Library and Information Studies (LIS) is a paradox: a vocational academic subject. People who study it plan to work as practitioners, but those who teach it need to be academics.
Studying librarianship as an academic discipline provides aspirant professionals with a reflective overview of the topic and a good understanding of principles that can be applied across varied situations. It should give graduates the ability to apply critical and analytical thinking to their daily work and make considered decisions as they increasingly take on responsibility. Highly practical skills tend to date quickly and are far better taught on the job than in an academic environment, so it is important that LIS courses provide a reflective and intellectual overview of issues in the profession. Moreover, academic research is a vital contributor to the health of the profession, telling us what is not immediately apparent about our information sources, workplaces and users and what we might expect from them in the future.
And yet it is also immensely important that LIS academics have a sound, practical understanding of the information workplace. How can someone teach the next generation of practitioners, when they have not themselves worked in a practitioner role for five years or more? How can they provide students with the preparation they need for their careers if it is not a career they themselves have undertaken?
This post is not intended to criticise LIS academics. I am a practitioner who worked for her PhD part-time while working full-time and who also teaches as a sessional lecturer on an accredited LIS course. I have nothing but respect for those many full-time academics that combine academic teaching and research with deep involvement in the working community, who find the time to speak at conferences and write articles and books which will have little or no impact on their record as an academic. My criticism is for a system which does not support the development in both directions.
I recently made an unsuccessful application for a full-time lecturer position. I met all the essential criteria, but not all that were desirable. Of course there might be many reasons for my not being shortlisted, not least the impressive pool of early career LIS academics whom I have met in my travels. The criteria I did not meet were around things like applying for grant funding and involvement with wider faculty activities, which is very difficult experience to acquire as a full-time practitioner. I can attest that academic achievement while working full time is extremely difficult. While I have been prepared to put time into writing and submitting articles for peer-review, I have not – as a full-time researcher might have – co-written articles with senior academics for high-impact journals. This is not to suggest that, as an academic, carrying out difficult research whilst in the middle of one’s PhD in order to be third-listed in the article credits is an easy option. But it is an almost essential step to academic achievement for an early careers researcher.
I do not blame selection committees for the decisions they make. LIS Department Heads rightly want to be recognised for their academic prestige in the Faculties of Arts, Social Sciences, Technology or Management in which they reside. The Deans of these Faculties need to demonstrate a high level of achievement at the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in research outputs and impacts. Of course they will assess candidates who demonstrate best how they will meet the not inconsiderable challenges facing UK Universities. And practitioner experience does not do this. Anecdotally, I have heard of department heads who have argued for the selection of practitioners with excellent professional records, and who had published in the information trade press, but have been unsuccessful because the candidates had not published sufficiently in high-impact academic journals.
Increasingly stringent demands are made on academics, not just to teach well and carry out research, but to raise funds, recruit students and undertake administrative work. Some have spoken out against what they see as a change in culture and, in particular, an attack on the humanities and social sciences (for example, Marina Warner in the LRB). This affects Library and Information Studies departments and there is evidence that information schools and courses are suffering under these changes. But I think they face further problems. There is no part of the measurement and reward system that compensates harried LIS academics for time and effort spent engaging with the profession. Combining an academic and a practitioner career is not just difficult, but is often perceived negatively by both employers and universities. And making the kind of mid-career move from practice to academia which characterised many of the great Information Studies teachers and researchers of the last fifty years is far, far harder than it once was.
The people who lose out in this situation are, I believe, the students. LIS students are unusual in that their career choice almost guarantees that they will never be high earners and yet they must get into considerable debt in order to acquire their qualification. It is a tribute to their commitment that so many of them are still prepared to undertake post-graduate study under the circumstances. Understandably, many complain about the quality of teaching and support and LIS academics themselves have demonstrated their concern that students are properly equipped for the workplace. My feeling is that if we ask students to acquire £9000 of debt to obtain a LIS MA or MSc, we should guarantee that they will be taught by those with a good understanding of the contemporary workplace. Although academics need to have excellent academic brains and to continue the valuable research the profession needs, a vocational degree requires up-to-date knowledge of the workplace. At present, students only receive this because of the unstinting commitment of certain academics to straddle the worlds of the academic and the practitioner. I don’t know how sustainable this is in the changing world of UK Universities. And that can only be bad for the standards of LIS courses and the students who take them.
A recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) could have ramifications for all of those with websites enabling comments to be posted by readers. The Court ruled that an Estonian news site (Delfi) may be held responsible for anonymous comments that are allegedly defamatory. A representative of digital rights organisation Access argued that the judgement has:
“…dramatically shifted the internet away from the free expression and privacy protections that created the internet as we know it.”
A post by the Media Legal Defence Initiative listed the main reasons why the court came to this decision, which included:
the “extreme” nature of the comments which the court considered to amount to hate speech
the fact that they were published on a professionally-run and commercial news website
the insufficient measures taken by Delfi to weed out the comments in question and the low likelihood of a prosecution of the users who posted the comments.
The timing of this is particularly relevant for me following the coverage of a tragic local incident. Following an attempted suicide by a local woman that led to the death of a man attempting to rescue her, a local news website reported the incident in relative detail, including statements from witnesses (although withholding, at the time, the names of the individuals involved). Sadly this led to a number of insensitive and inappropriate comments being posted about the woman who tried to take her own life. Upon approaching the publishers to request the closing of comments for such a story, I was told that I should report individual inappropriate comments rather than expect them to remove the comments thread altogether.
These two stories raise a number of interesting issues. Who is ultimately liable for content that is published online? Is it the responsibility of the host website to deal with “extreme comments”? Is it the responsibility of the individual who posts the comments? Should there even be any restrictions on what people post online? Should we just accept that everyone has a right to free expression online and that hurtful comments are just manifestations of free expression?
What is your view?
If you’ve got a perspective on the judgement by the ECHR, who should ultimately be responsible for comments posted online or whether any limits in this area are an unreasonable limitation of free expression and would like to write about the issues for Informed, we’d like to hear from you. Articles should be 800-1000 words (although this is flexible) and our normal moderation process applies. If you are interested in writing for Informed, please contact us via submissions[at]theinformed.org.uk.
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It caught my eye one afternoon. Sitting atop the cabinet that houses our staff pigeon-holes. I reached up to grab a hold of the green leather-bound book, at the same time asking my colleagues, “What’s this doing here?” Turns out, it was our only copy of the Qur’an in its native language. To begin with, it had lived in the stacks, much like any other Library book. Then someone had complained.
Muslims have varying notions as to the status of the Qu’ran, both as a sacred text, and as a sacred object. But consensus agrees in the case of Arabic editions – where the text is literally the word of god. The Qur’an was published with its own instruction manual as it were, and imparts some direction as to how it should be handled, for example;
Non shall touch but those who are clean. (56:77-79)
The above passage is widely interpreted as meaning that those handling the Qur’an should be physically and spiritually clean. In Islam, this state is known as wudu. The Qur’an itself does not list any special considerations for its storage, but medieval scholars have stipulated numerous special conditions for the use and storage of the Qur’an. For example, the famous Imam and scholar Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi wrote in the Tafsir al-Qurtubi;
[do not] place other books upon the Qur’an, which should always be higher than all other books, whether they are books of Sacred Knowledge or something else,
It is for this reason that many Muslims find the shelving of the Qur’an with other books to be offensive and disrespectful. Especially when, as in our case, the shelf they are on is particularly low to the floor. So our copy was moved to the back room where no one could touch it, and placed above eye level where it languished and attracted dust. While this solved the problem, to me it seemed a poor compromise. I’m neither an expert in Library policy, nor religious issues by any means. But I have been working in Libraries for several years now, and by a strange quirk of fate my undergraduate specialisation was in Religious Studies, so it’s safe to say I know enough to speculate on the issue. Moving the book to a place where it wouldn’t be seen or used didn’t seem to be aligned with our mission as a Library, nor particularly respectful to item in question.
The idea that the words of god, or even the name of god, become scared when inscribed is not new, or limited to Islam. In Judaism for example, there are a multitude of names and epithets for god, but any document containing one of the ‘seven names of god’ becomes a holy object. The Megillah details the many prohibitions when handling, or being the presence of, the Torah and the seven holy names of god. Specifically, the Torah is to be placed above other books (Megillah 27a). As in Islam, Jewish instructions for handling sacred texts go one step further – old and damaged items are to be disposed of with as much reverence as possible. For example, in the United Kingdom there is a growing need for the respectful disposal of Jewish texts, many of which are buried en masse in an approved landfill near Stansted. Sikh copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are also treated with special care. It is stored or presented on a throne (takht) and treated like royalty. When they become old or damaged they are given a funeral. There are also strict instructions for carrying and handling of the text; the person carrying the Guru Granth Sahib should be clean, and it is elevated above the head whilst being carried.
Given that Libraries are certainly subject to holding copies of sacred texts I thought it would be relatively easy to locate policies in place at other institutions. While I invest quite a bit of time attempting to locate professional guidance on this issue, after a protracted search could find very little that would help. And after reading through what I did find, I was more confused than ever. The guidance from the Museum Libraries and Archives Council for the management of controversial material makes a brief and vague mention of the issue on the very last page of the report;
5. Stocking of religious texts
5.1 Leicester City policy on the shelving of the Koran and other religious texts
Some libraries in Leicester have received complaints about the Koran not being placed on the top shelves in libraries. Some customers go along the shelves and place the Koran so it is shelved higher than other books. This action arises from the practice in many Muslim homes of the Koran being placed on a high shelf above commonplace things, as it is the word of God.
The authority consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations in Leicester about this matter, and they advised that all religious texts should be kept on a top shelf together. This meant that no offence is caused, as the scriptures of all the major faiths are given respect in this way, but none is higher than any other.
Unlike the strong language in support of intellectual freedom elsewhere in the document, this section is purposefully vague. It’s not even guidance, simply a retelling of something that another organisation has recommended. I also have to wonder at the placement of this piece of text within the guidance notes. It’s literally on the last page, as if the insertion is piecemeal, or a token measure of inclusion. Further digging uncovered a list of responses to an enquiry about libraries’ practice in shelving the Qur’an and other religious books collated by The Network. Of the respondents, five had made special arrangements for the shelving of the Qur’an, and three had not.
Dissatisfied with the information and guidance I had uncovered, I wrote to the British Library and asked them what their policy on the storage of sacred texts, and if they had had any special precautions or measures when shelving or handling them. The British Library holds an impressive collection of religious materials, including spectacular examples of handwritten and illuminated manuscripts from faiths across the world. The response I received, while not especially helpful, was certainly interesting reading. The British Library does have special provisions for the storage of Sikh sacred texts;
“They are shelved in such a way as to avoid other works touching them or being over them, and are retrieved, installed and returned only by the curator.”
Additionally, anyone wanting to view the items in person, must first make an advance appointment with the Curator of North Indian Languages. This is probably a practical matter as much as anything else, because the Library currently holds the oldest known copy of the Guru Granth Sahib outside of India and it is both culturally significant and fragile – not to mention that digitised copies of these works are now available online. Other special provisions for sacred texts include categorically avoiding the use of pigskin to bind copies of the Torah or Qur’an “to avoid offending the religious sensibilities of those readers most likely to visit the Library to consult such works.”
While I can admire the practicality and in some ways the political correctness of such measures, I can’t say the same for the British Library’s reason for doing so – to avoid giving offence. People have the inalienable right to be offended, but being offended doesn’t make them right. Works of art and items of cultural importance deserve respect for their own sake, not for the fragile sensibilities of those who might one day be offended. Though on this point, I know that not everyone will agree with me – especially within the context of religious material.
However I would ask, what does it say about us as a profession that we’re unwilling to officially discuss this issue? I discovered very little in the way of guidance, discussion or debate on this particular topic. Meanwhile, we devote a whole week to celebrating banned books, and are willing to publicly criticise government web filters. When did information professionals become so timid? Is it acceptable for us as professionals to single out items for special treatment for no other reason than ‘someone might get offended,’? Would you be comfortable applying this policy to other works in your collections?
In my own Library our copy of the Qur’an was eventually moved. It now sits on the top tier of the reference shelf behind our circulation desk where it can be seen by patrons and is joined by works from other faiths, known as the ′Ahl al-Kitāb, or People of the Book.
Net neutrality is the principle that all packets of data over the internet should be transmitted equally, without discrimination. So, for example, net neutrality ensures that your blog can be accessed just as quickly as, say the BBC website. Essentially, it prevents ISPs from discriminating between sites, organisations etc whereby those with the deepest pockets can pay to get in the fast lane, whilst the rest have to contend with the slow lane. Instead, every website is treated equally, preventing the big names from delivering their data faster than a small independent online service. This ensures that no one organisation can deliver their data any quicker than anyone else, enabling a fair and open playing field that encourages innovation and diversity in the range of information material online. The principles of net neutrality are effectively the reason why we have a (reasonably) diverse online space that enables anyone to create a website and reach a large volume of people.
Why should we in Europe be concerned if this is a US issue?
Whilst there has been little public debate in the UK or Europe around the issue of net neutrality, it is becoming an increasingly important issue. Earlier this year, the Latvian government (currently holding the European presidency) proposed that there should be exceptions to net neutrality rules, particularly when their networks face “exceptional…congestion”.
In March, a majority of EU Member States voted in favour of changing the rules to bar discrimination in internet access but, crucially, the rule changes would allow the prioritisation of some “specialised” services that required high quality internet access to function. This was reinforced by the Chief Executive of Nokia who argued that some technologies (such as self-driving cars) will be hindered so long as providers have to abide by net neutrality principles.
A recent report by Web Index found a mixed bag when it comes to net neutrality regulations across the EU. The report noted that whilst the Netherlands scored eight out of a possible ten for net neutrality, countries such as Italy and Poland scored only 2. In a blog post for the European Commission, Tim Berners Lee argued that binding net neutrality rules would “raise the bar for the performance of lower ranking countries, ultimately enabling Europe to harvest the full potential of the open Internet as a driver for economic growth and social progress”.
Will regulation solve the problem?
Whilst tighter regulation can help to oblige telecoms companies to adhere to the principles of net neutrality, it doesn’t mean to say that the problem will be eliminated. As with all laws, their existence does not eradicate an issue, it merely minimises it. For example, the Authority for Consumers and Markets in the Netherlands recently fined the country’s two largest operators, KPN and Vodafone, for blocking services and zero-rating data for subscribers to HBO. It’s clear that violations will continue to occur, but arguably there will be fewer once regulation is in place.
Google have been largely quiet publicly when it comes to the net neutrality debate in recent years, although they had previously been very vocal on the issue and have lobbied the FCC in the past.
Why should I care about net neutrality?
Net neutrality ensures that we have an internet that enables the broadest possible range of views. By ensuring a level playing field, it ensures that no one perspective dominates the internet. If companies are able to ensure their data travels on the fast lane, then we can be sure that those companies will dominate the landscape because their sites transfer data quickly and efficiently. This will ultimately lead to a narrowing down of sites as people avoid using services where data travels in the slow lane, in favour of those that travel in the fast lane. Big companies will get bigger, small companies will disappear and new companies will not get off the ground without significant sums of money to enable them to compete. The internet thrives on innovation and an abandonment of these principles would seriously impede innovation.
We have also seen in other forms of media what occurs when regulation is too lax. We see in print and broadcast media a decline in media plurality. Certain media outlets have come to dominate the landscape with ownership of popular print and broadcast media. An abandonment of net neutrality rules could lead to the very same decline online. The internet will be dominated by a very few large corporations who provide the vast majority of the content. This is, of course, bad news for those that use the internet and bad news for democracy as a vibrant democracy relies on media plurality to ensure a well-informed electorate.
This awkward cliché, repeated at the end of every BBC news report, signals a crude shift in gear. It seems that ‘The News’ has two parts: ‘the news where we are’ (London-centred politics, war, economics, English premiership football); and ‘the news where you are’ (local and parochial oddities that may entertain the yeomanry but which won’t deflect the ship of state from its mighty progress). Ruthlessly and deservedly lampooned during last year’s independence debate, the phrase came to mind last week as Vint Cerf shared his fears on the evanescence of digital memory and the need to take collective action to counter the pernicious and ubiquitous impact of obsolescence. Reported by the BBC, the Independent, the Guardian and others (mostly from San Jose CA) it would seem that a digital black hole is set to initiate a digital dark age sometime soon. There’s a choice of metaphors but none of them good.
First thing’s first: I don’t have a copy of Vint Cerf’s original remarks so my observations are really only about the reportage. In fact almost anything he might choose to say would have been welcome. It’s undoubtedly true that preserving digital content through technological change is a real and sometimes daunting challenge. Our generation has invested as never before in digital content and it is frankly horrifying when you consider what rapid changes in technology could do to that investment. Vint, as one of the architects of the modern world, is exceptionally well placed to help us raise the issue among the engineers and technologists that need to understand the problem.
We do desperately need to raise awareness about the challenge of digital preservation so that solutions can be found and implemented. Politicians and decision makers are consistently under-informed or unaware of the problem. In fact awareness raising was one of the reasons that the DPC was founded. Since 2002 DPC has been at the forefront of joint activity on the topic in the UK and Ireland, supporting specialist training, helping to develop practical solutions, promoting good practice and building relationships. A parliamentarian recently asked me which department of government will be best supported by all this work (presumably in an attempt to decide which budget should pay for it). I answered ‘all of them’. I am not sure if the question or the answer was more naïve: it’s hard to imagine an area of public and private life that isn’t improved by having the right data available in the right format to the right people at the right time; or conversely frustrated by its absence. Digital preservation is a concern for everyone.
But that’s not the same as saying that a digital black hole is imminent. It might have been in 2002 but since then there’s been rather a lot to celebrate in the collective actions of the digital preservation community globally (and especially here in the UK and Ireland) where agencies and individuals are beginning to wake up to the problem in large numbers. These days we’re seeing real interest from across the spectrum of industry and commerce. Put simply the market is ripe for large scale solutions. It’s easy to focus on the issue of loss, but we can also talk confidently now about the creative potential of digital content over an extended lifecycle.
In January this year the DPC welcomed its 50th organisational member: the Bank of England. It’s a household name but nor is it particularly a memory institution with a core mission to preserve. Other new members in the last year include HSBC, NATO and the Royal Institution of British Architects. They all depend on data and they all need to ensure the integrity of their processes, but they are not memory institutions with a mission to preserve. Any organisation that depends on data beyond the short life spans of current technology – we’re all data driven decision makers now – needs to put digital preservation on its agenda.
If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that we face a social and cultural challenge as well as a technical one. We certainly need better tools, smarter processes and enhanced capacity which is ultimately what Vince’s suggestion for Digital Vellum is about (though others dispute the detail of his proposal). But this won’t solve the problem alone. We also need competent and responsive workforces ready to address the challenges of digital preservation. Time and again surveys of the digital preservation community show that the skills are lacking and where they exist they are themselves subject to rapid obsolescence. We know that digital skills are crucially short in the UK economy: at the same time as Vint was arguing for Digital Vellum the Chief Constable of Police Scotland had to apologise for having misled parliament because statistics about draconian stop-and-search powers were inadvertently deleted. The nation’s most senior policeman could lose his job because his organisation lacked digital preservation skills. Arguably the lack of skills is a bigger challenge than obsolescence.
Moreover a political and institutional climate responsive to the need for digital preservation would allow us to make sense of the peculiarities of copyright. Those who argue for the right to be forgotten ingenuously assume an infrastructure where you will be remembered: a somewhat populist rush for data protection and cybersecurity is tending to stifle reasonable calls for data retention. This is pretty raw stuff. At the same time as the technology commentators were worrying about technical obsolescence a senior politician was caught deleting content of his own containing comments that now seem ill-judged. The machinations of those who want us to forget might well be a bigger threat to our collected memories than digital obsolescence.
San Jose is lovely in early spring. But there’s a better story about digital preservation where we are.
Do you have something to say on a current issue facing the information world? We’re always looking for new contributions to Informed from the information professional community. If you would like to write something for the site, do drop us a line!
To celebrate 10 years of the Freedom of Information Act, Bilal Ghafoor (FOI Kid) reflects on its impact and ponders what the future holds for this important Act of parliament.
If you go onto the website or read the official publications of any government department, local council, NHS organisation, the one thing that almost all of the information will have in common is that it has been volunteered. And while the communications and press teams in many organisations do a great job, ultimately they are a prism through which an organisation shines out what light it wishes to. Most press releases or official statements do not contain raw data. Most organisations do not publish email trails that they are even slightly uncomfortable about.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force on 1 January 2005 and it has, in the words of the Justice Select Committee, which undertook a post legislative review of the Act, been “a significant enhancement of our democracy.” However, it went on to note that “we are not surprised that the unrealistic secondary expectation that the Act would increase public confidence in Government and Parliament has not been met.” This was, after all, while the fire of the MPs’ expenses scandal was still smouldering.
I continue to be struck by an observation I heard when I attended a Request Initiative event on FOI that all the complaints about the burden of FOI are irrelevant – public authorities hire FOI officers and spend money not on releasing information but on withholding it. Aside from personal data, which must be guarded, there is more truth to this idea than I would like.
I remember when I worked in FOI in a central government department, a Labour Secretary of State visited us. The first thing he did was apologise to us for bringing in the Act. It was not just Tony Blair who later thought it foolish. We in the FOI team (it seemed to be the natural home of a couple of a Marxists who had somehow joined the civil service), thought it to be utterly bizarre. How was it not a good thing (and not just because it kept us in employment)?
It is our tax, it is our society, these institutions are ours, the work they do belongs to us. It almost seems like a naïve assertion, but perhaps that is because it is so true. If we live in a democracy.
But there are dangers. The FOI Act, which was heroically worked on by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (which just celebrated its 30th birthday party – 20 years older than the legislation itself), came into force over a long period of time and the dangers are similarly slow but sure.
The Government’s response to the post legislative review highlighted that it wanted allow organisations to refuse multiple requests from the same person or organisation. At first glance, this might be ok – why should one person be allowed to harass an organisation with lots of requests? But what about a local newspaper wanting to make lots of requests to local organisations? How is a local newspaper supposed to survive on being able to make only a small number of requests in any one year to the local council?
There is a suggestion that ‘thinking time’ be included in cost limits for responding to a FOI. This means that any request of a new kind or for new types of information or invoking a new exemption will start to breach the cost limits and be refused. This encourages organisations to hire non-specialists. Or to copy in 15 members of staff into emails about FOI requests and to count thinking time 15 times over.
The chronic under-funding of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is another terrible problem. While the ICO’s basic stance seems to be to advocate the release of information and accessibility for all, in the latest triennial review of the ICO, its own submission to the Ministry of Justice proposed a charge for requestors wanting to use its services. This would be appalling. But I can see that the ICO is constantly frustrated by its tiny grant in aid (the organisation runs its entire FOI operation for less than many central government department’s communications and spin budgets) and that this proposal is a sign of its desperation.
Application of the Act has become complicated – most ICO decision notices and Tribunal judgments add nuances onto how we should apply exemptions. I love the complication, but I am also very drawn to an idea that was kicked around by others on Twitter that perhaps all of the exemptions should be discarded and everything become subject to a plain public interest test. This would include cost limits – if you ask for a lot of information, if it is in the public interest to provide it, it should be provided. Thanks to relatively recent developments in understanding of ‘vexatious requests’), where a request would be significantly disruptive, the Act allows for a refusal.
The FOI Act is not perfect. But I am still of the generation that compares it to Yes Prime Minister days of secrecy and am thankful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information and other advocates that we can now ask the people who formerly felt like our masters for our own information.
 Post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Justice Committee Para 241, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmjust/96/9602.htm.
Public libraries offer a huge variety of services to people from all sections of the communities they serve.
So today (and every day!) we should all visit our local library to join it, share how we use it and why we love it. There are events taking place at libraries nationwide, check out what’s happening near you. Take a #NLD #shelfie and share it on Facebook, Twitter or 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 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.
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.
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:
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.”
“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.”
“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).”
“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.”
“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.
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 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.
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