Should universities monitor student library use?

With the link between frequent library use and higher grades confirmed, Jack Grove asks if it is time for more universities to start measuring how long students spend in the stacks

September 8, 2016
Group of men reading pile of books
Source: Rex
Card-carrying scholars: learning analytics should spur students to ‘quality engagement, not just quantity’, says expert

Admitting he was “not a regular attender of libraries” while at university, the Duke of Cambridge’s recent comments about his student days will have struck a chord with many undergraduates.

For every bookworm holed up in the university library until closing time, there are doubtless many more like Prince William – who made his revelation to students during a visit to Magdalen College, Oxford in May – who are only occasional visitors to the hushed aisles of the campus library. Some even claim to have hardly stepped foot inside the library during their studies, choosing instead to access e-books and other online study materials.

But the days of students steering clear of the library may be numbered, with a growing number of universities tracking how often students make a visit, withdraw a book or use online resources.

While some academics might view this monitoring of students’ whereabouts as intrusive, new evidence suggests that encouraging library use in this way leads to lower dropout rates and better grades.

According to a new study of the University of Wollongong’s use of library data in its learning analytics programme, there is a “positive and persistent correlation in student use of library information resources and improved academic performance outcomes as evidenced in their grades”.

That clear link between time spent in the library and degree classifications led Wollongong teaching staff to ask for information on real-time library usage by students. Coupled with attendance data, it allowed them to see how well students were engaging with their studies, says the report, What Role for Libraries in Learning Analytics?, written by Margie Jantti, the university’s director of library services, and Jennifer Heath, director of student support and education analytics, and published last month in the journal Performance Measurements and Metrics.

While several UK universities use swipe card information from library entrances as part of student engagement measures, the prospect of institutions monitoring the hours spent in the library remains some way off.

Excessive monitoring for library use may do little to increase the time students devote to private study, said Ed Foster, student engagement manager at Nottingham Trent University, whose acclaimed learning analytics system tracks library resource use, door swipes and access of the virtual learning environment (VLE) to give staff and students an overall “engagement score”.

“We want to encourage quality engagement, not just quantity," said Mr Foster, who noted that “a student could spend a lot of time in the library drinking coffee, chatting to their friends or spending time on Facebook”.

Forcing students to clock up a certain number of visits or hours in the library may also lead to inadvertent outcomes, he added.

“When we did a pilot run of our learning analytics, we had students going into the library just to swipe their cards to boost their engagement scores,” Mr Foster said.

Instead, students at Nottingham Trent are presented with a “dashboard score” of their engagement metrics, which also includes measures for attendance, coursework submission and e-book use, in relation to the average achieved by their classmates, he explained.

“We really push the idea that there is a link between engagement and academic performance, so we point out that there is a lot of evidence that those doing these activities [have] success,” Mr Foster said. “Library use is a really crucial and important part of that.”

However, while some academics may welcome the chance to see who is visiting the library or accessing online reading materials, others could see such paternalistic policing as undermining the idea of students as self-motivated and independent learners.

Independent consultant Niall Sclater, who wrote Jisc’s Code of Practice for Learning Analytics, published in June 2015, disagrees, particularly as so much electronic data on students is available.

“You could argue it is unethical for institutions not to use this type of data if they know they can help students gain higher grades or stop them from dropping out,” said Mr Sclater, who believes institutions have a “moral obligation” to use such data for the good of students.

“Most young people give away so much data to big corporations these days, so they are really unconcerned about this sort of thing,” he added.

“And unlike businesses, universities don’t want to flog students anything – they just want to help them.”

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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