Web Magazine for Information Professionals

After the Big Bang: The Forces of Change and E-Learning

Pete Johnston examines what recent developments in the area of "e-learning" might mean for the custodians of the information resources required to support teaching and learning.

After the Big Bang

In her presentation to the JISC Technology Watch seminar in February, Dr Diana Oblinger of the University of North Carolina employed the metaphor of "the Big Bang" to characterise the impact of recent and ongoing rapid technological, social and economic change [1]. The last five years have witnessed major shifts in the way the commercial sector markets and delivers its products and services, and the results of those changes are only beginning to "coalesce" into recognisable patterns. The emergence of the "dot com" sector - businesses interacting with their markets primarily via the Web - has brought with it challenges to the expectations associated with "traditional" business models.

Those same forces of change are making themselves felt in the education sector, creating not only new means of delivering teaching and training but also a constituency of potential learners with new requirements and new constraints on the way they meet their learning needs. The message of the Technology Watch seminar was that UK Higher and Further Education institutions as providers of teaching services face the challenge of adapting to this new environment - or watching as learners choose to meet their needs through other providers whom they perceive as having adapted better. And just as "e-commerce" has challenged basic principles about the nature of business, the impact of "e-learning" may raise questions to established assumptions about the provision of teaching.

Much discussion of the area of "e-learning" has focused on the impact on the teacher and the learner. What of its possible effects on the information managers - librarians, but also archivists and museum curators - who provide vital support for the teaching and learning process? What role might these groups play in "e-learning" projects, and how might the growth of "e-learning" affect their work?

The forces of change and the "e-university"

Developments in information and communications technology have made powerful computing tools available to a large sector of the population, and software applications can harness that processing power to the requirements of teaching and learning. The expansion of communications networks, and particularly the prospect of cheaper, faster Internet connections for the UK home computer user, is providing a means for large numbers of people to access information over distance. The increase in the range of devices used to access those information resources promises a growth in the functionality that can be delivered to the user by software applications.

These technological developments have, of course, had impacts on working practices beyond the education sector. The continuing pace of change dictates that people must engage in continuing learning in order to gain the knowledge and skills required to remain employable, which may require updating existing skills or re-training for new career areas. Increasingly such learning must be accommodated within patterns of work which demand flexible working hours and geographical mobility.

Such social change has inspired political demands for increased access to further and higher education, leading to a rapid increase in the size and diversity of the learner community. At the same time, the economic model for higher education in the UK has shifted towards one in which the learner or their family more directly meets the costs of learning, through fees and/or student loans. And since they are more conscious of meeting those costs, learners are taking greater responsibility for the construction of their own learning programmes, and are developing higher expectations of being able to find and choose courses which meet their own specific learning needs, in a form which suits their own context.

It is against this background that UK government initiatives such as the People’s Network [2], the National Grid for Learning [4] have emerged to provide some of the infrastructure (and the content) required to support "lifelong learning".

Technological advance is driving modernisation and creating new and increased demands for learning outside the UK too, and such changes are being felt in many countries from which UK HE institutions have traditionally recruited students.

However, there is increasing competition to provide teaching to this large (and growing) and valuable market of learner-customers, not only amongst established educational institutions. Companies are implementing programmes to provide for their own staff development and new commercial enterprises are appearing to meet the new demand for education. Other sources such as broadcasters and publishers, who have previously contributed to the educational function, now see opportunities to take a more direct role in the provision of learning resources. Many of these ventures are adopting an approach based primarily or exclusively on virtual distance learning or "e-learning", using the capabilities made available by the new technologies to deliver learning resources to a globally distributed learner community via the Web. They are targeting the entire spectrum of learners by supplying teaching ranging from postgraduate-level business education to short practical or leisure-related courses. In the US, some private providers have developed powerful brand images by creating partnerships with leading universities, with the universities providing high quality content for the learning resources and the commercial partners providing the technical and commercial infrastructure for delivery.

In the UK, the HEFCE proposal for the creation of an "e-university" is a direct response to the threat posed by these new corporate and virtual universities to UK HE/FE institutions’ ability to sustain recruitment both of overseas students and of UK-based students seeking "continuing professional development" (CPD) and vocational qualifications [5]. It is also shaped by a recognition that traditional methods of teaching provision are unlikely to be able to meet the growing demand.

The proposed "business model" for the e-university [6] is that of a "facilitator" organisation or Application Service Provider (ASP) whose function is to support the development of learning resources created by educational institutions and other providers, and the delivery of those resources on a fee-paying basis to individual learner-consumers and to institutional users. These materials would be provided as self-contained blocks with embedded tutorial and self-assessment features so that they are usable with minimum external support. A "Committee for Academic Quality" [7] would evaluate all proposed materials, and a "navigator" function [8] would advise learners on the selection of resources and the construction of a coherent learning programme.

Information resources for learning

For the student of the physical university, the primary source of the information resources used to support the learning process has traditionally been the university library. For some subject areas, the learner’s requirements may extend to the use of other repositories: archives of historical records and special collections or manuscript libraries; the non-textual resources of museums, galleries and other multimedia collections; and data archives of primary qualitative data (historical, archaeological, scientific etc).

The resources held by such repositories are managed: their custodians select and acquire items; they ensure that they are appropriately stored, protected and conserved; and they make them accessible to users, typically by

In some cases, demands for access must be balanced against restrictions imposed on the use of the resource, because of commercial licensing constraints, or considerations of privacy and confidentiality, or the physical characteristics of the resource. Further, the archivist, museum curator and manuscript librarian vouch for the integrity and authenticity of the resources in their care.

The information manager is seen as an intermediary who performs an important quality control function. In the context of support for learning, this quality control is manifested in co-operation between the librarian and the teaching staff in the selection and description of resources and the control of access to those resources. The acquisitions policy of a university library is developed in conjunction with the interests of the teaching and research staff, and at a more tactical level, a librarian acquires multiple copies of "key" texts on academic reading lists and places lending restrictions on high-demand items.

For the librarian at least, the resources to which users seek access are increasingly digital resources, and there has been a shift from managing the physical ownership of resources to managing access to shared digital resources, often under the terms of a commercial licence. This may extend to managing the access technologies such as e-Book readers [9]. The provision of quality control of resources, however, is more important than ever in the Web context, where the user requires guidance in the effective and efficient discovery and evaluation of relevant, high quality materials.

For the most part, the resources acquired and conserved by archivists, museum and gallery curators, and manuscript librarians continue to be unique physical objects. Their custodians do, however, make use of digital channels to promote the existence of these resources and provide wider access to descriptions of the objects. Increasingly, they make available digital surrogates of the originals. Some of the resources coming into their care are now "born-digital": created and managed in digital form. Qualitative data resources are almost exclusively digital.

How do these "traditional" management functions of acquiring resources, protecting them, and making them available to users fit within the requirements of e-learning initiatives? Their relevance in the context of virtual learning depends on the nature, range and depth of the information resources to which learners require access, and this in turn depends on the nature of the learning model.

Models of learning and resource requirements

The e-university business model document presents a high-level view of how "learning materials" might be designed, constructed and delivered to its students [10], including the provision of tutorial support. However, it has relatively little to say about how learners subscribing to an e-university course might find and access the wider range of information resources which do not contribute directly to the learning objectives of a course, but which serve to broaden a learner’s knowledge of a subject [11].

Problem-oriented learning

Some professional or vocational training has adopted a problem-oriented model of teaching and learning. The units of learning to which a learner subscribes tend to be small and specific, and the learning objectives can be met with little or no reference to other resources. If reference materials are required, their number and extent may be sufficiently limited that they can be incorporated within a "course-pack" which also contains embedded exercises for self-assessment.

However, there are hurdles to be overcome in implementing such a model by exclusively digital means. Many publishers remain reluctant to permit the reuse of materials in this way or levy high charges for the right to do so [12]. They may be more willing to grant permissions for the use of their material in paper coursepacks. The e-university’s projected model of a multi-provider "facilitator" reflects the functional separation seen in other e-learning initiatives between an agent responsible for the framework for delivery of learning materials to learners and those agents creating and supplying the learning materials themselves. The ability of such delivery agencies to secure discounts or economies of scale in this area might be significant. It may also be true that the expectations associated with the e-learning context make it easier to pass on these costs to the learner.

Many of the examples of successful private sector providers of e-learning are from subject areas that lend themselves to the problem-based approach. For example, the Cardean University [13] concentrates on delivering high quality business/management courses, with the content provided by leading US universities; IT-related courses are also popular targets for virtual delivery. It might be argued that the problem-oriented model translates well to a virtual learning environment precisely because it presents little requirement for learner access to an extended resource base.

The university approach to learning

Increasingly, the problem-based approach does form part of the teaching repertoire within the physical university. This reflects both a shift in approaches to teaching, inspired in part by the new functionality made available by technological developments, and also a necessary strategy for managing the expansion in student numbers and the demand to support more distance learning and part-time students.

However, it remains only a part of a model which continues to emphasise learning through a combination of formal lectures and interaction with other learners and with the teacher. One of the aims of that interaction is to stimulate the learner to think beyond the "core" content of lectures and key texts and to reflect critically on it. The notion of "reading around the subject" is vital to this process. Through access to an extended information resource base, which includes resources not created specifically as learning materials, the learner is able to broaden and deepen their knowledge of a topic. They encounter the conflicting viewpoints and debates that foster the development of a critical perspective, and they are stimulated to develop and pursue their own areas of investigation.

As noted above, for the student of the physical university, that resource has been provided primarily through the services of the university library, both through immediate access to its own holdings and to bibliographic resources describing materials elsewhere and the services such as inter-library loan and document supply which facilitate access to those external resources. An increasing proportion of those resources - both the content and the discovery materials - is made available digitally. However, the provision in digital form of an extended resource base of equivalent scope, currency and quality to that of the sector’s physical libraries (and other repositories) is one of the major challenges facing e-learning in general and the proposed UK e-university in particular.

E-libraries for e-universities?

Writing in the Guardian, Tim O’Shea emphasises that "great universities have extensive libraries" and that the e-university must be no exception [14].

The e-university business model document notes recent developments in commercial provision of access to digital texts (e.g. Questia, netLibrary, ebrary) [15]. It is certain that these ventures will expand and will be joined by others. However, they remain limited in the range and depth of their coverage because they rely on agreements with a limited number of publishers for permission to offer digital content. The position is rather better for academic journals, where publishers have been more willing to provide digital access and there are established agreements with teaching institutions. However, SCONUL’s discussion paper on the e-university is in little doubt:

Replicating the richness and depth of even the less well founded academic libraries in virtual form is currently an impossibility in most disciplines. There is, as yet, no virtual substitute for a real university library [16].

So, it seems unlikely that reliance on an exclusively digital information resource base could deliver the learning objectives which a traditional university course attempts to meet. The depth and quality of coverage necessary would require some form of access to the holdings of existing physical libraries, probably to the holdings of university and college libraries. It is conceivable that a venture such as the e-university could broker collaborative "common access" agreements amongst the course provider institutions within the HE sector, so that a learner has access to the library of an institution which is geographically close even if that institution is not providing the learner’s course of study. For learners who are geographically distant from such an academic library, it may be possible to provide access to those resources through local public libraries, via an enhanced inter-library loan and document delivery service. However, this will not meet the requirements of all learners. There is clearly a problem of differential levels of access depending on the learner’s geographical location, which would translate into additional costs for the learner if, for example, a large number of inter-library loans were required. The requirement for access to non-digital resources may be particularly disadvantageous for overseas students - one of the target learner groups for the e-university - who are likely to be located in areas outside the scope of any inter-institutional access agreements.

Looking beyond the published textual resources held by libraries to the holdings of special collections/manuscript libraries, archives, galleries and museums, the challenge of physical access is more significant. Access to these unique physical resources is restricted to environments where it can be controlled and monitored by their custodians, usually within the repositories where the resources are stored. Furthermore these classes of resource are typically those for which users rely on high levels of guidance and interpretation from their custodians.

While access to physical resources seems highly desirable in many cases, it is certainly true that access to a digital resource base of both textual and non-textual materials will be central to the success of e-learning initiatives.

Building the e-libraries

With specific reference to the e-university, the SCONUL discussion paper offers three possible options for library service provision, which might be generalised to the context of other e-learning initiatives intending to deliver education at a similar level:

Like its physical counterparts, such an e-library would have the responsibility of acquiring resources, or acquiring rights of access to resources held by third parties, and providing the tools to enable effective access to and use of those resources. Furthermore, if e-learning initiatives are to offer access to the range of courses offered by the physical university then their "e-libraries" should aspire to be virtual repositories which extend their range to include the other classes of unpublished and non-textual resource held by archives, museums and galleries. If e-learning is successful, it is likely that all of these resources will be used more frequently, by a wider range of learners and teachers, and in a broader range of contexts than their creators, publishers and custodians had anticipated. The e-learning context brings with it the demand for flexibility and the ability to reuse, to "mix and match", across boundaries of media, provider, subject area.

Acquiring content

For published printed materials, the major obstacles to the acquisition of digital content lie in the area of copyright and licensing, and how to meet the royalty costs associated with permissions to digitise, particularly when this is extended from textual materials into audio and video resources. Where agreements are given, they are accompanied by restrictions on the access to and the use of the materials. The experience of services such as Higher Education Resources On-demand (HERON) [17], which emerged from an eLib project and which seeks copyright clearance on behalf of the HE community and currently provides a resource bank of reusable materials, would be valuable to the e-university.

For unpublished content, which will include some of the other classes of resource mentioned above, the UK learning community will benefit from the vast pool of new digital resources which are being created by projects funded through the NOF-digitise programme. Existing projects have already developed such resources. The Scottish Cultural Resource Action Network (SCRAN) [18], funded by the Millennium Commission, has grant-aided digitisation in exchange for a non-exclusive licence for the educational use of the digital resources. It has digitised selected parts of collections from the different curatorial domains of museums, galleries, archives and libraries in Scotland, and created extensive descriptive records of those objects. Indeed, SCRAN is able to make available digitally representations of objects and descriptions of those objects which might not be accessible in the physical museum or gallery because of restrictions on exhibition space.

Providing access

The work being carried out under the JISC Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) [19] initiative is addressing some of the challenges of providing effective access to such a diverse and distributed resource. The DNER seeks to integrate access to existing services and resources which may presently have separate points of access (perhaps by subject area, media type, information community, owner institution, individual project etc) so that users can identify, locate and use those resources easily, effectively and consistently. As an example of what is possible, the existing Resource Discovery Network (RDN) [20] has been successful in providing unified access to a range of distributed, quality-controlled catalogues of internet resources containing descriptions created by, and tailored for, academic subject specialists.

The DNER architecture [21] is designed so that its shared services can be assembled to meet the needs of other information delivery services: if this goal can be realised, then the DNER could make a central contribution to the access infrastructure for the "library" services of a project such as the e-university and of other e-learning initiatives. As a simple example of how this type of functionality might be provided, the RDN’s "RDN-Include" [22] service allows other web-based information services to embed access to the RDN query system within their own pages.

Furthermore, the DNER recognises that a large proportion of the digital resources developed and made available through previous JISC initiatives has been used primarily for research purposes. The DNER has the goal of making such resources useful to learners and teachers, as well as to researchers.

The means of achieving this will vary depending on the nature of the resource. The focus may be on supplementing resource metadata so that it is possible to match learning objectives with the resources available. This is the model underlying the "curriculum navigator" functions provided by SCRAN and by the access functions of other projects such as the 24-Hour Museum [23] , where resources are classified according to their relevance and usefulness in the teaching of components of the National Curriculum. Projects may also seek to construct other materials which make the primary resources useful in teaching. For example, the Collection of Historical and Contemporary Census Data (CHCC) project [24] is seeking to enhance access to census data by creating reusable tutorials and exercises which can be embedded in learning materials and also by improving tools for data extraction and exploration.

The challenge of integration

The new emphasis on the learner as the self-directed selecter-purchaser of their own learning materials brings with it the requirement for that learner to be able to identify, evaluate and compare learning materials from different sources and to be able to select and integrate components of those materials to meet their specific needs. Elsewhere in this issue [25], Paul Miller outlines initiatives being taken to support the learner by removing some of the barriers to this process and encouraging the providers of those learning materials to rationalise their descriptive standards.

Similarly, for the information resources which support those learning materials, a collaborative approach will become increasingly important if the DNER vision of integrated access to those resources is to be realised. That collaboration will require new levels of co-operation amongst the information mangers from different traditions. It will also require those information managers to develop and maintain a dialogue with the providers of learning materials - a group who in the future may include partners other than the "traditional" providers within academic institutions - and with the agencies who provide the frameworks for the delivery of those materials.


The age of e-learning is already here. The interplay of technological developments and socio-economic change which has had such an impact on the commercial sector has already begun to change the processes of teaching and learning, and those tools and technologies are being used more and more widely within the sector. The challenge now is to ensure that the framework within which they are deployed is adequate for the achievement of their educational objectives, and the provision of supporting information services is one facet of that challenge.

The "library" services which will be required to support e-learning ventures are "hybrid" in every sense: they must provide seamless, integrated access to a range of resources across boundaries of media and across boundaries of curatorial tradition. The proportion of that resource base which is available in digital form continues to increase. At present, however, the coverage of that digital proportion does not compare with the richness of the content of the physical repositories. The success of the e-learning initiatives may depend on a dual approach of enhancing the scope and quality of the digital proportion of that information resource while also promoting the existence of, and providing effective access to, the valuable "non-e-" component.


  1. Slides from the JISC Technology Watch seminar "Helping to plan for the future of further and higher education" are at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/events/01/tech_watch.html
  2. The People’s Network site is at: http://www.peoplesnetwork.gov.uk/
  3. The National Grid for Learning portal is at: http://www.ngfl.gov.uk/
  4. The New Opportunities Fund NOF Digitise site is at: http://www.nof-digitise.org/.
  5. See HEFCE Circular Letter 04/00 (14 February 2000), "e-University" Project, available at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/Circlets/2000/cl04_00.htm ; see particularly the "Background and Objectives" section of Annex A at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/Circlets/2000/cl04_00a.htm
  6. HEFCE, e-University project: business model, HEFCE Consultation 00/43 (October 2000) at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/hefce/2000/00_43.htm and
    HEFCE, Business model for the e-University: PricewaterhouseCoopers report, HEFCE Consultation 00/44 (October 2000) at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/hefce/2000/00_44.htm
  7. See paragraphs 61-66 of Business model for the e-University: PricewaterhouseCoopers report.
    See also HEFCE Circular Letter 02/01 (15 January 2001), e-University: invitation to nominate directors and committee members, available at http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/Circlets/2001/cl02_01.htm
  8. See paragraphs 102-109 of Business model for the e-University: PricewaterhouseCoopers report.
  9. Ormes, Sarah. "It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine) or How I learned to stop worrying and love the e-book", Ariadne, 26 (Jan 2001), at http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue26/e-book/
  10. See paragraphs 42-72 of Business model for the e-University: PricewaterhouseCoopers report.
  11. See paragraphs 86-90 of Business model for the e-University: PricewaterhouseCoopers reportand paragraphs 113-117 of Annex 3: Learning products and services for the e-U
  12. See, for example, SCONUL. Response to HEFCE’s consultation (00/43) on the e-University project: Briefing note on library issues, (November 2000), at http://www.sconul.ac.uk/bfgnote.doc and Appendix to the briefing note, (November 2000), at http://www.sconul.ac.uk/discppr.doc.
  13. The Cardean University "offers next-generation business courses online to companies and individuals around the globe." See http://www.cardean.com/.
  14. O’Shea, Tim. "e-asy does it", The Guardian, Tuesday 10 October 2000, at http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/story/0,5500,379675,00.html
  15. Questia is at: http://www.questia.com/; netLibrary is at: http://www.netlibrary.com/; ebrary is at: http://www.ebrary.com/.
  16. SCONUL. Response to HEFCE’s consultation (00/43) on the e-University project: Appendix to the briefing note, (November 2000), section 2.2.1. Available at http://www.sconul.ac.uk/discppr.doc.
  17. The Higher Education Resources On-demand (HERON) project is at: http://www.heron.ac.uk/.
  18. The Scottish Cultural Resource Access Network (SCRAN) is at: http://www.scran.ac.uk/.
  19. The JISC DNER home page is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/dner/.
  20. The Resource Discovery Network (RDN) is at: http://www.rdn.ac.uk/.
  21. Pinfield, Stephen and Lorcan Dempsey. "The Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) and the hybrid library ", Ariadne, 26 (Jan 2001), at http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue26/e-book/intro.html
  22. For information on RDN-include, see: http://www.rdn.ac.uk/rdn-i/.
  23. The 24-hour Museum is at: http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/.
  24. The Collection of Historical and Contemporary Census Data and Related Materials project is at: http://www.chcc.ac.uk/.
  25. Miller, Paul. "Towards consensus on educational metadata", Ariadne, 27 (Mar 2001), at http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue27/meg/

Author Details

Pete Johnston
Interoperability Research Officer

Email: p.johnston@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/