Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Supporting Learners at a Distance

Alan MacDougall on cost effective ways of widening access.

The imperative for widening access to educational opportunity and attainment shows no sign of abating if recent national reports inter alia : Dearing, Kennedy and Fryer are considered indicators of interest. These reports, and government exhortation in United Kingdom, encourage delivery through vision, strategic thinking and resource application. This, together with the Prime Minister’s announcement of an additional half million students in further and higher education by 2002, suggest it is timely to consider the role of the library support services.

Within the UK library world there has been debate and discussion about the possible contribution of libraries to this changing world. A changing world where the convergence and progress of technologies in computing, broadcasting and communications, combined with the continued reduction in costs make it possible to offer prospective students the potential of access to a wide range of high quality learning resources no matter where they may be geographically situated.

{photo of Alan MacDougall}Attention has been focused on the role of the 3 Cs : connectivity, content and competencies. Research and development has followed this path too. Mel Collier mentioned in Ariadne No 10, in his capacity as Chair of Library and Information Commission Research Sub- Committee, that the Commission hoped to create an ‘enabling environment’ in its 2020 vision document, and that his priorities would include ‘establishing the UK as a global leader in the digital library developments’. The position and strategy is well expressed in the UK. There is clearly a drive to ensure that the appropriate infrastructure is put in place. This desire is well understandable as is the Joint Information System Committee (JISC) work in this area to ensure that vision becomes reality.

Those from less well resourced countries will look with interest at these developments, unable to match the resource investment yet wanting to ensure that culture, collaboration, partnership and standards are suitably in place to ensure a proactive contribution from the information rich rather than information poor society.

This paper addresses the potential for widening access through delivery of distance learning and the role of library support services from an international perspective. It is looking from the outside into the UK : a valid approach since neither the UK, nor any other country, can deliver in this area without reference to a global information society offered by the advance of the Internet. The issues which libraries and librarians will need to face in deriving policy and strategy are examined in the context of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the potential of an enhanced global access to education services as an international tradable commodity.

Reference has already been made to the 3 Cs (content, connectivity and competencies) which will be central to any successful delivery of distance education but there are a further 2 Cs which need to be recognised: circumnavigation (one can sail as well as surf!) and competition. As the content improves, the connectivity is guaranteed, and as the competencies of the individual are assured then the potential becomes even greater. The ease of navigation around the world, guaranteed fast connect times and responsiveness will encourage the delivery of global information retrieval and global distance education courses. Distance will truly be no barrier and, as a consequence, the choice of world wide courses will be readily available. Competition will become the norm and issues of quality of courses, adequacy of information precision, reliability and level of information support will become increasingly important in evaluating the relevance and worth of courses. The paper will concentrate on the institutional micro level rather than the national micro level.


Currently in the UK over 40 percent of 18 year olds are not in any kind of training or education. The UK government aspiration to attract another half million students into further and higher education by 2002 demonstrates the market potential. Add to those figures the requirements of the private sector for relevantly qualified staff, the initiatives as outlined in University of Industry and the general thrust of lifelong learning. And add to that, similar audiences in Europe and internationally then there is evidence of a huge unfulfilled target audience.

It suggests that there is a vast untapped market for which there are unlimited educational possibilities. In an unchanging world institutions would be giving consideration to meeting the need through campus based education courses. Sufficient resource, based on previous unit costings, would be made available (government of course) to meet the identified demand. However, the world is changing: governments world-wide will be looking for educational targets to be met at the most cost effective price and prospective students will require different and varying patterns of study time. It does not necessarily imply that local and regional courses will be guaranteed, it does not even imply that courses need to be delivered within any particular country boundaries. Globalisation now offers the challenge to educational institutions to devise and market their courses world-wide. It offers senior management the opportunity to target and deliver courses using information technology to overcome barriers to access.

The challenge for librarians, and for information specialists, is to rethink radically the level and type of distance information support that can be offered to support new modes of course delivery in a cost effective and efficient manner. University librarians have continued to think more in the mould of the traditional mode of delivery, despite the advances of information technology, viz: as primarily providing information across the campus rather than at a distance within national boundaries or outside it. The university librarian will have to rethink and reassess information strategy, offering alternative modes of delivery. There will be a clear need to prepare a business plan, or in the old parlance, costings to show various modes of delivery and their cost effectiveness.

In this environment, the librarian will have to be a hybrid manager who can bring to bear professional knowledge of the discipline of information knowledge and information management, apply information technology to optimal service delivery and offer excellence in negotiating skills. In so doing the librarian will articulate the needs of the distance learner, the types of service provision, as well as advocate the importance and cost benefit of investment in new modes of delivery. The academic will lead the innovative course curriculum but librarians will also need to make their input into the preparation of the curricula design. Further, the librarian will have to demonstrate the commitment to an expanded resource base, or shift of resource, and may have to reprioritise allocation of funding. The challenge will be to convince institutions that an additional investment will maximise and add value to the resource already being invested.

In more tangible terms libraries will have to follow the lead given by those such as Sheffield Hallam University Learning Centre’s Distance Learning Support Service. Described as ‘an impressive and relevant service’ in the Internet Resources Newsletter, it is showing the way forward in UK.

The service is fully described on the Sheffield Hallam University Learning Centre’s Homepage. Specialist staff are dedicated to the provision of service (evidence of prioritising and shifting of resource). Clear performance criteria are laid down and levels of service are thought through. Types of delivery are offered, for example, searching of data bases by the specialist staff where the service is not yet available over the Net, free delivery of articles where it is not possible to get them from alternative sources, and (where possible) the purchase of external membership of other appropriate libraries. An annual survey of service to distance learners is also carried out. There is insufficient space to detail the fine level of support.

Sheffield Hallam University rightly claims to be a pioneer in the development of services designed to meet the information needs of distance learning students. ‘No other UK university provides service quite like it’, they claim. Certainly this is a correct claim for a university which has a dual function of providing services to campus based as well as distance learners. Those universities exclusively committed to distance education, for example The Open University and many universities across Europe, can more easily afford to concentrate their resources on their exclusive category of distance education students.{cartoon igloo being fitted with dish}

Outside the UK there are numerous examples of universities which have given equality of treatment to their distance education students as well as their campus based students, for example, in North America, and in Australia at places such as Deakin University.

Sheffield Hallam is in the vanguard of a paradigm shift. It will be interesting to monitor the consequence of this development especially in terms of increased numbers of students and the perceived increase in quality. For far too long equity in provision of library services has been preached but not necessarily delivered. Fryer in his report on Learning for the 21st Century says, ‘libraries can enhance understanding, achievement and autonomy’, providing, it may be suggested that one does not think of a library as contained within four walls. The challenge is apparent.


The opportunities for widening access and provision of distance education support services are perhaps self evident, although the challenges have not always been translated into reality in a European context.

The strengths of higher education libraries in the furtherance of the delivery of distance education are likewise self evident: talented staff for the information age, highly skilled in the information field, and influential in their area of expertise; the ability to apply their information management and information knowledge to the information technology.

Librarians and libraries have been networked for many decades and are comfortable in establishing and retaining collaboration and partnerships across the sectoral divide, including public libraries. Perhaps the greatest strength of the library in this evolving new service delivery is that a significant proportion of the investment is already in place through library provision for existing campus communities. Any influx of additional resource could be argued to be adding value to an already valuable resource.

Having extolled the opportunities and strengths that a university library service can lend to underpinning of distance education learning, an injection of a sense of realism is perhaps needed. An appreciation of weaknesses and threats need to be contextually considered to move forward in a confident manner.

Weaknesses The challenge for librarians is to be advocates of change and service delivery within their institutions. The weakness is that librarians and their libraries, as presently organised, may feel it unwise to undertake further expansion of service especially for the distance education sector, without some clear appreciation of institutional strategy and of overall resource commitment or priority.

In Europe the commitment to distance education over the Internet is not as well exploited as ,for example, in North America where the commitment to resource infrastructure has been of a higher level. Lack of bandwidth and slow response times, cost of telecommunications, cost of equipment especially in the lesser favoured regions, lack of competencies, and copyright restrictions are all real issues to be faced. The delivery of electronic solutions, even if achievable, might not reach the information poor.

There are however degrees of service as Sheffield Hallam University is demonstrating. An essentially print based solution backed by voice mail and postal service together with the back-up resources of other libraries has a future certainly in the short term. The complete delivery of distance education backed by a full information service over the Internet is still waiting to become commonplace in Europe.

The Threats

The threats are enormous. The delivery of distance education and appropriate support services will be a commonplace reality in the very near future. This scenario is influenced by the sophisticated developments in the United States. A university management failing to grasp the potential and reality of the move to distance learning and service delivery support may well find the sand shifting under their collective feet. The lack of strategic positioning may lead to loss of market share which will be difficult to recapture at a later stage. Undoubtedly investment is required. The question to be resolved is whether institutions will be able to grasp this reality and react by infrastructure investment.

A glance at the United States which is targeting the European market should be understood. The range and quality of distance course provision is enormous as is their information service support structures.

International qualification will become the norm. Within Europe, the Community will grow ever closer, the currencies will merge and it will be a small step to enrol on courses in other countries. There are those who have remained sceptical about the ability of distance education to deliver students who are equipped with skills for life, for example interpersonal skills, collaborative skills, and social skills. However in a competitive society which is demanding knowledge skills, a productivie workforce and education at the lowest possible unit cost consistent with a prescribed level of quality, there will have to be an acceptance that distance education still has a valuable role in the education of society. The librarians however, through the distance delivery of information support services at least will contribute to the students’ acquisition of the highly valuable information skills for life.

However the worst threat will be that of the unenlightened senior administrators and managers who completely ignore the importance of information provision in the rush to register students and minimise or reduce the unit cost. The impoverishment to the student and society will be immense. It is sad to report that there is some evidence to suggest in Europe that this has already happened. In the headlong rush to provide economical distance education courses there has been some lack of interest in providing the student with a clearly costed quality information support environment. In such cases the packs of information and spoonfeeding as substitutes for rounded information services seem to be accepted. The ‘read this and remember it for the exam’ mentality is a concern. The librarian will have to vigorously guard against this outcome.

The Way Forward

The inevitable advance of information technology, convergence of communication technologies, reduction in costs, competition and globalisation will increase the potential for distance learning. The drive for increased effectiveness and efficiency will ensure that unit costs are driven down with some possible detrimental consequences for delivery of support services. These issues will have to be countered in a constructive manner.

The issues addressed in this paper will not go away. The widening of access to education will partly be resolved by distance education provision. The librarian’s role will to be to ensure the provision of a quality information support services as a right. In that context the challenges for librarians will be to ensure: equity of treatment for all potential users, a strategy put in place which will guarantee a quality of service provision, including collaboration and partnership, and information technology applied in the best and most cost effective manner to the benefit of the student.

Author details

Prof. Alan F. MacDougall
Director of Library Services
Dublin City University
Email: alan.macdougall@dcu.ie