MOOCs – a revolution in education?

Are MOOCs really opening up education to all? (Image c/o Md saad andalib on Flickr.)

The following post was contributed by Informed team members Jennie Findlay and Ian Clark.

There has been much coverage of the emergence of MOOCs (Multiple Open Online Courses) in recent months, sparking multiple discussions about their usefulness as a new learning experience for a wide variety of users.  Their popularity has continued to rise since the first MOOC was launched to the public in 2007, so much so that even high street retailers such as Marks & Spencer have joined in, using the MOOC platform in conjunction with an academic partner in order to deliver a course on “commercial innovation” (a growing trend as MOOC providers begin to focus on providing job-related training). Some MOOC providers are also now beginning to focus on providing “nanodegrees”, designed to focus on training individuals to get very specific jobs. Within a few short years, online searches for learning providers with a physical location have been outstripped by those for online courses.

Of course MOOCs can be excellent learning tools, but as with any other method of delivering information and education, they also have their limitations. Most (free) MOOCs have excellent signup rates, but also an incredibly small course completion rate (averaging only 4% in one study).Those people who are successfully participating in MOOCs are also those people who are most likely to already have an advanced level of education. But are current MOOC offerings just an academic toy for those who are already well educated, and are they bypassing those who are actually most in need of access to expert training and life-enhancing skills? What’s stopping those who could most benefit from gaining skills and education via a MOOC from embracing the opportunity of self education?

Access barriers to MOOC use

There are multiple reasons why those who would most benefit from being able to access the university level training provided by MOOCs are unable to do so.

Access to a reliable internet connection

Access to an internet connection is an essential requirement for involvement in a MOOC, which are, by definition, delivered entirely online. But for many of those people who would most benefit from such a course, those with lower skill and education levels for example, securing access to a reliable internet connection, at an appropriate time, can present a significant barrier to engagement. According to the Office for National Statistics’ Internet Access statistical bulletin, 16% of households in the UK do not have an internet connection. Of those households without internet access, 12% say they do not have access because the equipment is too expensive and 11% say the access costs are too high. Furthermore, in households where the income is below £12,500, only 58% use the internet (lower than middle income households in 2005). It is clear, therefore, that for lower income households, MOOCs do little to broaden access to education and break down existing barriers.

Ownership of a computer/laptop with which to undertake a MOOC

A core requirement of an interactive course is that you have access to the equipment which will enable you to interact with fellow students and your tutor. However, the cost of owning a computer to enable you to undertake the course can be prohibitive for many, which means that their only option to access the course is via their local public library, and the computers available there.

Accessibility of public libraries

To use a public computer for a course of study requires that there be reliable access to that computer for the user. With reduced opening hours in many public libraries, not to mention library closures, being able to find a library open during the times when a MOOC student can visit presents a further significant barrier.

Availability of public computers

Undertaking a course of study, particularly while also working or undertaking other full time duties, requires the ability to set aside specific times for studying which fit around the student’s schedule. A lack of reliable availability of a computer will have an impact on this essential requirement to plan times of study. Many public libraries have restrictions on the availability of their computers, including limiting user sessions to one or two hours at a time, restricting the daily amount of hours a user can have on a computer and, in some cases, charging users for access to the internet. This can make it impossible for MOOC students who rely on access to these computers to schedule their studying time properly.

Reliability and speed of library networks

If a user has managed to both to access a public library and secure a public computer, they may still encounter difficulties engaging with a MOOC. Ageing technology and limited bandwidth availability on library networks means that those that rely on publicly accessible computers may experience greater difficulties than those who do not.

Course online interaction requirements

Many MOOCs encourage or require scheduled interaction sessions with either other participants, or the tutor. These are often in Google Hangouts, or MOOC-based chat rooms. This requirement to be able to be online, and access certain tools, can be difficult to comply with, particularly if the student has problems guaranteeing their ability to be online at a specific time. Many of the internationally based MOOC providers schedule these events in the evenings or weekends, which are particularly difficult times for some students (eg those with families) to get online.

Amount of time needed to commit to completion

There is a need to dedicate substantial time to many of the courses available online. Most Coursera courses, for example, have an estimated workload of 5-15hrs per week. Regardless of the course’s flexibility in terms of deadlines, for some the amount of time required to complete the course is too much. For those on low incomes, the combination of balancing requirements of family and personal development means that the latter will always lose out to the former. In addition, missing one class of 3 hours in one week due to other responsibilities will mean that 6 hours are needed the following week in order to catch up. This becomes an increasingly difficult task if internet and computer access are not guaranteed.

Cost issues

Cost of undertaking some of the commercial MOOCs

The most useful MOOCs are those which provide accredited training, and which will therefore be accepted and respected by potential employers. Although many MOOCs are currently being run free of charge to participants, it does not mean that they will be provided in this way in perpetuity. Currently, the substantial costs of creating and hosting MOOCs are being absorbed by the providers or course creators, but it is unclear to what extent this is sustainable in the long term. Most MOOC providing bodies are commercial entities, and inevitably they will eventually want to create a return on their investment.

Increasing introduction of costs to use public library networks (first hour free or sliding scale of charges for use of equipment)

As mentioned above, certain libraries have begun introducing charges for the use of their computers, usually after an initial free session time. Manchester City Libraries allow free use of library computers for an hour, and after that hour, users are charged a fee of £1.50 per hour. Having to pay for the use of a public computer can be a significant barrier for lower income MOOC students. And this is before we consider the cost of printing out documents, which comes at a price in public libraries. Many MOOC students will need to print out a substantial volume of the course materials in order to consult them when offline, this could significantly increase the financial burden.

The MOOC effect…

Beyond costs and barriers, MOOCs do not seem to be the giant step forward for the open, broad-based education revolution its advocates claim. For example, 70% of those who embark on such a course already have a degree, they are not attracting a huge swathe of people beyond the usual groups who engage with higher education. Even then, it’s questionable whether MOOCs are working for the majority with completion rates usually below 10%.

There are also concerns about the quality of the education provided via MOOCs. As one leading digital innovator in academia, Professor Dan Cohen (who led the development of Zotero) argues:

“We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Cohen has also claimed that he and other innovators are concerned about what he calls the “lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect to them”. Cohen argues, essentially, that MOOCs take a rather old-fashioned approach to education and that instead of promoting MOOCs as an alternative we should develop digital projects that help students to explore and encourage them to build their own digital projects.

There is also the danger, of course, of a narrowing down of course providers. As is inevitable, providers will merge, take-over competitors or disappear (particularly as some struggle to generate a return on their investment). In such an environment, there is a very real danger of the range of providers declining and the quality of the courses suffering as a result. A move towards one leading player in the market could create serious problems from an educational perspective, particularly if that player has other commercial interests and sees MOOCs as a way to cross-promote. Equally, there is a danger of developing very narrow skills that will either benefit the provider itself or its partners, rather than a well-rounded education that encourages the kind of critical thinking skills that are not considered desirable or profitable within the workplace.

Cohen also points out that most of the successful MOOCs have been maths/computer based and primarily vocational. It may well be that MOOCs are a beneficial education tool, but it may not be across all subjects. Some may lend themselves to the learning styles that MOOCs demand whilst others may be less so. After all, everyone learns in a different way. Some prefer face-to-face tuition, some prefer textual learning, some are happy with videos. For those who perform best when receiving face-to-face interaction (whether that be with peers or teachers), MOOCs will not be a suitable alternative to traditional methods of learning. A mixed approach for such students, however, may be more suitable.  San Jose State University, for example, found that a combination of online lectures and face-to-face class time significantly improved the pass rate for engineers.

Conclusion

MOOCs have certainly got a lot of people talking excitedly about their potential to revolutionise education – again, something to support this might be helpful. However, it is not clear yet whether they offer any significant advantages over formal routes of education or that they are quite the revolution that its advocates suggest. There are still a number of barriers that need to be overcome before many can embark on a MOOC, in this respect they differ little from the more traditional method of learning. Higher education has long seen to be the preserve of the few, particularly the elite institutions. There’s little to suggest that MOOCs are any different in this regard.

Indeed, it appears that they erect the same barriers as their traditional counterpart. Cost is a big factor in preventing engagement, as is time. Neither are in abundance for those at the bottom of the economic scale. For those with limited resources (both financial and time), MOOCs may appear as distant as a top university. They are not, as yet at least, proving to be the big game-changer for further education that the advocates may have suggested.

Not only are MOOCs failing to open the doors of education to all, but they are also failing to be revolutionary in how they teach. Rather than taking full advantage of the technology that such a programme should allow, they take a rather conservative approach. As Cohen points out, many universities are already providing more sophisticated methods for engaging students digitally. MOOCs, at present at least, seem to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to engaging with students in new and innovative ways.

MOOCs certainly appear to be here to stay, but are they really the big step-forward that we have been led to believe? There are still barriers to their use as with more traditional routes of education. They are not accessible for those without the means to engage with them, either financially or in terms of the time they can commit. They seem to offer nothing new in terms of digital learning, in fact they seem some way behind traditional universities in terms of innovation. MOOCs are certainly an interesting development in terms of the delivery of education. It remains to be seen whether they herald a revolution in terms of opening up education and with respect to fully exploiting new technologies in the learning environment. In short, the jury is still out.

Speak up about the hidden consequences of library cuts

Image c/o Ian Clark on Flickr.

On the day of the Speak Up for Libraries Conference we hear from Alan Wylie, a public librarian and campaigner for public libraries, about the consequences of library cuts on outreach programmes in libraries.

We’ve all seen the headlines, and as a library campaigner I’ve been unfortunate enough to see them every day, announcing cuts to library service budgets and the closure of libraries but what about the hidden cuts, the fine detail tucked away in the ‘consultation’ or ‘re-organisation’ report, what damage are these cuts causing?

Concerns about hidden cuts to library services are not new, as these articles from 2010/11 demonstrate:

“The cuts will just make it harder for libraries to provide outreach work and school visits – everything around making books accessible.”
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/20/spending-cuts-libraries-at-risk

“Reader development staff – the people who run activities such as library reading groups, author events and outreach work to schools – are also being culled wholesale in some parts of the country.”
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/25/hidden-cuts-undermining-local-libraries

Since 2010/11 the situation facing public libraries has deteriorated rapidly with CIPFA estimating 3000-4000 library staff lost (900+ in London alone) but what the figures don’t often show and the headlines rarely announce is the loss of specialist staff and services. For example staff in outreach teams who work with nurseries, children’s centres and schools to promote the enjoyment of reading and the importance of literacy to young children and their parents/guardians. One such person is Dave Pickering who until earlier this year worked as an ‘Early Years Library Outreach Worker’ with Enfield Libraries until:

“Last month the team of five people that I was a part of was reduced to a team of one person.”

Dave was very clear about the impact of these cuts:

“I worked with children and parents across Enfield. The Guardian is currently tracking the “Enfield Experiment”. Like many parts of London, it is a place where you will find shocking disparities between the wealth and lifestyles of people in one area compared to those in another. I moved around the borough, working both in communities you might describe as affluent and those you might see as deprived.

My service was valued in both places, but the impact of its loss – and the loss of other even more essential and life-enhancing services – will be felt most keenly by the poorest and most at risk, rather than by people who can pay for private children’s services and who don’t need the extra help to combat the social conditions they find themselves in. We’re not all in it together, because the impact of each cut is vastly different for each person depending on their situation.

The government is literally taking things away from children; it is dividing and dismantling communities and claiming that this is an unfortunate reality.”

Recently in Hampshire very similar cuts to those already made in Enfield have been proposed:

“The proposals are part of a package of measures , which include reducing the mobile library service in Hart and Rushmoor and ending the family library link service
One aspect of the cuts is to disband the library outreach team, which promotes the use of the library service to playgroups, schools and community groups.”

And I’ve also been told that part of the new proposals for Havering Libraries include cutting the team that promotes the Summer Reading Challenge. Nationally this annual event is a public libraries success story:

  • Research shows that taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge can help children keep up their reading skills during the long summer holiday
  • A record 810,089 children took part in the 2013 Summer Reading Challenge.

In January 2014 the Save Wolverhampton Libraries Campaign wrote an open letter to the Wolverhampton Chief Executive outlining their concerns relating to proposed cuts to the library service including those to “services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio”:

“The proposed cuts constitute closure by stealth of one of our city’s most precious assets. We are especially concerned about the removal of services outside the core role of lending books, DVDs and audio; we refer you to the many roles carried out by our city’s librarians of which the following is not an exhaustive list:

  • Support with CV writing
  • Support with job searching
  • Support with form filling
  • Support regarding benefits
  • Support or assistance with IT and associated training
  • School holiday and Saturday activities
  • Outreach with schools
  • Outreach with community groups”

In the 2013 report  ‘The public library service under attack‘ commissioned by Unison and written by Steve Davies of the University of Cardiff, the figures show that although building based activities appeared to be holding steady or increasing, outreach was being cut:

“Although some respondents reported an increase in provision in some services (a quarter reported an increase in Baby Bounce and Rhyme time), close to one fifth reported cuts to both school holiday activities and to outreach with local schools (19% and 20% respectively).”

 John Vincent, co-author of the blog ‘Social Justice Librarian’ and coordinator of ‘The Network’, recently raised similar concerns about the demise of outreach and targeted services to ‘marginalised groups’ in a recent piece he wrote on libraries and social justice:

“We know some of the reasons why this is happening: lack of library staff, time and resources; communities overwhelmed by other demands on their time; possibly political views about ‘new arrivals’.
But is there more to it? Could it be that, surreptitiously, we’ve become worn down by the calls to return to building-based services, to concentrate on existing users and their demands, to abandon ‘risky’ types of service, or services that do not show ‘high returns’ such as increased issue figures and visitor numbers? We do know that the sort of work that is required to make public libraries really relevant is time-intensive, and often involves relatively small numbers of users.”

Richard Lyda an Outreach Librarian based in the US outlines the crucial importance and the positive benefits of his role:

“My experiences teaching for Head Start made me appreciate how important community outreach can be for so many people. Families need to know that resources exist before they can access them, and effective community outreach is a great way to spread the word about valuable community resources.”

“I would suggest not to overlook outreach as a mode of service in public libraries. I’ve had a very gratifying and fulfilling experience in my almost 5 years as an outreach librarian. I get to see the service positively affecting youth, families, and seniors every day.”

In my opinion outreach is crucial to the relevance, integrity and survival of public libraries without it we are in danger of losing touch with those in our communities that need our services most.

It helps to ground us and to break down the ‘professional in an official building’ barrier, it also helps to loosen the ‘footfall & issues’ noose put around our necks by those only interested in quantative data.

 

A celebration of library services, from A-Z

The following post was submitted by Gary Green, one of the creators of the Library A-Z project.

The Library A to Z launches on the 17th November 2014. It’s a free set of promotional materials that aims to provide a positive message about the value of libraries. The initial idea for the A to Z came about from the desire to address the misunderstanding that a modern library service = a building containing books. It is intended to show that libraries have much more to offer. During a time when library service funding throughout the United Kingdom is being cut, when it should be increased, it’s particularly important to emphasize the benefits of library services in a creative way that would draw people’s attention to them.

The original idea for the A to Z list was formed at a session at the Library Camp East event and the original list of words that forms its basis was crowd-sourced there too. Following on from this, a project was set up to raise funds to create of a set of illustrations and promotional materials based on the A to Z. £4,500 was raised in 30 days over summer 2014 and this provided enough money to pay for an illustrator, produce the free materials and spread the Library A to Z message to politicians and the media.

The main feature of the Library A to Z is an illustrated alphabet based around a list of words showing a wide-range of library services and how they support areas such as literacy, access to online services, the well-being, education and economic situation of individuals, communities and society. The illustrations, along with their associated words also make up a full colour illustrated book highlighting the value of libraries. The book is intended to be sent to local and central government politicians reminding them of the value of libraries, with the aim of encouraging them to pledge support and continued funding. The book also includes quotes from library users sharing their personal experiences of libraries, which are taken from the Voices for the Library site. A chapter of key library facts and figures is also featured in the book.

S

So, for example, take a look at the letter S from the Library A to Z and we see that it features library services and resources such as School visits, Sexual health (information about), Story times, Scanners, Study space (to think and work), the Summer reading challenge and Statistics. It also tells us about some of the users of library services: Silver surfers and Students. It also highlights some of the positive outcomes of libraries: it’s a Safe (place), it offers Serendipity, Sharing, a place to improve Skills, Social literacy, Spelling and Stereotype breaking.

The A to Z doesn’t cover all services, resources and positive outcomes provided by library services – the key message is to show a wide range of things on offer.

The illustrations from the Library A to Z have been turned into promotional materials including posters, the book and greetings cards. They can be freely downloaded (along with the original illustrations) by anyone to promote libraries. Some of the materials, such as the posters, can be edited to include information about local library services.

Further information and links to the free downloadable material can be found on the Library A to Z site at http://libraryatoz.org

A to Z

Happy birthday Informed!

Today is exactly one year since the launch of Informed, so the team thought it would be a good chance to reflect on what we’ve achieved and look ahead to what we want to achieve over the next year.

Image c/o Elaine Ashton on Flickr.

But first, some Oscars-style thank yous!

We would like to thank our amazing moderators who read all of the content and check it against the contributor guidelines. These volunteers give up their time, sometimes at short notice, to play a crucial role in the smooth running of the site. Not to mention that all of them were involved in helping to shape the site from fuzzy idea to fully launched in just one month.

We also want to thank the authors who have contributed posts on a wide range of topics and to a consistently high standard. Again these are volunteers and we appreciate the effort that everyone puts into their posts. We have approached people to write for us, but most have volunteered which is heartening as it shows that this space was needed.

It’s ok, you can put away your hankies now.

So it’s been an amazing year. The team are incredibly proud of the quality, quantity and range of content that is hosted on Informed. We set up Informed to provide a neutral space for people to write blogs (with anonymity if required) on information issues with a wider societal impact, but in this first year it has become so much more. We are proud to host the LIS open access declaration, which has gathered nearly 100 signatories from LIS professionals who have publicly committed to publishing their research only open access. Alongside posts about the role of volunteers in CILIP, the role of LIS professionals in disasters and falling numbers of LIS students and available courses, we feel that the remit has expanded to include professional reflection without straying into esoteric introspection. Posts have covered topical issues such as a petition to stop The Sun being available in Islington public libraries, policy initiatives like increasing access to research via public libraries and internet access in prisons. Themes have also emerged in the content of Informed, with a number of posts on open access, web filtering and several using FOI requests to gather important data.

Now we need to start thinking about how to keep up the momentum and ensure that this next year is as good as the last. Firstly we are planning to be more proactive about approaching authors, both for topical and more general posts. Secondly we are going to draw up a publishing schedule so that we can commission articles further in advance to give authors more time. Finally we would like to get more of you involved with the site! Whether you would like to sign up to join our team of moderators, submit a post to Informed, or suggest topics you’d like to see covered. We’d love to hear from you via our contact form or in the comments below.

The cost of subscription publishing

The following article was submitted by Stuart Lawson.

The high cost of subscription journals has been discussed endlessly among librarians and those advocating for open access. While it is common knowledge that the prices paid by libraries are higher than most can really afford, there is still surprisingly little data in the public domain about what the exact costs are. Partly this is just down to the fact that libraries haven’t traditionally published detailed breakdowns of their acquisitions expenditure, so there is no cultural norm of doing so.

Partly it is due to the contracts that libraries sign with publishers to gain access to their journals. Some of these contracts contain non-disclosure agreements which prevent librarians from publicly disclosing the prices or pricing calculations. However, while this practice does exist, it is less widespread than is sometimes assumed. In the UK the only publisher whose contract includes a non-disclosure agreement which it claims prevents signatories from releasing some data even when subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests is Elsevier. The legal position of Elsevier’s non-disclosure clause has not been tested in court and if there are any brave librarians out there who wish to pursue that route, it could be worth getting a legal opinion about whether it can be done.

Subscription costs for all other publishers can be gained by any member of the public by sending FOI requests to UK universities, either as an individual or through the website whatdotheyknow.com. So that’s what we’ve done. The subscription costs paid by around 100 institutions to six major publishers are now openly available on figshare. We will be sending carefully-worded FOI requests separately for Elsevier data to obtain as much as is legally possible at the moment.

Transparency in subscription data is particularly important right now because we are seeing increased transparency in the price of APCs, and if this is seen without the context of the costs of subscriptions it could be used to claim that open access is needlessly expensive (thanks to Ernesto Priego for pointing this out).

Huge thanks to Ben Meghreblian for doing most of the manual labour or sending out all the FOI requests and collating the responses. Not every UK higher education institution is included in this dataset, particularly some of those institutions which have merged in the last few years, but the majority are. The notable exception is the majority of the research-intensive Russell Group universities, which were excluded because I know that someone else sent similar requests earlier this year but have not published the results yet. Even though those Russell Group universities would tend to have much higher subscription expenditure, I think it is important to see how bearing the burden of the costs of academic publishing is not limited to the more wealthy institutions.

A few caveats about the data so far:

  • The requests asked for data in calendar years, and some institutions responded with data in academic financial years. In those cases the data has been put in the column for the latter year. For example, if a figure is given for 2012/13, it is placed in the 2013 column. The money may actually have been transferred during 2012, but it will be for subscriptions for 2013.
  • Some institutions have not included expenditure through subscription agents or other intermediaries, including big deals. Others have included these costs. This makes directly comparing institutions’ expenditure more tricky.
    We are still waiting for responses from some institutions. These figures will be added to the spreadsheet as they become available.

For further details of individual requests please follow the links given in the tabs in the spreadsheet.

UPDATE: Further data has been added to the dataset, which now includes expenditure on  Elsevier journals for some universities.

Should UK universities block access to parts of the web?

The following post was submitted by Daniel Payne.

Image c/o Gerardofegan on Flickr.

Either a subset of the internet – or no internet – is ever accessible to any individual. We are never using the Internet, if that even exists. This is due to a variety of positive and negative mechanisms which include the state, the law, the self, whether you actually have internet access at all, internet service providers, friends, teachers, financial situation, cultural reasons, and your mum.

It might come as a surprise to learn that universities and other higher education institutions throughout the UK choose to block categories of the internet beyond what is required of them by law, from sex and abortion, to naturism, online greeting cards, and marijuana. This is often referred to as “content-filtering” by the companies who perform the blocking, since this sounds less bad.

As information professionals working in the libraries of these institutions, should we care that we are working in an environment which automatically excludes whole categories of the internet? Why does a university pay money to do this, and who decides which categories to block and why?

There are of course parts of the internet which are blocked before the university steps in. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) maintains a constantly changing list called the Child Abuse Image Content list (CAIC). Companies which give us access to the internet subscribe to this list and block these parts of web. There are also websites blocked by order of a court. These are usually file sharing sites where major infringement of intellectual property occurs. Try accessing: http://www.thepiratebay.se.

In addition to that which is legally required, many universities license third-party content filtering software such as BrightCloud, Websense, Smoothwall, Bloxx, and Fortiguard [1]. In response to a request for a webpage, the software will either allow or block access depending on which categories the university has selected (and as is the case in some universities, the profile of the individual requesting it).

So what categories are universities choosing to block? Under the Freedom of Information Act, I contacted universities to find out whether any blocking on  their networks occurred, and if so, what categories they blocked. Where universities claimed an exemption to disclose a list of URLs due to perceived security implications, subsequent requests were made to ascertain the “categories” by which websites were blocked (i.e. pornography).

Here is the good news: of the 119 higher education institutions I received a response from, 63% confirmed they did not carry out internet blocking [2]. Indeed, some institutions such as Imperial College, pointed out that blocking parts of the internet would be against the principles of academic freedom.

Here is (some) of the bad news. A  full list of responses is available on figshare [3]:

  • 10% refused to confirm or deny that they did or didn’t block parts of the internet.
  • Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance blocks the category “abortion” for junior users.
  • In addition to “adult”, Queen’s University Belfast also blocks “naturism”.
  • University of Aberdeen and Nottingham Trent University block “marijuana”.
  • There are a whole host of vague categories such as “questionable”, “tasteless”, “extreme politics”, “violence”, “unethical”, and “intolerance”.

Universities who carry out the category-based blocking described above are keen to point out that they have mechanisms in place where an individual can request that a block is lifted. However, this can often involve seeking permission from the head of department, or submitting an evidence form which justifies your need to access that material;  processes which will never be immediate and could be humiliating. Should an adult have to get permission to access porn? Are the number of adult individuals in UK universities getting off on porn on library computers in full view of everyone else endemic enough to warrant this?  What about a 15 year old looking up abortion?

The 10% which refused to provide any information at all generally did so by claiming an exemption under section 31(1)(a) of the Act, which permits public bodies to withhold information in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime. My only comment on this would be how surprising it is that 63% of universities didn’t think this.

Universities and these content-filtering companies cannot or will not release very detailed information on these categories, since doing so would provide  information for the individuals or organisations behind those URLs to attempt to circumvent their designated classification. We therefore don’t really know much about how companies decide which webpages are “unethical”, or “questionable”.

Universities and their libraries are about creating, disseminating, questioning, and archiving information. The biggest possible subset of the Internet out there in the wild should not be reduced any further by universities according to an arbitrary, “undesirable” set of categories, but offered alongside digital literacy skills which empower students to judge information for themselves, not make judgements on there behalf.

 

[1] Some universities freely volunteered the name of their content filtering software. Some, when requested, disclosed this information. Others specifically refused due to “commercial” interest reasons. The list of content-filtering companies here have all been mentioned by at least one university.

[2] Where a university responded by stating that it only blocked malware/spam sites, this was counted as a “no blocking” response.

[3]Payne, Daniel (2014): Categories of websites blocked by UK universities. figshare.
http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1106875 Retrieved 17:12, Jul 23, 2014 (GMT)

 

This post represents the opinions and thoughts of the author alone. Any information obtained is believed to be accurate. If you believe there are errors, please get in touch.

How better information management could minimise disasters

The following article was submitted by Katharine Schopflin.

Image c/o Eric the Fish on Flickr

I recently attended a talk given by Jan Parry, who provided information and research support to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which, in 2012, oversaw the disclosure of public documents related to the 1989 disaster. Their website provides very clear background on what happened on 15th April 1989, as well as outlining the work they did to gather related documents and make them publicly available. I should state that the following is entirely my own interpretation: Jan’s measured, even-handed talk was essentially factual and did not offer up any opinions on either the disaster or the work of the Panel. But it made me think about the information public organisations hold, how they use it, and its value for preventing disasters and revealing facts. I’ve selected a couple of things from Jan’s very fulsome talk, and any mistakes in reporting are my own misremembering or misinterpretation.

Jan began by showing us the map of the Hillsborough ground which was used on the day. This plan both showed and lacked information pertinent to what happened. Much has been written about the power of maps to give and withhold information: they are representations and a choice is always made about what is included and how it is shown. This map shows how space was constricted at the Leppings Lane end of the ground but is limited in representing how confusing the divided inner concourse was for supporters, nor exactly how uneven the distribution of turnstiles was, things which had they been more apparent might have encouraged different policing decisions.  Jan also mentioned information that was available about previous (non-fatal) crushing incidents at Hillsborough and the results of the report into the Bradford City ground, which identified the dangers of using ‘pens’ in football terraces. These were not considered as part of plans for crowd control during the match.

As well as information which was available, but was ignored, some information was out of date. The police Operational Plan, which exists for every football match, had not been updated since the two teams last met at the ground the previous year. From a knowledge management point of view, both teams having met at the same ground for the 1988 semi-final could have provided useful learning points to inform a new Operational Plan, but if there was a debrief of police officers present at the previous match, it was not added to it. And in this case, knowledge transfer was vital, as the Match Commander in 1989 had no experience at Hillsborough. Other information could have been added to the plan: roadworks which made many Liverpool fans late are thought to have contributed to the crowding which built up at the Leppings Lane entrance. I’m not in a position to judge whether having a better map of the ground, an up-to-date operational plan, or more shared experience about managing a match at the ground, would have prevented the disaster. But these seem to me to be vital pieces of knowledge which needed to be expressed, and once expressed, shared and made explicit.

Jan also talked at length about the evidence gathered in the lengthy series of inquiries and investigations which followed the disaster. The stated purpose of the Panel was to allow documents related to the disaster to be released into the public domain ahead of the usual 30 years, but in the process an enormous amount of information was assembled together for the first time. Each contributing organisation: the government, police authorities, coroner’s service and NHS were asked to scan, digitise, redact and catalogue these documents with Home Office support. Some of the documents had always been available, but not read as significant. South Yorkshire Police happily released material which illustrated that some police statements had been edited before being made public, but did not see that this might have damaged earlier investigations. Many of these documents are now being used as new evidence and cases are being reopened.

One of the recommendations from the Panel was that public bodies such as police authorities and the coroner’s office should have a mandate to manage and keep their records (something which surprised me was not already the case). South Yorkshire Police had been going to dispose of some of the records which they instead gave to the Panel, and were within their rights to do so. Of course there are limits to ‘just in case’ record-keeping, but these public sector bodies could, if they had wished, destroyed information pertinent to new investigations. If the suggestions are followed, they will have a responsibility to keep records and manage them in a way that enables them to be found again. This seems essential to me if we want to be able to prevent or subsequently investigate significant events in the future.

However, I think this alone is not enough. Public sector information also needs to be joined up and exposed to analysis, in a way that modern technology now makes possible. Take the absence of information about road works in Operational Plan for the match at Hillsborough in April 1989. Modern data analytics tools enable police to combine public domain data about planned roadworks, standard traffic flows and their own knowledge of expected crowds to build a clear picture of what the outside of any stadium turnstile will look like just before a match. And this isn’t a theoretical picture, an actual map illustrating anticipated road and person congestion at any time of the day could be generated without difficulty. The guidance on policing football matches is undoubtedly more sophisticated now as a result of lessons learned from Hillsborough. Whether or not they have these kinds of tools at their disposal I do not know, but it is surely vital that they do.

Similarly, every investigation into a large-scale disaster or act of violence that I have read about has indicated that joining up information at an earlier date could have prevented death or injury or at the very least found answers to questions asked by victims or their families. Once disparate information is brought together it becomes clear if something in the situation is or was ‘not right’. Indeed, it was with these ideas in mind that the Home Offices large-scale IT systems, HOLMES and HOLMES2 were introduced across police services in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. Many local authorities are to be lauded for releasing data into the public domain, but it is by no means mandated across all public bodies. Technology has created great possibilities for manipulating data, but it needs to be available to begin with. This requires public bodies to maintain their records and, within reasonable and compliant limits, make them available as early as possible. The technology and analytical expertise exist. Opening up the data also needs to follow.

Voluntarily confused

Jennie Findlay and Lorna Robertson are both experienced information professionals, working in the legal sector, and have been active members of CILIP for a substantial period of time.

Introduction

As background to this post we are both Chartered and revalidated members of CILIP, active mentors and one of us volunteered with the Career Development Group for 10 years.

One of us wrote a blog post on the problems they had encountered with using the CILIP Virtual Learning Environment in December 2013. In February 2014, they wrote another post about the issues they felt are caused by a professional qualification system being run almost entirely by volunteers. In March, we both attended an “exchange of experience” session, discussing the VLE and the mentoring system with other mentors. Following on from that event, we have continued to have worries about how the new Body of Professional Knowledge systems are being run and supported, and we are not alone. Our concerns are shared by other information professionals, and this concern has motivated us to co-write this post.

 

Current Problems

Volunteer Sign

Volunteer sign.
(Image c/o Jacob Moyer on Flickr.)

A core purpose of a professional body is enabling its members to act as competent and ethical professionals, and to do this it means that the body should be providing professional training to those members to fulfil those needs. However, at present most training provided by CILIP is carried out by volunteers in the branches and groups.It may be that CILIP members are often not aware that the people running training events in their local areas are not actually paid CILIP staff, but volunteers, usually fitting in these commitments around their own jobs. The expectations of attendees are that communications relating to events will be prioritised, and our experience is that they can often become annoyed when they do not get what they perceive to be an efficient or rapid response. There can also be issues when the training is being provided by inexperienced staff: the information being given can be inaccurate, and confusing. We ourselves have experienced this recently, when attending a demonstration of the VLE, given by volunteers. The information given at this event was inaccurate, or conflicted with the information given in the formal training provided directly by CILIP via a WebEx demonstration.

Participation in the Certification/Chartership/Revalidation/Fellowship system is currently voluntary. If and when involvement becomes obligatory (as is proposed), this will be an even greater burden on the current mentors, trainers, support officers and assessors. Can a system such as this, which will be a core component of the benefit of CILIP membership, be implemented effectively by volunteers when every member is expected to participate in it?

We were informed during the recent event that we attended that CILIP is trying to sell the PKSB “package” to other professional bodies. This in itself is not an issue: it is obviously going to be a priority of CILIP to get the maximum value for the members from its assets. However, it would be interesting to know whether they are selling the PKSB system as one which will need salaried staff to run, or whether they are promoting it as a volunteer based system?

Volunteers are not compensated or recognised for their contributions to the running of their professional body. There are many people involved in the activities that CILIP provide: people running social events, training events, providing mentoring support, and assessing professional qualification submissions. We were quoted a figure of 650 people who were currently registered as mentors – that is a LOT of people supporting the mentoring system alone. It seems unfair that those people are having to pay one of the highest membership fees in the information professional field, in order to give their time and skills to run core CILIP services and member benefits.

There is currently also a worryingly high level of confusion in communications coming from CILIP. It can be hard to differentiate between emails from groups, branches and CILIP, and the different areas don’t always give the same advice. Information which comes from volunteers in the groups can be inconsistent, for example information on what areas in the VLE mentors should be able to access, from MSOs. Or are just wrong – one author recently got an email telling them to select a new group as the Career Development Group no longer exists but they had already changed groups in December so they were no longer in the CDG. This confusion and inconsistency in the provision of basic information undermines members confidence in their professional body.

 

Other Professional Bodies

So, are the professional qualifications schemes of other professional bodies run by volunteers too? We had a quick (non-comprehensive) look to see who else expects their members to volunteer to provide CPD opportunities or run core events for other members.

  • The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has an Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) system. The APC appears to be a work based, long-term qualification similar to an apprenticeship, which expects an applicant’s line manager to oversee the process. They have an event management team to run training. There appear to be no volunteers involved in events.
  • The Institute of Chartered Accountants has a CA qualification system. Similar to RICS, it’s a modern type of apprenticeship, with skills being developed and assessed within a role. There is a virtual mentoring system being introduced, but with no element of professional assessment. It appears that they have a “Member Engagement” team.
  • The Royal Pharmaceutical Society appears to have a mentoring scheme, which is undergoing redevelopment but it doesn’t look like there’s currently any element of professional assessment within it. It appears that they have an Events team.

It’s quite hard to compare systems, as CILIP needs to have a wide-ranging professional qualification system in order to encompass the wide variety of membership sectors, rather than the very specific and often intensive employment-based qualifications system some other bodies run. Also, most professional bodies tend to protect information by placing it within member-only areas, so some materials such as the specific details of training provision by the body are inaccessible to non-members.However, it appears from looking at CILIP’s website in a comparable way, that a significant proportion of events and professional visits/CPD are currently being provided by volunteers. In May, there are 3 official CILIP events, and 13 branch/group events (http://www.cilip.org.uk/cilip/events-calendar), and in June, there are 2 CILIP events, and 14 branch/group events. Knowing from personal experience that group events are run by volunteers and branch events may have support from local volunteers, this means that volunteers are providing five to six times the number of professional events that CILIP as a body provides. It also appears that the professional training that CILIP provides beyond this is organised by CILIP staff, although it is unclear if this is at an additional cost to recipients. In terms of the mentoring system, the website shows that the Professional Registration system requires the involvement of mentors/Candidate Support Officers, but does not explicitly state that those individuals are volunteers.

 

Suggestions

There needs to be greater clarity and publicity from CILIP around the fact that most of its member benefits are actually being provided by volunteers, and as such, the expectations of participants in such events must be lowered. This includes in respect of the time the organisers have available to respond to them, and the speed at which any queries can be dealt with.

Event organisation and management should rely less heavily on the work of volunteers. For a professional body to expect people to pay membership fees, and then to have events which should be a core membership benefit being run by people who have effectively paid for the privilege of providing a service to their professional body, is not acceptable.

If CILIP is going to introduce a compulsory element to the professional qualifications system, they need to assess whether continuing to run it through the efforts of volunteers is still appropriate, or whether they need to recruit for a level of staffing which will make it possible to support the system full time. If providing staffing to run the system is unachievable, they need to take a closer look at the role of volunteers within the system, and how to maintain their engagement and involvement with it.

Many volunteers give up huge amounts of their own free time to CILIP to provide services to members (10 days+ of annual leave per year for a couple of years for one of the authors) but this is unsustainable for any length of time, especially without “reward” or thanks of some sort. A system of reducing the steep membership fees in relation to the time spent working for CILIP should be achievable, with a bit of effort, and would act as a reward for the voluntary contribution of time and energy of the member. Activities which should trigger a reduction could be: being a mentor; being on a committee/board (although there is difficulty involved with assessing the level of activity there – some people join committees but don’t actually contribute); being an assessor; being a Mentor Support Officer etc. Having a system to enable members to be recognised and rewarded for the time and effort they give to CILIP would encourage these volunteers to retain their enthusiasm to support the system, particularly when revalidation becomes obligatory in the near future. Otherwise, as the demands on volunteers increase, the number of those willing to participate in supporting the system may well drop.

 

The public position of CILIP on volunteers

Another element of CILIP’s reliance on volunteers to run its services is its effect on the public and political view of the body. CILIP is, as of June 2012, officially on record as being opposed to the use of volunteers to deliver core services in libraries: “We do not believe that volunteers should undertake core service delivery”. However, it could be argued that by using volunteers itself to deliver its own core services to paying members, it is undermining its own stated position on the role of volunteers in core service provision. If our professional body is content to deliver its main services by using volunteers, what authority has it to say that others shouldn’t use volunteers too.

 

Declaration on open access for LIS authors

The idea for the Declaration on open access for LIS authors originally came from reading the article Librarian, Heal Thyself: A Scholarly Communication Analysis of LIS Journals (23 April) by Micah Vandegrift and Chealsye Bowley. The article raised the fact that LIS authors need to do more to support open access. There have been numerous declarations and petitions on open access which have done much to help define what it is and what steps people can take to make it a reality. A similar declaration specifically for academics and practitioners in the library and information professions will help to demonstrate our commitment to the principles of open access.

Open access is the practice of making academic research freely available for anyone to read and re-use. It means that rather than the results of research, such as journal articles, being locked away behind a paywall and only accessible to those who can afford it, anyone with access to the internet has the same opportunity to make use of the work. Open access does not solve all of the problems regarding information inequality but it is an important step towards doing so. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating a more egalitarian and participatory academic culture, and it allows the fruits of publicly-funded research to be made available to the public.

In order to create the text of the declaration in support of these ideals, a Google doc was created which was open to anyone to contribute to. Over the next few weeks a number of people did just that, helping to transform the original idea into something more complete, coherent, and better written. This collaborative writing process was a working example of what can happen when you open up your ideas to the world and allow a conversation to develop around them.

Some interesting discussions arose in the comments, particularly around the issue of how strong to make the statement. A more hardline approach may be closer to the spirit which inspired it, but on the other hand a more cautious statement might have wider acceptance and attract more signatures. The final text hopefully found a good balance between these views, although this does leave the action points a bit more open to interpretation.

The second wave of enthusiasm for the declaration arose out of Radical Librarians Collective event in London on 10 May. A number of people pledged their support for the idea, some important amendments were made to the text, and Informed kindly agreed to host the declaration.

So now the final text of the Declaration on open access for LIS authors has been published and is open for signatures. If you are a librarian, student, LIS academic, or otherwise involved in research in this area, and you agree with the principles embodied in the declaration, then please add your name to make your voice heard.

The final text of the Declaration on open access for LIS authors was drafted by Stuart Lawson, Micah Vandegrift, Edgar Crook, and Charles Oppenheim; it incorporated recommended changes from Penny Andrews, Lauren Collister, and Kevin Sanders. Thanks to everyone involved (and any anonymous contributors) for their comments, amendments, drafting, and editing.

This post was partly self-plagiarised from my original CC-BY blog post about the idea.

By Stuart Lawson

Why I think boycotting The Sun newspaper is a good idea

In this article, the author raises their concerns about what materials can be viewed as appropriate for public libraries to stock, explains their position regarding why they believe The Sun cannot be regarded as suitable stock for a public library, and outlines why a public petition to remove it deserves support.

(Image c/o Liam Wilde on Flickr.)

I will jump right in and start with the biggest accusation, censorship. It’s a complicated subject and one that will have most liberals squirming in their seats. Where should a line be drawn between free speech /access to controversial publications and having respect for those who do not wish to see such resources? I think that throwing censorship at an argument shuts down discussion rather than opening it up for debate and becomes counterproductive.

Boycotting a product, organisation or even placing embargos on countries seems to be an effective and accepted way in which we use our collective disapproval of an action or product to put pressure on a company and make it change its ways. Yet when the company in question is a newspaper any criticism levelled against what they do is instantly branded as censorship.

Many women feel reluctant to speak out over issues that concern sexism as a torrent of online abuse, including violent threats, often follows and again this shuts down debate leaving concerns about sexism overlooked while mainstream sexism is allowed to thrive.

I am, for the record, against censorship. I respect the right for people to have different opinions to my own and I relish the opportunity to challenge them.  I believe that the current rules in which a library operates (CILIP guidelines) work perfectly well for the written word.  There is no need to change the way in which we select literature or buy books that may or may not offend the reader. The difference is that the reader can choose whether they want to access the book or not.

When it comes to The Sun that choice is removed. You cannot choose to ‘unsee’ a sexist image blazoned across the front page. It is difficult to avoid the full page soft porn that accompanies each issue, every day and tough not to see the derogatory and eroticised headlines that accompany stories of the crimes frequently committed against women.

To assert that a library operates with no bias, rules or filtering of material is an outright myth. The on-going debate about unrestricted access to the internet is a perfect example. Libraries already filter against materials and websites deemed to be inciting terrorism. This is presumably because we, as a society, believe that terrorism is something that we do not wish to facilitate or encourage and is detrimental to us as a community. I agree with this principle. We have guidelines and an ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ which states “Our network is filtered to block offensive or illegal material being viewed or downloaded in the library”. Again I agree with this policy. The library is a community resource and it aims to be inclusive even going so far as to state that the Council is “determined to remove discrimination”.

I believe that to use the CILIP guidelines for images such as those in The Sun does not keep up with the changing nature of materials available.  New guidelines are needed for visual imagery. It is irresponsible and unequal to put the rights of people wanting to view offensive material above those who don’t. Why are the needs of these people not as important when we argue about rights people have in the library environment?

Libraries attempt to avoid displaying offensive materials in line with local needs. They do not distribute leaflets for hate groups, nor do they permit the use of racist and abusive language for staff or public. This is because it goes against our beliefs of what is right in a community. To argue that libraries exist in a vacuum where anything goes in the name of free speech is simply untrue.

Libraries operate on a decreasing budget. Choices are made as to what may “educate and inspire” readers and to provide resources to a diverse community.  I am grateful that the library service I work for does not buy The Daily Sport or The Daily Star who along with The Sun were cited in evidence presented at the Leveson Enquiry into press standards as having “a tendency to uphold myths about domestic and sexual violence, prostitution and violence against ethnic minority women; news reporting which implicitly blames women for violence committed against them; and the normalization of images and stories which sexualize and objectify women.”

So what exactly is the problem with The Sun? The Sun has been criticized for eroticizing crimes against women, see recent example of this with the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. The paper regularly objectifies women and distorts news stories suggesting women are responsible for the crimes committed against them. They continually mock women in the public eye by trying to shame or humiliate them into being silent. Clare Short MP and Harriet Harman MP have both fallen prey to this.

It is the normalization of everyday sexism that we need to fight against. 30 universities in the UK stopped selling The Sun on their campuses as they saw a conflict between their own equality policies and the selling of a sexist newspaper. The Sun still exists. People are still free to buy it if they choose but these institutions have decided that the selling of this paper on their own campuses would render the universities own equality policies meaningless.

Likewise Tesco  and The Co-op supermarkets made the decision to cover or remove ‘lad’s mags’ such as Nut’s and Zoo because of their graphic front covers and misogynistic content were inappropriate to their wide customer base.

Currently, there is an online petition asking The Sun to remove the Page 3 topless full page image from its newspaper. It has been signed by 189,000 plus people including the signatures of 154 MP’s. The question of if Page 3 has a place in 21st Century Britain has recently been discussed in parliament but it continues to be printed.

“One in three women around the world will be raped, beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime” (2003 Unifem report). The normalizing and possible eroticizing of violent crimes against women and the daily objectification of women in newspapers such as The Sun perpetuate  the idea that women in our society are not respected and not taken seriously. Evidence presented to the Leveson Enquiry states “There is much evidence about the media’s role in providing a conductive context for violence against women to occur by condoning, tolerating and normalizing abuse of women”

Bizarrely, The Sun chooses not to show soft porn in their weekend issues as they see these editions as ‘family friendly”. I see my local library as a family friendly environment but am confused as to why The Sun and its soft porn, misogynistic content is accessible every day for all to see.

This article isn’t a criticism of the council I work for, in fact I think the beliefs and guidelines they hold dear on equality are commendable. I do understand the difficult position they are in being bound by the CILIP guidelines but there is a real conflict of interest.

I am delighted that this question and the introduction of the petition highlights an issue which has for too long been overlooked. Libraries need to move with the times and face up to the growing issues surrounding offensive imagery and how it is displayed or accessed. The voices of those who do not wish to be exposed to such material needs to be heard.

The real debate lays in what kind of society we want to live in. Can we accept the existence of offensive materials or publications that we don’t agree with without stocking them? Do the council’s standards on equality come before or after the rights of people wishing to access the materials in question? Do people who do not want to see offensive imagery have the same rights as those that do wish to see it? To say ‘anything goes’ in the name of free speech, is in my opinion a liberal cop out.

A. Ashcroft

*The views and opinions in this article belong to the author and not necessarily represent the views of any Council*