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At the end of November I was at a different sort of conference to the ones I normally get to attend.  This one, Design4learning was held at the OU in Milton Keynes, but was a more general education conference.  Described as “The Conference aims to advance the understanding and application of blended learning, design4learning and learning analytics ” Design4learning covered topics such as MOOCs, elearning, learning design and learning analytics.

There were a useful series of presentations at the conference and several of them are available from the conference website.   We’d put together a poster for the conference talking about the work we’ve started to do in the library on ‘library analytics’ – entitled ‘Learning Analytics – exploring the value of library data and it was good to talk to a few non-library people about the wealth of data that libraries capture and how that can contribute to the institutional picture of learning analyticPoster for Design4learning conferences.

Our poster covered some of the exploration that we’ve been doing, mainly with online resource usage from our EZProxy logfiles.  In some cases we’ve been able to join that data with demographic and other data from surveys to start to look in a very small way at patterns of online library use.

Design4learning conference poster v3

The poster also highlighted the range of data that libraries capture and the sorts of questions that could be asked and potentially answered.  It also flagged up the leading-edge work by projects such as Huddersfield’s Library Impact Data Project and the work of the Jisc Lamp project.

An interesting conference and an opportunity to talk with a different group of people about the potential of library data.

Photograph of documents from ALTCA quick trip to Manchester yesterday to take part in a Symposium at ALT-C  on ‘Big Data and Learning Analytics’ with colleagues from the OU (Simon Buckingham Shum, Rebecca Ferguson, Naomi Jeffrey and Kevin Mayles) and Sheila MacNeill from JISC CETIS (who has blogged about the session here).

It was the first time I’d been to ALT-C and it was just a flying visit on the last morning of the conference so I didn’t get the full ALT-C experience.  But I got the impression of a really big conference, well-organised and with lots of different types of sessions going on.  There were 10 sessions taking place at the time we were on, including talks from invited speakers.  So lots of choice of what to see.

But we had a good attendance at the session and there seemed a good mix of people and a good debate and questions during the symposium.  Trying to both summarise an area like Learning Analytics and also give people an idea of the range of activities that are going on is tricky in a one-hour symposium but hopefully gave enough of an idea of some of the work taking place and some of the issues and concerns that there are.

Cross-over with other areas
Sheila had a slide pointing out the overlaps between the Customer Relationship Management systems world, Business Intelligence and Learning Analytics, and it struck me that there’s also another group in the Activity Data world that crosses over.  Much of the work I mentioned (RISE and Huddersfield’s fanstastic work on Library impact)  came out of JISC’s Activity Data funding stream and some of the synthesis project work has been ‘synthesised’ into a website ‘Exploiting activity data in the academic environment’ Many of the lessons learnt that are listed here, particularly around what you can do with the data, are equally relevant to Learning Analytics.  JISC are also producing an Activity Data report in the near future.

Interesting questions
A lot of the questions in the session were as much around the ethics as the practicality.   Particularly interesting was the idea that there were risks of Learning Analytics in encouraging a view that so much could be boiled down to a set of statistics, which sounded a bit like norms to me. The sense-making element seems to be really key, as with so much data and statistics work.

I’d talked a bit about also being able to use the data to make recommendations, something we had experimented with in the RISE project. It was interesting to hear views about the dangers of them reducing rather than expanding choice by narrowing the choices as people are encouraged to select from a list of recommendations which reinforces the recommendations leading to a loop.  If you are making recommendations based on what people on a course looked at then I’d agree that it is a risk, especially as I think there’s a huge probability that people are often going to be looking at resources that they have to look at for their course anyway.

When it comes to other types of recommendations (such as people looking at this article also viewed this other article, and people searching for this search term look at these items) then there is still some chance of recommendations reinforcing a narrow range of content, but I’d suggest that there is still some chance of serendipitous discovery of material that you might not ordinarily have seen.  I’m aware that we’ve very much scratched the surface with recommendations and used simple algorithms that were designed around the idea that the more people who viewed that pattern the better the recommendation.  But it may be that more complex algorithms that throw in some ‘randomness’ might be useful.

One of the elements I think that is useful about the concept of recommendations is that people largely accept them (and perhaps expect them) as they are ubiquitous in sites like Amazon.  And I wonder if you could almost consider them as a personalisation feature that indicates that your service is modern and up-to-date and is engaging with users.  For many library systems that still look to be old-fashioned and ‘librarian’-orientated then perhaps it is equally important to be seen to have these types of features as standard.

Update: Slides from the introductory presentation are here

Frictionless resource accessOne of the particular aspects of working in Library Services at a distance-learning institution is that without a physical building, ‘the library’, at the centre of a campus-based student experience, our library is a much less visible entity.  So I was intrigued to see the write up on the Guardian’s HE blog reporting on the LISU report ‘Working together: evolving value for academic libraries’ start with the comment:

A common complaint from my librarian friends: too often users fail to appreciate that the resources they use online are only available to them because the library has purchased them. This is aggravated by confusion about what an academic library is. Researchers actively using library resources online may not think of themselves as using the library because they have not recently visited the building

It is interesting to see that as user engagement with libraries is increasingly virtual and digital rather than physical that even those libraries with a strong physical presence are also now having to grapple with similar issues of visibility.  It also brought to mind a blog post by Tom Scheinfeldt from earlier in the year about how digital technology makes the library invisible. Apart from a really interesting read and some good ideas about the sorts of services libraries should be offering in the area of collections, scholarly communications and support for data-driven research, there was one comment in the post that really struck me ‘in most cases, the library is doing its job best when it is invisible to its patrons’.

But the visibility of the library is now really important.  ‘The library resources are good enough for my needs’ is now a measure in the Higher Education Key Information Set, so if your students don’t know that a particular service or facility was provided by the library, that might affect your score in the National Student Survey.   And that makes me start to think about the direction of a lot of what we’ve tried to do over the past few years.

Tony Hirst uses a term ‘frictionless’ to describe an evolving role for libraries and librarians.  So alongside lots of ideas about areas that libraries should be working in,  he describes many of the restrictions such as access and authentication as friction, in that they act as a means of slowing or regulating access.  So we do things like embedding direct links to library resources into the Virtual Learning Environment using links constructed with EZProxy that take students directly to the resource as if they were on campus.  We handle redirections and persistence with systems to try to remove some of the friction.  But does that come at the cost of visibility?  Our approach has been not to force students to come to a specific ‘library space’ but to save their time by saying ‘click on this link and it takes you to the resource you need’.  For a frictionless student experience you don’t need to know that the VLE you are using is developed and run by one department and the resources you are using are managed by another.  But if you don’t know that the resources are provided by the library, when you have to answer the question of ‘the library resources are good enough for my needs’,  what are you going to be saying?

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January 2021

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