1st International Symposium on Networked Learner SupportSarah Ashton describes the presentations at the 1st International Symposium on Networked Learner Support, held in mid-June in Sheffield. Sarah is an MA in Librarianship student in the Department of Information Studies, at the University of Sheffield.
The European Championships were well under way when 59 delegates descended on Sheffield for the 1st International Symposium on Networked Learner Support (17th and 18th June 1996). Organised by Sue Fowell and Phil Levy from the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield, the aim of the Symposium was to offer a forum for exchanging information on current initiatives in the delivery of high quality end-user support across the networks. This new practice is being developed enthusiastically by many librarians and IT professionals, often in collaboration with each other. As I am currently conducting research into the use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) for the delivery of networked learner support internationally, I was particularly interested to hear the lively debate as the delegates explored the various learning, organisational and professional issues which arose.
Stephen Brown from De Montfort University kicked off with a strategy for resource-based, networked learning within a distributed university. This case-study highlighted the need to find ways of making learning and support opportunities equally accessible to large numbers of often widely separated students. This distributed model has encouraged the development and utilisation of resource based learning as a teaching strategy, leading to the exploitation of IT networks to provide delivery and support vehicles. Professor Brown described the organisational challenge of the distributed university, the infrastructure developments and some of the educational and training projects currently underway at De Montfort. These projects entail programmes of staff development through awareness raising seminars, workshops and staff skills development training. Their existence shows ways in which the university is attempting to co-ordinate teaching and learning innovations centrally rather than relying on independent localised initiatives.
Fresh from his tour of the Crimea, Lester Pourciau of the University of Memphis, Tennessee, focused on collaborative efforts between library and IT colleagues to develop an electronic information resources course, designed to equip students and staff with the skills and knowledge necessary for work in the electronic environment. He described the recent partnership between these support divisions, who until recently existed in isolation from one another, and avoided communication. These efforts are part of an institutional plan to modify the culture of the university campus so as to position it appropriately for the utilization of information technology in the 21st Century. This highlighted one of the recurring themes of the Symposium - the need for improved communication and collaboration, both within institutions and between institutions on a national level.
The ball was passed to Graham Walton of the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, who explored the perceptions of library professionals about their existing and projected roles in the networked environment. He identified a lack of awareness of the wider implications of the development of networked learning, and fears of losing professional control - particularly amongst subject specialists - as potential barriers to cultural change within the profession. Such were the findings of the IMPEL Project, conducted 18 months ago. This work has now developed into the IMPEL2 Project, which will take a campus-wide view of the impacts of electronic information provision, incorporating academic staff and student users, impacts of resource based learning and educational development for library and information staff. The overall aim of IMPEL2 is to develop a macro level approach to monitoring change associated with the electronic library to gain a clearer picture of the role which academic library services can play. These findings will be of great interest to NLS professionals.
The Golden Goal was scored by Ellen Chamberlain and Miriam Mitchell from the University of South Carolina, whose entrepreneurial spirit should surely be an example to us all. Again the benefits of collaborative professional development were described, this time as a means of developing an Internet-based training course, "BCK2SKOL", for library staff on the applications, tools, and potential for research on the Internet. Using CMC technologies in a networked learning environment, Ellen and Miriam collaborated across campus and departmental lines to create and run the course, first as a distribution listserv over the Internet and then as a resource page on the World Wide Web (available at: http://web.csd.sc.edu/bck2skol/). "BCK2SKOL" has demonstrated both the need for and the success of Internet instruction delivered via the CMC model. This need can be met using technologies that are already commonplace, through the collaboration of library and network professionals, and - most importantly - such courses can be shared.
After the half time refreshments of the Symposium dinner, Tuesday began with Gunilla Thomasson from Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, who presented the WWW-based EDUCATE (End-user Courses in Information Access through Communication Technology) programs. Funded by the European Union, the aim of the project is to produce a self-paced user education course in the selection and use of information sources, and to provide a structured interface to relevant high quality resources. The courses are designed for use both within the classroom or at a distance for self-instruction, and introduces learners to both off-line and online information sources. EDUCATE is based on the WWW with hyperlinks both within the program and globally. So far the programs have been produced in two subject areas: Physics and Electrical and Electronic Engineering. It is hoped that EDUCATE will, in the future, be a useful resource for libraries and academic departments who wish to provide courses about information handling. The progress of the EDUCATE project can be followed in the EDUCATE Newsletter which is available at: http://educate.lib.chalmers.se/
Clive Cochrane from Queen's University of Belfast explored the potential of videoconferencing, an example of synchronous communication, for the delivery of learning programmes in higher education, with particular reference to two universities in Northern Ireland. Clive also described a survey of all schools of librarianship and information science in the British Isles, conducted to gauge the potential of videoconferencing for the library and information profession. The schools of librarianship and information science within the British Isles currently make little use of videoconferencing (possibly due to technical and ergonomic problems) but there is a recognition that it has potential, in the not too distant future, for course delivery and professional practice. Desktop videoconferencing offers one-to-one communication and an added dimension to the field of networked learner support, which the library and information profession should consider seriously.
Kathy Buckner from Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh raised a wide variety of issues in her presentation on the curriculum design for an undergraduate course in information management, which uses networked, case-based learning methods. The production and use of these networked learning products is an expanding area, and Kathy examined the management issues (at course, institutional and national level) associated with the development and delivery of learning resources for such courses. Crucially, her experience has found that the students themselves are receptive to this networked mode of learning. Many of the key issues that were raised in this presentation need to be considered by the LIS profession and addressed at an institutional or - more importantly - at a national level. Kathy highlighted the need for discussion and collaboration at both an intra- and an inter-organisational level: NLS professionals need to act locally within a national or even a global framework, and it is here that Kathy saw the need for Funding Council leverage.
Joan Carty from the Open University addressed the issues of supporting the OU's postgraduate students through networked access to information. Joan described the support planned for the forthcoming Doctorate in Education, the importance of the collaborative approach to the delivery of distance education, and the need for staff to develop technical, authoring and operational skills. The OU is tackling the issues encountered in planning a strategy for networked information support to distance learners, which includes the use of computer-mediated conferencing, structured access to the Web and electronic contact with the library help desk. The need for quality Information Services, and for a scaleable model which can be applied to other postgraduate courses - and to the larger community - has been recognised. If the strategies which the OU are considering can be transformed into workable and scaleable models, this evolution in the provision of library services at a distance should prove beneficial primarily to the students and the Institution, but also to the LIS community as a whole.
Brian Kelly from the University of Newcastle offered an insight into the approaches taken to develop network training materials by the Netskills project. He provided an invigorating look into the future of Internet software in his presentation entitled "Oh no, not more Internet software!". Brian came prepared to deliver his highly stimulating presentation with back-ups of every description. However, nothing had prepared him for his own "faux pas", after he tripped over the computer cable and pulled the plug out of the socket! Brian described the role of Netskills, and the challenges that the network trainer faces in the development and maintenance of network training resources. He then went on to initiate us into some of the new directions in Internet software (for example, style sheets, SGML DTDs, the PNG standard, modular browsers, and mobile code), which will influence future developments in network-based training.
The floor was opened up, and the delegates talked about the issues and topics that had been presented to them over the two days. Thankfully none of the delegates exchanged shirts, but they did exchange a variety of concerns, experiences, and opinions on issues relating to the emerging practice of networked learner support. Evidently the discussion will continue well into next years' Symposium and beyond. It only remained to thank Nick Bowskill for his hard work in making the Symposium a success, and with that Professor Tom Wilson blew the final whistle
Some of the presentations described here will be available in a forthcoming special edition of the journal Education for Information.
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