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.
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.
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:
The interviews with key stakeholders have already commenced and are throwing up some interesting perspectives. The first five interviewees have included:
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.
The analysis phase of INSPIRAL will involve:
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:
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!
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:
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.
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