Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Adaptive Developments for Learning in the Hybrid Library

Wilma Alexander on the SELLIC Project and its aim to support the use of electronic resources in teaching science and engineering.

The Science and Engineering Library, Learning and Information Centre (SELLIC) [1] Project at the University of Edinburgh has seen rapid changes in the context in which it operates. The project itself has therefore changed its emphasis in response to some of the challenges of the rapidly-evolving education environment. Staff at SELLIC are engaged in a number of projects, all of which are directed at some aspect of hybrid library development and aim to bring together library and academic interests in determining how new developments should be applied within the institution.

Electronic library developments

The electronic library is no longer a new concept, but achieving a high level of service in electronic formats remains a challenge for a large, historic and research-oriented establishment such as the University of Edinburgh. Senior staff have been examining the implications of developing electronic library provision, in terms not only of financial and staffing resources, but also in terms of meeting changing user demands and needs. The University of Edinburgh, like all UK HE institutions, is suffering at present from central funding allocations which represent a budget cut in real terms. In addition Edinburgh has a huge and rather unwieldy estate, including historic buildings which are costly to maintain, and a number of commitments to new build work which cannot be postponed. In the light of this, work on the SELLIC Library building will not now begin before 2001, and therefore planning future library services for the Faculty of Science and Engineering must take this into account.

Within the University Library as a whole the role of online services has become more prominent. The Library website, Library Online, is seen as a major development area and it is envisaged that it will become the first and main port of call for all standard library activities and services such as book requests, loans and renewals, OPAC searches and delivery of full-text copies of articles.

Library staffing and responsibilities are being restructured to take this changing emphasis into account. A new Online Services Division, headed by the SELLIC Director John MacColl, will take responsibility for a range of online developments: the development of Library Online services; overseeing the University's main website; and developing a coherent and effective structure for the diverse websites created and maintained by faculties, schools, departments and course tutors. Within such a large and diverse institution, this is no trivial task. SELLIC’s expertise in applying metadata standards will assist in the exploration of existing sites and the creation of a coherent information management structure for the University web sites collection.

There are many departments and courses which have long experience of using and creating electronic resources for teaching and learning. However there are also many which have only recently started to make use of these tools, and within all departments there are some staff with little or no experience of electronic resources. It is in this area that the Library can assist teaching staff in developing effective policies for the introduction and use of electronic learning resources. The SELLIC project, in catering for the Faculty of Science and Engineering, is seen as a vanguard for this type of developmental support.

The Faculty of Science and Engineering is the largest in the University, and in its diversity offers a challenge and opportunity which mirrors the University as a whole. Arguably the teaching and learning requirements of different subject areas within the Faculty require different approaches to the use of learning technology. The very varied development paths taken by different departments has led to a situation where the technology in use for teaching is in some cases incompatible with current technological infrastructure. In more than one department Computing Officers are maintaining systems written in languages long since superseded by more user-friendly systems, and one challenge facing developers is to find cost-effective ways of updating or upgrading this material.

The learning environment ‘SELLIC Online’ was designed with these factors in mind. By late 1999, when the staff programmer for SELLIC left the project, the focus had shifted to encouraging staff to make use of existing technology in such a way as to ensure future compatibility and ease of updating. A number of developments elsewhere in the University influenced this decision. The central service for Learning Technology formed in 1998 as part of the Media and Learning Technology Service, is rapidly developing an expertise in the use of individual learning technologies and in the deployment of virtual learning environments (VLEs). This has culminated in the purchase of licenses for two VLEs. WebCT can reasonably claim to be one of the market leaders in this rapidly-expanding field. The IVLE (Internet Virtual Learning Environment) developed by the National University of Singapore is a newer product which has the advantage of being extremely easy to use, for those new to the concept of managed learning environments.

The University of Edinburgh is also the lead partner in an innovative project funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to create a Student-Centric Web-based Educational and Information Management System (SCWEIMS Project). The vision of this project is to provide each student with on-line access to the key pieces of information held about them by their University through a personalised web environment. When a student logs on they enter a space that provides information that is specific to them. As the student is best placed to see whether the information held about them is correct, they may also be allowed to make changes on-line or a standard route will be provided to inform the University that a change is necessary. This interface will also provide access to information and learning materials for each course the student is taking, via one of the VLEs if appropriate. Students will also have access to personal workspaces where they can keep notes, personal resource listings, and compile materials for assignments.

In the light of these developments, the SELLIC Online environment will not be developed past the prototype stage. This prototype, which illustrates all the key features of a VLE, has been made available through the SELLIC Website and feedback on the interface and facilities offered is being collected. This feedback will inform future developments of the SCWEIMS interface and the implementation of the VLEs.

The SCWEIMS Project and developments such as Library Online will depend for their success, in large part, on the availability of authenticated, high quality information about resources. Within a library environment with multiple sites scattered across the city, against a background of purchase funds under pressure, and an uncontrolled growth of learning resources, good, bad and indifferent, available via the Internet, ease of access is becoming a key factor in determining whether students will actually use a resource, in whatever form it is provided. A great deal of SELLIC’s work is therefore directed at improving access to resources of various kinds.


SELLIC is developing experience in the use of a number of standards for describing and managing non-traditional electronic resources via the library catalogue. Metadata is used to describe a whole variety of different types of material from printed books to videos, web sites and even museum objects. With the advent of the WWW it has now become feasible and desirable to be able to find multimedia resources side by side in one search rather than having to carry out a number of searches on different sources with varying sets of rules and vocabularies. Another advantage is that resources or digital surrogates may be linked directly to their metadata.

It is on this basis that SELLIC is currently undertaking an experimental project to convert part of the Cockburn Geology Museum collection records into both MARC and Dublin Core format. This conversion will allow the records to be incorporated into the Library’s Voyager catalogue so that records for geological specimens will sit beside records for related printed material. This should provide greater visibility to the collections themselves, and at the same time prepare the necessary resource descriptions for the later availability of digitised and scanned images of museum specimens, linked directly to their metadata. The usefulness of having such records in the Library’s OPAC will be evaluated to establish if it should be extended to include other University museum collections.

A small trial set of records has undergone conversion with the aid of the "Data Magician" software package. The software is capable of converting records between a variety of formats, in this case dBase to MARC communication files. Once the desired settings have been configured the process of converting the records is very quick, making it an efficient tool for large scale conversions. The trial records will shortly be imported into the Library’s Voyager Catalogue with the help of the Library’s Systems Team where they will be evaluated by the Metadata Editor and the Cockburn Geology Museum curator, Peder Aspen, before the remainder of the records are processed. It is expected that a small amount of editing will be required to add subject headings and location information to the records once in the Library’s OPAC.

SELLIC's Metadata Editor is also involved in a project to catalogue departmental websites throughout the Faculty of Science and Engineering. These sites are described using Dublin Core standards which have been mapped to US MARC in order for them to be incorporated into the Library’s Voyager OPAC. This work has been progressing using the tools provided by our membership of the Online Computer Library Centre (OCLC) Cooperative Online Resource Catalog (CORC) Project [2]. As an extension of this work, departments and webmasters are given the opportunity to incorporate this metadata in the web pages themselves, enhancing the site's utility by improving search engine access to them.

A further planned development will enable course organisers to submit individual items of courseware for the creation of a catalogue record. This provides the Library with the opportunity of developing the OPAC into a comprehensive gateway to teaching resources regardless of medium. The IMS project and its recently-published standards are the basis for developments here.

Supporting learning technology

SELLIC also took the decision to create a new post within the project, that of Learning Technology Officer (LTO). This post has the wide-ranging remit to encourage and support the use of learning technology within the Faculty of Science and Engineering. The LTO aims to ensure that any special requirements for teaching in these subject areas are taken into account in the development and implementation of courseware and learning environments. As a ‘bridge’ between the library and academic staff, the LTO can also help to ensure that information management issues are identified at an early stage of learning technologies implementation, and ensure that existing library expertise is appropriately exploited.

This new post follows a trend within Scottish Higher education in general, where the growing number of learning technology posts can be found within a very wide range of central and devolved departments. There is no single model for institutional developments for learning technology support, and certainly no single model for the range of skills and expertise required in these posts [3]. The University of Edinburgh is already richly endowed with staff who have the full range of technical expertise required to create and maintain programmes which provide some form of computer-assisted learning. The present SELLIC LTO has focused her efforts on issues surrounding the integration of learning technology with existing traditional teaching and learning methods, and of course this often means ensuring that materials are selected and used appropriately, to help staff achieve the desired learning objectives. All of the projects in which SELLIC is currently engaged are looking to future issues surrounding the use of learning technology in HE. These issues will have more to do with access, authentication, management and integration than with technical matters.

One of the aims of creating detailed metadata about learning technology resources and loading this into the OPAC is to encourage staff to re-use available resources. There are inevitably some problems to be overcome in encouraging re-use of materials in this way. There are problems of technical compatibility, which, while they are lessening with the emergence of recognised standards for web-based materials, and with the increasing use of platform-independent languages such as Java, have by no means disappeared. There is also the more complex issue of appropriateness of materials. When examining the uptake and use of materials created through the Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network projects (TLTSN), the committee chaired by Marilyn Atkins observed that one obstacle to the use of such materials is the ‘not invented here’ syndrome.[4] While this observation was directed mainly at the use of products from other institutions, within the University of Edinburgh the same is true, to a lesser extent, of the products of other departments and subject areas. Metadata, however, can promote reusability, and encourage academic staff to view electronic resources in a similar light to more traditional library resources. By providing detailed descriptions of sufficient granularity, it should then be possible for any course organiser dealing with aspects of e.g. statistical methods, to find and make use of those parts of a statistics course which meet their needs, whether the course is designed for first year biology students, final year psychology students, or part-time students on the Edinburgh MBA.

As part of the University’s Development Trust Funding, SELLIC has been successful in obtaining a small award which will assist staff in creating course materials in electronic form which is suitable for delivery via one of the VLEs. Eight projects will be completed over the summer months, from departments across the Faculty of Science and Engineering. These range in scale and type from the simple creation of linked web pages and a glossary (for a course which has made no use of electronic materials before) to a project which aims to create simple generic tools to generate web pages from text and image databases, for use throughout a department and possibly the Faculty. In addition to having real products which will be in use in courses delivered in the Academic Year 2000/2001, these projects will help to encourage the use of learning technology, especially web-based tools, throughout the Faculty.

Information Dissemination

SELLIC aims to lead the University in dissemination of information about learning technologies and the management of applications. Two university-wide fora have been established, with the aim of bringing together academic and non-academic staff with common interests. The first, the Learning Technology Forum, holds a meeting each term in a seminar format. Each has a selected theme with invited speakers and ample opportunity for discussion and (on occasion) debate. To date meetings have been held examining examples of learning technology currently in use in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and discussing Virtual Learning Environments, focussing on the two currently available within the University. The next meeting will consider the unglamorous but crucial area of metadata.

The second Forum is the Academic / Library Forum on Electronic Information, which also meets each term. To date meetings on the themes of scholarly publishing of electronic articles and the use of search engines for academic research have been held. Both fora also have low-volume electronic mailing lists to facilitate discussion stimulated by these meetings. Reports of the meetings are published on the SELLIC Website [5]. These fora can do more than publicise technologies available. They form a valuable part of the staff development activity necessary for any innovations in learning and teaching to succeed.

Over the last decade in particular the ways in which learning technology can be used in the context of Higher Education have proliferated, and there is no reason to expect a diminution in this growth rate for some time to come. It is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone but a specialist devoted to full-time consideration of learning technologies to keep track of the opportunities available. The task of assisting and supporting academic staff in using learning technology becomes one of information management: providing appropriate and easy-to use information about what technologies are available, how they may be used, and crucially, how they have been evaluated for both cost and educational effectiveness. Library staff, if provided with the appropriate tools, are well-placed to advise on and assist with the selection of existing applications and materials, evaluating them in the context of the other more traditional resources available and using the same principles which apply to any selection process. Bringing subject librarians into the picture requires an additional staff development effort on the part of the Library.

To assist in this process the SELLIC Website is being redesigned to include straightforward and concise information on how to establish parameters for selecting and evaluating learning technologies. This development should be seen in the context of the increasingly important role the Library plays in assisting staff and students alike in selecting, evaluating and managing information regardless of medium.

It is here also that SELLIC aims to be in the vanguard for the University as a whole, providing course organisers with access to information about available courseware through such current projects as the CITADEL database, through dissemination and application of evaluation methodologies such as those being developed by the FOCUS Project [6] and through support for staff development in the use of communications and information technology (C&IT), taking into account institutional models and resources already available through, for example, some of the centrally funded C&IT staff development projects [7] and the EFFECTS Project [8].

Collaborative Projects

SELLIC is also participating in a major JISC-funded project led by the London School of Economics, under its programme call to develop the DNER for learning and teaching. Project ANGEL ('Authenticated Networked Guided Environment for Learning') will address those problems of providing managed access to hybrid library resources for students. Edinburgh will be working on the authentication component of this project, and will ensure that the resulting tools are compatible with the SCWEIMS environment.

On a more modest scale, SELLIC will be working with a participant in the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre’s Summer School programme on the development of a Dynamic Reading List Tool which will allow course tutors to compile lists of resources associated with their courses through a direct link with the Library’s Voyager system. Once the system is populated with appropriate catalogue entries staff will be able to link directly to references and to the full text of articles, to web sites and functioning software.

SELLIC and the University Library as a whole are partners in some other areas of activity both within the University and outside. The University will be a test site for a new software product which will help in the detection of plagiarism in submitted coursework. It is also participating in evaluation of hybrid library management systems. SELLIC’s experience of multimedia materials for teaching and learning, and of metadata standards for describing non-traditional materials will provide a sound basis for selecting and evaluating pilot applications.

The unavoidable delay in building work has been disappointing, but has resulted in accelerating SELLIC’s work in the virtual dimensions of the Project. The loss of momentum in this area has been compensated for by the unanticipated speed at which the University is moving in introducing VLEs across the institution, leading to a change of focus in SELLIC from creation of learning technology to its evaluation and use. The environment changes rapidly, and SELLIC has to adapt and move with it. At the same time, it insists on the traditional principles of librarianship: that resources must be properly described and arranged within information retrieval systems, and it is working to assert the Library’s role in managing the learning resources of the University. Although still a very small project, its value to the Library is as a special unit capable of responding quickly to new challenges and acting as a test bed for a wide range of electronic developments which impact on the Library and its plans for the future.


[1] http://www.sellic.ed.ac.uk/
[2] CORC Project http://www.oclc.org/oclc/corc/
[3] Alexander, W (1999) TALiSMAN review of staff development courses and materials for C&IT in teaching, learning and assessment. Heriot-Watt University. Also available from the TALiSMAN website at http://www.talisman.hw.ac.uk/
[4] HEFCE (1998) An evaluation of the Computers in Teaching Initiative and Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network. Report of a Committee (chaired by) Dr M. Atkins. HEFCE Report 98/47. "The Atkins report". Summary available on the Internet at http://www.niss.ac.uk/education/hefce/pub98/98_47.html
[5] http://www.sellic.ed.ac.uk/reports/
[6] FOCUS Project Website http://www.focus.port.ac.uk/
[7] SHEFC C&IT Initiatives Website http://www.scotcit.ac.uk/index.html
[8] EFFECTS Project Website http://sh.plym.ac.uk/eds/effects/

Author Details

Wilma Alexander
SELLIC Learning Technology Officer
Science and Engineering Library, Learning and Information Centre
The University of Edinburgh.
Web Site: http://www.ed.ac.uk/
email Wilma.Alexander@ed.ac.uk