Library Services for Distance Learners

While technology has vastly increased the range, reach and number of distance education programs, library services for distance students have not kept pace. And despite the potential of technology to enhance these services to distance learners, to date it has done little more than improve the speed of access to library materials, leaving the extent of access unchanged. In fact, technology may well be putting distance learners at an even greater disadvantage by creating a still more uneven playing field than before.

Collaboration on many levels is key to successful provision of library services to distance learners: collaboration among libraries, collaboration within libraries among faculty, librarians, and administration, and collaboration between libraries and publishers. One exemplary collaboration is the ELN: the Electronic Library Network, a project of British Columbia’s Open Learning Agency. 28 libraries across the province participate in the nine-year-old project to bring resources to students and researchers regardless of their geographic location and institutional affiliation. ELN produces union catalogues of serials, monographs and media holdings; negotiates licenses with publishers and database vendors; provides online journal access; offers relevant technology training; and develops new models and structures of resource sharing. Through initiatives such as ELN, distance learners have access to “a larger, more diverse body of research than any single library could afford, in a way that minimizes duplication and overall costs for licenses, data storage and system/contract administration.”1

Students without access to such sophisticated networks as ELN can still rely on traditional methods of providing library materials and services. Many distance learners are fortunate enough to have access to local public or academic libraries for their information and research requirements. However, even these students meet with barriers. Public libraries, “whatever their merits, cannot pretend to offer adequate support at the level of higher education.”2 Collections are developed for a general readership, and will have little value for students in a specific discipline. A common solution to this problem is the establishment of depository collections, which can be housed within the local library during a term of study, and which can be tailored to specific courses and programs. While such collections are undoubtedly better than nothing, some deem it downright “unethical” to assume that all a student’s information needs can be met by a small deposit collection, while on-campus students have access to millions of volumes.3 Another drawback to relying on local public libraries, even those supplemented by depository collections, is that many cannot be reasonably expected to have the equipment, connectivity and online resources of an academic library.

Local academic libraries certainly provide more appropriate collections for post-secondary study than public libraries, but access can be problematic: “there are much resentment when one university’s students try to use another university library on a regular basis.4 Inter-institutional agreements are required to allow non-registered students any but the most casual access to another institution’s collections and services. Licensing agreements for multi-user access to online services, already confusing enough, are even further complicated when off-site access comes into play.

Students without such access to local public or academic libraries have traditionally had to rely on the telephone and the postal or courier system for their information needs. Locating and ordering books over the telephone is time-consuming, and delivery is even more so. Items, once they arrive, may not be as useful as their bibliographic citations would make them seem, since article and book titles are often fanciful, misleading or inadequate; this inability to immediately evaluate an item’s usefulness greatly slows the research process for distance learners.

Although technology is beginning to have an effect on services to remote learners, much service is still provided by traditional means such as depository collections and books-by-mail programs. “The immediate effect of the new technologies seems to be to support these programs rather than supplant them.”5 For instance, the development of online catalogues over the last few decades has been a great boon to distance learners trying to locate resources; but it in no way addresses the problem of getting the materials, once found, to the student.

For the most part, technologies such as fax, e-mail and the World Wide Web have merely decreased the time it takes to find and retrieve resources, and have done little to increase the actual availability of resources. Despite much talk about full-text databases and digital libraries, only a small percentage of library materials are available in their entirety in electronic form. Text-digitizing initiatives such as Project Gutenberg have made thousands of “e-texts” available on the Internet, and many current journals publish in electronic form, but it may be years before smaller, older, or highly- specialized indexes and publications are digitized — if indeed they ever are at all. One concern is that the availability of current information and the convenience of full-text digital formats may deter students, both distance and on-campus, from seeking relevant older or printed information that could provide valuable context and historical perspective.

Technology does have positive applications for library services for distance learners. Electronic documents can be transmitted quickly by fax, e-mail, ftp and the World Wide Web. As well as improving the speed and seamlessness of searching for, requesting, and transmitting (in some cases) materials, it can also greatly improve bibliographic instruction opportunities for remote students. Instead of — or in addition to — the traditional means of print pathfinders, video- or audiocassettes, or brief residential requirements, librarians can now provide dynamic, interactive and tailored bibliographic instruction via the World Wide Web and e-mail.

However, technology brings pitfalls with its possibilities: it places a double cognitive load on library users who must now figure out not only how the library works but also how the library’s computer system works. In addition to the old difficulties of understanding subject headings, bibliographic citations and classification schemes, there are new difficulties of configuring one’s modem to connect to the library and downloading information to disk. Many librarians risk finding themselves acting more as technology tutors and trouble-shooters than as reference, research and library experts. There is also the pressing problem of teaching students who use the World Wide Web as their library to evaluate information critically and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Another pitfall of technology is the confusion it brings to the arena of copyright. In both Canada and the United States, librarians, educators, and students are struggling with the unresolved issues of ownership of digital media. Transmission of electronic documents is no simple matter when one must consider the legal implications of each step in the process; some commentators go so far as to predict that merely browsing documents on the World Wide Web will become a compensable act under future digital copyright legislation.

In addition to the barriers of time and distance, library services for remote students are also hindered by administrative barriers. One commentator observes that many “university libraries see off-campus work as an adjunct to their main purpose: it does not strike them as central to their mission.” He finds that attitude reflected in the staffing devoted to off-campus library services: staff “may be part-time and not be professionally qualified,” and “off-campus service may be only part of their duties.”6 Another is adamant that the existence of at least one full-time academic librarian assigned exclusively to remote services is a “vital prerequisite” for the provision of adequate services, and indeed for the provision of adequate courses and programs. “Librarians can complain with righteous justification that distance learning programmers should never have been set up without prior resorting of new library services aimed at supporting them,” he insists.7 A third agrees that the same cooperation that should exist between faculty and librarians when planning on-campus courses and programs should exist for planning off-campus courses and programs: “libraries need to be a highly visible and active partner in the planning and implementation processes….close communication between teaching faculty and librarians is essential to establish realistic expectations, and university administration must be committed to provide funding for libraries as well as for teaching.”8

Expense is another formidable barrier to the provision of remote library services: expense for both the student and the library. At the University of Alberta, students can pay an extra distance education fee of $110 per term that allows them unlimited access to document delivery, interlibrary loan, and extended reference service. Otherwise, the costs are $5 per item by document delivery and $5 per article and $15 per book by interlibrary loan. Expense is also an issue in the delivery of electronic materials: not only can the actual cost of items to the library be higher (electronic journals are frequently more expensive than their print counterparts), but expensive equipment and datelines are required at both ends of the transaction.

It is ironic that the very key to the success of initiatives such as the Electronic Library Network is also their greatest weakness: their reliance on technology. Estimates of the percentage of post-secondary students with computer access differ, but those estimates drop drastically for distance learners when one takes campus computer labs out of the equation. Whatever the improvements that technology has made to library services for distance learners, the many students without access to computers are not assisted in the least, and are in fact put at more of a disadvantage as their connected peers raise the ante for achievement. Furthermore, the effort, attention and funds going into developing electronic library services may well be drawing away from the resources going into maintaining and improving non-electronic library services for distance learners.

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