Can Libraries Find a New Home in Courseware?

Afunny thing seems to be happening on the way to creating courseware sites for all students. Increasingly, faculty are using online learning tools to assemble in one convenient electronic place the syllabus, assignments, problem sets, and resources their students need to do the work for their courses. Resources often subsume links to relevant readings, articles, or other electronic documents and Web sites that enrich the course—a one-stop e-home for the class. Sounds great, right? But something is missing.

The largest, best organized, and most accessible information warehouse on any campus has always been the university or college library. Since the days of the Alexandria library in ancient Egypt, it has been the responsibility of librarians to select, arrange, preserve, and interpret mankind’s information store.

For those who understand its riches, the library is a joyous place, with ideas, paradoxes, and surprises around every stack.Yet in the midst of the digital revolution, the very epicenter of our collected wisdom is not only being transformed into bits, it is being dispersed as a concept.

Libraries were among the first campus organizations to embrace the introduction of technology. As early champions, they began creating electronic records of their holdings to facilitate finding and retrieving the vast amount of information they collected and maintained. Books were bar-coded and manual processes automated to increase efficiency. The cost-efficiency was obvious, but the result was unexpected.

Patrons could easily and quickly find materials first from proprietary terminals, later from any network-connected terminal emulator. What they could not do is get the content delivered to them electronically.

Similarly, libraries moved to get abstracting and index databases online, giving library users the same access to journal citations as they had to books. Initially, those resources were costly and limited to specially trained reference librarians. But as costs decreased, libraries began to make full-text databases available to more and more people. The impact was profound. As Clifford Lynch once remarked, "other than the ATM [automated teller machine], the online catalog was the first interaction that many faculty and students had with technology for information access." Of course, then came the Internet, and everything changed again. Search engines emerged that accessed full-text data, but it was now HTML-coded Web pages. Both the pages and the search engines that retrieved them were created and made available by people from all over world. The calculus of information retrieval was profoundly altered. The primary locus of information dissemination is no longer the exclusive province of the library.

Have you looked at the library resources in courseware management systems lately? Look again. There isn’t much of what you might consider "library material" there. What might library materials useful for online learning look like? Examine the richness in the offerings from the library itself and you’ll begin to get an idea.

To be fair, the reasons library resources are absent from courseware tools aren’t entirely external to the library. Libraries have traditionally operated on the assumption that there is added value for users to come through the library for services. Yet it is becoming clearer all the time that faculty and students may not find the same value proposition. Librarians can and do provide added value to students looking for material from collections as well as from the Web. But people building the courseware infrastructure, as well as the courseware modules, don’t know what services to expect—or in programming terms, to "call"—to integrate library resources, materials, or special functions into their courses.

Librarians need to think hard about what services they wish to deliver to online environments and clearly articulate how they might be accessed from courseware systems. This requires a radical shift in thinking because "calling" a resource says nothing about the behavior it will exhibit when it appears at its destination. Until libraries begin to think in terms of services they can offer courseware developers, it is not likely they will find a home in these tools.

It won’t necessarily be for lack of interest, though I don’t see a deep understanding of what library resources are from courseware vendors, either. Nonetheless, libraries must decide on their suite of services and define clear mechanisms by which they can be invoked in support of a learning process or in courseware environments. Doing anything less will only accelerate their disappearance from the experience of our students. That would be the least desirable of the potential future outcomes for online learning.

Moore’s Law Superceded

If you needed any more confirmation that things are moving more rapidly than ever in the world of technology note this: Intel has demonstrated CPU microprocessor performance of up to 10 GHz at room temperatures. Moore’s Law, which predicts a rough doubling of computing speed every 18 months, is starting to appear as a quaint anachronism.

What’s happening? Moore’s Law was predicated on processing speed increasing in proportion to the number of chips one could pack onto the silicon wafers making up a CPU. Recently, however, that shrinkage has gotten out of whack. Specifically, chip designers have been able to accelerate the size reduction in one particular aspect of the chip fabrication process, the distance between gates in adjacent transistors. This so-called physical gate length has shrunk in the most advanced chips to 90 nanometers. Given that an atom is about 4 nanometers wide, that’s a distance of about 360 atoms.

The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors—a group of industry manufacturers and suppliers, government organizations, and universities —predicted just two years ago that physical gate lengths would decline to 140 nanometers in 2002. The fastest Intel Pentium 4 chips currently run at 2.2 GHz, with portions of the chip zipping along at 4.4 GHz. Intel announced at the February International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco 10 MHz speeds for these CPU parts.

With processing power expanding faster than Moore’s Law, how might we use it beyond running word processors at lightening speeds? The most powerhungry applications continue to be things like speech recognition. With computational power of this magnitude, it won’t be too long b e f o r e t h e human/ computer input interface switches from digits to discourse.

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