Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Conference Goes One Step Beyond

John MacColl reports on Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library.

One month before the Dearing Report was published, when the findings of the National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education still amounted to no more than an insistent trickle of leaks, a major conference considered digital libraries in a rapidly changing HE sector. Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library, held in London on 16-17 June, was co-ordinated by UKOLN and represented a joint effort by JISC, the US Coalition for Networked Information, the BLRIC, CAUSE - the Society for academic computing staff in the US, and the Council of Australian University Librarians. Following last year’s successful Heathrow event, also organised by UKOLN, the conference sought to push forward the agenda for the transformation of HE, supported and effected by digital library developments worldwide. Over 200 delegates attended and were treated to a wide variety of perspectives on the directions for HE which digital library initiatives and developments were signalling.

The opening speaker was Mike Fitzgerald, Vice-Chancellor of Thames Valley University, who delivered a blistering keynote address in typically ebullient and persuasive fashion. Linking education to the development of a successful economy, Fitzgerald envisaged a transformed HE system devoted to ‘learning for earning’. Despite all the talk about a mass HE system, he pointed out that only 27% of 18-year olds in England and Wales currently enter the system. HE needed to be democratised. We should open the doors to part-time and distance education students, and end the practice of treating students differently depending upon mode of attendance. If we are prepared to use OU materials to teach our distance students, he argued, why not use them for our campus students as well?

Fitzgerald’s mission was not to take HE into unchartered territory, but rather to recover the true traditions of university education. The predominance of the full-time student throughout the post-war period has been anomalous, Fitzgerald told his audience that their university experience was probably quite unlike that of students today. Most full-time students work, and are on campus for less time than are part-time unemployed students. New technologies and communications allow us to transform the learning experience of all students. Thames Valley University has Learning Resource Centres. “These are not upmarket nineties-style libraries” he insisted. “Rather, they represent a radical shift in power in universities.” In short, our digital libraries must be much more than libraries: they have the potential to liberate education from the constraints of time and space. Delivering a message which linked Dearing to the Robbins Report of 1963, Fitzgerald argued that HE needs to be provided for all who can benefit. “Education is not primarily about knowledge or skills or competences. It is about confidence.” This chimes with the emphasis in the Dearing Report on increasing participation, while the difficulty of achieving this at the same time as passing on a much higher share of the cost to students remains a conundrum for the Government.

at the other end of the Conference, in his concluding keynote address, Donald Langenberg, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland, picked up the theme of transformation. “Our university system is sedimented into stone” he declared. Real HE will go on through new modes of learning, strongly supported by networks and including an increasing proportion of mature part-time students. Meanwhile, the gilded undergraduate existence of the near past will become the retirement choice of the future, as those who have reached the end of their paid careers choose university campus towns as retirement locations, creating a new demand for humanities teaching.

And just as both Fitzgerald and Langenberg insisted that universities of the future would still contain physical social spaces, Chris Rusbridge, eLib Programme Director, was sure that their digital libraries would retain books, “at least for the next seventy to one hundred years.” Rusbridge reported on the findings of the eLib Programme, and on the ‘plain hard work’ it had performed in taking on the challenges of copyright and negotiations with publishers. Much had been achieved, and ‘hybrid libraries’ were now emerging as the next phase of the Programme, drawing on the development work done to date.

Ronald Watts, who set up Australia’s Net-based electronic open learning network, addressed the consumer power of students in a virtual university environment soon to include players like Murdoch, Pearson, Viacom, IBM and AT&T. Some student learning groups already recruit their tutors internationally. He predicted that universities of the next century will establish a core business of providing educational resources, administration and tutoring. Everything else – subject, expertise, research, teaching, intellectual property management and marketing – will be subcontracted. Learners will spend their money carefully in an international marketplace revolutionised by communications and information technology.

Many other speakers touched upon similar themes. Delegates were left with much to reflect upon, and not a little to worry about. Returning to the Dearing Report, it seems imperative that Recommendation 42 – ‘all higher education institutions should develop managers who combine a deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology with senior management experience’ be prioritised urgently in all HE institutions which seek to retain their status in an environment in rapid transformation.

Author Details

John MacColl,
Ariadne project manager,
Email: lbajam@tay.ac.uk