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On a difficult day for Higher Education with the Comprehensive Spending Review slashing public funding for the Sector by unprecedented amounts there was an interesting counterpoint in thinking about the future in a session on the challenges to academic practice presented by the rise of digital technologies.    Described as a fundamental change in academic and student practice the session delivered a wide range of different perspectives on digital scholarship, digital libraries and digital literacy. 

It was particularly interesting to hear very different perspectives from personal academic practice, through case studies in Africa, to the thoughts about information literacy vs digital literacy.   A couple of comments particularly got my attention. Firstly that new entrants to the whole e- and distance learning sector are ‘born digital’ with no legacy processes or practices from the non-digital age.  They have set themselves up to work in that environment, don’t have the baggage of courses that have been presented for six years or more and still show their history from the days of ‘your course materials are in the box’.  They are flexible, agile and a serious competitor.

The other comment particularly made me reflect on this whole area of the digital user experience – that there was as yet ‘no perfect storm of demand’ for changes in student and academic practice to embrace the digital agenda (or rather to replace current academic and student practices).  Reflecting on that comment it seems that students ‘buy-in’ to an academic set of practices that maybe they see as being the hallmarks of a university education.  They accept the particular model of learning even though (or maybe because) it may be very different to how they learnt at school.  Although students may be active users of twitter or facebook that hasn’t yet filtered through to an insistent demand that university practices should move to those environments.

But – now the numbers (and percentage) of younger students at my institution is growing quickly (and likely to grow further still) – and in the future those students might be paying more and are likely to be more demanding in getting a quality experience – are we going to see a change in their expectations about what a course looks like?  How assessments and support are provided? How they engage with tutors, or work collaboratively with their fellow students?  Is this an area where research is being undertaken to shape what future learning systems might look like?

“Every day I wake up and ask, ‘how can I flow data better, manage data better, analyse data better?”

Rollin Ford, the CIO of Wal-Mart

Quoted in A special report on managing information: Data, data everywhere
Economist, The (London, England) – February 27, 2010 Page: 71

Libraries and their attitude to user activity data.
In the commercial world there are countless examples of how the private sector uses the data about their customers, from Wal-Mart’s CIO (quoted above) through to supermarkets use of loyalty cards and to the recommendations that are commonplace in websites such as Amazon.  But examples of libraries use of this type of data are still quite rare and libraries have been very slow to take advantage of the vast pool of data they have about the behaviour of their users.  Libraries have long been used to using systems to count how many item have been borrowed or bought, but have been strangely reluctant to look in detail about what people are borrowing and use that data to help users make better informed choices.

Some work has been done through the TILE and MOSAIC projects, and the latter included anonymised circulation data made available by Huddersfield University and used to run a competition to encourage ideas around the use of that data.  JISC also ran an event earlier in the year about this area ‘Gaining Business Intelligence from User Activity Data’ which has been written up here and in the ALT newsletter.     Dave Pattern at Huddersfield is probably furthest along in working with this area and his blog is a good source for ideas about what can be achieved with user activity data.

Following on from the event in the Summer JISC have clearly been thinking about how to increase the pool of examples of how user activity data can be used so have included it as one of the strands in their recently announced Funding Call 15/10.   With £500k available for 7/10 six month projects to take place in the early part of 2011, there’s the opportunity for libraries to get involved in developing new ideas about how to use user activity data.

User Activity Data is a particularly interesting area for me as a good deal of the work that has been done so far has been around the use of loan data.  Working in a library where students don’t borrow books from us, or even visit the library, we’ve got to look at other areas of data.  Most of our users engage with us through using our e-resources and that’s an area that we are looking to see how we can collect, analyse, and use that data to improve services and offer recommendations to help users get more out of their e-resource usage.

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