Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Netskills: A Major Training Programme

The Netskills Team explain how the need for training has never been greater.

With the rapid growth of the Internet we have seen a huge increase in the volume and range of networked information. We have also seen an increased public awareness - hardly a day goes by without some mention of the Internet in the national press or television. URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) are quoted everywhere - even on Dutch tax return forms! With the increased attention has come the increase in hype. Businesses are urged to ‘be there or be square!’. The situation reminds one of the Emperor’s new clothes. Dare we question the benefits so loudly hailed by President Clinton and others? Is there really something worthwhile out there? “What is all this hype about?”, you say. “All I can find is superficial information of dubious origin.” Indeed, if one went by some newspaper coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Internet was all games and porn.

Slowly but surely there has been an increase in the amount of ‘quality information’ on the network. This has been a particularly noticeable change over the last year. JISC funding in the UK has ensured that the UK academic community has benefited from quality services such as NISS, BIDS, Mailbase, MIDAS, SOSIG, HENSA, BUBL, the ESRC Data Archive and many others. The next few years will see new JISC and eLib Services on JANET, such as Subject Information Gateways and Electronic Journals. The broader Internet is also benefiting from commercial information providers providing quality services. These include other electronic journals and publications, daily newspapers such as the Guardian and the Telegraph, and current awareness services.

With increasing student numbers and decreasing library budgets, networked information resources are becoming an increasingly important element in the spectrum of information used by both staff and students in the higher education community. In addition, the number of quality information services on the network will increase still further as a result of Follett and ISSC funding. It is essential that this investment in services is accompanied by a parallel investment in raising the awareness of the HE community to the benefits of the developing electronic library. Users of information and those supporting them need to acquire good network skills in order to be able to make effective use of networked information resources. As more staff and students take advantage of the ease of publication on the network to publish their lecture notes or their research papers, there is a need to train them to provide quality online information.

Netskills is playing a major role in shifting the culture towards effective and widespread use of JANET and SuperJANET, of these new networked information services and of the Internet as a whole. It is doing this by means of a programme of training and awareness for HE users of information and those supporting them.

Based at the University of Newcastle, the project is building on the results of the Network Training Materials Project and on the Mailbase network skills training programme for subject groups. Netskills is using a variety of approaches to the widespread diffusion of the network skills required, with use being made of both traditional and new (network-based) methods of training.

A range of hands-on courses and awareness seminars are being developed and delivered to large numbers of information users at various locations around the country. These courses are a mixture of general, specialist and subject specific courses covering between them the networked information environment, the types of information services available, how to search for information, some of the social and legal issues, and how to make information available on the network. FIGIT felt that it was very important to have an early impact through awareness seminars. Netskills started on October 1st 1995 and, by the end of March ‘96, will have presented at over 30 events (presentations, hands-on workshops, etc) and has already ‘spoken to’ well over a thousand people from a variety of strands within the UK HE community.

The Netskills courses currently being run are Introduction to the Internet and Authoring and Publishing on the World Wide Web. The first provides a good grounding in Internet tools, in exploring and searching the World Wide Web and the changing information environment. It has been delivered as both a general course and as a course tailored for particular subject disciplines (to date, social scientists, medics and librarians). The course on authoring and publishing covers creating Web pages, together with tips and hints on the effective use of Web browsers.

Workshops held at Newcastle usually take place over two days, with dinner in the evening followed by a guest speaker and demonstrations, with a common theme of ‘what the future might hold’, including Java, CU See Me, Worlds Chat and VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language).

Information about Netskills workshops is posted to the netskills-news Mailbase list (see below)and is also available at http://www.netskills.ac.uk/events/.

There is an important role for librarians and other trainers in helping to change the culture within higher education institutions. Netskills will provide various resources for existing and new trainers, such as short courses, training materials and hints on running a workshop. This facilitates the rapid and widespread diffusion of the necessary skills and an increased level of awareness of the networked information environment. A complementary project, EduLib, based at the University of Hull, will provide library staff with the pedagogic skills required to develop fully their role as network trainers.

The Netskills project includes the production and updating of a range of tailorable network skills training materials. The materials for the two current Netskills courses is being developed into training kits which will include presentation materials, speaker’s notes, suggested demonstrations, workshop exercises and other complementary materials.

Another resource for trainers which is being developed is a Network Training Information Gateway. This will use the SOSIG approach to describe networked information resources of relevance to network training. This embryonic gateway has been named NETEG (pronounced ‘Net Egg’) - the Netskills ‘Network Education and Training Electronic Gateway’. A pilot version of this server will be available later this year.

It is expected that a large number of people will be unable to come to a scheduled course. To cater for the individual learner a range of facilities is being developed, including disk-based tutorials, interactive Web-based tutorials accessed over the network, tutorials e-mailed out to a group with a tutor, and the pilot use of video-conferencing over the network to deliver training.

Building on our experience with Mailbase and the Network Training Materials Project, we understand that liaison with trainers, end users and other eLib projects is crucially important. The Netskills Team is very keen to foster good links with all sections of the community to enable rapid input and feedback from information support staff, trainers and trainees on the materials and courses developed.

Where is your role in all this? There are a variety of methods for becoming involved. New to the network? Why not attend one of our courses? Interested in hosting a regional workshop? The Netskills Team would be pleased to discuss running a workshop in your region or for your particular subject discipline. Want to find out about Netskills training materials and new courses? Join the netskills-news mailing list to keep in touch. Want to help shape the project and the materials produced? Join in the discussions on the netskills-forum mailing list. More information about Netskills is available at our Web site.

Finally, work with us to make Netskills a success in providing a comprehensive national network skills training programme, which will substantially raise the awareness and effective use of networked information within the UK Higher Education community.