Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Course Resource List Challenge: Where We Stand Now


Welcome to the second installment of our blog series on the thought-provoking 2016 paper entitled, “A global and institutional resource-list repository: a treasure trove for deriving new insights and providing innovative services”, which was published as part of the proceedings of the VALA 2016 conference. This time, we are taking a quick bird’s-eye view of the most pressing challenges in modern course resource list management.

The paper’s authors, Tamar Sadeh of the Ex Libris Group and Victoria University Librarian Janet Fletcher, noted a problematic mismatch between the needs of users – instructors, students, and librarians – and the current (lack of) efficient practices. The issues they identify can be categorized under the following themes.

Standard practices
When an academic resource list can be anything from an online, interactive, multimedia “experience” to a pile of books on a professor’s desk, the problem of standard practices is quickly evident. This is compounded by the fact that resource lists can include all manner of written, visual and digital formats, presented to students through multiple interfaces. Some of these lists are also dynamic and modified during the semester.

Bringing all types of materials together in a useful resource list often falls to the university librarians. They must be extremely creative in developing workarounds to overcome an inherent lack of a standard way of handling, displaying, and making resources available to students.

Access to lists and materials on the lists
As the type of available academic resources has proliferated, so too has the communications technology through which academics and their students interact. While “students expect a direct link to online resources and a clear path to physical ones,” Sadeh and Fletcher note, the reality is that they “need to use several systems and services to find and gain access to all course resources.” As instructors may bypass the library entirely to share list items, the maintenance of the resource list becomes more challenging, and can create logistical issues for the university.

Another issue raised by current technology is the ability to limit access to resource lists and items on these lists, as different institutions have different policies. For those that want to allow wider access or that have open online courses, considerable technological support is often needed to do so securely.  

Compliance with Copyright Regulations
What happens if an instructor emails students a PDF of an article needed for their course or personally uploads it to a learning management system? Is it a breach of copyright law? How about an excerpt from a book? And if it is only conditionally a breach, is there any way to log distribution in practice? Of course, the short answer is: it depends.

Sadeh and Fletcher note the complex copyright rules in academia and the challenges in complying with them. Many university libraries provide detailed guidelines for teaching staff and promote some form of risk mitigation policies. However, the authors observe that “academics are quite likely to find these detailed rules complicated and hard to understand.” Such rules also run the risk of being overly restrictive on the individual, as only a centralized library can coordinate copyright issues.

Usage Information
The ad-hoc nature of current practice in creating course resource lists and making them available to students obscures some of the most valuable data for maintaining a robust library collection. Librarians may not ever know of usage of the resources currently in their collection or of other resources they should urgently acquire or license. Furthermore, strategic library decisions regarding the services offered may be hit-or-miss without accurate resource usage data that identifies trends, information needs and user behavior.

Integration
Academic librarians try to take part in each stage of the lifecycle of a resource list. They can help with the creation of lists, obtain relevant materials and facilitate access to them, maintain the lists, monitor them, and coordinate the usage of items across courses. Sadeh and Fletcher note that “such lists cannot be easily created and maintained with the current workflows and the lack of integration between the various systems and services that are involved....” The current use of multiple, non-integrated software, and even hardware, leads to instructors and librarians finding their own solutions, or to in-house tools of very limited scope.

So, Is It Broken? And Can We Fix It?

The problems arising from traditional practices for the creation and use of academic resource lists can be overcome, according to Sadeh and Fletcher. Advanced technology that drives new and innovative practices, they explain, are the keys to change. Next time, we’ll delve in and see what that means in practice. 

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