Virtually no books at all

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Today's college library is allcomputer screens displaying information from the Internet or stored on CD-Roms. There's hardly a conventional page to read, says Susannah Kirkman

If your image of a college library is a hushed room lined with leather tomes, staffed by faded librarians, think again. Today it is far more likely to be humming with computers and video-conferencing while the technically proficient staff guide students around the Internet.

Over the past five years there has been a revolution in what is offered. Many are now leading the way in information and learning technology (ILT) for their college - and sometimes for their local community.

At Bournemouth and Poole, the college's learning resources service (LRS) has spearheaded distance learning online. Many new resources are interactive - particularly useful for students with special needs who learn in small steps and need constant feedback. Video is also included, a great boon when boning fish is on the menu for catering students since they can now watch a videoed demonstration.

"The traditional demarcation lines between technical support, library and academic staff have got to go," insists Quinton O'Kane - once an old-style librarian, now Bournemouth's head of the LRS. "We have all had to re-invent ourselves and the rules."

"The new technology is an opportunity for library staff to redefine their role," agrees Christine Frost, manager of Bournemouth's ILT development. "The old feeling that they were not on a par with the academics is going." Mrs Frost started as a law and history lecturer, one of the first ILT "champions" to train other departments in how to produce their own courseware.

Lesley Blundell, special projects manager at Nilta, FE's technology body, says that most librarians see the Internet as a chance to broaden their careers, with the fillip of extra pay and training. Nilta is working with the Further Education Development Agency (Feda) and Fento, FE's national training organisation, to design a new qualifications structure which will offer national accreditation that will include academic librarians.

Bournemouth and Poole already has its own ILT training programme, accredited by the Open College Network. It includes using the Internet in teaching, producing courseware and supporting online distance learners. Heinke Wild, head of learning resources at City and Islington College, London, says that good Internet training is essential for librarians because many students arrive atcollege as fully-fledged Web experts.

"Students expect you to know more than they do. You will lose confidence and credibility if you have to say you don't know something," she explains. Her staff train lecturersand students in using the Internet as part of an induction course.

Increasingly, such college services are sharing their expertise with the local communities. A survey of college ILT resources by Becta, the government agency promoting technology in education, last year showed that colleges are working with public and private-sector institutions - including public libraries, workplaces, football clubs and schools - to provide learning through the Internet.

Bournemouth is producing 25 new ILT courseware titles in collaboration with local adult education services and two local schools. In return it has received pound;80,000 from the South West Regional Development Authority Collaboration Fund to set up two virtual classrooms equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and video conferencing. One classroom has been installed, with 15 Internet-linked computers, at the sixth form centre of the Martin Kemp Welch School in Poole.

Naturally there is a downside. One college has already had to expel a student for using a library computer to hack into other systems. Some librarians have complained that students are spending hours gossiping to friends online and accessing chat lines or unsuitable websites. The best deterrent is to develop a college protocol for computer and Internet use, says Lesley Blundell. This can be flashed up on screen every time a student logs on. Colleges can also edit their own filter devices to block inappropriate sites.

With an average 26 students per Internet computer, according toBecta, rationing is going to be essential. Many colleges would like an automated booking system so that librarians are not relegated to booking clerks. Alternatively, students could make their own bookings, with spot checks from library staff.

Some librarians have found it very difficult to handle the challenge of the Internet, particularly those in smaller colleges with fewer resources.

"It does worry some librarians who can see it as a loss of control," admits Meg Gain, an independent consultant. But Ms Blundell says that the technology strategies all colleges have recently submitted to Becta will show the FEFC where extra practical support is needed. From September, such support will also be available from regional centres set up by the Joint Information Systems Committee.

According to Quinton O' Kane, the greatest challenge will be getting the lecturers to embed the huge technological advances into lessons. His college now trains academic staff to use new technology in their teaching. But the most important message for librarians, he says, is to embrace change. "Instead of being a victim, go out there and chase it yourself," he urges.

Help for sixth form, page 22

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