Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Vice-Chancellor, Thames Valley University, UK


This paper raises several issues, without necessarily offering answers.

It is presented as a series of "issues" which demand our attention. The topics covered are (in approximate order) the global context, pedagogical concerns, new technologies and the relationship between information, knowledge and learning.

The paper concludes with a brief discussion on the importance of education.


In this digital age, a fundamental question is often overlooked. That question is:

Are libraries being pushed by the past or are they being called by future?

Digital technologies offer many opportunities to change and enhance our services. If we are to take advantage of these opportunities, we will soon see radically different education in society at large. We surely need to articulate what we want to achieve with these technologies, rather than dumbly accepting the technologies as they are pushed onto us. In short, it is up to us to make sure that we get what we want, rather than what the suppliers want to provide.

Issue: Education-Driven Economy

Society is rapidly moving towards a position where its primary rôle material is human capital. In this context, education assumes increasing importance and becomes the key to success. Therefore, education is repositioned; we are seeing the early manifestations of this effect already. An implication is that the education sector needs investment, in large amounts, as distinct from subsidy.

Issue: Learning for Earning

To be successful in a knowledge society, individuals will need more education. This introduces the concept of "learning for earning", as learning and earning grow closer and closer. The constant debates about the importance or relevance of vocational training will lose their significance. Learning will in effect become indistinguishable from earning, and we can even coin the term (l)earning.

Issue: What Skills?

By and large, employers will want the same skills students will need to be successful in higher education.

The implication, and indeed the challenge, will be that higher education will have to turn out students who are this skilled employees starting from day one.

Key skills will intrude teamwork. Universities say they already that they produce these key skills, but is this true? What are the implications? Students will need continuous education and development rather than "once-off" education; a radically different agenda will be called for.

Issue: the Democratisation of Higher Education.

At present, 31% of 18-year olds go in to higher education in the UK (actually, 45% in Scotland and 27% in England). These percentages are not large, compared to the mass continuing education which an information society implies. The issue is: how will higher education be democratised so that larger numbers of the population can benefit?

We can think of three routes to democratisation. They are:

Issue: the Individuation of Higher Education

We are getting more and more people into smaller and smaller groups for higher education. However, as the number of people being educated increases, the funding available is still likely to decline. So if we wish to continue as before or to improve our standards, the experience of students in the system is likely to deteriorate. New technologies will offer us opportunities to transform these experiences.

Issue: What is a Student?

Students are not simply members of a homogeneous population; we now have to identify and cater for several different kinds of student:

To some extent, new technologies will allow us to cease observing this differentiation, as the students’ needs will grow to be the same. All will need better access to resources and to staff. Materials produced for distance learning students can, and should, be used for other students. The sooner we break down these barriers, the better; in this regard. The TLTP (Teaching and Learning Technology Programme) would make an a revealing case study.

Issue: Demand

From the foregoing it is clear that demand for higher education will continue to rise. However its nature will change. Learning will be more informal, more accessible, and learner-driven. As people decide to go back to learning later in life, what implications will this have for the patterns of demand?

Issue: Freedom from Constraints

The new technologies will allow us an unprecedented freedom from the traditional constraints of time and space. When learning materials can be distributed and delivered digitally, there is no longer any need to respect classroom times rigidly; and library opening hours become less relevant. Also, by definition, distance learning, including access to learning resources from a distance, becomes possible, so the physical locations of libraries and resources lose their relevance. Although superficially obvious, this has less obvious though nonetheless profound implications for higher education institutions. It can have radical effects on universities’ sense of place.

Issue: New Technologies and Communications.

The convergence of information technologies and communication technologies is clear and important to us. The JISC recognises this convergence, and it is up to us to continue its work and unlock the potential.

Issue: Multiple Media not Multimedia.

In all our institutions, the use of paper continues to increase at a phenomenal rate. We emphatically are not heading towards a paperless way of operation. Far from eliminating paper, information technologies have combined to produce a renaissance in printing allowing DTP for all. One issue this raises is the variety of reactions which digital documents still produce. While many students will find it difficult to read on screen (or may be unwilling to), others (especially younger learners) will accept and look for on screen presentation. We have to find ways to cater for the different constituencies making up this range.

Issue: What is a Campus?

Those who place the communications network at the heart of our knowledge society may wish to argue for network-based universities instead of campus-based institutions. However, universities have a strong sense of place, so campuses will not disappear totally; but the network will play a rôle in redefining what a campus is.

Issue: a Learning Network

Technology-enabled learning will allow students to carry out their learning at university, at home, at workplaces, and indeed at combinations of these. In many cases, learners will not want to distinguish between these locations. As well as challenges, this provides us with perhaps the most important potential for our future.

Issue: the Production of Information and Knowledge

It is not up to us to produce knowledge in most cases; rather, it is the responsibility of other organisations such as commercial companies. The distinctive rôle of universities and libraries is to organise the information these other entities have produced, and to facilitate access to it. We therefore need to focus on knowledge and learning rather than purely on information. Information as it is found today can as easily overwhelm and disable its "users" as it can liberate them (in other words, a high proportion of it is useless meaningless or inaccurate). Users of information need to learn how to sort through and assess information; we must not fall into the trap of assuming that everyone knows how to do this uniquely. We must make sure that libraries support learners in finding the information they seek.

Issue: from Knowledge-Driven to Active Learning

Students will no longer be passive recipients of education. Increasingly, they will start to demand actively the information and education they want and need. But students are also producers, as they are not only consumers of information. The efforts of students can be as important as the efforts of the teaching staff, and the productive rôle of students must be recognised.

Issue: Responsibility

Along with the trends described above, it is clear that students will need to, and increasingly will want to, take responsibility for their own learning. Universities will have to find ways of granting students this level of authority, and this presents a real challenge. Traditionally, responsibility and authority are universally linked. This is problematic, because we will have to see fundamental power relationship changes in its universities. University staff will no longer act as dictators and guardians of knowledge.

Issue: Static Curricula

A particular problem in the UK is the static nature of a curricula. As networking increases, the prospect of more flexible curricula, spreading perhaps between universities, may be possible. Will curricula remain fixed, or can we position ourselves to take advantage of these possibilities?

Issue: Social Cohesion.

Education will become the engine room of society. We rapidly will reach a point where education is nothing less than a prerequisite for a successful national economy. We underestimate the importance of this radical shift at our peril. Additionally, we must remember to consider the position of those who do not continue to learn, those who don’t learn won’t earn. These are important questions for social cohesion on a large scale. It is essential that they should be addressed if we are to maintain social order and social justice. Already, in UK, one in six 21-year olds is functionally illiterate. If we continue to exclude those who cannot learn continually, the implications, which already are enormous, will grow to be unmanageable.


In an information society where IT is harnessed, where students have both authority and responsibility, and where students can study from home, individuals may be tempted to ask why education still matters. Certainly the answer is not that education is primarily about knowledge; nor is it primarily about skills or competence. Education primarily is about acquiring the confidence to learn, to ask questions, to understand, to know, to dream and to realise one’s aspirations. Education matters, for the sake of society as a whole. Let us hope that we have the fortitude to take this forward.

[48] This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation.

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