Rob Green talks to the Open University’s library chief Rosie Jones about the library’s role in the OU’s transformation, acting as a conduit for digital capabilities and building a sense of community
in the digital learning space.
“Part-time higher education is not an easy market anymore,” says Rosie Jones, Director of Library Services at the Open University (OU). She points to a well-publicised fall in part-time learners in England, and at the OU’s own plans to save more than £100m from its annual budget.
Those plans are part of the biggest transformation in the OU’s history and the majority of the savings will be reinvested to support the student experience – where the library will play a crucial role.
“Whilst we are having to review every aspect of our operations, there is a really positive element to all of this: the transformation we are aiming for will create a world-leading digital student experience resulting in a sustainable model for our university.
“We are Europe’s largest university, leaders in digital provision, and we are leaders in online digital library delivery – the sector has always looked up to us. But we have been at the forefront for a long while and what we need to do is transform for the next stage of our journey.”
Despite falling student numbers, the OU is still easily the largest academic institution in the UK with over 170,000 students enrolled on courses. The focus on distance learning has brought its own challenges, as well as opportunities to reach deeper into society than many bricks and mortar universities
Forging its own path
This distinction has forced the OU to be innovative in its approaches. When it was created in 1969, there were no leaders to follow – instead the OU had to forge its own path. With the recently announced Students First Transformation, it is building on those roots as an innovator.
For Rosie and the library service, that means leading the university’s digital capability work – alongside its core services to students and faculty.
Rosie says: “Libraries are uniquely positioned. As regards digital capabilities, our initial work is focusing on staff at the university rather than the students themselves. We believe that improving the digital capabilities of staff will have an enormous impact on our student experience. The library will be acting as a conduit for digital capabilities; there are numerous teams across the OU who provide staff development in this area but we will bring this together to ensure coverage and quality of provision.”
Rosie says that the OU’s library staff are comfortable with roles that are fluid, saying: “There is a blurred boundary between library and teaching skills and we have excellent librarians who have the relevant skills.” She adds that from a student perspective, “they don’t mind who is teaching them these skills – as long as they are taught them”.
Digital capability is about making sure people have the skills, ability and tools to work in an increasingly digital landscape. For the OU, the reliance on a digital framework to deliver its core services makes it imperative that staff and students are comfortable and confident with their own digital skills.
The role in delivering the digital capabilities strand of the OU’s transformation work is an endorsement of the value the library and its staff bring to the university.
Rosie says that the library already works closely with faculty, and reaches out to students – sometimes “too seamlessly”, in that students access library resources and services from within their module materials, meaning the library is well used but can be “invisible”. However, this connectedness, the partnerships built up over time with academic colleagues and the value placed on the library service will allow it to implement the digital capabilities work effectively.
“We have a great digital and information literacy (DIL) framework and we aim to embed our DIL in all our modules. We are part of the creation of those modules and DIL elements are included in them from the start, as early as the learning design and approval stage.”
She adds: “We have won many awards for our DIL work – some of the people working here, at the OU, are world-renowned in terms of digital literacy provision.”
Leading in digital skills
“Our digital capabilities work is about moving away from the assumption that all our students will be really capable online. There are pockets of really good practice, but there is more we can do to support them with their online journey.
“What I’d like to do is make sure that OU students are absolutely guaranteed to be ahead of the field in digital skills, so that an employer will look at them and say ‘wow, I absolutely want to employ them ahead of the competition because they are intrinsically digital’.
“We already have OU graduates who have shown that they can thrive, studying successfully remotely – that is a massive employability benefit. If we look at the direction workforces are taking – how many people are actually going to be physically sitting in an office? We have OU graduates who manage to engage and study remotely, and that is a massive tick for them.”
Inductions to the library take place online and the OU has developed its own methods of engaging with students. The library team regularly contributes to online, interactive video events. Rosie says this type of engagement is where the OU is looking to discover its unique selling point (USP) over competitors that are moving into the distance-learning sphere.
For Rosie, there is strong desire to build a new online library model to help the OU keep its place at the forefront of innovation.
She said: “There has been a shift to round the clock access to libraries. We have to identify our new set of USPs. We still have them – things like our live sessions, which we deliver like no one else. Facebook Live-type events, Student Hub live events – all of our staff are very confident on camera.
“But, it’s starting to feel like there is a catch-up happening, for example, everyone else is starting to provide online 24-hour provision.”
Sense of community
Rosie believes that the library’s traditional strength – 24-hour, remote access – has hindered its development in some areas and she is keen to address those deficiencies. She says: “We have been set up as a distance learning library, so I don’t know if we ever capitalised on what physical libraries do. What I’d like to try and capture over the next 12 months is that kind of community element of a library.”
She looks back at her time in the North West and cites examples where the library space – safe and trusted – has been just as important to students as the resources it holds. The sense of community, being able to connect with others directly, and the emotional support that can bring, is something she would like to replicate at the OU.
She says: “I want to build that sense of belonging and place, which is very difficult to do when you have 170,000 students. It’s a crazily epic task, but what I’d like us to become is a digital social space for students that feels like a home. I think that is where we are trying to compete at the moment.”
Rosie has some ideas about how to achieve that, but is keeping the details secret for the time being. But she says: “If you think of a physical library, students go to them in between lectures. If they have a deadline they are there at 3am. They are not going there purely for the resources, but they do not come to us in an online library the same way. They might be engaging with us and our training sessions, but they are not hanging around in our space. There is the work element of going to the library, but they are usually also an important social and community space and we need to think about that as a service.
“If we can get that right in an online environment, then others will look to us for a model, which is exciting.”
Risk is encouraged
The way technology is used by the OU sets it apart from its competitors and so there is a tendency not to reveal too much until a product is launched. It also allows solutions to be tested, developed and perfected – or rejected.
In fact, rejection is not necessarily a bad thing and failure is embraced. A review of working practices at the OU has led to a culture where risk is encouraged, and failure is seen as an opportunity to learn.
The notion of the OU as an innovator is a key driver – staff are encouraged to take responsibility and to explore new ways of working. A budget is in place to allow for experimentation and open communication is in place, helping senior managers understand where there is potential and to be kept informed when things are not working. The library is no different and Rosie says: “My staff know that they can try things out and as long as I get some early warning if things are going wrong, then that’s fine by me. It does feel like a massive cultural shift.”
New ways of learning
Rosie recognises that while the OU has been seen as a leader in the world of digital library services, there are now opportunities for the sector to share knowledge in more meaningful ways. The OU is involved in conversations with other university libraries through a range of formal and informal networks and forums.
However, she feels that as libraries move farther from physical-only services, there is a need to reflect that at the OU.
For a long time the OU has been “out on a limb”, with its focus on remote access to resources. However, that is increasingly now the norm, yet there is still a bias in the sector towards the physical.
“I think a lot of libraries are still very wedded to the notion of the physical library. I’m guilty of it too,” says Rosie, “all my background is physical libraries. I think we need to flip that round and think about these new libraries and these new ways of learning.”
What proves value?
One area where there is scope for improvement across the board is metrics and use data. There is a wealth of data available, but it does not always provide answers to the questions being asked about how services are used, how value is demonstrated and what future needs may be.
Traditional metrics – footfall, book issues, etc. – are even less relevant in a digital age where resources are held remotely and people have no need to enter a building.
This has been the case for the OU since its inception – it has a physical library space on its Milton Keynes campus, but despite being open for more than a decade it still looks brand new because so few people actually need to visit it.
Rosie says: “It’s quite difficult for a library like mine. My library doesn’t have a large number of physical seats, so the stats we give back don’t compare well to other libraries. The worth of my library is not in those physical attributes necessarily.
“We could benefit as a profession if we can develop new metrics. The OU library is majorly engaged with any new learning analytics initiatives that emerge. We are doing what we can to embed that across the university agenda.
“We are also working to discover what proves value, what proves worth. I think we have a harder task, to do that as a distance-learning library, but if we could lead on that then we can feed it back into the profession, and others will benefit.”
With the OU’s 50th anniversary approaching there is sense of change and renewal. For the library that means more of the same – leadership, innovation and services that support students, staff and researchers.