the Necessary Infrastructure
About five years ago, the leaders of Educom determined that for any substantive transformation to occur in the arena of teaching and learning, infrastructure changes would be needed at both the national and campus level. At that time, the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative was created. While significant strides have been made in this regard, the task is far from complete. The development of a range of appropriate infrastructure elements is essential.
During the past several years, a major and critically important infrastructure issue that captured the attention of Educom (and now EDUCAUSE) is the IMS project. This effort has focused on the development of standards to enable the interoperability and metadata structures that are critical to a leveraged model of developing learning materials. IMS is an extremely important project to the education community, but there are other equally necessary aspects of infrastructure, including a structure to effectively advocate for important legislative and national policy issues that impact a distributed learning approach and to address infrastructure issues related to faculty support and development, and convenient access to information resources.
The capacity to deliver library resources in a distributed learning environment sorely needs attention. Our libraries continue to struggle to provide appropriate support in a residential setting, and they are largely unprepared to provide equivalent service in a distance or distributed environment. Access to primary source materials is essential to making a quality "any time-any place" education a reality.
Recent analyses have shown that the buying power of our most prestigious research libraries has decreased by over 45 percent since 1980, as a result of inflationary pressures that have had a devastating impact on library acquisitions. These libraries account for an inordinately large percentage of the total library acquisitions that are obtained by institutions of higher education in the United States. They are also the institutions that are most often asked to lend materials in the balance-of-trade associated with inter-library loan.
Libraries, just like IT organizations on campus, are encountering a massive support crisis. Not only were the acquisition budgets in the 1980s and 1990s often cut, but support staffs were reduced, and certainly not increased sufficiently to support new media, continue to adapt to the explosion of information, and find ways to support students in a non-traditional learning environment. The distributed learning environment calls for a new and different kind of library support structure. The current Internet is neither catalogued nor organized in such a way that it can replace the traditional library. It is also not capable of supporting a student in a distributed learning environment. Perhaps the best current model of what needs to be created is the California Digital Library, but even this organization does not fully scale to the level that ultimately will be needed.
How will the necessary library resources be provided to students who are enrolling in these new "courses" and learning environments? Who will support these students, answering their reference questions? Who will pay for these resources and services? Currently, many of the distributed and distance learning approaches that have been undertaken in the early stages of this new educational marketplace have maintained a notion of campus autonomy -- that a campus library should provide the necessary resources for its own students. This highly duplicative effort does not scale in a distributed environment any more than it does in a residential environment.
If distributed learning environments really are to proliferate, then some sort of a national infrastructure to support library resources will be necessary. While it is certainly possible that a given campus with a large and sophisticated set of library resources could become a provider of such services, it is more likely that a cooperative effort among institutions will be necessary to provide the requisite resources and services. Cooperation, however, has not been a hallmark of higher education, as individual campus autonomy has mitigated against the kind of collaboration which is so critically called for at this time. To support distributed learning in an appropriate manner, providing learners who may not reside on a campus with the same educational opportunity as the residential students, then we must eliminate these restrictive barriers and silos. The issue of a national infrastructure -- including institutional policy, services, content and the delivery of academic information -- is a critical factor demanding our immediate attention if a distributed learning environment is to become a reality.
Brian L. Hawkins is president of EDUCAUSE. [email protected]