Alice Duijser, Managing Director for EMEA, VitalSouce

The dynamic UK higher education sector is experiencing a period of change.

Institutions have greater international competition for students, academics and funding streams, as well as much greater scrutiny on the value for money they deliver. In turn, students want to ensure that the skills they acquire at university will ensure future employability.

In line with this is a shift in the behaviours of the modern student. They are more accustomed to digitalised learning and universities are adapting the way they provide learning materials to better suit the needs of this modern cohort.

As demands on the modern university continue to evolve, so too do the responsibilities and opportunities for the academic librarian.

In this article, we will explore how some of the fundamental shifts occurring in HE today impact librarians and their institutions.

The multifaceted role of the librarian

Traditionally the role of the librarian has been focused on two key areas:

  1. Primarily, librarians are seen as guides for students accessing the library: introducing them to a new way of working, and to a learning environment that is often removed from what they experienced at sixth form or college.
  2. In addition, they have traditionally served as the curators of the materials within university libraries, working with publishers to ensure students can access the resources they need, at a budget which suits the university’s business model.

While these fundamental aspects of the role remain unchanged, the librarian of today has also evolved into one of the most multifaceted jobs on a university campus.

From subject matter literary expert to technology consultant, the librarian’s knowledge can extend far beyond the library itself to better support the wider goals of the university.  

Contributions to the Teaching Excellence Framework

The far-reaching requirements of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a highly prominent challenge for any higher education provider. Its aim is to help students make the right choice when it comes to the university application process and improve the overall quality of universities by scrutinising performance. In order to do this, one of the areas TEF measures is Learning Gain or ‘distance travelled’ by students.

As the TEF becomes more sophisticated and embedded in the culture of universities, the role of the librarian within its framework will expand. If a key part of the TEF is to understand and assess student progress, then librarians help to provide valuable insight. They create a unique window through which the institution can understand how the student is performing and deliver them a tailored education in response to their needs, leveraging the power of data analytics.  

Lecturers may be accustomed to delivering their course materials in a traditional way. However, librarians can assist them in utilising the modern learning tools that collect data on how students engage with specific sections of text. Analytics of this kind can help teaching and learning staff to adapt to a new world where data can be used to better understand how students engage with their course materials, and ultimately provide them with a more tailored and responsive education.

Understanding the needs of the digital native

In a similar way, librarians can help students to access and use the digital learning resources available in the library. Today, as most librarians will know, universities have a large proportion of students which are ‘digital natives’, students that grew up with technology already part of their lives.

In line with this, one of the key differentiators that the digital student of today looks for, is an institution that deploys digital technology effectively. The ability to access learning cost-effectively and at their convenience is paramount.

Digital course content such as eTextbooks, play a key role in this respect, providing students and lecturers with interactive textbook tools on their devices 24/7. They cut down on the lugging around of heavy books and increase availability of key texts. eTextbooks can also present new, cost-effective business models for institutions.

Libraries can go beyond the traditional 1:1 model of providing one eTextbook per student, per course, to more flexible models like an annual leasing, concurrency and subscription models.

While students look for a university which can support their learning in a modern and flexible way, they still require support in order to take full advantage of a digital learning environment that may be new to them. Librarians therefore, no longer point students in the direction of key texts, but instead provide technological support as students make the most of these modern resources.

An expanding role for librarians

The changes taking place within universities are being driven by more scrutiny, international competition and the uptake of digital technology.

As opposed to weakening the role of the librarian, these changes will instead both shift and expand it, as librarians consult with the teaching and learning teams to best meet the needs of the students they serve.

As well as playing a crucial role in the TEF, as the guardians of access to course materials, librarians can deliver essential insights into student engagement, need and well-being using analytical tools.

This will help universities achieve their fundamental purpose: delivering their students the best possible education.

Alice Duijser, Managing Director for EMEA, VitalSouce

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