This article was adapted with permission from an earlier version which was published in the November 1998 University of Minnesota Information Technology Newsletter (Volume 3, Number 8), which is online at http://www.umn.edu/oit/newsletter/1198-itn/innovative.html. � 1998 the Regents of the University of Minnesota and the Office of Information Technology.
Making Being There as Good as Being Here
by Doreen Starke-Meyerring
As the 17th largest research library in North America, the University of Minnesota Libraries circulate more than one million items annually to students, faculty, and staff. In addition to serving on-campus and resident users, the Libraries increasingly serve learners in the state, in the nation, and even in the world. To give these learners the same �home advantage� as their on-campus peers, the Libraries have launched a new distance learning support project, using technology to enhance library services and resources.
The Awareness Gap
Distance learners have long been conditioned to expect limited access to library resources and services. This assumption was borne out by the results of a massive survey of University of Minnesota distance learners and faculty. The survey found that 63 percent of distance learners planned for limited access to library resources and services. Commenting on their concern about limited library resources, learners said, �One of the reasons I chose this course was because it did not require the use of a library,� or �As a graduate student, I am frightened to think that I selected resources for my research based on how easy they were to access,� and �I was grateful that my teacher did not expect in-depth research.�
Faculty had similar perceptions of library services for distance learners. Only 30 percent of the faculty responding to the survey said they were aware of the library resources and services available to their students. Additionally, 87 percent of the faculty reported that they provide their students with little or no information about library resources and services available to them. About the same percentage of faculty stated that they never or only rarely work with a librarian during course development or delivery, mostly because they were not aware of existing support. On a positive note, though, the vast majority of the faculty and distance learning students were optimistic that new and emerging information technologies could help improve electronic access to library resources and services.
Faculty and Learner Needs
To understand further the issues revealed by the survey, the Libraries invited faculty to participate in focus groups to discuss how the University of Minnesota Libraries could better support their distance learning courses and their distance learners. Together, faculty and librarians identified learner and faculty needs in distance learning programs. They identified such needs as �seamless and hassle-free authentication to online resources, development of tutorials, communication from the Libraries, and involvement of librarians in course development.�
Faculty want their students to have not only improved access to resources and services regardless of location, but also assistance to meet their changing information needs. In addition to the common need of finding information, faculty felt that students now need to learn how to navigate through overwhelming information networks, deal with information overload, and critically analyze and evaluate their sources. Faculty perceived this need as universal; as one professor summarized the main focus he saw for library support, �I don�t really care if the course is mobile or distant. I�m going to develop this course, and there will be some people on campus and some people off campus, and I want that difference to be minimized.�
The Library Project as a Central TEL Project
To respond to these faculty and distance learner needs, the Libraries secured funding from different sources. In addition to prestigious Bush Foundation and National Library of Medicine grants (through the Bio-Medical Library), the Libraries received compact planning funding from the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost of the University of Minnesota. In fact, the project is one of the central innovative projects within the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) initiative of this office, which is led by the vice provost for instructional technology and university partnerships. The TEL initiative is not so much on a specific technology or on distance learning as it is on promoting innovative approaches to developing seamless high-quality learning experiences, environments, and resources for all learners--resident and distance learners alike--which is exactly what the library project is about.
New Resources and Services for Distance Learning Support
With this funding, the University of Minnesota Libraries launched its Distance Learning Development Project with the goal �to provide high-quality, in-depth library services and resources to students regardless of their location.� To realize this goal, the Libraries use new and emerging technologies to enhance distance learning support for faculty and students. These efforts focus on four major areas of support:
- Improved remote access to information
- Information literacy initiatives
- Reference and consultation services
- Extensive multidisciplinary faculty support
Improved Remote Access to Information
Improved remote access to learning and research resources has been one of the most visible successes of the Libraries. Over the past several years the Libraries have implemented network access to more than 90 high-quality literature databases and well over a thousand full-text electronic journals and text. At the same time, the Libraries continue their aggressive strategy to build the digital library through the acquisition, licensing, and digitization of more databases, texts, journals, and other electronic materials.
Since many students require print-based documents in addition to electronic ones, the Libraries recently expanded their �LUMINA to U� on-campus book and article delivery service to distance learners and to faculty, regardless of their location. The service now provides distance learners and faculty with delivery of books and article copies to off-campus addresses for a small fee. On-campus students also benefit because the service also delivers article copies to campus addresses. The Libraries are continuing their remote access initiative by piloting an �electronic reserves� project in several distance learning courses. This project is allowing students to use the Web to access materials that the instructor has put on reserve for the class.
This improved access to library resources and services is appreciated by distance learners. Like their colleagues on campus, they usually need resources quickly. Of the respondents to the library�s survey, 80 percent needed materials within one week, with nearly 20 percent within 24 hours and 54 percent within three days. In trying to obtain materials for their coursework, the distance learners surveyed had consulted more than 100 different libraries across Minnesota. To meet the needs of these learners for improved remote access to information resources, the Libraries are working to achieve a turnaround time of 0-48 hours for materials owned and available on the Twin Cities campus and to deliver materials to the user by their preferred means of delivery (for example, postal, fax, Web).
Information Literacy Initiatives
It�s been said that �searching the Internet is like drinking from a fire hose.� To help students navigate through increasingly vast information resources, the Libraries have developed two important research support systems that are available online 24 hours a day. Both of these systems have been developed through a collaboration among the Libraries, the Digital Media Center, and Academic and Distributed Computing Services� Java and Web Services.
The first support system is Research QuickStudy, an online tutorial that teaches learners how to use library and information resources effectively (see http://tutorial.lib.umn.edu/). To accommodate the needs of different learners, the tutorial is designed in modules. Depending on their interests, learners can choose among modules on selecting a research topic, creating a research strategy, conducting an effective keyword search, using MNCAT, finding articles, doing Internet research, and citing sources. In addition, an extensive glossary helps learners understand important research concepts.
The second system is Research QuickStart, an intuitive wizard-like tool that guides students through the research process and recommends high-quality information resources for their coursework (see http://research.lib.umn.edu).
Technology-Enhanced Reference and Consulting Services
Last fall the Libraries implemented a single access point reference service called Ask Us! on their Web home page (see http://www.lib.umn.edu). This service will allow students to submit questions electronically without having to determine which of more than 30 possible service points in the Libraries would best help them with their research.
As an extension of this service, the Libraries are developing a knowledge base of PAQs (previously answered questions) that learners will be able to consult around the clock. In many of these efforts, the Libraries have drawn upon the expertise and experience of units like Academic and Distributed Computing Services, which has developed similar services.
The Libraries are currently also exploring new and emerging interactive communications and conferencing technologies, such as desktop videoconferencing or shared �whiteboards,� to provide distance learners with interactive reference services and technical assistance. Although these technologies are not yet commonly used in the general population, the Libraries plan to be ready when these technologies become standard. Interactive teleconferencing to remote sites will allow project coordinators to assess the usefulness of these technologies for reference and consultation purposes.
Faculty support plays a central role in the distance learning support project. The project leadership believes that �faculty need a cadre of multidisciplinary support for TEL that allows them to focus on content, without requiring them to become multimedia designers, programmers, or librarians.� Consequently, multidisciplinary support for faculty is one of the library�s priorities. To provide this support to faculty in course development and delivery, they collaborate closely with Minnesota Extension Services, University College, the Digital Media Center, the Center for Teaching and Learning Services, the MINITEX Library Information Network, and the Academic and Distributed Computing Services, especially their Java and Web Services unit. In addition, a recently appointed distance learning instruction librarian assists faculty in integrating library research and information literacy components into courses and curricula.
Student and Faculty Responses--and Challenges
Both faculty and learners have been enthusiastic about the many initiatives of the Libraries that will have significant impact on distance learning. Increasingly, faculty may expect to receive the support they need to incorporate research activities and information literacy projects into their curricula, and learners find themselves in an increasingly rich information environment. At the same time, project leaders have found their work rewarding because--as they say--distance learners are proving to be �an exceedingly grateful bunch.�
Nevertheless, learners, faculty, and librarians are well aware that those involved in distance learning still face challenges that on-campus students don�t. Currently, distance learners still struggle with the lack of standards, bandwidth, modem speed, or other technical difficulties that might limit the potential of the project for reaching out to on-campus and off-campus learners alike. But that�s what the project is all about--making being there as good as being here.
For further information:
To learn more about the University of Minnesota Libraries� Distance Learning Support Services, see http://www.lib.umn.edu/dist/overview/; to learn more about the Libraries� Distance Learning Development Project, contact the project�s director, John Butler ([email protected]); to learn more about the TEL Initiative, see http://www.tel.umn.edu/.
The author appreciates the support of John Butler, director of the University of Minnesota Libraries Distance Learning Development Project, in developing this article.
Doreen Starke-Meyerring ([email protected]) is an administrative fellow in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
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