VIRAK 2017: Day 1 – panel debate and keynote

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VIRAK-logo: virak-konferansen.no

[I must apologize for bad spelling etc. in this blogpost. I wrote my notes in Norwegian, and I have just translated and added some thoughts along the way. I`ll proof later.]

The panel:

After being welcomed by a couple of drummers and Eystein Gullbekk from the committee, the first order of business was a panel on the academic library`s place and role in higher education. The panel consisted of the rectors/presidents of the University of Oslo (UIO), Oslo and Akershus University College (HIOA)(?) and BI Norwegian Business School (BI). The debate was led by the library director of HIOA, Lars Egeland.

The panelists held some similar views on the importance of libraries (anything else would have been a little weird considering the audience), but they differed on many of the other «essentials». A point that was made was that libraries have to keep up, but they have to do more than that. They have to understand their students – their habits, pursuits, ambitions etc. But to do that, they have to be given that opportunity, too. This came from Ottersen at UIO.

Libraries have to be a part of the overall strategy and to be included in the leadership of the school. The library should be a seamless part and so well integrated in the rest of the academic communities at each institution, that nobody should perceive it as a separate body, said Henjesand from BI. He continued that the library should be a part of the academic fold and as such in the same body as the deans (YAY!). When you place the library with the rest of the academics/ faculties, you move the discussion from the administrative questions of economic efficiency toward questions of academic development, he continued (Hey – I`m a fan of this guy already).

Ottersen said that the university have three main priorities: 1. to create a great study environment for students, 2. to make information freely available to students and staff as well as the rest of the world and 3. to help create a “common reality”, and the library has to be a strong partner in this. We should to be thinking: What is important for the university, not what is important for the library. (I wholeheartedly agree.)

Ottersen strongly emphasised the need for physical space for the libraries. He said that people often need to come together to learn. We think better together. And events like «Skrivenatt» (where students can sit in the library at night and receive help from tutors and librarians) is just one example that shows how students come together and learn in the library. Henjesand agreed – when asked: «Do we need physical libraries?» his answer was: “The short answer is YES”. Curt Rice from HIOA seemed less certain that libraries need a physical space when so much has become digital. He said that HIOA has a decentralized library structure, and that he has not heard any persuasive arguments to bring these together in one great building. (I thought that I had missed something more here, but when I looked at the recording, there wasn`t anything more said here, so I didn`t get whether he just felt that libraries are not going to need physical space at all, if he felt that it was more important to have small units in a decentralised way, or if he just didn`t like the idea of using a lot of space for a centralised library. I don`t know..)

The discussion moved on to Open Access, and Curt Rice was more active in this discussion. He strongly advocated the need for publishing open access and self-archiving. While I think all three panelists agreed that open access is a good idea (indeed, who could not?), they disagreed on who should take the responsibility for driving the development, and they disagreed on the means that should be taken. Academic freedom is the most important principle we have, so we cannot push our researchers to publish in certain journals or «bully» them into self-archiving. Should we make national guidelines? Involve the politicians? Push for international rules/ laws? Work on the publishers? Negotiate national licences? Many difficult questions here. We cannot underestimate the power that these publishers have, said Rice, and even being leaned on by the EU and North America has not decreased the profit margins of the publishers.

The library has a responsibility to help the students develop their critical thinking skills so that they are able to fight fake news and myths, said Ottersen. Henjesand strongly supported this. Ottersen mentioned Hans Rosling who was a major player in fighting myths, and Ottersen said that libraries are crucial in this work. He mentioned specifically Realfagsbiblioteket (The Science Library at the University of Oslo) and its podcasts. Critical thinking should be a separate, mandatory course or a part of a modern version of ex.phil. [mandatory philosophy course in most universities today], said Rice and Henjesand.

Henjesand said that libraries will play an important role in organizing and keeping track of the learning objects now that there are so many «new» (ok, seriously.. we have to stop calling blended learning and flipped classroom new. They`re not.) teaching methods. Curt Rice said that the library students at HIOA are being trained to handle digital materials, and that they are more than able to take on new roles as they emerge. Well, there I have to disagree somewhat with him. They do not have the necessary skills and competencies to do this without further education and experience. Most of them need mentoring when they get a job.

It was an exiting panel to watch – for a change. There was real debate on issues, and they dared to disagree with each other. Quite fresh, really. I must say though, that I was a little surprised. I think Curt Rice, whom I normally think well prepared, able to see nuance, and quite forward thinking, was rather «weak» in this panel, on other issues than Open Access. His arguments lacked his usual edge, he seemed tired and uninterested most of the time, and worst of all – he seemed to hold old-fashioned and limiting views of the library`s role. (I will give him a notice of having written this, btw.) Maybe he had a bad day? I was so surprised, because, as I said, I have always thought he had very interesting ideas on this field before. (Sorry that I am being so hard on you, Mr. Rice, but I don`t think that many people ever read this blog anyway..). Henjesand and Ottersen impressed me in different ways. Ottersen seemed perhaps to lean towards idealistic views of the library while Henjesand had more pragmatic views, but they both impressed me by being well prepared, and willing to share their opinions. Ottersen had written a blog post, too. Read it:)

The keynote:

Arnoud De Meyer: An evolving role for libraries in 21st century university

After the very interesting panel debate, the keynote was a little less interesting, to be honest. I almost never have high expectations to keynotes (excepting Tara Brabazon`s – she is such a rockstar that it`s impossible not to be impressed – more on that to come). The reason is that keynotes rarely hit the mark, and it`s a difficult job to do. It`s difficult to find something so general that it will give something to everyone, and still something as recognizable and important that everyone will find it interesting, and something so practical that there is something to take away from it.

While this keynote speaker was charming, and obviously well-read, and well prepared, I never got that «wow»- feeling of hearing an entirely new thought or getting a great idea myself. The keynote was.. well.. safe (lacking a better expression). There was nothing new there. Arnold De Meyer talked about the changes that higher education, as well as the rest of the world, has been through. The digital transformation, the geographical transformation, the changing role of technology and he asked the question «Do millennial behave differently?».

Professor De Meyer talked about how «reskilling” people is a big issue now. People change careers several times in their life now, and they have to come back to university. This is one of the things that points towards the need for a new university system, he said.

It`s all about how we can enhance learning, and not talk about teaching as much, De Meyer said. In earlier times, the students could  go to a lecture and then either sleep or pay attention, and then when the bell rang, they left the teacher behind. Presently, there are lots of diversions for the students, so it`s harder to keep their attention, but the teacher can now follow the students. It`s not over with the lecture, because the teacher is on the LMS, and s/he chases the students around these plattforms.

De Meyer talked about the library at his university, Singapore Management University. The library is extremely well visited by students. They have almost only electronic collections, and the library is considered a social space and a learning space.

So – I may have missed some things, but I just didn`t get that much new from this keynote. I would like to hear professor De Meyer talk about his own subjects areas, though. He was an experienced lecturer and engaging, despite the format.

This must be one of the longest blog posts I have ever written. Sorry about that! I just wanted to cram both the panel debate and the keynote in here, and there was so much to process from the panel debate. Blogging is, at least for me, mostly about my own learning, so I had to spend some space here while I wrote up my notes.

Next blog post from Virak will be up soon.

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