How are cloud-based e-learning solutions going to impact on the way academic libraries engage with students?
Reflecting on an interesting presentation by Niall Sclater on ‘E-learning in the cloud’ last week (live-blogged by Doug Clow at http://dougclow.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/elearning-in-the-cloud-iet/ ) I started to think about what some of the challenges were likely to be for academic libraries as universities adopt cloud-based learning systems.

So what is cloud computing?
In essence cloud-computing is internet-based computing where applications, storage and services are hosted on the web.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing Generally these systems are provided by a third-party and often described using terms such as ‘SaaS’ Software as a Service.  The advantages of cloud-based computing can include improved scalability, resilience, reduced systems management overheads or cost.  But it isn’t without its issues – around control, security and data protection, for example.

As applied to e-learning, cloud-based computing typically means signing up to either Google Apps for Education http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/edu/index.html or Microsoft Live@Edu http://www.microsoft.com/liveatedu/free-email-accounts.aspx?locale=en-GB&country=GB. Google Apps for Education offers a set of tools including Gmail, Google Sites, Google Calendar, iGoogle and Google Docs for example.

Google Apps for Education

Google Apps for education website

In my institution Google Apps is being adopted, with a small number of students initially (about 10% of the 12,000 who have been invited have signed up so far).  It isn’t considered to be mandatory and people are only just starting to look at how some of the tools might be used.  It’s still going to co-exist alongside the VLE and the formal university systems where we expect students to engage with their courses, but it will exist in the more informal, personal student space.

For libraries there are some challenges about how they should approach this new environment.  Should libraries be present in this space at all?  and what services might be provided and how?

Should libraries be present in this cloud-based learning space?
The traditional model of a library as a fairly passive institution that forced users to engage with the library on the libraries terms (by visiting a physical building or using a website portal) is increasingly being replaced by a willingness to engage with users wherever they are.  Driven partly by social networking but also by wanting to engage with users wherever they might be, whether that is in the VLE, in forums and on course websites, many libraries are already linking library content directly from within the VLE, providing information literacy tools, websites that work with mobile phones and engaging with students on facebook or via twitter.  So to choose not to engage with users in a new learning environment really isn’t an option in my opinion.  Libraries need to prove the worth of their services to all users so failing to engage runs the risk of libraries being marginalised.

What services should be provided and how?
The nature of the library services you might provide depends to a great extent on how the environment is being used.  So if it is being used as more of a personal area for students then you need to think about engaging on students’ terms and find out from them to what extent they want the library to be in their space. There has been some research done in this area in projects like the LASSIE project http://clt.lse.ac.uk/Projects/LASSIE_LWW7.pdf and others such as the TWOLER project at Westminster https://sites.google.com/a/staff.westminster.ac.uk/twoler/.  If the environment is a more formal part of the university e-learning experience then the library needs to be delivering key services in this environment.

What services?
So the sort of services you might want to be delivering could include:

  • Help and Support services – web chat, or other contact channels and FAQs, ideally context specific
  • Search services – features to allow users to search and retrieve library licenced content without having to connect to library systems separately
  • Learning activities – such as information literacy tools
  • Library catalogue search, renewal and reservation services, PC or resource booking services
  • RSS feeds of new books or library news or library resources, reading lists etc
  • Lists of course resources or reading lists – maybe linked through to a course calendar so you get the resources you need to be reading now
  • Recommender information – people on my course are reading or looking at this resource, what are the most popular journals being used by people on my course, what journals have similar articles to the ones I’ve been looking at? For example.
  • Tools such as reference management to allow you to manage and cite your references.

How could you present these services?
There are a couple of routes.  If your platform provides APIs you could make use of them (e.g. for Google Apps there are several Google APIs listed here http://code.google.com/googleapps/docs/index.html#)  If you are using Google Apps, then one obvious way is to make use of the iGoogle dashboard and present your services in one of more gadgets http://www.google.co.uk/ig/directory RSS feed gadgets are readily available and many libraries have already developed catalogue search gadgets http://library.open.ac.uk/services/lib20servs/oucatgg/ The advantage of gadgets is that they can be used is a variety of different locations and are reasonably easy to create.

Final thoughts
One aspect of this environment that strikes me is that there’s a similarity in some ways between the services you might deliver to a mobile phone and what you might deliver through a gadget.  In part that is down to the restricted screen/gadget size.  It may also be related to the different way in which the environment is being used.

As more institutions take up cloud-based elearning then the possibilities for how libraries can engage with customers will start to become clearer.  What we need to do is to provide services that users want and will use, those that take the best of our current services and make them more accessible, that support students to work in the ways they want to work, at the times they want to work.

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