hand with an immediate answer:

Any sort of learning that happens when the learner is not at a fixed, predetermined location, or learning that happens when the learner takes advantage of the learning opportunities offered by mobile technologies.

But thankfully we didn’t simply pack our bags at that point, as Mike (and the speakers who followed) had a lot more value to deliver.

For a start, as Mike elaborated, mobile learning is a lot older than you think. There have been exemplars of hand-held devices in classrooms for decades now, and according to Mike, mobile learning is in its third phase of development, which is characterised as “ambient learning”, or taking the every day world and enhancing it. The application of augmented reality technologies to the learning environment is a good example of this.

My important take-away from Mike’s session, though, was the need to focus on new types of learning experiences, and not just enhance current experiences. This was one of those uber-messages that subsequent speakers and contributors from the floor build on throughout an event.

By way of example, Mike outlined a series of classroom scenarios. In the first, three students are engaged in a face-to-face group activity. It’s difficult to coordinate the collaboration, and there’s a strong possibility (almost an inevitability) that one person will dominate the group. This certainly resonates with me. In the second scenario, the same group now has one computer at its disposal. The group is now becoming more manageable. But invariably there’ll be one person driving, so genuine team dynamics remain elusive. In the final scenario, though, the three students all have their own mobile devices, and that’s where the fun begins…

The teacher now sets a problem, and the problem goes onto all the devices. The individual thinks for a while, formulates an answer on a strictly individual basis, and once OK is pressed, everyone can see everyone else’s answer. The group dynamic now kicks in, and everyone comes together and agrees on a shared answer. This could be one of the individual answers, or could be a new group one. The group proposal is sent to the teacher. The teacher may ask anyone to defend the group answer (just in case any one team member is tempted to take a back seat at this point).

From the audience came a very valid answer, namely, what advantage does this mobile device approach have over pen and paper? Apparently, it’s more motivating, but actually a comparative study has been carried out around this very scenario, and apparently the problem with paper was essentially one of lack of coordination – getting everyone to complete the task. The orchestration element makes the difference. Iteration is also powerful – the teacher gets a full record of the interaction.

As someone who has consistently found group work to be alternately de-energising and frustrating, I was very interested to hear about the application of technologies to tackle the sapping passivity that group work can so easily engender.

It’s also worth noting that at ALT-C earlier this month, Terry Anderson made the valuable point that group work in its current form in academia in no way replicates real-world interactions.

Remember OPAC Suckiness

It was all the rage three years or so ago.  Karen Schneider even did a three part series on ALA TechSource exploring How OPACSs Suck, in which she listed elements of OPAC Suckitude and desirable features in a non-sucky OPAC.  Karen was not on her own, as this 2006 post from Jennifer Macaulay reminds us.

amazon suck What brought this to mind you may wonder.  I was preparing content for a presentation, when I was struck  by the massive contrast between two sites I was taking screen shots of.  The first is a classic site which does better than any other to show how libraries were being left behind by the rest of the Web.  If amazon.sucked like our old OPAC was a humorous facade on to web services, built by David Walker of California State University, to make that well know Internet retailer look like it had been styled by a well known library System supplier.  Until recently it was a fully working OPAC style interface on to Amazon.  Unfortunately I think recent changes with Amazon web services may have broken it beyond the first couple of clicks. (If you are listening David, fancy trying to fix it?)

RSAMD I was contrasting this with the impressive recently launched interface for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD).  Comparing these two, drives home just how far OPACs, (if that is what we should still be calling them), and more importantly the aspirations of the librarians responsible for them, have come in the last few years.

Are we there yet?  Checking out some of Karen’s 2006 list, you can tick of many items that are now standard in so called next generation OPACs, such as relevance ranking, spelling suggestions, and faceted browsing, so we are well on the way.  As the RSAMD interface shows, it is now possible for a library search interface to hold it’s head high amongst the some of the best of the web.

There is still progress to be made, but should we be still concentrating on a destination site that puts the library’s catalogue on line or should we looking more broadly at how the web presence of the whole library should be an integral part of the web.  I think the answer is both – Stunning catalogue interfaces should become the norm, not the exception to be admired and pointed at.   Meanwhile delivering all library services seamlessly as part of our users’ web experience should be our next goal.

I wonder what contrasts I’ll be reflecting upon in another three years…….

Discussing the drivers behind self-service in academic libraries

Karen ReeceAt today’s Talis Bridge Day here in Talis’ offices, Karen Reece set the event off to a great start by facilitating an excellent discussion of the drivers behind self-service in academic libraries.

Karen was first of all interested to know whether RFID offered any significant differences over electro-magnetic tagging. Liverpool Hope University have fully adopted RFID and find that it speeds up the process when users are at the self-service machine, especially when large numbers of items are being processed. Manchester Metropolitan University had found that certain types of publication were simply not amenable to electro-magnetic tags. And Birmingham City University wanted automatic detection that all parts of multi-volume sets had been returned.

Self-payments also threw up some interesting issues. Birmingham City University, who are planning to introduce ePayment facilities, wanted to offer a seamless experience for the student by enabling payments at the device, as opposed to a scenario in which the student has self-issued an item but is asked to go elsewhere to pay outstanding fines. De Montfort University, which now offers online payments on its website, had decided that minimising cash handling on campus – particularly bearing in mind cost-saving and security implications – was the overriding consideration.

This threw up a more fundamental question for libraries – namely in the context of online transactions, how exactly do we define self-service? It’s not simply about the provision of self-service devices, and so we need a broad definition in keeping with the pervasive nature of self-service in society. Against a backdrop of the 24/7 expectations engendered by the Internet, then, it’s all about being able to help ourselves.

De Montfort University recently procured an RFID-enabled self-return sortation unit, and although they have experienced some teething problems, there are undeniable benefits. They are effusive about the efficiencies gained in the reshelving workflow, as it’s now simply a matter of taking a bin to the relevant section. However, if there are any problems, then the library has to double discharge all items, thus undermining those efficiencies. They weren’t interested in using the facility as a marketing tool – this was an approach that UCLAN had taken by displaying the workings of the sortation unit that they acquired a few years ago, but apparently the students soon got bored of it.

Newman College asked other participants how they had promoted use of the self-service machines. At Dublin City University, librarians at the counter bring users over to the machine. Other libraries have made a conscious decision to promote the services now available at the devices, and feel that students might not otherwise adopt self-service.

Karen Reece pointed out that findings repeatedly emphasise the importance of one’s first experience of a self-service unit. From personal experience, she noted her ongoing reluctance to use Tesco’s self-service units following their failure to work the first time she’d tried one. This met with strong agreement; De Montfort University pointed out the importance of immediate usability.
Is a fully self-service library achievable? There seemed to be consensus that 70% is practicable at this stage, although 80-90% would be ideal. Birmingham City University has made a decision to set targets for specific library sites which will in any case have different levels of self-service and maybe different types of user. They also pointed out a problem that has largely been overlooked and that is keeping the lines of contact open with users.

To this, I would add that the library’s regular contact with and understanding of students is  now an important value proposition to the wider institution that it struggling to keep abreast of the rapidly changing and diversifying student body. So although the benefits of self-service are now clearly understood, the relationship with the user base needs to be safeguarded in the absence of the more basic customer transactions that self-service is replacing.

LibLime Cause Upset in the Open Source Community

LibLime_logo Roy Tennant, in a blog post with a title you have to read twice, draws our attention to moves from Open Source Library Systems company LibLime which is causing much angst from supporters of Open Source.

He reproduces comments from Joan Ransom on Library Matters:

Horowhenua Library Trust developed Koha, the world’s first open source library management system back in 2000. We gave it to the world in the spirit of community. We are very happy, delighted in fact, for any organisation or individual to take it, improve it and then give their improvements back.

Recipricocity is the keystone which gives strength to the Koha Community.

We do not begrudge vendors taking our gift and building a commercial enterprise out of it, as Liblime, Biblibre and any number of others have done, but the deal is that you give back. This has worked well for a decade and Liblime has been a strong, valued and much appreciated member of the Koha international community over that time.

So it is incredibly sad and disappointing that Liblime has decided to breach the spirit of the Koha project and offer a ‘Liblime clients only’ version of Koha. Let’s call it what it is: vendor lockin and a fork.

Others including Marshall Breeding have also commented.

From the trails of comments around these posts, I get the impression that most of the upset folks are taking offence about the perceived intentions of a previously lauded open source champion who is now grappling with the commercial and operational realities of running a business that provides key services to key customers.

Even if LibLime were to turn their back on the community aspect of Koha today [their press release indicates that they are not doing that], they should still be praised for moving forward that community far further than it would ever have reached without the involvement of such a commercial organisation. 

I would suggest though that, having been immersed in the Open Source world for so long, they should have expected such a backlash of an almost religious nature and handled this much better. 

The world [not just in libraries] is rapidly moving towards Cloud Computing, Software-as-a-service, hosted solutions  There is bound to be a tension between a community mostly made up of people who develop, and often look after there own local copy of, a software instance, and an organisation that aspires to run a service of the same/similar functionality for many customers on a hosted commercial basis.

Local experience here at Talis tells me that the velocity and pattern of development is very different for SaaS applications and services.  One that does not fit in very well with the traditional process of delivering software both open and closed source. 

Open Source is a valuable contribution that must be fostered, encouraged and promoted because the innovation that it generates is a valuable asset for all of us.  Experience with projects such as Juice and Jangle reinforce this. Nevertheless there are commercial and contractual realities that companies such as LinbLime have to take in to account, which may lead to others questioning their motives as we have seen over the last few days.


Staffordshire University library talks with Talis

Staffordshire University logoIn this podcast I talk with David Parkes, Associate Director for Learning Technology and Information Services at Staffordshire University. On the day that the library at Staffordshire University launched its 24 hour service, meaning that the library will now be open continuously until next July, David and I discuss how his team has adopted more agile working practices in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century information landscape and all that entails in terms of technological change, student expectation, budgetary pressures and shifts in the publishing supply chain.