Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Dearing, IT and Information Services: Two Cheers (or One and a Half?)

Lyndon Pugh reviews a serious attempt to square a circle.

The Dearing Report (1) represents a most serious attempt to square a circle. It takes as its raison d’etre the need for expansion in higher education in the UK, and chooses Information Technology as one of the engines of expansion; one of the most irresistible and compelling engines of all and yet expensive and unpredictable.

This is not where the contradictions of the report end for information professionals. Communications and IT are linked to organisational change, management, decision making, research, estates and so on, but only in passing to libraries, and I don’t believe that the phrase “information services” is used at all. A whole section devoted to the management of resources covers staff, estates, equipment and other resources but fails to deal with libraries and information services. The recommendations concerning the collaborative use of resources could apply, but it is worrying that even after acknowledging the high level of dissatisfaction with library services and the currently less than exalted practical use of IT which often takes place, no attention was paid to management issues and there remains the feeling that the reality of the teaching/learning situation has not really been addressed by the report. Inevitably in an exercise of this kind, while there is a grand design for the use of C&IT accompanied by the occasional nod in the direction of the less than ideal situation in reality, there seems to be a quite significant obfuscation as well.

Cover illustration of cartoon sunflowers as students

Information services, both conventional and electronic, are badly underfunded. The report itself accepts that student dissatisfaction with libraries has increased significantly. This dissatisfaction is felt more acutely in the former public sector institutions than in the old UGC funded universities. A cursory glance at any student satisfaction survey will confirm the significance students attach to the improvement of library facilities. At the same time there is little evidence that IT has yet engineered a significant change in teaching styles: the Committee of Inquiry (2) made the point that the traditional mix of teaching styles still predominated and would always be a vital component in the learning experience:

“It is clear to us, however, that personal contact between teacher and student, and between student and student, gives a vitality, originality and excitement that cannot be provided by machine-based learning, however excellent. When free to make a choice, even though it costs more, individuals are likely to choose to receive information and experience in the company of others, rather than alone, and to receive it from a person who is there to respond, even as part of a group. But, through C&IT, it is possible to offer forms of contact and access to some highly effective learning materials that were previously unavailable for many students.”

The feasibility and the quality of the developing technology is not an issue, and I would myself argue that a reliance on conventional resources will increase the problems of academic support services, so that the electronic library actually offers the only possible long term solution to the problem of information resource provision in universities. To see the Dearing Report stress the potential contribution of C&IT in print is an enormous boost in itself. But it is a little like averring that we are all against sin. Saying it doesn’t do anything to actually help us behave differently or to dispel the uncertainty surrounding the use and impact of C&IT for the student. Bernard Naylor, in his commentary on the report (3), offers a sharp reminder that the impact of computer-based learning is often much more mundane:

”…one of the paradoxes we have to acknowledge is that the impact of screens on the learning process has not taken the form we might have expected given the investments that have been made….The heaviest demand is for word processing, the second for email, the third for Web access, and only the fourth for computer assisted learning.”

If there is a gap between the potential of the idea and its current use, then Dearing needed to give some indication of how this gap could be closed, but although there are some clues to how this could be done some of the solutions also present problems.The idea that institutions should “ review the changing role of staff as a result of Communications and Information Technology, and ensure that staff and students receive appropriate training and support to enable them to realise its full potential” (Recommendation 9) will surely be seen in some quarters as a move towards institutions establishing a preferred teaching/learning style and in an area as sensitive as this it might be resisted. The proposal to set up an Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (Recommendation 14) is positive as far as it goes:

  • identify good computer-based learning materials;
  • coordinate the national development , over the medium and long term, of computer-based learning materials;
  • manage initiatives to develop such materials;
facilitate discussions between all relevant interest groups on promoting the development of computer-based materials to provide common units or modules, particularly for the early undergraduate years.”

Unfortunately this is like a number of the other recommendations about how IT support can be improved, how the financial base of our universities can be strengthened and how C&IT can improve the “quality, flexibility and effectiveness of higher education…[and] support high quality, efficient management in higher education institutions.” It ignores the managerial problems faced by information specialists. Earlier in the chapter on C&IT, the Committee stated:

“Students will need to develop advanced skills in searching for and selecting valid, relevant and up-to-date information from computer-based storage.”

We are already teaching them to do this, and will continue to strengthen our commitment to the development of these crucial skills. This is a positive statement by the Committee and no doubt information professionals will make use of it. Nevertheless I cannot help feeling that a sharper focus on information services might have helped:

“…high quality, efficient management in higher education…”
coupled with
“…rigorous analyses of various aspects of educational and organisational practice and development, especially related to learning and teaching…”
depend in no small measure on “high quality, efficient management” of the learning and teaching materials themselves. We are currently grappling with the issue of the relationship between conventional resources and the electronic library. A little over half of the university sector has undertaken some form of integration of provision. Of these, a few are disaggregating their converged services and others are dismantling integrative structures while retaining unified management. Of the rest, some have rejected the idea outright and others put their faith in voluntary arrangements. For the moment, while the take up of computer-based learning is at its present level, this might not matter. But the nature of C&IT, its place in the mix of conventional and electronic information provision and the success with which some library services embraced the electronic library, offered an opportunity to make the connection between the delivery of learning and the management of learning resources. The committee acknowledges (13.2):
“The challenge to leaders in higher education will be to harness both the communications infrastructure, and the growing and developing collections of high-quality learning materials, within a management strategy capable of being responsive to the needs of staff, students and other stakeholders in higher education.”

It then goes on to advocate the development of a strategy, training and support. Being a little more specific would have helped, and including this directly in the investigative brief of the proposed Institute would have been another step forward. It would have made for one of the few occasions when a wide ranging and general inquiry into higher education focussed precisely on libraries. It might be that this is taken as read within the broad reference to improving educational practice, but as usual, I suspect that information professionals will be left to press this themselves.

The fees issue could prove a serious matter for some information services. Underfunded and facing criticism from students and quality supremos, they, as much as any other part of the institution, will face the problem of satisfying the paying customer. How long will it be before someone alleges that poor information resources contributed to an inferior degree, particularly as computer based learning begins to shift more responsibility to the actual resource providers?

I must also confess to a great feeling of unease about the question of costs. There is no real evidence that there are substantial economies in C⁢ indeed the Committee admits that it costs more. As David VandeLinde indicated in the last issue of Ariadne (4):

“To some degree it’s saving money when we compare what students need to learn today with what they needed to learn 20 years ago, but as far as IT saving money and reducing the cost of education, I don’t see that happening.”

Dearing is in fact looking for savings and a reduction in Government expenditure . This presumably means progressively more revenue raised from fees and chargeable services. Nowhere in the report are information services specifically identified as requiring additional funding. There is also the suspicion, as always when changes in teaching styles are promulgated, that there is actually going to be a shift in costs from teaching departments to service departments, unaccompanied by an equivalent shift in resources. There will be many librarians and directors of learning resources who worked through the huge academic developments of the 70’s and 80’s in the public sector institutions in particular who will have the words ‘from within existing resources’ carved on their headstones. This time round they might be joined by colleagues from older institutions as well.

For librarians, considering the potential impact of reports in this area is usually a case of looking for places where links with library provision can be made. It is argued above that the information business will have to work hard to fashion an agenda from some of the recommendations of Dearing. In another sense we have never been better placed to take advantage of the opportunities represented by Dearing, and there are in fact many of these opportunities in the report. Information services, whether conventionally organised and managed, or reflecting more radical solutions to the problems of making available the continuum of information sources, have invested heavily in various forms of C&IT. For a number of reasons they are now significant players, either because they manage large swathes of these resources and services or because they collaborate with other interested parties. This position can only be strengthened by Recommendation 41, to put in place a communications and information strategy, so echoing the Follett Report . This is an opportunity to give fresh impetus to a debate which accurately reflects the concerns of information services, particularly in practical terms. Not all institutions have successfully developed information strategies, and some of those that do exist might not be recognised as such by JISC. Similarly, no one could quarrel with the sentiment of Recommendation 42:

”…all higher education institutions should develop managers who combine a deep understanding of Communications and Information Technology with senior management experience.” Wasn’t convergence something to do with this? And don’t Library Directors and Information Service Directors have to do this already?

Dearing also makes considerable progress with the recommendations to extend network connectivity to all higher education and “further education colleges by 1999-2000, and to other relevant bodies over the medium term.” Our effective utilisation of C&IT in the future will depend partly on how well we can really unite the education community in the UK. Within institutions, Dearing could have gone a little further. There is reference to the integration of C&IT systems for areas such as personnel, finance and accounting and student registration. There is an obvious place in such integration for systems maintained and run by libraries, particularly as student services and other areas become a part of integrated information services. Equally we can welcome the recommendation (53) that the functions of UCISA should be reviewed. Although the argument about how we actually manage and provide information services will not be settled for a long time, let us take the bull by the horns and suggest that eventually it will make no sense for UCISA and Sconul to continue as separate organisations. Some ex members of COPOL may have been uneasy bedfellows with Sconul, but all things pass. An umbrella organisation representing the academic information community could be another powerful force for development, if this is what eventually emerges from any pursuit of this recommendation.

While greeting with acclaim the recommendation concerning access to networked facilities and portable desktop facilities for all students by 2005 (46), the logistics might cause some managers to swallow quite hard. What is positive is the exhortation to consider how

“…existing space, designed to accommodate traditional learning and teaching methods and library storage, could be freed up and remodelled. This activity should feature in the C&IT strategies we are suggesting institutions should devise.”

Any institution that can successfully promote this will be removing the largest single practical problem in presenting a totally integrated information delivery system which actually means something to users, and has an impact. But the cost is enormous.

The other issue which will have a major impact on information services staff is skills. We are working towards an understanding of the skills implications of electronic services for hitherto traditional libraries and professional librarians. Our awareness of new skills requirements will always be incomplete, because the target will constantly be moving. Although Dearing (Recommendation 9) talks in the context of educational and organisational practice, the electronic library will make a significant impact on the learning environment. Information professionals will have a role to play in helping students to develop “the advanced skills in searching for and selecting valid, relevant and up-to-date information…” much as they do now. Success will also depend on how the profession comes to terms with its own skills development, and it is to be hoped that this can be embraced somewhere in what comes out of Dearing:

“Computer-based learning materials are valueless unless they are actually used by staff and students….We also see a role for a national body to assist …in the sharing of good practice.” (8.71)

In an electronic environment where the barriers between producer, user, manager, author, publisher, teacher and student will change, we should be able to make common cause on issues that affect everyone. Our ‘good practice’ will be fundamental to the success of the project.

In spite of the natural and inevitable reservations about some aspects of the Report, it offers a major opportunity for the information profession to stake out its territory and strengthen the already existing links between the learning/teaching process and the organisation and exploitation of information. Perhaps for the first time in a report which is not primarily about the narrow area of information services, it affords the profession an opportunity to make capital from its already strong presence in this area.

Sam Saunders, <J.P.Saunders@leeds.ac.uk> responded on 22nd January:

I wonder if I could suggest that there are some aspects of this article that illustrate the difficulties and the ironies of discussing infomation and communication technologies in such volatile times.

While the article does refer to the print version of the National Committee’s Report it does not mention the CD ROM or web versions. Given the subject matter of the article, I would have expected these formats to have been cited, and possibly commented on. As far as I know, the NCIHE reports were the first major UK Government Reports to have been published (in their entirety) on the web on the same day as their print publication.

The [next] irony (I blush to mention it) is that it was an eLib Programme project that was chosen to host the Committee’s web publication. 16,000 visitors came to the Education-line site in the first few hours, and seven months later about 150 new visits per day are being logged. The url is http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe

The words of the Report may not inspire us, but some aspects of the process (real consultation included), the circumstances (straddling a change of Government) and the presentation (on-line, full text and searchable from day one) are significant and encouraging. As an information event, the Dearing Committee presents us with a remarkable instance of cultural change which (being truly important) has gone largely unnoticed.


1. The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education: Main Report, HMSO 1997

2. op cit

3. Naylor, Bernard: Response to the Dearing Report, in IT and Dearing: the Implications for HE : colloquium proceedings (ed. Beetham, Helen), CTISS Publications 1997

4. Van DeLinde, D: View From the Hill, Ariadne Issue 12 November 1997

Author details

Lyndon Pugh