The Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom is facing challenging times with a substantial decrease in part-time student registration due to funding changes over the last decade. It is undergoing what Peter Horrocks, the Vice-Chancellor describes as “root and branch review” of all operations. As a result of this review, a large portion of the proposed savings of up to ₤100 million is to be invested in a digital transformation program.
The OU library is a key component of the services offered to the 170,000 OU students, of whom 75% work full- or part-time. A defining characteristic of the OU is its openness at the undergraduate level to all adults, regardless of educational experience and qualifications. The library, although installed in an actual physical building, serves these students online. Many of them may never have used a computer before registering. Rosie Jones, Director of Library Services, describes the opportunity to support this exceptionally large and diverse student body with its multiple needs, as “exciting, rather than worrying.”
The library offers numerous services for staff and students to support digital teaching and learning, as well as providing leadership to a new institution-wide digital initiative.
The Students First Strategy, introduced in 2016, highlights the need to be a “fully digitally capable university”, stressing the need for broadly defined digital capabilities as a holistic approach to the skills students need. This includes the necessity for graduates to be competitive in the digital employment market. Starting in 2017, a new digital capabilities program is being co-ordinated with leadership from the library, working with the Institute of Educational Technology and other OU departments and stakeholders. The program includes support for academics to be more flexible and collaborative in materials development and able to determine which digital resources would best enhance student success. The preliminary steps in the program involve assessment of current levels of digital capabilities and analysis of available resources to support their development.
The library team actively gathers and acts on student input. Members of the volunteer library student panel (with up to 500 participants) are actively engaged in short research studies aimed at improving library services. For example, staff observed students using the web site, so bottlenecks and challenges were identified. Based on student input, the website, resource lists, training sessions, contact with the library, and other services were improved.
Engagement and Communication
The Library Student Panel is just one of the responsibilities of the Live Engagement team, which promotes online what the library offers to students around the world. Using Facebook, Twitter, online chat, and even poetry readings and a blog post on the recent solar eclipse with links to library resources, the Live Engagement team shares library news, services and developments. The library has 13,400 followers on Twitter and over 25,000 Facebook friends. The library also coordinated a university-wide response to a UK study on the phenomenon of “fake news”, with four sessions of Fake News Friday, now available on YouTube, analyzing video clips to determine what to look for to judge authenticity.
As the vast majority of OU students use the Internet to access their courses and the library, accessibility is embedded into the services. With over 20,000 students self-identified as disabled, the OU is able to lobby suppliers for improved accessibility, as Rosie Jones explains “e-books and electronic resources are not yet good enough”. Accessibility is a key criterion for selection of OU resources and a dedicated librarian works with publishers and suppliers on product improvement and with OU material development teams on resource modifications. Individual students are also helped with particular challenges related to accessibility.
Through webchat, students get responses from the helpdesk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. E-mail and phone help are also offered. A triage mechanism is used to deal with requests ranging from common, practical queries to specialized requests for research help. The goal is to make the services equally available to all, although one-on-one training is impossible due to volume. For example, Being Digital, Skills for Life Online offers podcasts, varying from 3 to 10 minutes, on more than 40 topics such as Writing a Good Tweet and Self-Assessment.
Benefits and Outcomes
The number and diversity of students, as well as the reality of being an online institution, compels the OU and its library to do things differently, to experiment and offer lessons for others to follow.
Challenges and Enhancements
In an environment marked by rapid and essential change, the challenge is to identify what to prioritize. Teams must be agile and responsive, able to remain motivated and respond to opportunities. Rosie Jones expresses the challenge – and the benefit as: “All I can guarantee is change.”
With the challenge of being Digital by Design, the potential is to flip the thinking about the library and its services. Rather than an online library that replicates as closely as possible the experience of a physical space, Rosie Jones wants to be part of imagining and developing something entirely different based on digital capabilities and student needs. This would mean changing the metrics for measuring libraries as the library would no longer fit within the traditional model.
For Further Information
Director of Library Services
The Open University
Milton Keynes, United Kingdom