25 November 2011

Students at the heart of the system

Let’s hear it for the lean, mean University.   

There’s going to be less money for teaching, fiercer competition for the most promising students and maybe more private universities.  UK Unis are going to have to pay greater attention to student levels of satisfaction with their course structure, delivery, and  infrastructure,  and are going to have to produce more effective and strategically directed research.

These were some of the challenges raised at a conference last Monday run by the Academic and Professional Division of the Publishers Association : Students at the Heart of the System:  how to fulfil their learning needs, to an audience of UK academic publishers and H.E. institutions, librarians and consultants.   

We gathered to discuss the Government H.E white paper and its likely impact on academic publishing.  Graham Taylor of the PA and, in his keynote speech, the Vice-Chancellor at Aberdeen University, Professor Ian Diamond, established the landscape and opened the debate.  Then followed a panel session with 6 students (50/50 undergraduate/post-graduate, UK/international) and presentations of four new publishing and collaborative working initiatives.  We wound up with a preliminary report from ShiftLearning of their survey of University Vice-Chancellors, and a general discussion.

From the student panel discussion it was clear that academic libraries are still at the heart of research and teaching, because their resources come with the reassurance of a level of authority and quality control.  However, the students all said they wanted more and better advice about how to evaluate and use the resources : undergraduates had problems locating textbooks, they were often advised to buy books written by their lecturers and would prefer "all the bits we have to read to be together in one textbook"; postgraduates were confused by the sheer quantity of material available to them and often felt isolated.  Those from overseas in particular were unaware of the shortcuts to study which the British usually employ (!), and tended to plough through everything. One, from Eastern Europe, described how the education system in her home country was very proscribed, communist thinking being still entrenched in education, and while she relished the freedom to “be a detective” in carrying out doctorate research in the UK she hadn't been prepared for the huge difference in what was expected of her.  All the students agreed that higher tuition fees would raise the expectation that their university library would provide all reading and study materials for their courses.

Attitudes to the question of print or electronic book varied.  Several students immediately expressed a preference for print; one, to audible gasps from the publishers in the audience, admitting blithely that she just photocopied whole books from the library.  Another student strongly recommended the Kindle.  She felt it was better value than buying print or using the library and, with a young child to care for, she it was difficult to keep library books in good condition at home and to manage carrying them on a bus along with said child and a pushchair.  The popularity of reading on iPhones and iPads was mentioned, students said they preferred them because they were fun to use and looked cool.  As many undergraduate courses are focussed on digesting study notes or handouts, those who used books as well were seen as the “loser geeks”, i.e. those who needed to read books because they couldn’t manage to pass the course on just the notes. However, when asked about costs, students immediately pointed out that Universities shouldn't expect them all to be able to afford an iPad.  

 Two of the new initiatives attracted my attention.  Despite the fact that valuable research is carried out by undergraduates, until now it hasn't been available to others.  OUP’s new Journal Bioscience Horizons fills the gap by publishing the results of undergraduate research in the life sciences which has been validated by a rigorous supervisory process replacing peer review.  It's met with considerable success, attracting citations even though articles cannot be retrieved yet on PubMed or Web of Science.  Other benefits are that students get an early taste of having their results reviewed and published, and thus the encouragement to move on to work at postgraduate level, while for the University having their students' work cited is useful publicity.

The second initiative is very much grassroots. Meducation began when Dr Alistair Buick was a medical student.  Confused by the amount of information he had to absorb, he started sharing podcasts and lecture notes on to a site and invited medical students around the UK to do the same.  Medication now has a vast mass of teaching resources : lecture notes, exam papers, podcasts, videos, diagrams and so on, plus a social networking area for students to ask questions and share answers.  They can sit online tests and rate their scores against each other; they can read chapters from Elsevier medical textbooks with an advertising link to purchase a print copy. 

Dr Buick explained that Meducation worked along the lines of You Tube – information is uploaded and if anyone complains about copyright or quality they will take it down; when asked by a publisher “How do you guarantee that the information is accurate?” he replied that medical tuition is traditionally evidence based, with practitioners passing on their knowledge to students.  “How” he said “does one know that a lecturer has got it right?”

I felt the conference brushed aside universities' objections to the government white paper, and didn't really engage much with the points Professor Diamond presented at the outset.  Publishers are no different from the rest of us in struggling to come to terms with the changing economic and political landscape so it may not be surprising that they fell back on previous discussions.  However, the panel of students vividly presented them with the realities of university life.  The thought that stayed with me afterwards was that raised by Professor Diamond, and I think is particularly pertinent to librarians.  In future, he said, universities are going to have to focus delivery which responds to this question “How do I ensure my students have the best intellectual experience possible?” 

20 November 2011

Re-imagining library catalogue interfaces

We're often aware that students "don't use catalogues".

Take a look at these two images.

And now these ...

Well, aren't library catalogue interfaces just a bit ... dull?

Wouldn't it be good if instead of a plain text box with neatly arranged search options and vital information, the library catalogue page was...

a big creaky door ...?

... which, when you opened it, took you into a vast gothic building (stained glass, swinging lanterns) where a wizard librarian would quickly cast a spell on an old oak desk (fizz, bubble) and give you a leather bound volume which turned out to be an ebook copy of what it was you wanted to read?

If you wanted to find the real print book, you'd have a virtual treasure map which he'd inscribe to show you where it was in the library.

Sorting out fines for overdues would be easy.

OK, maybe the Harry Potter option is a bit stereotypical.  But you could find the physics stuff via the interior of a space station, or medical books through a hospital.  Chemistry would be in a laboratory, French literature would be in a Parisian market, and criminology in Wormwood Scrubs, you get the idea.

Just a thought.

10 November 2011

Collaborative platforms : dissolving boundaries between researchers, publishers and librarians

Earlier this month, Jayne Kelly (ebooks@cambridge Administrator/Cambridge University Library) and I were invited to speak at a seminar held jointly by the Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute and the Centre for Material Texts.

The topic was ebook platforms and their impact on scholarship, research, research skills and the end user. Hannah Perrett from Cambridge University Press (CUP) spoke from the publishers' perspective, while we presented from the point of view of academic librarians.  The audience consisted of ARU and Cambridge Uni staff and students, including some studying for a postgraduate qualification in Publishing, and librarians.

Hannah's presentation described CUP's plan to bring their existing electronic collections, and new content from other academic publishers, together on a single platform University Publishing Online.  She explained the background to and challenges involved in taking this on.  Jayne and I followed on, and our talk can be summarised in the slides which can be found at the foot of this post.

The following discussion was lively, well-informed and covered diverse issues.  I would suggest that many arose from the well-recognised tension between the need for publishers to keep generating income by retaining rights and restricting access to their content; and researchers' desire to have as much of it as possible available with the least amount of restriction.  Although the web would appear to offer this opportunity through open access publishing, the entrenched academic system of peer review, the need to publish to secure academic posts, and in some cases the need for income from sales, inhibit change.

The point Jayne and I tried to get across was that publishers, researchers and librarians could work together effectively and pro-actively to solve these challenges.

Some more specific comments I noted:

1.   How might researchers' work be mapped so that in future others could follow it? Emma Coonan had suggested to us the concept of "Darwin's Kindle", ie how will it be possible to store annotations in ebooks and exchanges via social media?  How do we know whose work should be archived because it will be significant for future students?

2.   Could ebook platforms be the place to accommodate this kind of information?  As researchers' work is usually published by different houses it's unlikely this will happen just yet. 

3.    This brought us on to information silos.  Basically, the more content is aggregated on platforms the greater the risk that these platforms will defend their investment by making it harder to share content outside its boundaries.  Meanwhile researchers would like to be able to move from platform to platform to pursue their topic, browsing serendipitously. Industry standards might be useful here but again agreement between publishers is years away, and there would be considerable challenges to keeping platforms interoperable after upgrades.  Archiving issues were again discussed in this context.

4.    Questions were asked about textbooks in eformat. CUP are not about to make their textbooks available electronically through sales to libraries; in common with most publishers they want to defend this revenue stream. However, Hannah drew a distinction between publishers like CUP and the big US companies currently marketing e-textbooks directly to students to replace print sales, and reminded the seminar of the differences in publishing models across the globe.
The discussion was well-informed and stimulating.  Jayne and I were grateful to Dr Leah Tether, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Publishing, Cultures of the Digital Economy Institute, ARU for allowing us to participate.

7 November 2011

How to succeed in Library Management

Part One of an occasional series

How to get your own way at meetings

1.  Never confess your diary has any spare time, except to attend a meeting that is important to you.

2.  Before the meeting never read minutes or documents.  Do not answer requests for information which might be helpful to the committee.

3.  At the meeting, ask anyone presenting any report/ proposal to summarise it for you.  They will probably miss out half of what is important so you can claim afterwards never to have known about it.

4.  When critical issues are discussed it's best to appear interested but occasionally gaze out of the window as if deep in thought.

5. If producing a document yourself, circulate it at the last possible moment. With luck no one will have read it.  Insist it has the full backing of your boss (you can run this past him/her later saying it has been agreed by the committee).  Tell the committee it is crucial that a decision is made immediately.  Chances are you will have it accepted with little scrutiny.

6. If pressed for a decision, suggest setting up a sub-committee/focus group (this will take several months to set up by which time the issue will no longer be relevant), or explain that you will need to discuss the matter further with your boss/colleagues/someone on long-term sick leave. 

7. If decisions go against you, appear blank at future meetings and ask “Did we agree that, I thought we agreed [what you actually wanted]" and hope no one can remember differently.

8. It's always worth trying to fix the minutes in your favour at the next meeting.

9. If asked to evidence any questionable decisions, respond by giving evidence for decisions which are irrelevant but uncontentious.  

10. If all else fails, resign.