Idescat — the Catalan national statistics institute — published in late 2013, the update to the 2012 Library Statistics where it stated, among other things, that in 2012, “the number of users grew up to 4.5 million [the Catalan population is calculated to be 7.5 million], 18.3% more than two years ago”. Almost a month later, Professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin stated at the national television that “when the Internet comes, librarians lose their jobs”. This statement was later on developed with more depth in his blog post Internet, Librarians and Librarianship.
Can both statements be true at the same time? Or is someone plain wrong?
Probably the best explanation for these apparently opposing statements, and one explanation that makes them fully compatible, has to do with the present and the future of libraries.
In recent years we have been witnessing how Information and Communication Technologies turned everything upside down, especially (but not only) knowledge-intensive activities. And, among all knowledge-intensive institutions, libraries are no doubt part of the leading group. The Public Library Association explains the whole matter: an increase in the demand for library services, an increase in the use of WiFi networks, in increase in the use of library computers, an increase in training on digital skills. In short, most users are not only going to libraries asking for borrowing books — which they of course do — but they increasingly go to libraries looking for a means to gain access to the Information Society.
But not merely physical access but quality access: what in the arena of digital inclusion has ended up being called the second digital divide. That is, once physical access to infrastructures has “ceased” to be an issue, what is needed is training in digital skills, and guidance in its use. Using an extemporaneous metaphor, once one has a new car, what she then needs is a driving licence.
So, we see there is more demand. But what about staff cuts?
It turns out that, unlike many of the traditional roles of libraries, when it comes to overcoming the first (access) and second (skills) digital divide, many different actors come together to work in the later issue. Both inside and outside libraries. These new actors simply are a consequence to the change (or enlargement) of the roles of the library, a consequence that has now found competitors both in the market as in the public sector itself. A recent study by the European Commission, Measuring the Impact of eInclusion actors shows how, in addition to libraries, many other actors work in the field of e-inclusion (each one in their own way), such as telecentres, Internet cafes, some schools, fee WiFi access points, some bookstores, bars and cafes, etc.
These new actors, indeed, also often operate inside libraries: libraries many times subcontract the services of telecentres or other “cybercentres” — or their personnel’s — either for managing the public computer network or to impart training related to digital skills.
So, summing up, this is what we have so far: the growing need for digital competence does increase the use and demand for training in issues related to information management (and therefore fills libraries with people) but the diversity of functions and (new) actors means that, in the end, it take less ‘librarians’ but more ‘experts in information management and digital skills’.
Yes, some concepts are written between quotation because, most likely, they already are or will soon be the same thing. And thus we enter the topic of the future of libraries.
Empirical evidence tells us that information, the Internet, is increasingly ceasing to be a goal in itself, a differentiating factor, to become a generally purpose technology. If getting to the information ceases to be a goal to become a tool it is because it a (usually ad hoc) tool to be used “passing” in the pursuit of another task. Whatever that is: today it is practically impossible not to find a job, whatever trivial may be, that does not incorporate a greater or lesser degree of information, or of communication among peers.
Thus, beyond getting information it now becomes mandatory learning to learn and managing knowledge: it is not, again, about gaining access to information, but about taking control of the process of gaining access to information, of knowing how one got to a specific set of information so that the process can be replicated it in the future.
Finally, and related to the previous two points, access to information ceases to be the end of the way to become a starting point. Thus, the library and other e-intermediaries become open gates towards e-Government, e-Health, e-Learning… almost everything to which one can add an “e-” in front of it.
That is, information as an instrument, the quest for information as a skill, and getting to the desired piece of information to keep looking for information and be able to perform other tasks also rich in information. And begin the beguine.
Tacitly or explicitly, libraries are already moving in this direction. If we forget for a moment politeness and political correctness, we can say that libraries and the system working in the same field are already leaving behind piling up paper to focus on transferring skills so that others can pile their own information, which most likely will also not be printed. Fewer libraries, but more users.
It’s worth making a last statement about this “system working in the same field” because the formal future of libraries, especially public ones, will largely depend on (a) hot they are able to integrate the functions of the “competition” or (b) how they are able to stablish shared strategies with this competition.
If we briefly listed before telecentres, cybercafés, schools, free WiFi access points, bookshops, bars and cafes as converging actors in the field of e-intermediation, we should definitely add to this list innovation hubs, co-working spaces, fab labs, community centres and a large series of centres, places and organizations that have incorporated ICTs in their day to day and are open to the public.
This whole system — libraries included — is not only working for access but for the appropriation of technology and information management; they have make centres evolve into central meeting places where access to information is yet another tool; and they have become areas of co-creation where the expected outcome is a result of enriched information resulting from peer interaction.
The future of the library will be real if it is able to cope with these new tasks and establish a strategic dialogue with other actors. It will probably require a new institution — not necessarily with a new name — that allows talking inside the library, or cooking, or printing 3D objects or setting up a network of Raspberry Pi microcomputers connected to an array of Arduinos. Or mayble the library — especially if it is public — should lead a network of organizations with a shared strategy so that no one is excluded from this new system of e-intermediation, of access (real, quantitative) to knowledge management.
I personally I think that libraries are already at this stage. I am not so sure, though, that is is the stage where we find the ones promoting a zillion e-inclusion initiatives, the ones promoting modernizing the administration, educational technology, smart cities and a long list of projects, all of which have, in essence, the same diagnosis… but that seemingly everyone aims at healing on their own.
The European Commission is in the process of reflecting the past, present and future of telecentres or, in general, public Internet access points (PIAP) or, even in a broader sense, e-Inclusion Intermediaries (eI2).
Amongst others, there are four important issues that are guiding this reflection:
What has the impact been so far.
How has the techno-social scenario changed since they were initially born: increasing adoption of ICTs, importance of broadband, mobile Internet, etc.
How has the socio-economic scenario also changed, i.e. the economic and debt crisis in Europe.
According to the preceding points, what should be done in the future and how, that is, how public policies to foster the Information Society should be designed in matters of universal access/usage.
In this framework, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) organized an Expert Workshop on Measuring the Impact of eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: towards an impact assessment practice?, that took place in May 3-4 in Seville, Spain, and to which I was invited to participate and to contribute with a position paper.
My position paper should verse on the future of telecentres in Europe in 2020, and it was supposed to be what I call a “grounded opinion”: grounded, because it is based on both personal/professional experience and lots of readings; opinion, because, all in all, I was asked to provide my own point of view, what would I do was I to design the policy that would deal with e-Inclusion Intermediaries.
Position paper: eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: horizon 2020
State of the development of the Information Society
I believe that the development of the Information Society has come not to a dead end, but near a point of stagnation:
The industry and governments are most of the time still thinking in terms of infrastructures: how much, how are they managed, what is the regulation to bind them and what is they state of usage (usually in percent of saturation).
Users only care about a huge supply of content and services (for whatever the use) and that these run on affordable infrastructures.
This is, of course, a simplification. But a peek at what governments are measuring and what media are broadcasting gives us an idea of the tremendous bias towards the preceding aspects of the Information Society.
The problem with this scenario is that it has no future, as policies centred in infrastructures are targeting an almost non-existent problem:
In general terms, physical access is becoming a minor issue (remember: Europe 2020). It already is, especially if we do not take into account as an indicator “households with Internet access”, but “people covered by access to Internet”.
The former point is due, in part, because many last mile issues have been solved (e.g. with mobile Internet, e.g. with public Internet access points such as telecentres, libraries, cybercafes, schools and many other venues).
The supply of content and services is buoyant.
The missing gap: capacity building
On the other hand, the two growing problems remain unaddressed by public policies:
A stable share of ‘refuseniks’, that choose not to use the Internet for several reasons.
A growing share of citizens that do need digital skills and literacies that they lack or have to acquire when and if possible.
These two gaps have two main consequences:
An ICT sector which a shortage of supply in terms of highly qualified workers and human capital in general.
A quality of usage of the Internet characterized by inefficacy and inefficiency, and that many find will be (already is) the core of a second digital divide, deeper that the digital divide of access and more difficult to fix because of its (human) nature.
State of the question, the missing gap and e-Inclusion Intermediaries
How do e-Inclusion Intermediaries face the state of the question and the missing gap? In my own (grounded) opinion, either they change or they will perform badly.
Telecentres (understood as not-for-profit and for-development-aimed) will suffer from economic resources shortage, because of the economic crisis and because of Internet penetration. Cybercafes (understood as for-profit and comercially-aimed) will suffer from social sustainability shortage, because of the economic crisis (what solutions are you providing?) and also because of Internet penetration.
Most e-Inclusion Intermediaries have traditionally provided or recently began to provide services related to e-skills. The problem is that those skills are becoming much more complex than simple techonological skills and, indeed, it is a set of digital literacies and capacities that is required. Are eI2 responding to that?
In the same train of though of literacies, what we have found in our conversion from an Industrial Society to an Information Society is that we have done quite good in learning or appropriating technologies an to applying/adapting them to our usual processes. But we have definitely failed in improving most processes and socioeconomic transformation is but a good bunch of “good practices” that we all know but cannot replicate.
A forecast/proposal for e-Inclusion Intermediaries
The telecentre should become an eCentre, a centre that is not a physical place, but a reference resource that can actually be located in a specific location, or embeded within an organization. Telecentres should be insourced in other institutions: in a firm, in a civic centre, in a library, in a government, in an NGO…
Complementary to the former statement, many of the telecentre functions can and should be outsourced. There is evidence that the probability of survival of a telecentre is linked to it being part of a telecentre network: share knowledge, share resources, share contents and services. Outsourcing can take the shape of a core+franchises or a flat network. But reinventing the wheel should be forbidden.
If we believe in the insourcing/outsourcing pair, partnerships come naturally: e-Inclusion Intermediaries should complement a shared project with their added value, while other partners should be left to do the same. Partnerships with governments in the field of sheer “for development” inclusion or fostering e-government; partnerships with the private sector to leverage the expertise in the field and sell it for the sake of economic sustainability; look out for firms to be included as targets of eI2.
Of course, purity should be abandoned: no more either telecentre or cybercafe. It’s about e-Centres and it is about to provide knowledge. The function is what matters and not the means: the function is part of the mission, the means are part of the business/operating plan.
But the function is not fostering ICTs, the function is Inclusion. The ICT centre has to become a Centre-on-ICT-steroids. It is the community — the target — what matters, it is about supporting neighbourhoods, schools, entrepreneurs, living labs… not about supporting ICTs. But we do it with ICTs because we believe in its huge potential.
Bermúdez Ferran, I., Peña-López, I., Delgado Alonso, X., Merino Alcántara, M. & Laín Escandell, B. (2011). Qualificació professional: Dinamització de l’Espai TIC. Barcelona: Institut Català de les Qualificacions Professionals. [Follow the link for the Spanish Version. There is a draft version of this paper in English: ask me if you want it]
When we speak about leadership in a digital age, we use to list plenty of “new” skills that the “new” leader should have, namely: problem solving, critical thinking, team-working, etc. While I might share this or any other combination of skills that one may make up, the problem I find with this approach is that it focusses too much on the consequences and not on the cause, on trying to deal with the resulting scenario of the deep changes we are witnessing instead of trying to understand the causes behind that very same change. In other words, most lists of 21st Century Skills are symptomatic when they should be systemic.
In the following interview (in Spanish) for The Project I tried to depict what is a leader in a digital era and, by construction, what is an “Enterprise 2.0″ — a term with which I do not feel very comfortable, but that everybody seems to understand (which is what matters).
The baseline is that we have succeeded in digitizing information and communications, with two major consequences: the end of scarcity and transaction costs, and the substitution of human mind-work by machines. In this context, two main strategies arise:
The substitution of hierarchical structures by horizontal networks, which imply being able to work very differently, enabling connections.
The need to master digital skills — a complex set of — as the new landscape is digital.
In an industrial society, goods are scarce (apples are not infinite, nor are sheep or any other resource) and working with them requires transaction costs.
Hierarchies and intermediaries used to be efficient and effective ways to cut down transaction costs while working with scarce goods. Information — which was embedded in physical supports as books or brains, both of them scarce — was also scarce and costly to handle. Thus, decision making had to be centralized: only the one on top would be able to have all the information necessary to make an informed decision.
When we digitize our inputs (information), the way we apply labour (knowledge), capital (computers), and our output (information and/or knowledge), goods become non-scarce (as material goods used to be) and dealing with them (storage, “handling”, transformation, distribution, etc.) becomes costless.
The hierarchical architecture becomes now a burden: information has to artificially circulate along the chain of command, infringing an added cost in matters of time and, sometimes, matter. When information is abundant and transaction costs are few, networks are more effective and efficient than hierarchies. That is a fact.
In a digital society, the good leader is the one that enables the network to be, to run smoothly, to create connections between all the nodes, to shift the process of decision making to the nearest and most appropriate node, more likely to be much more knowledgeable about a specific matter than any other node in the network.
Not only understanding that the network is the new architecture is what is needed, but also being able to live in it. And as networks are boosted by digital technologies, a collection of digital competences apply.
A typical question that usually comes at this point is whether firms should be on social networking sites. In an interview (also in Spanish) entitled Redes sociales: ¿oportunidad u obligación? (Social networking sites: opportunity or obligation?) I talked about this.
The main points of the interview are the following four:
Living in the social networking sites is both a problem and a requisite of the “new times”. On the one hand, as social animals, we have to acknowledge that social networking sites are boosting our social potential: committing with a cause, hanging out with friends or engaging in collaborative work are much more easy when gone digital. On the other hand, if we are knowledge workers (and we increasingly are), social networking sites are tools which usage we should master.
Digital technologies are becoming general purpose technologies. This means that each and every aspect of our lives will be affected and transformed by digital technologies. And now that we just added the “social layer” onto the Internet, we will never more be able to tell a social networking site from the “rest of” the Internet and vice versa.
This is a change of era, not a collection of small changes. Institutions will be radically transformed as will be the concept of citizen (or worker, in the context of businesses).
Thus, we have to acknowledge and understand those changes. And we have to acquire the necessary (digital) skills to deal with the new scenario that is unfolding before our eyes.
Explaining these concepts with a single example (that is, all the concepts using the very same example for all of them) is not always easy, so you end up using different examples with each category or concept. Today I just found that single example that can be used to explain all of them.
This tweet seems coded by the Enigma encryption machine. Decoding it definitely requires much more than what the usual definition of digital literacy implies, but a complex set of skills or competences as the one described above:
Technological literacy: Easy at it may seem at first sight, many people just do not get how twitter works. It is as simple to operate (“just a 140 car. message”) as complex to understand how it works as a whole. Add to this that you have to be following either @brlamb or any of the hashtags to be able to notice the new tweet. And that you can follow them in several different ways, including different technologies, platforms and devices. Definitely, not that easy.
Informational literacy: There are three kinds of links in Brian Lamb’s tweet. At least two of them feature “strange” signs (@ and #) and the other one looks (or maybe does not) like your usual link, but lacking the http:// part (not to speak about the www.). Informational literacy is about telling the difference from those different links, what do they mean and where do they head towards if one clicks onto them. Informational literacy is about being able to find out that @grantpotter and @cogdog are two people (that’s more or less obvious once you’ve clicked on the respective links), that #ds016radio is the free streaming station used for the Digital Storytelling MOOC course, and that #etug refers to the Educational Technology Users Group Spring 2011 Workshop. Easy to find out for the experienced user, those last two do require an effort for the unexperienced one.
Media Literacy: The tweet is accompanied by an image. Its meaning is absolutely related to the information gathered in the tweet (as one would expect) and so it completes the message. Nevertheless, media literacy is not about the image, but about the crossmedia and crossplatform factors implied by that tweet. The actual message is that for you to get the whole piece of information you have to browse at least 4 websites (Twitter, with information about the profiles and the hashtag timelines; the course, the radio station and the event website) and then you have to tune in yet another device to listen to the actual radio. Indeed, the word “simulcast” already warns you that it will be much more complex than opening a book, sitting and reading. Add to this that you can add your soundcraft to #ds106 radio, by using DROPitTOme, a way to operate Dropbox. Oh, and yes, the image was uploaded to a companion service to Twitter, yfrog. Let us acknowledge that this cloud computing thing is a complex one to say the least.
Digital presence: It is very different identifying who the author or who the people mentioned in of the tweet are, from knowing what is their relationship and what is the meaning of them being together doing what is told in the message. But, more important than that, is what will imply for you being related with them. Answering or retweeting Brian Lamb’s message will tell everyone that you are interested in instructional technology. Following Brian would reinforce that message, and being followed back by him and/or other people from his closest professional network can end up implying the fact that you indeed agree with the ideas that this network more or less share: educational resources should be open, learning should strongly be based on building (constructivism) and remixing and working with your peers (connectivism), education has a way out of institutions (edupunk), and so [by the way, my apologies for the simplifications]. There are many messages whose information is about who you are rather than a transmission of rough data.
e-awareness: Taken at a systemic level, Brian Lamb’s tweet talks about very important things. We have just mentioned connectivism or edupunk. But implicit in the message’s 126 characters is the understanding of what is a massive open online course (MOOC) or how an amplified event works. Full understanding of the tweet requires awareness on how information and communication technologies are (or are potentially) changing the landscape of education, how the educational system and educational institutions are being threatened on their very same core and foundations, how the roles of teachers are (or should be) shifting from lecturers to mentors, etc. E-Awareness is about knowing the systemic and strategic implications of living in a knowledge society; and, implicitly, that tweet is talking just about that.
Now, those are 126 characters charged with meaning. If a single simple tweet requires so much digital competence, what is needed for living your daily live at full throttle? What for the exercise of democracy and citizen participation? What for health? What for education? What for love and friendship?
During the 250 years of our industrial society, capital owners (capitalists) have been the ones that have ruled the world, the ones that are in power.
Our democratic system is shaped according to this industrial society and its power relationships.
In the upcoming knowledge society, the ones that will be able to manage cleverly knowledge by means of digital tools (digerati) are likely to have a higher share or power in all the aspects of life, especially the government (goverati).
We need to work to make access to knowledge as widespread as possible — access to infrastructures, digital competences, effective usage — so to avoid replacing the existing plutocracy with a new e-aristocracy.
The monograph aims at giving an comprehensive overview to the topic of the Digital Divide, from infrastructures to the more philosophic concepts, and from mere access to impact, always related to Education and, most especially (though not exclusively) to Higher Education. Following are the abstracts and links to the full text articles. The introduction is not (only) your usual introduction, but also a sort of a roadmap that wants to explain the structure and rationale behind the monograph. Enjoy your reading and don’t stop you from sending your feedback to the authors. Last, but not least, I want to thank Matti Tedre, Fredrick Ngumbuke, Jyri Kemppainen, Neil Selwyn, Jonatan Castaño-Muñoz (and other persons that at last could not make it) for their support and contribution to this project. I cannot but also thank Elsa Corominas for her tireless editing effort, and Michael van Laake and Shirley Burgess for their empathy and understanding when reviewing and translating the manuscripts. Thank you all.
Framing the Digital Divide in Higher Education (Introduction) Ismael Peña-López
This is the introductory article to the monograph “Redefining the Digital Divide in Higher Education”. The article describes a comprehensive approach to the phenomenon of the digital divide and digital access, based on Marc Raboy and Mark Warschauer’s research. This approach depicts the evolution from mere physical access to effective use of information and communication technologies in the field of higher education. Within this framework, the articles in the monograph are presented highlighting their role in contributing to a comprehensive approach and reflection on the digital divide in Higher Education.
Infrastructure, Human Capacity, and High Hopes: A Decade of Development of e-Learning in a Tanzanian HEI Matti Tedre, Fredrick Ngumbuke, Jyri Kemppainen
Tumaini University, Iringa University College in Tanzania began to develop technology-enhanced learning in 1999. At the beginning of the process, the college had no public computer laboratories. The e-learning capacity was gradually developed over the following 11 years: computer laboratories, a local area network, an electronic library collection, a dedicated IT support department, Internet connections, electronic presentations, a B.Sc. program in IT, video lectures, and online learning. In this article, we analyse the complex network of challenges that we faced during the development process. We discuss technical issues with ICT equipment, system administration, and networks, and we analyse socio-cultural issues with training, funding, and pedagogy.
From Laptops to Competences: Bridging the Digital Divide in Education Ismael Peña-López
Most of the existing literature that deals with the digital divide in the educational system focuses either on schools or universities, but rarely do we see a vertical approach where the system is considered as a whole. In this paper we relate initiatives that aim to bridge the digital divide in the current situation in higher education. We discuss why policies that focus on infrastructures (e.g. laptops) are not the answer, as they mostly leave digital competences unattended, leading to (or not helping to amend) the digital void in universities in matters of skills. We end by proposing a general framework to define digital skills so that they are included in syllabuses at all stages of the educational path.
Degrees of Digital Division: Reconsidering Digital Inequalities and Contemporary Higher Education Neil Selwyn
Whilst many authors are now confident to dismiss the notion of the digital divide, this paper argues that inequalities in ICT use in contemporary higher education are of growing rather than diminishing importance. In particular, it argues that there is an urgent need for the higher education community to develop more sophisticated understandings of the nature of the digital divisions that exist within current cohorts of university students – not least inequalities of ‘effective’ use of ICT to access information and knowledge. With these thoughts in mind, the paper presents a review of recent research and theoretical work in the area of digital exclusion and the digital divide, and considers a number of reasons why digital exclusion remains a complex and entrenched social problem within populations of higher education students.
Digital Inequality Among University Students in Developed Countries and its Relation to Academic Performance Jonatan Castaño-Muñoz
Research on the digital divide has shown that it is important to study more than just the differences between those who do or do not have Internet access. Other dimensions that should currently be studied are: Internet skills, time spent on the Internet and, in particular, the use people make of the Internet. For each of these it is important to study the determinants and social consequences. In this paper we first present an overview of these dimensions and their determinants, and secondly analyse the influence of the dimensions with respect to the academic performance of university students. The analysed data, in agreement with international research, demonstrate that a) the effects of the Internet on academic performance are not direct, but mediated by variables and, b) the positive effects of the Internet are more pronounced in those students whose background is already more favourable for achieving better academic results without using the Internet, in agreement with the knowldege gap hypothesis.
I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. Since november 2013 I am on a partial leave to join Open Evidence as a senior researcher and analyst. I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.