Thursday, 25 June 2009

M-Libraries 2009 - The Opening Keynote

Lorcan Dempsey gave the opening keynote for this year’s mLibraries Conference 2009 – ‘Concentration, Connection, Diffusion: Mobilizing Library Services.’ Lorcan eased us into his session through the ‘Obama’ gates starting off with a picture of a dead fly…on a more serious note, Lorcan began by highlighting how the 08/09 presidential election was a watershed for the power that social networking can harness. A result of such high profile acknowledgement is that, now, people can truly understand such technology’s (i.e. web 2.0) potential to communicate and connect people in a way unheard off prior to its rise into the ‘mainstream.’

Lorcan highlighted three key drivers for more mobile and technology-enhanced delivery within education…

Expectations – students and faculty staff have increased expectations in this field as a direct result of consumer/personal experiences with mobile technology
Consumer switch – entertainment/leisure experiences of technology are growing at a rapid rate, now overtaking those experiences in the work environment and education sector, through a greater investment and innovation
Workflow switch – ‘you need to fit into my workflow. I won’t fit into yours’ – users now expect to have delivery of learning in terms that suit their needs, not that of the education provider, including library services.

This leads one to ask, but how do our library services fit into people’s workflows? At the moment, not very well I would have to say. Furthermore, there is now a growing tension between the provisions of technology that the education sector provides and the unprecedented access people now have to technology in their personal lives. The web 2.0 boom and cheaper availability of hardware is becoming a serious issue for education as students increasingly can provide themselves with better equipment and resources than that of their institutions.

Lorcan continued by invoking that mobile communications is more about communications than about mobility. This is interesting as during the m-learning focus groups that I conducted, the students placed a massive emphasis on communication and collaboration in teaching and learning – on par with the importance of convenience and flexibility, with regards to learning, for their 21st century lifestyles. In the last few years, mobile communications has been the fastest diffusing technology ever whilst mobile technology has a resonance with the ways in which young people want to communicate. If this isn’t a huge indication of how education can cater for these learners in relevant formats, I don’t know what is…

Lorcan then moved on to discuss ‘clouds and crowds, concentration and diffusion’ or in ‘plain English’ a 21st century network, connecting people via web 2.0 tools and mobile technologies, allowing them to not only connect, but to collaborate, share, store, develop, create, publish and rework. Interestingly within this mix, Lorcan highlighted the importance of acknowledging that different mobile devices are optimised for different purposes, particularly pertinent for m-learning in education I would say!

Next, the trusty institutional web site came under fire. Lorcan spoke of how the means that an exclusive focus on the institutional web site as the primary delivery mechanism and the browser as the primary consumption environment is increasingly partial in the current technologically rich climate. Lorcan elaborated upon this point in terms of the ‘networks’ that are ever-present in the 21st century learner’s life. Atomization, attention, action-orient and aggregate are the four key characteristics of today’s learners with relation to their information seeking habits:

Atomization – they want small snippets of information, delivered to a place suitable to their needs (an RSS aggregator for example). Furthermore the ‘skimming’ culture that is on the rise across education (including faculty members) has led to metadata being viewed as an important element, as are abstracts.
Attention – they want to be able to rank and recommend, find relevant information quickly.
Action-oriented – they want to be able to find things quickly, retrieve and share sources.
Aggregate – and they want to be able to utilise multiple platforms as necessary

I think what Lorcan was trying to demonstrate was the ways in which networks have changed how we coordinate our resources to reach our goals – it is no longer a linear process, it is now, a more multi-faceted experience. However, integration of networking resources into our everyday lives is resulting in a degree of fragmentation with regards to behaviours, grades of experiences and preferred communication channels, and obviously this is something that education providers also need to consider when rolling out new ways of delivery.

To finish on a library theme, Lorcan recognised that the challenge for libraries is to make themselves invisible. In the current information and technological rich world, users want seamless access to resources delivered in formats that fit into their workflows - hence the popularity of Google amongst many student groups. Single sign-on is a must for academic libraries if they want to make sure that their students are satisfied with the functionalities of electronic access to resources – for many, access to electronic resources is long-winded and at times disjointed, with some students not understanding where they are or what they should be looking to achieve within a given search. I feel that this would further increase the libraries relevance to 21st century students thus helping them to demonstrate how they are of value in the context of growing competition for resources. Ease of access will inadvertently impact on popularity - we live in an ‘I want it now’ culture after all.

Lorcan finished by looking to the future, alluding to increasing availability of eBooks and new output methods for institutions.

Lorcan’s talk was thought provoking, and at times I would have to admit, slightly overwhelming. There is so much that needs to be done in HE at the moment to meet the expectations of current and future users. The library also, need to reassess their content, access and delivery – after a talk so ‘big’ on content, I have been left wondering, where to start with all this? It is such a huge mountain, I just hope that at LJMU we can start to successfully chip away at some of the lower-ground stuff, edging us on our way to overcome some of the massive changes to cultures and traditions of our current education system.

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