The University of Surrey Library and Information Services has launched a new Distance Learners Information Service (DiLIS). The DiLIS initiative is a twelve month Continuing Vocational Education (CVE) funded project that encourages both library staff and distance learning students to use a wide range of information services and resources. DiLIS provides access to a mixture of paper and Internet-based facilities that utilise both academic and commercial information services. It is anticipated that the promotion of different types of information services will enable distance learners to become innovative and competent information seekers regardless of where they might live.
DiLIS has been developed in response to the findings of the CVE funded Library Support for Distance Learners project which ran from Oct '97- Mar '98 and was based at the George Edwards Library (GEL). The aim of the study was to investigate the information needs and resource requirements of the Universitys distance learners, using a sample frame of 520 off-campus students. Data was collected through a postal survey, focus groups and on-line interviews via e-mail for distance learners based overseas. The findings confirmed that distance learners regularly encounter obstacles that prevent them from accessing the information required to support their studies. Although distance was the determining factor that prevented many of the students from visiting GEL, there was considerable evidence of deliberate non-usage by the UK based students and a general lack of awareness of the librarys resources amongst students living overseas. The underlying causes of non-usage were the type of services being offered, which were primarily geared towards the on-site student, and the belief of many students that it is necessary to physically visit a library to use the resources in it.
The services that DiLIS will offer over the next twelve months have been developed to address the key issues raised by the students, and to ensure that they use the resources available in GEL to their full potential. DiLIS provides: A postal loan service (restricted to UK & NI residents): a document delivery service for items held in stock; for articles not held at GEL commercial document delivery services are used: a staffed help line, which is available via telephone, e-mail and an Internet enquiry form: a web site which promotes the services available at GEL, directs students to new electronic information sources and resources that can be used to support their studies, and provides an information service for a wide range of subject-related issues: a mediation service to help with negotiating access to other academic libraries. A limited amount of the DiLIS budget has been ring-fenced to support individual access applications. Recipients of the access support fund are selected by GEL management, DiLIS staff and distance learning course providers.
However, to improve access to library services for non-UK based distance learners, it is anticipated that during the next eighteen months the library will develop links with overseas Higher Education Institutions through a system of agents. The guidelines for the librarys first overseas agent, who is based at the Health Sciences Library at Nicosia General Hospital, are currently being formalised. Once the system is operational, students following the distance learning programmes in Cyprus will have their library and information support provided by the agent. Remote access to literature searching facilities will be through the ATHENS authentication service. A parallel paper-based service has also been introduced to meet the needs of distance learners who do not have access to a PC or modem. In such cases DiLIS staff will undertake literature searches requested by distance learners. Search results will be posted, faxed or e-mailed directly to the student.
In addition to the document delivery service, the DiLIS students will also be participating in the librarys EBSCO Online trial. This is a full text electronic journal service that provides access to an on-line version of the librarys journal subscriptions. The main benefit of EBSCO Online for the Universitys distance learners is that it enables users to access full text electronic journals irrespective of their residential location, with authorisation being controlled through their IP addresses.
Until DiLIS the Library had no defined policy aimed at supporting distance learners. They had access to the same services and facilities as their on-site counterparts without the benefits of permanent physical or electronic access them. DiLIS is the first step towards redressing the balance between library services for off-campus and on-campus students. It provides a foundation on which to build a flexible client-orientated service as well as offering an excellent example of how research can be effectively translated into action.