Digital libraries and the changing world of education

Hans Roes
Tilburg University Library
April 1999

Paper presented at the Thessaloniki Spring Course on the Digital Library, Thessaloniki, 23 - 28 May 1999
Powerpoint (MS 97) slides:


Based on an analysis of Twigg and Miloff (1998) of the changes which are underway in the educational system, which will lead to new types of learning environments with greater emphasis on competences and information literacy, the digital library is introduced as a natural and necessary component of the learning environment of the future. Next the situation at Tilburg University is described. Competences of teaching staff are developed in a highly customised approach which seems to be promising. Finally, plans for a central facility for ICT and education, which operates as a network organisation, are discussed.

The changing world of education

Undoubtedly, there are profound changes underway in the educational system. Partly these changes are needed because of ever growing pressure in school systems themselves, partly because society itself is changing into one in which knowledge work becomes ever more important, and partly because the very information and communication technology (ICT) which is transforming our economies, both evokes change and offers a solution to the problems with which the educational system struggles. Twigg and Miloff (1998) made an analysis for the situation in the United States which is also to a great extent valid for the European situation. By confronting trends and technological developments they arrive at a vision of a 'global learning infrastructure' in which the role of schools and universities will be drastically changed, a radical transformation of the educational system. They see the following trends:

  • the number of students is still growing
  • different students are asking for education: participation of women, older students, and students from ethnic minorities is growing, these students bring different experiences with them
  • increasingly work and study are combined
  • which leads to a need for more flexible arrangements
  • where the campus or school building is no longer central to the educational process
  • universities have long had a monopoly in higher education, increasingly companies and public bodies possess knowledge which can be reused for educational purposes, partly for in-house training (knowledge management) but also to offer to external markets - the Thessaloniki Spring Course is a nice example of this
  • there is clearly a trend towards lifelong learning
  • which leads to an emphasis on 'learning to learn', knowledge becomes obsolete at an ever increasing rate in our knowledge economy
  • because of the differences in students there is a need to accommodate different learning styles, customisation and alternative learning routes, courses have to take more into account, or need to build on experiences and background of students
  • education is under constant budget pressure, there is a need for more efficient and effective education
  • students are becoming more consumers who want to make informed choices about how and where they want to be educated
  • which implies they are not committed to one institution, also teaching staff will show more job hopping behaviour than in the past
  • the current system has too many dropouts

ICT has the potential to offer a solution for at least part of the problems mentioned above, according to Twigg and Miloff (1998):

  • through the Internet, course material can be offered independent of time and place, increasing modularisation makes different and flexible learning routes possible
  • an ever increasing number of students have access to the Internet, whether at home or on campus, costs of Internet access continue to drop
  • more and more information is made available through the web, search engines assure the accessibility of this material, groupware allows (a)synchronous communication between teachers and students - world wide
  • online market research is quick and easy and this information can be combined with transaction log data, which allows institutions to monitor consumer, i.e. student response on an ongoing basis
  • in principle a world wide competition for education is possible and already showing in the market for MBA courses

In summary, Twigg and Miloff (1998) envisage a global learning infrastructure, a student-centred, virtual, world wide web delivering educational services.

ICT will, and must, play an important role in education. First of all because in our societies, ICT is becoming more and more important. Modern citizens need to know how to use ICT in order to participate fully in society. They must be computer literate as well as information literate. A second major reason for integrating ICT in education is the fact that more and more professions are working with ICT, these skills are simply required on the labour market. The third role is that the teaching profession itself will change: ICT will be used as a means in education.

The role of the teacher, which has been central to the educational process for ages, will certainly change. Education will become more student-centred instead. In the current situation the teacher is highly independent and regulates his courses from the very beginning where goals are set, to the very end, where students' knowledge is assessed. They are first and all experts in their subject field and their educational skills are considered secondary to their subject expertise. In most cases they create their own learning materials.

In the future educational system the role of teacher will change from a central position to one of a coach for students. Digital learning environments will enable students to study in their own time and place, in their own pace. These digital learning environments will be developed by teams consisting of experts from different fields: subject experts, designers, computer experts. It is very well possible that these environments will be designed and built in cooperation between schools and publishers. In these digital learning environments the main emphasis is on self-study and interaction between (groups of) students and between students and teachers, possibly international. The main goal in these environments will not be on simple reproduction of knowledge, but on competences. Students need to learn how to learn. They need to be able to recognize problems, to determine which information is needed to solve the problem at hand, and to be able to search for this information, evaluate it and apply it to solve the problem at hand.

Having mentioned the goal of developing competences, the definition of information literacy, as given by the American Library Association (1998) comes to mind:

"[I]nformation literate [people] are not only able to recognize when information is needed, but they are also able to identify, locate, evaluate, and use effectively information needed for the particular decision or issue at hand. The information literate person, therefore, is empowered for effective decision making, freedom of choice, and full participation in a democratic society."

With the concept of competences and the closely related concept of information literacy, it is possible to define a role for digital libraries in the changing world of education.

Digital libraries and education

If the learning environment of the future can be envisaged as:

  • interactive and dynamic
  • student-centred
  • enabling group work on real world problems
  • enabling students to determine their own learning paths
  • emphasising competences and information literacy

than Rader (1997) is probably right in stating that: "Librarians are uniquely qualified to assume an active role in the new teaching environment because of their skills in collecting, evaluating, organizing and providing access to information." If people need to learn how to learn, they need to have basic skills for determining which information they need for a given task at hand, and to find and process this information. This gives a new meaning to bibliographic instruction. As Kilcullen (1998) points out: "The role of bibliographic instruction is also to prepare students for lifelong learning, to make effective lifelong use of information, information sources and information systems." In a more broad sense, Kilcullen (1998) sees a task for libraries in helping to create an information literate society.

More down to earth we may cite Barnard (1997) who states that: "One major critical ingredient of the success for Web-based instruction and virtual universities is the development of online libraries." If students are to be enabled to study independent of time and place they need to have access to information independent of time and place, which is exactly the rationale for digital libraries.

It is important to understand the role of instruction librarians in the context to be expected. Above we have seen that the role of teachers will change. They will lose their central role and will become part of teams designing digital learning environments. The same goes for instruction librarians. It is not just a matter of giving bibliographic instruction in how to use digital libraries. These librarians will be members of the same teams designing networked course materials (Copley, cited in Mendelsohn, 1996). Examples of this are already showing, for instance at Eastern Washington University, where library skills are being taught within the framework of a general computer literacy programme. The problem is though that library skills and information literacy are not yet being taken seriously by all teaching staff. A situation not all too unfamiliar to reference librarians - teachers take library skills too often for granted, with the result that the reference desk is sometimes flooded by students with a poorly designed library assignment (Fenske, 1998).

So in the future one might expect more cooperation between library staff, computer staff and teaching staff. Teachers are beginning to show more awareness about the importance of information literacy but are uncertain about how to integrate these skills in their courses (Mosley, 1998). Just as cooperation between libraries and computer centres was necessary to bring about digital libraries, in the next phase where digital libraries will play a central role in education, it is necessary to expand this coalition and to incorporate teaching staff.

The central factor here is culture. How do we forge coalitions with teaching staff who have been quite autonomous up to now ? Let us look at experiences at Tilburg University.

Experiences at Tilburg University

One of my favourite comparisons to describe the situation at Tilburg University for some years now is that of a Ferrari which is being driven in first gear only. The impressive possibilities which the computing and library infrastructure offer are underutilised, in research as well as in education. A fundamental reason for this is lack of computing literacy, and information literacy, among teaching staff, especially older staff. From research into the way in which scholars use libraries, it is well known that they form their information seeking behaviour in an early stage of their career (Meadows, 1998) and that this behaviour only changes when there is a clear and substantial advantage to do so. This is a major problem for any innovating library. It gets ahead of its user population. A complicating factor is that it is hard for the library and computing centre to communicate effectively with scholars already having a hard time to cope with information-overload.

Developments at Tilburg University can be divided into two stages. In the first stage, the emphasis was, and still is, on educating staff in using the advanced possibilities on their desktops. The next stage, one which is currently still under discussion, is to bring about a tighter integration of ICT and education, to begin redesigning courses.

In the first stage, during the past two and some half years, with a grant from the Dutch Department of Education, we have developed an approach to enhance computing literacy of staff which seems to work. The problem was that the existing supply of courses at the computing centre and library clearly did not meet the demands from scholars. They simply stayed away. An alternative might be to oblige them to follow these courses, but human resource policy at Tilburg University - and probably most universities - makes that an impossible direction, at least at the moment. A new approach had therefore to be worked out, in which keywords are focus on the individual scholar and customisation. The goal of the project was to cover, in three years time, at least 50 percent of the faculty, about 500 persons. This can be seen as pre-conditional work if Tilburg University wants to attempt a tighter integration of ICT and education, the second stage.

In a first round faculty boards were visited to communicate the goals of the project. Next step was to approach faculty departments and ask them to be invited at their meetings in order to give a demonstration about the project. This demonstration used of course computing and projection equipment to demonstrate the possibilities of the ICT infrastructure at Tilburg University - a Powerpoint presentation using links with the World Wide Web, through which we could also show the possibilities of library services. In the first instance the idea was to give customised courses to small groups of scholars from the same department, assuming that their skills would be on a similar, comparable level. This might be the case. Fact is that it was not even possible to give courses to small groups. Reasons for this are complex - they have to do with agenda problems, especially with teaching staff. Also it seems that teachers make bad apprentices, they refuse to sit in on a class and show their incompetences in a group.

The only approach which remained therefore was the individual route, 100 percent customisation. This seems an expensive way of dealing with the problem, but we think that this is not the case. First of all there is an intrinsic advantage that the instruction is given at the office of scholars themselves, behind their own desktops. The instructor is able to detect and solve problems with these desktops which are often hampering a pleasant use of the applications. Hard disks can be reorganised to give a better partitioning of data and applications. The second main advantage is that the instructor can work in a pace which suits the individual scholar, and this can be very quick, because after all, we are working with intelligent people here. In a classroom situation the average pace is not good for the fast student and not good for the slow student. The third advantage is that the individual approach is problem-oriented, whereas the classroom approach is application oriented. In this last approach, to learn how to make all round use of an integrated desktop would imply many modules - in computer basics, operating system basics, databases, word processing, spreadsheets, electronic mail, WWW-browser at the least. (Compare for instance the requirements for the European computer driving licence (ECDL)). You could easily spend a week and learn things you don't want to learn and don't learn the things you came for in the first place. In the individual approach the starting-point is given by the needs of the scholar, a problem he wants to have solved, something he wants to achieve. This implies, fourth advantage, that the instructor hardly needs to prepare herself for this kind of instruction, that hardly any course material is needed. This counterbalances the costs of the individual approach considerably. The fifth advantage is that personal relationships are being developed. The teacher knows who to turn to in case of problems. In this way an incremental personal learning curve comes about. The final advantage is that instructors get a good view of the day to day problems with which teaching staff is confronted. A very valuable source of qualitative management information can now be tapped.

The experiences from these activities, by now we have reached about 300 staff, have been used in the second stage. Another important ingredient guiding discussions at this stage, was a scan of the activities of other Dutch universities regarding ICT and education. The goal was to arrive at a design for a central facility to which teachers can turn if they want to revise their courses using ICT. First of all an assessment was made of the situation at Tilburg University regarding education and the possible role of ICT:

  • a major observation is that teaching, or rather learning, should be the starting-point, not ICT
  • developments should build on a vision about what kind of education the university wants to give, preferably it should enhance the student-centred learning concept
  • for peculiar, historical reasons, the university lacks didactical expertise
  • technical expertise is abundantly available but, from the viewpoint of teaching staff, is scattered throughout many organisational units
  • the primary clients of a central facility should be teachers which should be served in a nonpatronising way
  • the facility should be steered in a bottom-up fashion
  • human resource policy should be changed in order to create more incentives for teaching, if teaching is more rewarded, it should in principle also be possible to make courses in computing literacy more compulsive
  • as the facility will primarily aim at individual teachers, faculty board responsible for education needs to take extra care to ensure coherence on a curriculum level
  • an important precondition is to keep the existing infrastructure up-to-date, special attention should be given to facilities for group work and to student access to the university network

In the next step, tasks were discussed, what should be expected from a new facility for ICT and education ? It should:

  • serve as a central counter, one place where teaching staff can drop its questions regarding the use of ICT in education
  • build a database of frequently asked questions (FAQ)
  • coordinate and organise customised training of teaching staff, in fact carry on the activities done on a project basis in the first stage described above, but with a broader scope - not only ICT-training but also didactic and presentational skills
  • build and maintain expertise in software for educational purposes, e.g. groupware, courseware
  • carry out projects in multi disciplinary teams to redesign courses, results should preferably be transmittable
  • follow external developments at other universities and in secondary education
  • serve as a unit to advise university and faculty boards regarding educational matters
  • communicate results to teaching staff

Final question is how to organise this central facility ? First of all it is clear that the university has to invest in didactical expertise since that it is a core competency which is currently missing in the organisation. The second question is how to bundle the technical expertise which is now scattered among many organisational units - library, computing centre, audiovisual department, faculty automation units, administrative unit. The traditional bureaucratic answer would be to form a new organisational unit and relocate the expertise. But this would hardly be an appropriate answer because it is costly, not flexible, hard to scale. Our idea was to create a network organisation which would make it possible to draw on expertise already available in the university, augmented with didactical expertise. The basic rationale for this is the idea that for course redesign you need to be able to form teams in a flexible way which can work across the whole organisation. You need didactical expertise in design, the computing centre is needed whenever software has to be developed, local automation units are needed for instance to set up web servers which teaching staff can use, the administrative department is needed to be able to connect to the central student database.

So instead of creating a new organisational unit we thought it would be better to pool existing resources in a networked organisation. In order to gain commitment from all the existing organisational units the pool should be directed by a virtual management team consisting of senior staff from the computing centre, library, administrative departments etcetera. The management team should be headed by one of these senior staff or with a newly appointed manager. Finally, commitment and involvement from faculties should come from a steering group above the management team, which should consist of faculty board members responsible for education, and headed by the university board member responsible for education.

At the time of writing of this paper this organisational structure is still being debated at Tilburg University. Faculties are sceptical about a central facility and seem to want to create units within their faculties themselves. They are not yet aware of the complex problems and the need to pool expertise now scattered around the university. Some faculties are not even convinced yet of the need to innovate their curricula. Sooner or later, they have to act though, otherwise they will seriously jeopardise their position in the market for higher education.


  • American Library Association, A Progress Report on Information Literacy: An Update on the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report, 1998,
  • John Barnard, The World Wide Web and higher education : the promise of virtual universities and online libraries, Educational technology, 37(3), May - June 1997, p.30-35
  • ECDL, European Computer Driving Licence,
  • Rachel Fenske, Computer literacy and the library: a new connection, Reference Services Review, 26(2), Summer 1998, p. 67 - 72,78
  • Maureen Kilcullen, Teaching librarians to teach : recommendations on what we need to know, Reference services review, 26(2), Summer 1998 p.7-18
  • A.J. Meadows, Communicating Research, Academic Press, New York, 1998
  • Susan Mendelsohn, First Person: Librarians as educators, Information world review, April 1996, p.29 - 30
  • Pixey Anne Mosley, Creating a library assignment workshop for university faculty, The journal of academic librarianship, 24(1), January 1998, p. 33 - 41
  • Hannelore B. Rader, Educating students for the information age: the role of the librarian, Reference Services Review, 25(2), Summer 1997, p. 47 - 52
  • Carol Twigg and Michale Miloff, The global learning infrastructure, in Don Tapscott, Alex Lowry and David Ticoll, Blueprint to the digital economy, McGraw-Hill, 1998

© Hans Roes, 1999