INSPIRAL: Digital Libraries and Virtual Learning Environments
INSPIRAL (INveStigating Portals for Information Resources And Learning)  is a research project funded by JISC ,  to spend six months examining the institutional challenges and requirements involved in linking virtual and managed learning environments (VLEs and MLEs) with digital and hybrid libraries . The needs of the learner are paramount to INSPIRAL, and the focus is higher education in the UK, with an eye to international developments. The ultimate aim of INSPIRAL is to inform JISC's future strategy and funding of initiatives in this area; we hope that the research process itself will benefit stakeholders by facilitating discussion and co-operation. The project runs from 1 May to 31 October 2001, and is based at the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Digital Library Research (CDLR) and Centre for Educational Systems (CES).
VLEs/MLEs and digital/hybrid libraries are important current developments in e-learning. Their evolution has thus far proceeded along largely separate paths. Librarians and information scientists have concentrated on bringing their professional skills to bear in the new electronic environment, continuing a long and honourable history of bringing people together with the knowledge they seek. Educators have followed their own path in finding ways to use new technologies to enhance learning at all levels, in response to ever-evolving understandings of how and why people learn, and the expectations of an increasingly busy and information saturated society. However, these professionals and their institutions are now beginning to look at ways to integrate these learning tools, for the benefit of their end-users: the learners.
The potential for useful convergence of these developments presents many challenges, some obvious, some probably waiting in the wings to surprise us. JISC, through its MLE  and digital/hybrid library projects and initiatives, has identified a need for thorough analysis of the relevant issues in order to proceed with strategic planning and investment in this area. While the technical problems of integrating VLEs and digital libraries are being investigated in other JISC projects, INSPIRAL is focusing on the organisational problems and requirements for meeting the HE learner's needs through a seamless integrated online learning experience. The needs of the FE institution and learner will also be touched on, with the intention of providing a basis for similar work in that sector.
Casting the INSPIRAL Net Wide: Capturing the Issues
INSPIRAL's aim is to identify and critically analyse issues with regard to linking or integrating VLEs/MLEs and digital/hybrid libraries, from the perspective of the UK HE learner. The initial phase of uncovering these issues has begun with identification of relevant stakeholders and stakeholder communities.
Within three days of announcing INSPIRAL, there were about eighty subscribers to the project's open discussion list. Clearly it was not going to be a matter of hunting out those interested in linking VLEs and digital libraries, but of trying to cull down a representative sample to begin our initial interviewing process! JISC's interest in this issue is obviously timely, and INSPIRAL, in catching the crest of the wave, is offering some great opportunities for synergy between the various interested professional groups, funding bodies, learners, system vendors and content providers through our research methodology.
Come One and All and Integrate: INSPIRAL's Research Methodology
INSPIRAL's methodology begins with stakeholder identification and contact, proceeds through issue capture, and finishes with analysis and the presentation of recommendations to JISC for future of developments in this area.
The issue capture phase will involve:
- Interviewing key stakeholders in order to identify relevant issues and discuss experiences and visions for future developments.
- Holding two initial Forums (12 June & 3 July) and one larger Workshop (25 June) in order to further bring out and discuss the issues raised in the interviews, with a view to bringing together interested parties from all professional groups as well as learners. Workshops and Forums will be held throughout the UK to ensure maximum participation.
- Gathering responses from learners via an online questionnaire on the INSPIRAL web site.
- Carrying out a literature review.
- Identifying appropriate case studies, including one based in the US, and possibly one based in Australia.
The interviews with key stakeholders have already commenced and are throwing up some interesting perspectives. The first five interviewees have included:
- A librarian working with a wide ranging consortium of HE, FE and public libraries to create a digital library;
- An academic specialising in teaching HE staff to use C&IT in their own teaching;
- Two university managers involved in their institution-wide MLE projects, one a librarian, one an ICT professional;
- A learning technology expert (not a librarian) involved in developing a digital resource centre of granular teaching and learning materials.
While each viewpoint expressed was of great interest and value, it became clear that something entirely new might evolve out of bringing together these professions who normally stick to their own turf to discuss their ideas and concerns.
Mixing it Up: INSPIRAL's Analysis and Presentation of the Their Results
The analysis phase of INSPIRAL will involve:
- Analysing the initial stakeholder interviews, literature review and initial Forums and Workshop.
- Executing the case studies.
- Holding two final Workshops and one final Forum, with an emphasis on analysing issues previously raised.
- Developing best practice guidelines.
- Writing and disseminating the final INSPIRAL Report.
We hope that those taking part in INSPIRAL's research process will gain immediate, useful insights and ideas for further developments of their own work. However, this project by its nature is dipping its toes into what some might see as a fairly intractable swamp.
Already issues have been raised around:
- grappling with the predominance of project-based funding rather than long-term service-based funding;
- the politics within HE institutions and between institutions, funders, and professional bodies;
- the distance that is sometimes found between librarians and academics even within an institution;
- the resistance to digital developments sometimes found in both professions;
- the exponentially increasing morass of projects and initiatives and acronyms that noone really believes they can keep abreast of.
These types of problems are often the swamp that visionary ideas get bogged down in, and those of us who work at the coal face know it, and struggle with it, and attempt to produce something beneficial to our users anyway. A project that is specifically looking at the institutional challenges involved in any electronic initiative is forced to confront the swamp, listen to people's hopes and fears, and come out the other side with some way forward. The needs of the learner are paramount to INSPIRAL's remit, so we hope that we can shed some light on how to keep these needs in mind and produce online learning environments that the learner will be able to use so easily that they won't ever guess what went into making it happen!
Some Preliminary Issues Raised
It's very early in INSPIRAL's research; at the time of writing only five stakeholder interviews and some literature review had been carried out. However, here is a brief smattering of some interesting issues to think about:
- Who in a given institution will control the funding and management of these wonderful new online learning experiences? How will academics, librarians and IT professionals begin to work together as partners in these endeavours? Is a reassessment of everybody's role and remit necessary, and, if so, how may it best be facilitated?
- Issues of resourcing: Is it true that these initiatives will save money for institutions, or do they require more investment of resources to provide an improved learning experience? If they don't save money how do we convince those at the top to fund and support them properly? How do we deal with short-term project based funding being used to develop potentially long-term services?
- Issues of support and training for staff using these systems in their work: The systems must be very easy to use, not just for the learner but also for the academic or librarian creating or contributing to the resource.
- Do academics think that digital and hybrid libraries mean human librarians will become redundant? Do students think that developments in VLEs and MLEs mean that human teachers will become redundant? How can we overcome these ideas and promote and use the skills developed by these professions to enhance e-learning experiences?
- How can we prevent using these systems as a spoon-feeding technique and integrate them fully into the wider activities and goals of the institution? How can we use them to ensure that learners come out the other side of their experience more information literate, i.e. better able to find the information they need, and better able to evaluate its worth?
- Is it a good use of staff time to be creating their own content when they wouldn't be writing a new textbook for each traditionally presented course? If not, how do we ensure the production of high quality content to be used in VLEs, MLEs and digital and hybrid libraries?
These are but a few issues that have been raised with INSPIRAL so far. If you would like to participate in any way in INSPIRAL's research, or tap into our results, read on.
INSPIRAL: How to Take Part
- Join our open discussion list on JISCmail, and be updated on upcoming events, information gathered and research results, as well as using the list to take part in INSPIRAL discussions: visit http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/inspiral.html or e-mail Sharron Brown, INSPIRAL Research Assistant at email@example.com
- Visit our web site to see what we're up to and what we've found out so far: http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/
- Come to one of our Forums or Workshops: see http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/news/news.html
- Let us know of any initiatives, projects or research you are involved in of relevance: contact Sharron Brown, INSPIRAL Research Assistant, firstname.lastname@example.org or tel.: 0141 548 4753
- Link to our learner questionnaire for students from your own VLE or MLE (contact Sharron Brown at email@example.com for guidelines): http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/questionnaire/questionnaire.html
- The INSPIRAL web site is at http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/
- JISC's Request for Proposals for a critical analysis of the issues around linking VLEs and digital libraries is at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub01/vle_lib_rfp.html
- The Tender which was accepted and became the INSPIRAL Project is at http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/documents/proposal.html
- INSPIRAL's working definitions of the terms VLE, MLE, digital library and hybrid library are at http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/about/defs.html
- Information about JISC's other MLE projects can be found at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/mle/
Ms Sarah Currier
Centre for Digital Library Research
Andersonian Library, University of Strathclyde
Tel: +44 (0)141 548 4586
Fax: +44 (0)141 548 2102