Down Your Way: Thames Valley University
The Paul Hamlyn Learning Resource  Centre (LRC) opened in Slough in October 1996. Named after the University's Chancellor, the publisher Paul Hamlyn, the new Slough building is Thames Valley University's  third LRC, and the first to be purpose-built. Described on the one hand as a 'beautiful barn of a building' (by its architect, Lord Richard Rogers), and on the other as 'an electronic hub' (Mike Fitzgerald, Vice Chancellor, TVU), the LRC unites a wide range of facilities in an environmentally sound setting.
In addition to traditional library services, the LRC houses audio and video editing suites, seminar rooms, a media shop and an on-site cafe. One side of the building is devoted entirely to IT, with 150 high-specification computers in an open centre and a dedicated PC-laboratory for more formal group teaching. Five groups of people have been brought together to work under the same roof - library staff, media services, security staff, catering personnel, and staff of ICL Sorbus. This has undoubtedly required adjustment by all parties, and a loss of control by some, but the benefits to the students are manifold, and this 'one-stop-shop' is very much their space.
ICL requires particular mention. Most of the IT facilities and services in the LRC are managed by ICL Sorbus in an innovative partnership with TVU. IT and the Internet increasingly feature in TVU's teaching and learning strategies. The LRC is at the centre of TVU's concept of an IT-rich learning environment. However TVU, as one of the poorest universities in the country, could not afford the quantity of IT equipment needed to implement this concept. The decision was therefore made to contract out IT provision, support and maintenance to ICL. Library and ICL staff work together on the enquiry desk, and with their complementary skills field both library and IT queries. To avoid confusion, ICL staff are easily identified by their purple shirts - colour coding is a strong feature of the LRC. Slough LRC has certainly benefited from the involvement of ICL. Following the success of this pilot partnership, ICL will soon provide services right across the university, including IT provision for academic staff.
The LRC is part of the community, and there are a number of commercial links with local companies, whose employees are enrolled on business, management and computing courses. Such links also provide much-needed commercial backing. This ready-made student market is in a sense driving the technological provision in the LRC. These learners use IT every day in their working lives, and therefore expect it in their education too. In turn, TVU's students emerge from university fully-qualified for the job market, having been exposed to the technologies that today's organisations are exploiting. Mike Fitzgerald is understandably proud of the fact that his students are attractive to employers.
However, in recent months TVU has been forced to make a number of tough decisions, and provides a prime example of a financially-challenged university responding to the current educational climate. Some of these decisions have been unpopular amongst some lecturers, and earlier this year the university was the focus of BBC2's FirstSight programme, which exposed its problems to a national audience. Another millstone around the neck of the university is that it has fared poorly in published university league tables. However, of TVU's 27,000 students, the majority are non-traditional (65% are part-time, and 63% are mature students).
TVU is taking positive steps to build its reputation. The LRC at Slough is a crucial step in this process: it spells a new and cheaper way to learn, and should boost the university's profile.
TVU provides a new learning experience, supporting self-directed learners. Students are provided with the learning opportunities and are encouraged to study at their own pace and in their own time, with minimum face-to-face interaction, but with maximum availability of resources. Active learning is the key. Throughout this year, academic staff have been developing New Learning Environment (NLE) modules. The networked learner support, which will be in place when the modules begin in the new academic session cover networked resources themselves - Web, online and CD-ROM sources, the campus-wide information service, diagnostic and remedial online study skills software, as well as email and groupware for all staff and students to communicate with each other, whether on or off-site. All students will receive a programme handbook and a set of module study guides containing essential readings and other support materials. Another key feature of the NLE is the Director of Studies scheme. This brings students into groups of up to 20 who meet weekly with a tutor, retaining the same tutor/group for the duration of their programme. The meetings are for discussion of learning needs, skills and assessments, and Directors of Studies will be responsible for co-ordinating individual and group study/learning skills support.
Each TVU building will also house a staff resource centre (SRC) comprising ICL supplied and managed technology - making IT available to all academic staff.
The LRC should then really come into its own in the coming year. Electronic media will be exploited much more in courses (with some courses being taught entirely online). LRC staff have found that they need to learn to teach students in the use of electronic resources, and here they are turning to the eLib programme, and particularly to projects such as Netskills , NetLinkS  and EduLib , to assist them in their training needs. TVU is taking a radical stance in extolling a new approach to education, an approach which other universities should perhaps consider emulating. With the LRC at Slough, TVU has achieved high quality within a low budget. The foundation and determination are certainly there for the same to be achieved within its courses.
Author detailsSarah Ashton,
Netlinks Project Officer
Phone: 0114 222 657
Fax: 0191 222 5001