Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Library's Role in Organising "Course Knowledge"

It seems to me that one of the key, live discussion issues faced by academic libraries at the moment in their 'service to undergraduates' role is the extent to which they integrate with the students' experience of a course (which increasingly means: in the VLE).

In the Open University, the central library's role was originally to support course development and academic research, as well as archiving the university's course materials. Undergraduate access to other academic libraries across the UK was also negotiated by the Library. The rise of e-collections, however, means that the OU Library can now start to provide information access to undergraduate students who access library services remotely.

In Cambridge, too, the central University Library's role, primarily as a research library, but also as a provider of services to College and Department libraries, looks as if the increasing online availability of resources might influence the services it provides directly to undergraduates, in addition to the services it provides through the other libraries.

But to what extent are the libraries looking inside their respective .ac.uk domains (both the public areas and the authenticated ones) and attempting to 'organise learning related course knowledge' - that is, those resources that grow up around a course over the its lifetime.

So for example, we have 'direct' course related outputs, such as course reading lists and past exam papers. Then there are the outputs of data-mining around courses, such as looking at what books students on a particular course borrowed in significant numbers. Where students do their own research on a particular topic, there are resources they have referenced in their work. These may become increasingly discoverable if students start to make use of social bookmarking or reference managing tools, posting course related social bookmarks, for example, as they do their research. For students who subscribe to RSS feeds, OPML feedrolls relating to a particular course might also be available. And as open educational resource initiatives keep testing the waters in terms of releasing course materials under an open license, there are likely to be increasing amounts of course materials (including reading lists, lecture podcasts, or videos etc etc) available relating to any particular course, or at least, course related subject area.

(One OU course I used to mark each year always has a research style question that required students to discover two or three resources to support their answer. I'd bookmark these each year in order to see what sorts of searches students might be doing for the assessment: a lot of the resources seemed to be among the top Google results for an 'obvious' keyword/keyphrase selection suggested by the question.)

So how might a Library go about organising 'course knowledge'?

One approach I have explored in the past are course related search engines. In one early demo, I mined courses on the OU's OpenLearn website for links to external websites, and used these as the basis for a course resources search engine. (I suspect the demo has since rotter: OpenLearn Dynamic Custom Search Engine). In other examples, I would search over the outgoing links from a particular webpage (e.g. 'Search Links On this Page' Revised Bookmarklet - again, this may have rotted...). One course I am currently running uses a Google Custom Search Engine populated by hand with resources linked to from the course materials, providing students with a way of searching over the (public) resources that the course refers to (think of this like a reading list limited search engine).

"Ah yes, all very useful", you may say. "But so what...?" So maybe Google is going to beat the libraries to it again if they don't start thinking in a weblike way. For example, in my feed reader today I learn that Google is now offering Contextual search within Wikipedia:
For Wikipedia pages with a lot of information and links, contextual search lets you limit your search to only those Wikipedia pages that are linked from the current article, focusing the results on the topic of the article. So, in addition to getting all matching Wikipedia articles, you can quickly drill down to contextually relevant results using the Linked Wikipedia Pages tab.

WAKE UP: in most institutions, the course is a context, but how much value is being exploited from that context? To what extent do our 'learning environments' allow linked course resources to be explored as if the learning environment was a research environment?

Encouragingly, there are signs of academic Libraries starting to think about the exploitation of course resources. So for example, @daveyp's book recommender based on library loans data looks as if it might be increasing the number of books borrowed at Huddersfield University (ILI2009: Exploiting Usage Data). And at Cambridge, moves appear to be afoot at getting hold of centralised course information data so that it can be used to personalise a variety of library services (more on this in a later post...;-)

Just by the by, clearing out some long ago opened tabs on my web browser ovr the weekend, I came across this post entitled Examopedia, which describes a project at Portsmouth where "questions from a past exam [are posted on a wiki]; students then put their answers to these questions onto the wiki, suggesting alternatives or amendments if an answer has already been posted".

For subjects where short problems are used as one of the drivers for checking understanding and demonstrating techniques, I can see how this might be a really powerful technique. It also got me wondering about the extent to which a service like Stack Overflow (now available as a white label service, Stack Exchange), where users can post questions, receive answers, and share all sorts of karmic goodness, might be used in a similar way? E.g. by allowing past papers to be atomised down to the level of separate questions, posted as such, and then collaboratively addressed by a social learning community?

One question is, to what extent should it be the Library's role to explore the way(s) in which course knowledge can best be organised and exploited...?

No comments: