Centred on Learning: Academic Case Studies on Learning Centre Development

Derek Law (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 August 2004




Law, D. (2004), "Centred on Learning: Academic Case Studies on Learning Centre Development", Library Review, Vol. 53 No. 6, pp. 332-333. https://doi.org/10.1108/00242530410544420



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is a good book which aims at a specific target and hits it squarely. It focuses on learning centres and argues the case for them with conviction without descending into zealotry and while claiming to have found a truth does not then presume that it is the only truth.

The authors are drawn from four institutions: the University of Aberdeen; Leeds Metropolitan University; the University of Lincoln and Sheffield Hallam University. There are topping and tailing essays (including an excellent look to the future by Graham Bulpitt), but the bulk of the book considers six different strands such as “The changing staff experience”, with straightforward case studies from at least three of the four institutions. This is a little disconcerting at first since there is no attempt to homogenise the styles, which vary dramatically from the emboldened‐header‐for‐every‐paragraph, through the writing by Powerpoint in bullets, to straightforward narrative flow. Each chapter has a different editor and in each case there is an all‐too‐brief introduction which gives little depth or sense of history or debate to the straightforward descriptions.

The opening chapter by Claire Abson gives an excellent overview of the change in higher education and implicitly reinforces the speed of change by allowing us already to look back with nostalgia on Estelle Morris as history rather than currency. The chapter is strong on the learning environment but weak on the increasingly divergent national agendas in Scotland and Wales and neglectful of the JISC/NSF funded studies on the role of digital libraries in teaching.

The chapter on organisational frameworks is interesting in that it gives four good and apparently straightforward accounts of how the institutions arrived where they are. However this reviewer was involved in the institutional reviews which led to the organisational changes described at two of the four, and they do produce astonishingly ex post facto descriptions of principle rather than the somewhat grimmer pragmatic institutional politics which in reality drive change (an outcome which one suspects would happen everywhere!). It might have helped to have a little more perspective on the history of convergence and certainly to have seen names such as David Allen and Bruce Royan in the bibliography.

The changing staff experience is one of the best chapters (although again descriptive, so that, for example, the Fielden Report is properly praised and described but with no questioning of the interesting reasons why its findings were not incorporated in the Follett Report). However the cases so enthusiastically described clearly demonstrate the way in which the Learning Centre model has captured the enthusiasm of staff.

The chapter on the student experience displays huge quantities of good sense on how three of the institutions have thought through and responded to change and seized the learning centre model as an opportunity to rethink what students really need from academic services. Many will recognise things that they do in their own institution – some perhaps better – but what shines through here is the package of activity and the fact that it has happened by conscious action rather than accidents of funding or interest.

The chapter on changing institutional relationships is in some ways the most frustrating. It again provides competent case studies on three of the four institutions, but entirely in the context of the convergence of academic services. So we have good thinking on shared help desks, on Web design and instructional design in relation to information management packages. However there is frustratingly little on the impact of all of this on academic staff. There is tangential comment from Lincoln on support for researchers, but the whole interaction of the learning centre with changes in pedagogy, with the needs of teaching staff and changes in their expectations and practice, and with research students and their needs is neglected.

The chapter on new environments is good and vigorously written but too often implicitly makes the case for the library/learning centre as place. It is however blandly dismissive of trends towards ubiquitous computing and asserts that, providing the learning centre is flexible. it can continually be reshaped to meet changing needs. Even this possible truth requires the contradictory assertions in successive paragraphs that “portable devices of various kinds seem to be the future” while “there will be significant demand for large‐scale central provision [of PCs] for the foreseeable future”.

The final case study chapter considers how Sheffield Hallam has responded, and is responding, to the new environment for learning by considering three projects they have undertaken. This is useful, but suffers by comparison with the earlier chapters which have presented perspectives from very different types of institution.

Most of these comments are relatively minor. This is a thoughtful and well argued book, which if occasionally blind to alternative approaches provides a rich and persuasive case for the way in which learning centres have not only offered promise but delivered achievement.

Although it may seem a trivial point it is worth noting that the ever‐anonymous designer has produced a distinctive, stylish and well judged cover which complements the subject well and attracts one to dip inside.

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