Chapter 2: Users: learning and researching in the digital age – Libraries for Users


Users: learning and researching in the digital age

The new teaching-learning model in European higher education

In recent years, the notion of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) has become the conceptual framework of the new paradigm of higher education. It is simultaneously a challenge and an opportunity to change the university, and consequently the university library.

The construction of the EHEA began with the Sorbonne Joint Declaration1 on 25 May 1998, which was later endorsed by the commitment of the Ministers of Education of the European Union (EU) member states in the Bologna Declaration2 dated 19 June 1999. The ministers agreed to support policies in their respective countries to achieve the following goals:

 To adopt a degree system that was readily comprehensible and comparable in order to encourage employment and the competitiveness of the European higher education system.

 To establish a system based essentially on two main cycles: undergraduate and graduate.

 To adopt a shared credit system, called the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), as the most suitable way of promoting further mobility among students.

 To promote mobility and the free exchange of students, faculty and administrative staff by adopting recognition mechanisms.

 To promote European cooperation as a guarantee of quality.

 To promote the European dimension in higher education, particularly targeted at curriculum development, inter-institutional cooperation and the integration of training and research.

These six objectives were joined by three more contained in the Prague Communiqué3 dated 19 May 2001:

 Lifelong learning.

 The active role of universities, institutions and students in the convergence process.

 To promote the EHEA through quality systems and certification and accreditation mechanisms.

These principles were ratified at successive meetings held in Berlin4 (2003), Bergen5 (2005) and London6 (2007), and they spurred a revision of the educational systems in the different EU member states. The last summit held was in April 2009 in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve.7 This gathering reaffirmed the soundness of the Bologna Process and stressed that the Community institutions must make known the true benefits of this plan, one of whose main challenges is improving information.

This new model includes a series of key factors that distinguish it from the prevailing system. They can be summarised as follows:

 Student-centred teaching, which requires students to be trained how to learn independently.

 A teacher role that is totally unlike the traditional role, which focuses on teaching contents. The new role is that of managing students’ learning process.

 Competence-based learning.

 Changes in how learning is organised, a curricular working perspective that reinforces continuity and coordination.

 A conceptual reorganisation of the educational role of universities in order to adapt to the new models of lifelong learning (LLL).

 New functionality of teaching materials, which become resources capable of generating high-level knowledge and facilitating independent learning. Information and communication technologies are key allies on this point.

 A new approach to assessment that is integrated into the learning activities and used strategically.

 The use of ECTS credits as a tool for curriculum-building.

The use of credits that are conceptually equal throughout the entire EU will also mean the use of grades that are comparable among different systems (ECTS grades), as well as the spread of a working methodology that seeks comprehensive student education and working documents. This includes teaching guides, in which the universities provide detailed information on their degrees and services, models of certificates and the Diploma Supplement as the standardised end document that should summarise all the most important information on what the student has studied. This Diploma Supplement seeks international transparency and the deserved academic and professional recognition of degrees. The goal is to provide a description of the nature, level, context, content and rank of studies undertaken by the holder of the original degree to which the supplement is attached.

The university of the twenty-first century is facing transcendental changes that translate into a twofold opportunity which Agustín Lacruz (2008: 28) aptly describes. First, we must reflect on the role of education within the Information and Knowledge Society, as an institution that generates, transmits, promotes and communicates knowledge; in parallel, we must conscientiously analyse the contents, forms and methods of teaching and learning used to achieve its goals.

Society asks universities not only for rigorous scientific research but also for an active quest for quality teaching, and it requires faculty to approach education from a more pedagogical perspective that generates learning. There is no question that this new educational approach entails shifting from a model focused on the faculty’s teaching activities, which is grounded upon teaching and contents, to a different model focused on independent student learning and competence-based learning, a core notion in the model set forth in the EHEA.

Competence-based education has arisen from the need to go beyond the simplistic approach of teaching for instrumental qualification, that is, in order to do something better. Today’s professional needs multiple skill sets, cultures, virtues and values on employment that are part and parcel of their personal and civic development, technical and humanistic training. Competences are linked to professional performance, to the activities this entails and, in short, to the problems professionals grapple with. Competence is always expressed in qualified, contextualised knowledge in a specific situation.

To this we must add the rising demand for constant, permanent, lifelong learning within the context of the Knowledge Society and the globalised economy. Learning how to learn and learning one’s whole life in a society subjected to increasingly quick changes is the most important, useful and necessary competence of all. The competences of learning how to learn, of independent learning, of learning with others and of forming learning and practice communities is a totally new chapter in the book of human education and learning.

All of this is leading to a profound change, a global approach to learning. The ECTS credits, which measure students’ efforts, are focused on learning and achieving well-defined objectives. The higher or lower quality of a course does not come from more or fewer hours taught but from the student’s ability to assimilate the teaching-learning units with a critical capacity to analyse and synthesise. This system entails acceptance of the Nordic or Anglo-Saxon model, which revolves around student learning as opposed to today’s continental Napoleonic model, which regards the contents transmitted by the educator as the crux of education.

The adoption of the European credit system involves not just a method for quantifying learning but also the choice of an underlying philosophy based on the student workload, which implies a new approach to teaching methods in higher education. What matters now is not knowledge in and of itself but effective learning. The educational model being promoted by the European Union revolves around student learning, as students must be given the competences that allow them to learn how to learn. It is based on the Nordic or Anglo-Saxon model of education, which aims to ensure that education extends over a citizen’s entire lifetime (lifelong learning). To accomplish this, students must be given skills that encompass basic, generic, transversal and more specific competences. The model being posited is based on a belief that knowledge is meaningless without the corresponding competences, as competences are not just resources but also processes in which each individual puts their knowledge into action in a different way.

This model seems to adapt to today’s Knowledge Society, which is flexible and ever-changing and requires creativity, improvisation and evolution in professional skills. It is an educational prototype that stands in stark contrast to the continental or Napoleonic model, which is grounded on contents and corresponds to the industrial society, characterised by closely guided activity, the absence of improvisation and a lack of evolution in professional skills.

The greater weight that education must attribute to students’ independent learning demands new approaches to teaching and student work that will foster the role libraries play in universities. They will have to expand and converge with other services, chiefly with IT but also with multimedia production services, career orientation and information services, language services, and others.

At a time when traditional classroom teaching is losing ground to education based on student learning, university leaders must consider the prominent, dynamic role that libraries should take on when implementing the ECTS. One of the main cornerstones of the new orientation in the teaching-learning circuit, which will largely be supported by the new model of university library, will be the electronic resources available in learning and research resource centres, which we shall examine in the next chapter.

In the new educational model, libraries will have to participate in creating learning environments, contribute to drawing up teaching resources, take part in innovation groups and serve as the main support. In short, they will have to become dynamic places that encompass all the resources that support learning and research at the university.

E-Research and e-Science

Electronic publishing is an uncontested reality in developed countries. Scientific e-journals successfully paved the way, driven by the need for instantaneous information dissemination coupled with their extraordinary ability to adapt to researchers’ needs. The backdrop is the process of globalisation and the internationalisation of knowledge. The scientific model of communication entrenched in printed publications was shattered in the digital, interconnected world.

Furthermore, the dawning of the new century meant the joint mobilisation of the academic and library communities in the quest for a new model under the heading of open access, which aims to overcome the restrictive control imposed by the publishers of scientific journals. As Carr (2007: 159) concludes, even though much remains to be done before a viable model of scientific communication and research emerges, the pressure for change and the intelligence of the research community itself seem to be enough reason to trust that solutions will be found and the power of the networks will ultimately be properly used to facilitate academic communication on a new, much more effective basis.

Likewise, after several shaky years, all indications seem to point to the emergence of the e-book as an indisputable fact today. The growth in production and demand for e-books has risen steadily, leading the American Publishers Association to state (2009): ‘E-books saw a 23.6 percent increase from last year with $67 million in sales and a compound growth rate of 55.7 percent since 2002. E-books continue to grow significantly, sales reached $113 million in 2008, up 68.4%’.

Inevitably, as Webb et al. (2007: 125) point out, library services and resources have evolved and changed in response to the shifts in research needs, as well as to external factors such as changes in information technologies and in university education in general. The library and its professionals, they add, will be responsible for ensuring that the research community is as well informed as possible. In order to provide twenty-first century researchers with a suitable service, libraries need to ask their patrons what they want from the library and combine the results of these surveys with new ideas and developments, serve as support for research groups and poise themselves within the research community at a time when technological advances proliferate and the new concept of e-Science has been coined.

E-Science is a new way of researching that can be described as revolutionary. It is sustained on the generation of repositories and the development of infrastructures to analyse and share information among researchers living in different places. E-Science offers scientists in each discipline a different way to conduct their research. The key seems to lie in coordinating efforts within a national framework in order to generate comprehensive, viable solutions that cover researchers’ information needs. Carr (2007: 169) believes that the challenge of e-Science is perhaps the most significant test facing research libraries to emerge in the last decade.

Borgman (2008) clarifies that e-Science is characterised by data-intensive, information-intensive, distributed, interdisciplinary and collaborative research. Scholars in all fields are taking advantage of new sources of data and new means to publish and distribute their work online. No longer are data considered interim products to be discarded once the research reporting them is published. Rather, they have become important sources of scholarly content to be used and reused. As the demand for curation of research data accelerates, data repositories may become the new special collections for research libraries. The advent of e-Science presents an array of challenges and responsibilities for libraries, such as scalable and sustainable infrastructure, open access to publications and data, and policies for access to data and computational resources.

Even though several countries with high research capital, such as the Netherlands and Finland, have pursued national solutions to the problems mentioned, the United Kingdom has managed to combine all the considerations involved in distributing scientific contents. Since 2001, the British scientific community, through the Research Support Libraries Group (RSLG),8 has been recommending that a new national organisation be created to provide strategic leadership in the realm of research library development. This organisation will be called the Research Information Network (RIN).9 The purpose of this organisation is to issue recommendations for creating an overall strategic framework in the United Kingdom that sets up coordinated mechanisms for providing scientific information which ensures that researchers will continue to have access to all the information resources regardless of their location.

In the United States, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Joint Task Force on Library Support for E-Science released an Agenda for Developing E-Science in Research Libraries (2007). The report concluded that ARL’s engagement in the issues of e-Science is best focused on educational and policy roles, while partnering with other relevant organisations to contribute in strategic areas of technology development and new genres of publication. These types of strategic collaborations will also provide opportunities to re-envision the research library’s role and contribution as twenty-first century science takes shape.

The 2004 White Paper on e-Science in Spain10 published by the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology defines e-Science as all scientific activities conducted through the use of resources accessible on the Internet. The evolution in high-speed communication networks devoted to research, along with collaborative technologies and applications, is creating the ideal setting for interaction among researchers. For this reason, as the document points out, even though e-Science can be conducted individually, it is more effective when joined with global partnering.

The research community is facing major challenges that necessitate access to multiple resources, as well as the need for infrastructures that facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration. IT has a vast capacity for calculation and data storage, but specialised instrumental use, access to simulation and visualisation resources, database inquiries and access to collaborative applications, as well as other resources are needed to address these scientific challenges.

The taxonomy of e-Science has been depicted by three horizontal layers representing accessible resources (calculation, storage, information and other resources); communication networks, which provide access to these resources; and middleware or intermediate software. This last layer allows the applications to use the resources available at remote locations either jointly or in coordination.

The development of e-Science is instrumental in determining scientific and technological capacity in a globalised economy. Information provision is one of the essential infrastructures in the culture of research. Access to digital contents is top priority in any national science policy, and it must be spearheaded by the libraries, an institution with a tradition of organising and disseminating contents.

We agree with Carr (2007: 179) that the big question of research libraries’ future role in supporting science in the digital environment is whether they can convince the e-Science communities that they are able to bring added value to the new research activity. Libraries must be effectively included on the agendas of research councils, must convince scientists that they are crucial partners in this enterprise and must have the political skills needed to successfully take part in the breakneck pace of e-Science development.

Innovative academic libraries in the Knowledge Society

Recent studies on the behaviour of university library patrons in the past few years are striking. The CIBER study (2008) commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) on the behaviour of future researchers stresses the urgent importance that libraries understand the behaviours of today’s patrons in a hybrid library. It also states that academic and research libraries offer a huge volume of valuable contents, but often through systems that seem less intuitive than the ubiquitous search engines.

According to the conclusions of a report promoted by OCLC (De Rosa et al., 2006) which analyses the results of a survey administered between May and June 2005 to university students from 396 schools in six different countries, search engines are the favoured tool for starting an information search (89 per cent), compared to just 2 per cent who use the library website. Likewise, even though 41 per cent of the respondents do use the library website, only 10 per cent agreed that it meets their information needs.

Many university students make no distinction whatsoever between what libraries offer and what commercial search engines offer. They show identical trust in the results from both systems, and they view libraries as synonymous with books without necessarily identifying these institutions as crucial agents in information provision. The challenge, as the OCLC report concludes, is to define and clearly publicise the paramount role of the library in the infosphere.

Both studies agree that students prefer a general search in Google over a more sophisticated search that requires more time in the library. Plus, they demand not only quick responses but also responses that include a complete text. Along these lines, Byrum (2005) stresses that it is imperative to implement initiatives that bolster the contents of bibliographic records and links from them to other electronic resources so that libraries can hold on to their leadership in information provision in the electronic age. In the past decade, the search for information has been irremediably conditioned by online search engines (Byrum, 2005), and libraries have not yet responded adequately to their patrons’ needs.

Some of the trends identified in the recent report drawn up by the Web Services Steering Committee at the University of Minnesota Libraries dovetail with these findings, and we believe that their recommendations bear repetition (Hanson et al., 2009: 24), particularly the two below:

 Discovery should be organised around users rather than collections or systems. This organisation should be based on realistic, evidence-based models of our users and their research tasks.

 Users are successfully discovering relevant resources through non-library systems (e.g. general web searches, e-commerce sites and social networking applications). We need to ensure that items in our collections and licensed resources are discoverable in non-library environments.

The exhaustive study by the ACRL Research Committee (2008) points to trends which should be regarded as top priority. The study indicates that most of the survey respondents agreed that higher education will be increasingly viewed as a business, and that calls for accountability and for quantitative measures of library contributions to the research, teaching and service missions of the institution will shape library assessment programmes and approaches to the allocation of institutional resources. Likewise, most respondents agreed with this assumption: As part of the ‘business of higher education’, students will increasingly view themselves as ‘customers’ of the academic library and will demand high-quality facilities, resources and services attuned to their needs and concerns.

The roles played by research support librarians proposed by Webb et al. (2007: 141–5) fit in with these points:

 Gatekeeper: someone who filters through key information.

 Translator: librarian who tries to make our systems easy to use and, failing that, to support people in their use.

 Information specialist: expert at finding information, resources and data. Confident users of resources in our specialist areas.

 Subject expert: active researcher, developing an empathy with your subject and building up your role as an authority on library provision to support it.

 ‘Safe harbour’: make your researchers feel welcome when they visit or contact you.

 ‘The fount of all knowledge’: the main interface between researchers and the library service.

 ‘A counsel, colleague and critical friend’: shift from being seen as a support assistant to a valued and trusted colleague.

All of these lead to a reinforcement of the idea that libraries must avoid inertia and instead adopt a proactive role that can respond to the university community’s needs in advance. The new model of higher education and the challenges posed by e-Science require librarians to not only support but also foster learning and research. To do this, they need acceptance by patrons, recognition of the services they provide and the university community’s active participation.


ACRL Research Committee, Environmental Scan 2007. Association of College & Research Libraries, Chicago, IL, 2008. Available from:.

Agustín Lacruz, M.C. El contexto educativo: el Espacio Europeo de Educación Superior y la innovación en las metodologías docentes. In: Agustín Lacruz M.C., ed. Diseño curricular y Guías docentes ECTS: Desde la Diplomatura de Biblioteconomía y Documentación hasta el Grado en Información y Documentación. Zaragoza: Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza; 2008:21–37.

American Publishers Association (AAP). Industry Statistics. Available from:, 2009.

Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Agenda for Developing E-Science in Research Libraries, 2007. Available from:.

Borgman, C.L., The role of libraries in e-science. The 11th European Conference of Medical and Health Libraries, Helsinki, Finland, 23–28 June 2008, Towards a New Information Space – Innovations and Renovations, 2008 Available from:.

Byrum, J.D., Recommendations for urgently needed improvement of OPAC and the role of the National Bibliographic Agency in achieving it. 71st IFLA General Conference and Council, 2005 Available from:.

Carr, R. The Academic Research Library in a Decade of Change. Oxford: Chandos; 2007.

CIBER (Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research), Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University College London, London, 2008. Available from:.

De Rosa, C., College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership. OCLC, Dublin, OH, 2006. Available from:.

Hanson, C., Discoverability: Phase 1, Final Report. University of Minnesota Libraries, 2009. Available from:.

Webb, J., Gannon-Leary, P., Bent, M. Providing Effective Library Services for Research. London: Facet; 2007.

1.Sorbonne Joint Declaration: Joint declaration on harmonisation of the architecture of the European higher education system by the four ministers in charge for France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, Paris, the Sorbonne, 25 May 1998.

2.The Bologna Declaration: Joint declaration of the European Ministers of Education. Bologna, 19 June 1999.

3.Communiqué of the meeting of European Ministers in charge of Higher Education in Prague: ‘Towards the European Higher Education Area’. Prague, 19 May 2001.

4.Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers responsible for Higher Education in Berlin: ‘Realising the European Higher Education Area’. Berlin, 19 September 2003.

5.Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Bergen: ‘The European Higher Education Area – Achieving the Goals’. Bergen, 19–20 May 2005.

6.London communiqué: ‘Towards the European Higher Education Area: Responding to Challenges in a Globalised World’. London, 18 May 2007.

7.Communiqué of the Conference of European Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve: ‘The Bologna Process 2020 – The European Higher Education Area in the New Decade’, 28–29 April 2009.é_April_2009.pdf