Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Down Your Way

Kathryn Arnold on the electronic university and the virtual campus.

{short description of image}With over 30,000 students on 10 campuses, De Montfort is an institution where technology and web-based teaching, parts of the armoury of distance learning, are delivery mechanisms for campus-based students. De Montfort is developing the virtual university to underpin its on-campus learning: in time the techniques will be applied to off-campus students. The initiative is an important development in creating opportunities for new learners and supporting lifelong learning, where flexibility of access - time, place, pace - is a key factor. Kathryn Arnold, the Head of Library Services in the Division of Learning Development, set out the issues. De Montfort faced the usual problem of the need to teach more students at a lower cost while still maintaining a level of contact with them. Added to this was the local situation of 10 campuses spread over 150 kilometres, with a degree of academic duplication. "It was recognised at an early stage that building up the earlier local resources was not a sustainable option, and that was where the earlier electronic library initiative came from." There is a strong belief that the use of technology leads to a focus on learning rather than teaching, and encourages deliverers to think more carefully about how they they structure materials and activities, thus enhancing the quality of the learning process for the student.

From the early work with the ELINOR (Electronic Library and Information Online Retrieval) project, the university is now developing the electronic campus "where not just passive information sources will be available electronically but where interactive courseware will come on stream." This experience of electronic delivery will help to prepare students for the information age where technology will be embedded in most forms of employment. The electronic library was a first step, and much of the groundwork proved valuable. "We were the first to go down that path, and I believe that the contribution at a national level was an important one. Itis probably true that the direct impact of that first project on learning experiences was limited, but what we’re doing now has been informed by what we did then."

There were also useful general lessons in approach to be learnt from the electronic library project. There has been a conscious effort to "get the academics on board at a very early stage; they are the key to the process. At the time of ELINOR, which began in 1992, they were possibly not aware of the potential of the project."

The experience gained has now gone into the shared research project with IBM, which is testing IBM’s digital library software and is making available, via the University network, material such as short loan offprints and digitised examination papers. A common interface is being developed for these web-accessible databases, and the SP2 processor will be the main host for the courseware for the electronic campus. "The aim is to change the culture and embed the concept of online courseware". All faculties are involved, and there is variety of content and scale. Both courseware and assessment management software is being developed.

The extent of electronic delivery varies from entire modules to one or two sessions. Some modules span campuses and some are localised. In a university with cross-campus faculties, virtual modules mean that the same materials can be accessed across campuses and across programmes where there is a general applicability.

This is the future and Arnold set out the implications for the library. "There are major debates going on in the university involving this Division and Information Services and Systems. Storage and access are major issues. It is a contradiction in terms to say this is the electronic campus, but you’ve got to go to the library to use it. There’s a tension that must be resolved."

One of the difficulties surrounds learner support, where help desks in libraries will face a complex mix of issues. "We have an Electronic Campus Operational Group which is flagging this issue up for the faculties and the library. At the moment we’re liaising to establish how the faculties propose to address this but our concern is to ensure that our frontline delivery instaff have appropriate skills to support students at the point of delivery in this new environment."

Technical problems are another issue. "We don’t know where the line has to be drawn between technical support and professional information support. "Arnold also felt that there could be a further blurring of boundaries between librarians, IT specialists and academic staff. She felt there was another looming clash of interest, between the electronic campus and traditional IT use, particularly for students who for a very long time would still need things like basic word processing facilities. De Montfort have appointed an Electronic Services Development Manager, whose responsibility will be to develop a library IT strategy across all campuses. This will begin to answer these questions.

Part of the solution is seen as multiskilling. "We’ve given it a great deal of thought. It is reasonable to expect all staff to have a particular core set of skills. Beyond that common core of skills, you need to place people according to their strengths. We never want staff to say ‘this isn’t my problem, you need an IT person’, but they must know when to pass a problem on. From a student perspective, it’s not acceptable simply to say ‘I can’t help’ when there’s nobody else there who can."

Ownership and acceptance are crucial in cultural change. "The electronic campus belongs to the faculties. It’s made up of their modules, it’s their courseware. The library is here to help them deliver it in the way they feel most appropriate."

Author Details

Kathryn Arnold


Library Manager
The Library
De Montfort University,
Milton Keynes