Technology, digital capabilities and the language of change

This talk by David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Sussex, was the first in our series of Learning and Research Support (LRS) Seminars.

The premise of David’s talk was that the language we use to describe, implement and travel through change does not reflect the (difficult) reality of how it feels (and is) to go through change. Therefore, language becomes a barrier to successful change.

Embrace the unruly

(Donna Lanclos)

Alongside this is a long-held belief that (new) systems will make everything better, when actually what we really need is to have difficult, “messy”, conversations and deal with what is already going on.

People are taught to want transformational change, but actually, in the Higher Education (HE) sector, change tends to be developmental rather than transformational [n.b. I don’t think transformational is a word, I think the word should be transformative. WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word either, though].  I.e. a shiny new library management system is not going to make everything better in one fell swoop. Well, we think we know this, but the idea that a new LMS is the answer to everything is still a prevalent myth within the library world  – perpetuated by the producers of such systems, of course.

The next big thing

(Dylan Williams)

Or rather the seductive temptation of the next big thing: we look for this amazing new thing that’s going to fix all our problems but actually we should just be getting on and doing things to improve the situation.

The nature of terms associated with change can breed uncertainty and resistance, says David. Let’s take a look at some of those terms (as we did in the seminar):


Hands up who gets turned off by those words? *puts up hand*

Resistance is [not] futile

(David Walker)

It’s really not. I’ve been there (and I am there, currently going through a departmental restructure, and I can tell you that resistance to change is always going to be there, whether those in charge believe or know it or not. I sometimes think that the people who are responsible for implementing change (I know everyone is responsible for implementing change to some degree, but you know what I mean) don’t really believe that people are going to be resistant to it. There is still this idea that people will just to what they’re told and when this doesn’t happen the people in charge don’t know what to do. This is probably partly because, as David said, change is a complex process – it is not just about the actual change (which is enough) but also the ‘ripple effect’ of emotions and consequences for people’s lives and the service in the long term; things which will feed in to the resistance. As David also said, there is quite often a  failure to explain the rationale for change [in a way which is helpful to those most affected by it].

Resistance is a primary cause of failure of change. In my experience, it’s not a failure in terms of the change literally not happening, but rather to make the change a positive experience (if that is possible) or to run smoothly. If nothing else, resistance makes the change process longer, which is usually the last thing people need.

Higher education is dominated by

de-humanising language

This was a bit of a shocker (surely HE should be the epitome of liberal, humanistic thought?), but when I heard David say it, I already knew it was true, I just hadn’t thought about it properly before. I’ve thought a lot about how HE is now a market, using the language of the market and business and commerce (e.g. students are now customers), but I hadn’t made that leap to actually seeing it as being de-humanising. But, arguably, by seeing HE as a market is almost automatically envisages those whose lives are involved with HE less than human – currency, transactions – and the philosophy of HE seems to be no longer about education and thought but about the market: Universities don’t seek after truth or knowledge but rather the top ranking on the leader board, to be market-leading, world-beating, transformative, innovative, leading, leading, leading. In what? It’s not really about people, except as numbers or survey results, FTEs, cohorts. I feel tired just thinking about it.

At this point, one of my colleagues made a good point: people are so used to hearing these words [see word cloud above] that we don’t even hear them anymore – we are word blind (deaf?).

Another one of my colleagues also said, (I paraphrase) this is all bit toxic isn’t it?

“Transformative” makes people feel bad


Was what we were doing so bad that we have to do something entirely new and never be able to go back to what we did before?

What can we do?

  • Talk about improvement rather than change
  • Promote dialogue – legitimise everyone’s voices
  • Recognise that change impacts on culture and is an emotional process
  • Acknowledge concerns and give feedback
  • Change/improvement should be a sustained process – it takes time and is not a one off event
  • Use partnerships as an approach to engagement, including external partnerships across the HE sector – work with others, share expertise and experience instead of duplicating work and working against one another
  • Share a common language – learn to understand different professional languages (e.g. technical terms). This does not mean everyone has to do “management speak”
  • Gain an HE teaching qualification to improve knowledge of teaching practices and educational theories
  • Gain some other qualifications (e.g. PRINCE2 (project management), IT qualifications) to support meaningful discussion with colleagues in other departments

Myth busting makes me feel good

The idea of ‘digital natives’ is a myth. Just because most young people can operate a mobile phone or send an email or watch dodgy YouTube videos this does not mean they have digital capabilities that are “fit for living, learning and working in a digital society”. The skills they have are not transferable to (e.g.) an educational context – we  can make all the search boxes on our library management systems look like Google but this isn’t going to help people find the resources they really need or learn how to assess them or write a good essay or save their work safely or create a webpage or program something or print something out or turn the computer on (or off).

As David said, we need academic staff who are skilled in using technologies so they can pass these skills on to their students, or at least model them.

An avalanche is coming…

(Barber et al)

…and people generally don’t have the skills to deal with it. David argued that we need to increase focus on “maker pedagogies” – students (and us) as creators and researchers – students as producers. Although I think I understand what he’s trying to say (we need creative people for jobs in creative industries, the idea of students as producers seems again to be part of the language of commerce. Of course it’s good if students (and academics) produce work and research outputs but is it not OK to study for the action/work of studying  and learning and the improvement of knowledge as an end in itself? I think once we lose the idea of ‘study for pleasure’ it’s only a matter of time before reading for pleasure and visiting galleries for pleasure and listening to music for pleasure go out of the window as well. But I may be overreacting.

We do need people to be creative, but I’m not sure that HE is a very creative place anymore. Producing does not necessarily mean being creative in the wider sense of the word.

“Up-skilling” is killing me

Not literally. It just saps my soul every time I hear it. It is meaningless. Just say ‘learning new skills’. It’s a bit like my other pet-hate phrase, “going forward”. What happened to “in the future”?

Moving on…

Support staff are the best

Not surprisingly, support staff are needed to enable technology enhanced learning (TEL), in other words to help people use technology effectively when they’re studying, learning and/or teaching. A good thing which came out of the session with David was that we all recognised the need for us in the library to work together with people in IT and LTEU (Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit) to provide effective support to people. At the moment it’s a bit confusing for people – who should they go to for help? It would be good to sit down with colleagues in other department and have a nice chat about what we all do  and how we can help each other (and students and staff) out. I wonder if that’s possible?


What am I here for?

As regular readers of this blog may have gathered, my current role involves a lot of cataloguing. In fact, it is the main purpose of my job. I like cataloguing; I think it’s important, and I think it’s important that it’s done properly. By properly, I mean according to cataloguing rules and standards, although I’m not averse to adding or subtracting information from a catalogue record if I feel that doing so will make it easier for people using the library catalogue to find what they’re looking for. Usually this can be done without breaking any cataloguing rules anyhow (e.g. by adding a note).

Of  course I also want any downloaded records used on our catalogue to be of good quality. Good, not ‘good enough’:

…we must not cut corners and we must never think that “good enough” is good enough, because it is not.

This quotation is taken from the text of Heather Jardine’s paper on being a cataloguer in 2012, which has been posted on the Work and Expression blog. The last paragraph is particularly relevant to what I’m trying to say here.

What Heather describes in her paper is what we are experiencing in our library at the moment; in the sense that all acquisitions staff are involved in acquisitions and cataloguing, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on things like their particular post or the time of year. Although I still catalogue items ‘from scratch’, there are not a huge number of these items because the preference is to download bibliographic records from other places. This is obviously good, in some ways, because I’d never be able to catalogue all the items we order, and of course there is no point in duplicating work. If there is a record available from elsewhere, it is downloaded during the acquisitions process. The people downloading the records are not trained in cataloguing, but this is not a problem, because they have been trained in how to spot a lovely, full and accurate bibliographic record.

Or at least this was the case until recently. In the past few weeks, we have received new instructions about how we are to manage the acquisitions process.  One of these is that we are only to give downloaded bibliographic records the most cursory glance before ‘OK-ing’ them to go into the catalogue. This means only checking for the presence of the most basic fields. We were given no guidance as to what constitutes a basic record, so in the end I made a very short checklist for people to use. It is much shorter than the existing one, but I fear it is as much as we can get away with, because of the emphasis on doing things faster and “smarter”.

However, reducing the amount of time allowed to check downloaded records is not working smarter, because if records are not properly checked there are likely to be more errors creeping into the catalogue, which means more work in the long term. More worryingly, it increases the likelihood of people not being able to retrieve records when searching the catalogue and thus not being able to find items in the library. As Heather says,

If we neglect our cataloguing, if we cut corners and start to get slovenly, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down around our ears. If the data is wrong, then the management information will be wrong. If the data is inconsistent, then the LMS will not operate reliably. If we make mistakes, then when we get those books sent back to us with complaints, we will not be able to explain anything, we will just have to apologise.  Our colleagues will lose confidence in us and we will lose confidence in ourselves. And we certainly will not be able to sell skills that we cannot demonstrate that we have.

Even if people use the checklist, there are still errors that might be missed if people are not allowed to take the time to find a good record and not just a ‘good enough’ one.

Apart from affecting retrieval, the implications of the idea that it is OK to import incomplete or inaccurate records as long as they contain the basic information are not great for anyone who is a cataloguer, as well as not being very good for the long-term viability of the catalogue. It seems like a slippery slope to me: if we are happy to download incomplete records from other sources, then what is the point of the cataloguer (mainly me in this context) creating decent records when cataloguing from scratch? Obviously, I know there is a point to this (see above!), but does my employer? Why am I here if accurate catalogue records don’t matter anymore?

My job is becoming increasingly about things other than cataloguing. In more recent years it has become more of a mixed bag of cataloguing, acquisitions and working out in the library – none of which I have a problem with -, and now I’m also partly responsible for the upkeep of the institutional repository. Again, I don’t mind this, and it’s great to be able to get experience in other fields of library-related work, but it is hard to escape the feeling that the role of ‘cataloguer’ specifically is being eroded. As Heather  says in her post, this kind of mixing of roles is becoming par for the course nowadays, and it’s OK up to a point, but the role of cataloguer as cataloguer is still important and I fear that this, and the value of cataloguing in itself, is being lost sight of – at least in my workplace.