What use digital Libraries?

Tom Reeves from The University of Georgia presented on the focus of digital libraries (repositories for digital content such as online library databases, museum artefacts, science focussed resources such as those produced by C4) but his ideas were in fact much broader than that and encompassed ideas around e-Learning pedagogies. The starting point was the freely available National Science Digital Library (NSDL )with vetted quality controlled resources and a variety of search options.

In the UK the Scran project digitised content initially without any notion of added value. This a-la-cart model required users to take the building blocks and make from them their own resources that could be used for specific learning outcomes. SCRAN has moved on and realises that simply offering content does not work and are now developing more sophisticated resources that have intended learning outcomes.

A common experience these two projects is that in itself free provision of high quality digital resources is not sufficient enough a pull to attract users – something more is required!

Tom moved on to address the question about what evidence is there of the benefits of these expensive digital libraries? Are they oversold and under used? (Larry Cuban of Stanford University thinks this might just be the case.)

Tom addressed the question from a more fundamental level by discussing issues of teaching and learning and asserted that “mostly digital libraries are used to support traditional practices” with disagreement over how to best use the technology. Practices including little or no teacher intervention, teacher as a facilitator, through to teacher as a controller of the experience are in use.

At the heart of Tom’s argument was that belief that ”technology should be used as a cognitive tool to offload mental tasks to free up time and space to develop the deeper learning skills such as critiquing, re-presenting, collaborative work, communication, and evaluation.”

I am reminded of Richard Millwood’s view of the power of ICT as enabling the presenting of ideas and subsequent evaluation both as an individual activity and with others.

For Tom then the key question is “will digital libraries become cognitive tools or just sources of data?” In attempting to answer this question Tom had an interesting take on the concept of context in that he was using it as a verb (“to knit or bind together; to unite closely) not an adjective. He identified the key issue why digital libraries come up short of their potential as their failing to context resources. By this he meant the ‘gluing’ together of objectives, content, assessment, pedagogical drivers, teachers roles, and technologies role – thinking about the whole picture!

Tom went on to identify the key quality indicator of digital libraries as alignment and expanded on the context imperative of the following 6 key attributes of alignment:

Less desirable More desirable
Nature objectives: low order discrete —- high order general (problem solving, criticality, creativity)
Nature content: one right answer —- multiple perspectives
Pedagogy: direct instruction —- problem based
Teacher role: didactic —- facilitative
Technology role: prepackaged —- real world data
Assessment: discrete knowledge —- mental models

I believe that the list above could largely be summed up by the phrase ‘challenging and authentic learning tasks’! I think that part of the explanation of the problem explained by Tom might be because of the background of those who create many of these resources (the profession of instructional designers) largely come from a tradition and philosophy of learning bourn out of behaviourism. This tends to promote a view of acquiring knowledge or developing specific ‘bounded’ skills that can easily be measured is what learning is about. This deficit model does not promote deep learning and the development of higher levels of criticality in thinking. This link gives a rather frightening (from my point of view) potted history of instructional design!

The current focus is on pre-packaged low grade or shallow learning but the NSDL portal does have the potential to shift to deep learning.

How to achieve this? Tom went on to introduce the idea of Design Research and slammed experimental comparisons and randomised controlled trials of the type used (appropriately) in medical trials that the US Secretary of Education amongst others favour. This nonsense is depressing and as a methodology is next to useless as it is based upon so many assumptions that don’t stand up. I liked this paper by Tom.

Design research is an interesting approach and for me this had strong resonance with the traditions of reflective practitioner and action research. In a nutshell Tom explained design research as having these characteristics:
– focussed on broad-based, complex problems critical to education
– intensive collaboration amongst researchers and practitioners
– Long-term engagement involving continual refinement of protocols and questions
– Commitment to theory construction and explanation

The process looking like:
– define learning outcomes
– create learning experiences and environments that address desired outcomes
– collect data to analyse including those around human interactions
– modify learning experiences and environments

Tom explained that in the US the educational researcher using design research methodology is better able to generate the output required by departments in their equivalent of the RAE process.

This is linked to the status of educational research in HE and was a theme in discussions running through the conference. It was widely agreed by conference participants in the discussion forums that until the status of educational research as opposed to ‘traditionally’ valued subject research is recognised then the task of raising the bench mark of teaching and learning in HE will be significantly held back. You get what you measure!

Lastly Tom touched upon some statistics that illustrated study patterns of US students and it was widely agreed that the trends identified are probably common in the Western educational systems.

An NSSE study showed that although the work expectation of University students study is..

10 – 15 hrs in class
25 – 30 hrs studying outside of class


11% study > 25 hrs per week outside of class
44% This lead onto a largely anecdotal discussion around changes in the attitude and work patterns of students and touched upon issues of dumbing down, low expectations, the cost of studying at University, etc. From this there was common agreements that University lecturers are distant from their learners and largely do not understand what they need and want – alignment is poor!

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