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Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: A UK Library Perspective

Per E. Lisle

Director of Educational Resources

Newbold College, England

1 Introduction

The context in which United Kingdom higher education institutions are operating is changing. The changes are due to a variety of factors, including demographic changes, research into what constitutes effective learning, technological developments and government initiatives. These factors have triggered an increase in the size and diversity of the student body, a shift towards student-centered and resource-based curriculum delivery and the application of communications and information technologies throughout the educational process.

This paper will briefly explore some of these issues and their implications for academic libraries. My data and experience is UK based, but I suspect some of the underlying trends and challenges might be relevant in other geographical contexts.

2 A Changing Environment

There are many ways of describing the current state of affairs in British higher education. The situation is complex and a detailed description of it is outside the scope of this paper. But if I were to sum up the situation in one word, the word would be CHANGE.

2.1 The Enrolment Explosion

In 1969 there were 217,363 full-time students enrolled at universities in the United Kingdom.[1] By 1979 the figure had risen to 292,000,[2] and by 1989 to 333,547.[3] This is a healthy increase in student numbers, but it is not spectacular when compared to the enrolment explosion of the 1990s. The 1998 figure is 1,230,400[4].

Brown describes this trend as ‘the massification of the student body’. [5]

2.2 Diversification

But increase in numbers is not the only change that has taken place in the student body. Diversification is also in evidence. 25 years ago the typical university student started his studies when he was 19, had standard UK university entry qualifications (A-Levels), worked full time at his degree, paid no tuition fees and had a grant to cover living expenses.

Today more than half of all UK students are mature students, i.e. older than 21 years at the beginning of their course of study. Part-timers comprise just over a third of the student body. Students pay tuition fees, and even full-time students work considerable hours. Despite the fact that the increase in participation in higher education among socio-economic groups A to C has been double that of groups D and E,[6] the influx of students with backgrounds without a tradition for higher education has been significant.

2.3 Curriculum Delivery

There is a growing body of research into what constitutes effective learning and teaching. Some of this is beginning to impact on UK higher education curriculum delivery. Traditionally the emphasis has been on research, and the career progression of academics was almost exclusively dependent upon a good research record. A good teaching record did not count for much. Attempts at redressing this imbalance are now under way.

One methodology that has gained some favour in recent years is resource- based learning (RBL). It is probably fair to suggest that the methodology has been viewed with some scepticism in academic library circles. It has been seen as an attempt at solving the problem of large student cohorts and limited resources in academic departments by encouraging students to descend on the library. These fears may not have been entirely without foundation:

Higher education providers are increasingly turning to resource-based learning as a means of coping with the conflicting demands to produce ever higher standards of curriculum delivery when, at the same time, conditions of work for both students and staff are declining.[7]

However, resource based learning is clearly not just a cost cutting measure:

Resource-based learning refers to the achievement of both subject and information literacy skills objectives through formal and informal practice with tasks that involve information handling. As students work with varied resources to learn about topics, their problem solving experience of piecing information strands together enables them to formulate meaningful knowledge. Teachers and librarians partner to become facilitators in the learning process by providing opportunities for students to seek information and become creative problem-solvers. The end result is that a “learning culture” is fostered as a climate of active and productive learning is encouraged …

Resource-based learning involves active participation with many resources (books, journals, newspapers, multi-media, Web, community, people) where students are motivated to learn about a topic by trying to find information on it in as many ways and places as possible. Encouraging students to direct their information pursuits adds to the sense of ownership of learning, self-confidence, and reinforcement of information-gathering patterns when an information goal is achieved. Resource-based learning is student-centred and operates on the premise that students learn by doing and making meaning as individuals. This learning experience mimics real life in targeting the learner as the routine information hunter and interpreter who constructs knowledge by problem solving with information tools.[8]

It could be argued that there is nothing new in this – it is what academic libraries have always promoted. However, a practitioner of RBL in a higher education context makes the following observation:

In the olden days when one went “up” to University to “read” a subject it might be claimed that resource based learning was the major part of the learning experience but it was excruciatingly inefficient, unfocused and often took place in a rarefied atmosphere devoid of any relevance to the real world.[9]

She goes on to argue that

Gradually, through the work of a number of champions and the effective use of high quality interactive open learning material, initially in print format but also including multi-media, and the appropriate use of video, audio and HTML options, the broader term RBL has been acknowledged for what is – an extremely effective learning strategy, with emphasis on learning rather than teaching.

Some of the many benefits which are largely independent of the resource base (print, video, audio, computer etc.) include:

  • doing rather than listening or watching
  • flexibility of time, place and pace
  • “retakes” if a topic is not fully understood at the first reading
  • formative assessment available at every stage
  • greater uniformity of experience for large groups with different tutors[10]

2.4 Development in Communications and Information Technology

The technological developments of the past 10 to 15 years have had a profound impact on society in general as well as specifically on higher education. Two of the most important factors behind this are the dramatic fall in the cost of computing power and the development of the internet.

This is an area that is well documented, but it might be useful to list the major communications and information technology applications that are relevant to higher education:

  • productivity applications: word processing, spreadsheets, databases and presentation software
  • communication applications: electronic mail, bulletin boards, forums, mailing lists, chat, video conferencing
  • information retrieval applications: world wide web, bibliographic and full text databases
  • educational application: simulations, interactive packages, distance learning packages

2.5 Government Initiatives

During the 1997 parliamentary election campaign the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, Tony Blair (Labour) claimed that he had three priorities: Education, education and education. The preceding government under John Major (Conservative) also took a keen interest in education. The result of this interest has been a number of key documents that have or will have significant impact on the UK higher education scene:

· Joint Funding Councils’ Library Group, Report (The Follett Report), 1993: Report on library and information provision in higher education. Resulted in funding for major infrastructure projects.

  • Higher Education in the Learning Society (The Dearing Report), 1997: “The report sets out a vision for a world class higher education system based on high quality learning and teaching, combining rigour and economic relevance.”[11]
  • National Grid for Learning (The Government’s consultation paper), 1997: Aims at connecting every school in the UK to the internet and providing links between all learning institutions – libraries, colleges, universities, museums and galleries.
  • Learning for the Twenty-First Century: First Report of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning (The Fryer Report), 1997.
  • University for Industry: Engaging People in Learning for Life, 1998.

It is a stated objective of the UK Government to create a ‘culture of learning’. David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, puts it this way:

Learning is key to prosperity – for each of us as individuals, as well as for the nation as a whole. Investment in human capital will be the foundation of success in the knowledge-based global economy of the twenty-first century. This is why the Government has put learning at the heart of its ambition. … The fostering of an enquiring mind and the love of learning are essential to our future success.[12]

3 Implications for Higher Education Libraries and Librarians

There are more students in UK higher education than ever before, they have a more diverse background than in previous times, a shift in teaching methods is taking place, we have seen enormous technical developments that impact upon the educational process and the Government clearly takes a keen interest in education issues. What are the implications of all this for UK academic libraries?

3.1 Library Models

In an attempt at answering this question it is useful to consider some models that describe the academic library in different ways.

3.1.1 The Collection Model

A school of thought that has been around for a long time sees the academic library primarily as a collection. The key task is to develop broader and deeper library collections. The library user is almost incidental, the long-term integrity of the collection paramount. The library is largely a repository and much effort is devoted to the development and maintenance of this repository.[13]

Fig. 2: The Academic Library as a Collection

Additions to stock

  Library collection    Users

3.1.2 The Systems Model

This model relies on general management theory and sees the academic library in terms of resource flows and processes.

Fig. 3: The Academic Library as a System

  Inputs   Processes   Outputs   Outcomes

An example to illustrate this model would be a book purchased from a book seller (input) – then catalogued (process) – lent to a user (output) – user becomes better informed (outcome).

The systems approach focuses on impacts and outcomes. It is concerned with the difference the library makes to its users. Instead of being incidental, the user becomes the centre of attention.[14]

3.1.3 The User and Information Population Model

This model relies on a number of terms that need to be defined.

• information universe = all information resources potentially available
• information population = subset of the information universe selected by a particular library
• user universe = all actual and potential users
• user population = actual eligible library users at any one time

Fig. 4: User and Information Population Model

 Information universe  Information population  Library  User population  User universe

Information universe

Information population


User population

User universe

The model sees the library as an intermediary or broker between information resources and the users. This role is an active one and the focus is on creating linkages between the individual user and the relevant information resources. Whether the library meets the user’s needs from its own collection or some other source, or whether the information is in print or in electronic form is immaterial.[15]

4 Conclusion

Les Watson, the Dean of Learning and Information Services at a large regional UK university college, makes the following observation:

In serving a learning oriented society there are clear choices for library strategy on a spectrum from reactive provider of information to pro-active provider of learning services. In addition to the lifelong learning agenda libraries are also faced with an increasing pressure to make use of information and communications technology, reduced funding, and complex issues, such as copyright, associated with electronic publishing. What all these forces indicate is that the future will not be the same as the past. Library and Information Services clearly need to develop both strategies and structures to take best advantage of future opportunities.[16]

I am not convinced that the Collection Model is able to produce the kind of library and information services that a greatly increased and increasingly diverse higher education student body needs. Nor do I believe that it lends itself to supporting modern forms of curriculum delivery like resource-based learning. It is unlikely to be flexible enough to respond to the government’s “lifelong learning” and “culture of learning” agendas, and may not exploit current communications and information technology to its full potential.

The case for collection development is, of course, still strong. Collections with breadth and depth of various degrees are still needed. But, with a few notable exceptions, a modern library collection is not there for its own sake.

Which brings us to the Systems Model. Here the focus is on impact and outcomes. The user is in focus. The local library collection is still important, but only as part of a resource mix and set of services that target the user population and their needs.

In my view it is the User and Information Population Model that is most likely to produce a type of organisation that can rise to the challenges and opportunities outlined above. In this model the academic library can become dynamic partner in the educational process – part of teaching (and research) strategies. Its role is to bring the user and the information they need together and to facilitate learning of both subject matter and transferable skills in the process.

[1] Whitaker’s Almanack 1971 (London: J Whitaker & Sons, 1970), p. 1044.

[2] Whitaker’s Almanack 1981 (London: J Whitaker & Sons, 1980), p. 366.

[3] Whitaker’s Almanack 1991 (London: J Whitaker & Sons, 1990), p. 446.

[4] Whitaker’s Almanack 2000 (London: The Stationery Office, 1999), p. 434

[5] S. Brown. “Directions in Teaching and Learning” in Relay no. 48, 1999, p.4.

[6] Department for Education and Employment. Higher Education for the 21st Century: Change in Higher Education (London: DfEE, 2000) (

[7] S. Brown and B. Smith. Introducing Resources for Learning, in S. Brown and B. Smith. Resource-Based Learning (London: Kogan Page, 1996), p. 1 – 9.

[8] Benefits of Resource-Based Learning (

[9] S. Robertson. A Pragmatic Look at Some of the Issues Faced by Those Who Seek to Produce and Deliver Resource Based Learning (RBL) in Higher Education (

[10] S. Robertson. A Pragmatic Look at Some of the Issues Faced by Those Who Seek to Produce and Deliver Resource Based Learning (RBL) in Higher Education (

[11] Department for Education and Employment. Higher Education for the 21st Century: The National Committee of Inquiry’s Report (London: DfEE, 2000) (

[12] Department for Education and Employment. The Learning Age: a Renaissance for a New Britain (London: DfEE, 1998), p. 7.

[13] P. Brophy. The Academic Library (London: Library Association Publishing, 2000), p. 42-43.

[14] Brophy, p. 43.

[15] Brophy, p. 45

[16] L. Watson. “Partnerships for Learning at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education” in Relay no. 48, 1999, p.10. (Emphasis supplied.)

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