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Number: 71
Year: 2002
Author: Johann Van Reenen, Editor
Title: Digital Libraries and Virtual Workplaces. Important Initiatives for Latin America in the Information Age

Basic concepts

      In order to recreate the traditional coupling between schools/universities and libraries, some important aspects of these institutions and their digital emulation must be considered. This integration requires that characteristics from libraries and from educational systems be present, as well as all the administrative supporting functions for both. The characteristics relating to both distance education and digital libraries are:

      1. A library holds items that contain information like books, maps, magazines, etc. These items are the building blocks in the process of transforming information into knowledge during the learning process.

      In order to add items to a school/university library, faculty suggest the titles but the process of acquisition, technical processing, and so forth, are performed by the library staff. This assures the correct identification and storage of items. Faculty and students use the items once they are properly placed on the shelves. If the same principle is used in the digital library of a distance education system, the digital library is the support for courseware. In such a situation, library users can access the items and faculty members, other than the author, can use them in their courses. In both cases it is necessary to resolve issues regarding authors’ rights.

      In the case of distance education, if courseware were stored in the professors’ folders, searching and retrieving as well as sharing would be a difficult task.

      2. The items in the collection are represented by entities that allow them to be searched and retrieved; they are the catalog records of the items.

      This discipline is a part of library routine because libraries devote their efforts to make information available to their users. Since they deal with large numbers of items in all areas of knowledge, if representation of items did not exist, it would be very difficult for users to find the items they need. In the distance education environment, when the number of courses is large, there are many faculty members involved in the activities and the number of students may be large too. With many items and many users, it is necessary to identify items so they can be searched and retrieved in the digital library.

      3. The items in digital format can belong to the digital library of the institution offering the courses or to the digital library of any other institution, yielding a cooperative situation.

      Since the Internet connects machines all over the world, the learning objects can be stored in any other digital library belonging to an associate or partner institution. This function was addressed in the IMS Specifications (IMS Design Requirements 1997).

      4. Non-digital items can only have their location information (catalog records) in the digital library. This is what happens in a traditional automated library situation.

      The digital library can host the information concerning the catalog record of the physical item to help the users in finding it in the traditional library. The call number or a database identification code can be the link between the digital library and the automated library system. One situation that may require this feature is a digital library of theses and dissertations (ETD’s – Electronic Theses and Dissertations, see chapter 5), when the university has both the paper and the online electronic versions.

      5. Both digital and non-digital items are cataloged in the digital library so that search and retrieval mechanisms can be implemented to provide in-depth access.

      The integration of both catalogs helps search and retrieval. The example of ETD’s can be mentioned again.

      6. Items in the digital library may occur in different electronic formats though the contents may be the same. For example, text material can be delivered in two ways; one in hypertext (with animations, interactive exercises, etc.) for online use and the other in regular text for printing and offline study.

      It is important that the two concepts be clearly understood because the first (content) identifies the logical attributes of the item while the second its physical implementation (instance). Access, control and sharing levels can be attributes of the instances to give the authors a more suitable control of their intellectual property.

      7. Electronic items can be made available outside the course environment similar to books and reference materials in the university library. The digital library manages this situation.

      This is a characteristic that allow students and faculty to use the distance education system not only for specific courseware or to take courses online, but to access information at large.

      8. The combination of the items in the digital library yields the reference material or the courseware to teach a course or a subject, even items that were exclusively developed for learning purposes can be managed by the digital library.

      It is interesting to note that an item can be part of a course for some but a reference to others. Thus, having all the learning objects in the digital library facilitates all user needs.

      Besides managing digital items, the digital library supports integration with other digital repositories through network connections making its functions more versatile than those of traditional libraries. The use of the digital library items and functions for courses is related to the following aspects:

      9. The teacher of the course selects the items to be used through programs available to do so. Additional topics can be requested from authors or produced by the teacher, as an author.

      The teacher can search the library for items to be used according to the specific needs of the course. Applications developed for the faculty allow him/her to add the object(s) to the courseware. Actually, the object identifications are added to database tables that hold the courseware. The objects are not moved only pointed to by programs for different purposes.

      10. Each course environment allows nonhierarchical and nonlinear connections to other learning environments (other courses, the digital library, etc.).

      The use of HTML allows these connections from courseware to courseware or to other learning environments.

      11. Each course environment allows connections to other sites so that the contents are not limited to the local repositories or to the items chosen by the teacher.

      Besides the possibility mentioned in item 10, the digital library can display information regarding selected sites, other libraries, other digital libraries, online periodicals, etc. The connections need not to be restricted to learning environments but may include other repositories of knowledge, from museums to research organizations.

      The integration of the digital library into a distance learning environment requires additional functionality to satisfy characteristics of the learning-teaching process:

      12. The process of teaching/learning is complemented by communication facilities for both synchronous and asynchronous situations.

      Since students and faculty seldom have the chance to meet face-to-face in distance education situations and remembering that the educational process requires interaction among all involved parties (students, students and faculty, and faculty members), communication tools must be available. ICT allows the implementation of both synchronous and asynchronous communication. It can be used for courses and for general communication.

      13. Bulletin boards are available to communicate with all users or sets of users belonging to specific classes (students of a course, teachers of a department, etc.).

      This is an additional way of communicating and it is structured - users expect special types of information in specific bulletin boards. The bulletin boards can be programmed so that only authorized persons can send notices to be posted.

      14. All the activities related to teaching/learning and library information are supported by a set of administrative systems that have functions for admissions and registration, assessment, technical processing of items, managerial information, etc. These systems should be compatible with the legacy administrative system of the institution and allow the identification of users, courses and items from different institutions.

      This is another of the items in the previously mentioned IMS Specifications. It is necessary because the users require access to all types of information in a single system and also because legacy systems are a fact and must be taken into consideration.

      All the functions to be implemented must focus on the digital extensions of the corresponding traditional ones of libraries and schools, and must be in accordance with the practices of these communities, at least initially.

      Implementations in electronic formats require functions that protect intellectual property rights (Gladney 1999) since courseware is available in ways that are easily copied and distributed. Electronic data is easily copied and the Internet is a fantastic distribution network. For this reason, additional characteristics of electronic implementations must be considered. These characteristics are:

      15. Authors have the right to decide if the contents they create are to be made public or accessed under different types of control.

      The system to support the digital library must offer different levels of access control so that the author may choose the type of public to retrieve the items.

      16. Authors have the right to decide if the contents they create can be used in couses they are not teaching.

      As before, the system must have the ability to allow different levels of sharing among authors, other faculty members and students.

      When we think of digital objects as educational tools, we can state that:

      17. They can be divided into parts that have an educational purpose, in the same way a book is divided into chapters, each one covering a specific topic.

      This characteristic comes from the observation that many books have chapters in common. A good example is a chapter on Laplace Transforms that is a topic in books in Circuit Theory, Signals, etc. Though the objectives of the books are different, the chapters on Laplace Transforms have the same objective, i.e., to teach Laplace Transforms.

      18. There is no need to nor is it appropriate to duplicate an instance of a content. An instance of a content should  exist only once and be stored in the digital library.

      It is a well known fact that duplication yields more use of storage space and also leads to problems of data integrity, not to mention more updating work and time.

      19. A content can be used in different courses.

      As mentioned previously, many topics are present in many books and also are taught in different courses. Laplace Transforms are a good example again. Many Math topics fall into this category.

      20. Contents are entities with characteristics which are inherent to them (their attributes) and not to the courses that use them.

      Though many topics can and should be taught taking into account specific examples, in general, they have a core that is independent of the application. This is the reason they can be shared among courses.