Preliminary to reading

Students often struggle to access material on reading lists. To avoid that, lecturers should talk to librarians first, says Nick Bevan

February 23, 2012



Credit: Femke De Jong


South Korea plans to digitise all its school curriculum materials by 2015. The paper textbook will be replaced by a digital equivalent. No more heavy backpacks and students can learn wherever and whenever they wish. Simple. Universities, on the other hand, are not so simple. We don't spoon-feed; we expect students to collect, sift and evaluate information from a wide range of sources. We equip our libraries with print and electronic materials. We also provide guidance to students on how to navigate core and background reading by providing them with reading lists.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, the reading list system does not work. In the National Student Survey, an all-too-common complaint from students is that "there were never enough copies of the books I needed". Each time we librarians read this we have a feeling of deja vu - compounded by the fear that next year there will be less money and the situation will be worse. It will be, of course, because this autumn students will begin to wonder why, when they pay up to £9,000 in tuition fees a year, they cannot access the books they have been told are "essential". If scientific experiments are a vital part of a course, the university will ensure access to labs - what is the difference?

There is an implicit assumption in the humanities and social sciences that the combination of teaching and directed self-study will provide students with the content required to excel in their subject. In the case of lab-based and practical subjects, the picture is more complex - but the "promise" embodied in the reading list is the same. Why, then, are we by and large resigned to a system that, from a student perspective, is typically frustrating and sometimes very stressful?

A reading list starts with the teacher drawing together the literature that encapsulates the subject. That's fine. But too often it ends there, with little or no reference to the availability of resources to support this reading list. After all, that is someone else's problem (usually the library's). So, reading lists are produced and distributed that simply cannot be funded by the institution. At worst, a reading list becomes a measure of academic virility ("mine is bigger and longer than yours!"). What is also depressing is the number of reading lists that, publication dates aside, look exactly like the one on the same topic from 30 years ago. Just books. Sometimes it seems as if the internet had never been invented and all those electronic journals (for which your library pays a fortune) have no relevance to teaching and learning.

Universities do not need to go as far as digitising all their learning materials. Technology will play a key role but it is not, in itself, the solution. The solution lies in a change in the way we do business; in a conversation that starts and ends with the student.

Of course, disciplines vary in the way they use information resources, but what is key is the alignment between what students are promised and what is delivered. We have a responsibility to get this right for our students, and we can't duck out of it by throwing our hands up in the air and blaming the library, a lack of resources or government funding. Quite simply, if we define a book or other resource as "essential", we have to ensure that every student can access it when they need it.

They may have to buy it, we may give it to them; it may be available as an e-book, or through the virtual learning environment, or on an iPad or Kindle. In some subjects, we may move away from a list of "core" material altogether and encourage students to browse a wider range of resources.

More and more of the delivery will be digital. The future is digital, there is no doubt about that, even if the timescale and route of travel are hard to predict. But digital does not mean free, particularly if the e-resources are created by commercial publishers, so to realise the full potential we need to box clever.

The first stage on the journey to ensuring that students get the resources that underpin their studies is a human one, not a digital one. So let's have that conversation - a conversation between the teacher and the librarian that starts with, "If I were a student doing this course...". We need to talk about your reading list.

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