Web Magazine for Information Professionals

View from the Hill: Mark Clark

Mark Clark risks the longer view.

50,000 years ago, so archaeological evidence says, Neanderthal Man carved on the tooth of the Woolly Mammoth. In 2600 BCE scribes were employed in Egypt and the oldest existing document written on papyrus is from 2200 BCE. In AD 105 T'sai Lun invented paper and by 600 books were printed in China. By 765 picture books were printed in Japan. By 950 folded books appeared in China and in Europe in 1453 Johannes Gutenberg used moveable type for printing. Recently, people celebrated an event of 50 years ago at the University of Manchester when Williams and Kilburn executed the world's first stored program on the Mark 1 computer. Neither could have foreseen the impact that this would have, nor the way the information industry would be revolutionised. Most readers have lived through the rapid development of the computer and related networking. In terms of raw power the cost of computing has fallen by a factor of a million in the past 20 years. The IBM PC arrived in 1981 and the now ubiquitous CD-ROM first appeared in 1985. The pervasive computer network as we know it has only a short history.

What does history tell us? We overestimate what can happen in two years and underestimate how much will change in 10 years. The challenge is that we can see but not accurately predict the impact of technology on our future. Technology is a threat in all but a few sectors. But we do have some certainties. The new millennium requires new skills and embraces an information culture with both an information-rich and information-poor society developing. The Internet phenomenon is certainly the largest IT development since the PC, and may be the largest IS development since the printed book. It provides a communications revolution for the citizen and industry. The levels of investment are very high and innovation is rapid. The Internet is changing the shape of society, as the computer is also changing. The next phase of the revolution begins with the so-called low-cost "set top box". This will bring wide-screen, high-definition television to broadcast and interactive services. It will provide access to Web based information services and a lightweight operating system for access to applications, games and services that may be down-loaded on demand. Entry to an information-rich world will open up opportunities for new paradigms of learning delivery. There has been a transformation in the profile of the student body in the HEIs. Lifelong learning requires re-skilling and updating, and HEIs should make a significant contribution. Yet the delivery of education is likely to be dramatically changed. Universities will have to focus on the value for money and additional value that they can contribute to education content. Considerable core material can and should be cost-effectively developed nationally for local and networked delivery. The Internet is an ideal vehicle to support traditional mechanisms for the dissemination of content, and to operate as a vehicle for tutoring and mentoring. As technologies develop and simulate many of the desirable aspects of campus based learning, distance students will be able to work as groups.

There are only two large world "industries": health and education. Education at all levels cannot remain largely unchallenged by new providers seeking to develop their markets. Universities have long competed but with artificial controls imposed on the competition itself. There are numerous mechanisms for comparison ranging from league tables based on crude, dissimilar measures, to attempts to measure quality for teaching and research. As with any crude comparison, and given the diverse missions of the institutions, the value-add for customers cannot be assessed. Can UK universities or the government allow continued competition with its associated overheads? It is timely to ask: with whom should we be competing and why? Would university collaboration be better for UK Ltd? Although there are threats like loss of identity or uniqueness, loss of ownership and loss of control, we must learn from the Japanese who extol the "collaborating to compete" approach. Through collaboration, opportunities abound. The difficulty is in moving from competition to collaboration and building on that. This begs the question whether we know what we have to build. Content and learner support will need teams of specialist academics, information specialists, and staff skilled in production techniques including presentation and what could be called the interaction technologies.

The role of the new "Information Professional" is going to change towards that of the knowledge mediator, a supporter of the learner committed to a partnership in meeting students' learning needs. They must understand the academic/customer requirement and be competent in all the information technologies relating to access, processing and copyright issues. The model for the partnership will be training rather than showing, skilling rather than doing. The information professional must readily deploy technologies to support the distance learner and the campus based user. Staff costs must be controlled and work assigned appropriately to the tiers within the profession. Investment in user led activities will inevitably be beneficial with the obvious stock based services such as self-issue being relied upon. The use of intelligent agents for assistance and remote automated help desk systems will grow as a route for the resolution of problems and requests for assistance. The user and the institution will be looking to see what value-added benefit arises from the staff investment and how that compares with alternative investment strategies. The advent of further service charges will lead to the need for cashless payment models for services. The smart card is the obvious vehicle for this and other tasks including authentication of users.

Change won't go away. It is an opportunity, not necessarily a threat, and adjusting to it is essential. To do otherwise may carry greater risks. We may not be able to predict the next 50 years but we can help shape the next decade. It is for the information professionals to be brave in setting and implementing a change agenda that will help the profession to prosper.

Author Details

Mark Clark
Director of Academic Information Services
University of Salford
Email: m.j.clark@salford.ac.uk