4. Europäisches Bielefeld Kolloquium - Bibliotheken und Verlage als Träger der Infomationsgesellschaft

Education for the information professions:

new developments at the Robert Gordon University

Jonathan Furner

School of Information and Media, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK


1 Introduction

In these pre-millenial days, any observation to the effect that some aspect of our society is undergoing 'fundamental change' seems hackneyed. When the subject of such an observation is the impact of information or of its attendant technologies, it becomes even more difficult to avoid resorting to cliché. Yet the consequences of the 'information revolution' of the last 50 years continue to ramify, and to provoke pronouncements that make up in dramatic style for what they lack in original content. It is often recorded, for instance, that one such consequence of recent advances in computing and telecommunications technologies is a 'fundamental change' in the nature of professional work in a wide range of employment sectors. Hardly less frequently stated is the standard call-to-arms for those academics responsible for the education of the professionals of the future. The new requirements of employers in the 'emerging markets' should be satisfied by the production of a new breed of graduate! New kinds of knowledge and skill should be the subjects of new kinds of curricula! New curriculum content should be delivered using new teaching techniques! New techniques are the preserve of staff with newly-developed expertise! Fresh? No. Understated? No, again. But: true? Apparently beyond debate.

In this paper, I review the ongoing efforts of the School of Information and Media (SIM) of the Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen, Scotland, to respond appropriately and effectively to the demands of students, employers, profession and government. One core element of the School's strategy is the new Postgraduate Diploma / Master of Science degree course in Electronic Information Management (EIM), whose first cohort of ten students matriculated in September 1997, and which is now firmly established alongside the other courses in the School's postgraduate portfolio: the PgDip/MSc in Information and Library Studies, the PgDip/MSc in Information Analysis (which received the Jason Farradane Award from the Institute of Information Scientists in 1994, in honour of its 'outstanding contribution to the development of information science'), and the PgDip/MSc in Publishing Studies. Under development over the two previous years, the EIM course has been marketed as an innovation of unique interest in the United Kingdom, providing successful graduates with a 'skill-set' unattainable elsewhere yet precisely tailored to the demands of the modern job market for information professionals.

In the next section, I place the School's goals in the historical context of published debate about the match between employer demand and graduate supply in the library and information studies/science/service (LIS) sector; in Section 3, I outline the aims and objectives, and the curriculum, of the EIM course; and in Section 4, I draw conclusions that may be of relevance not only to those directly concerned with the design of LIS curricula, but also to those with a wider interest in the quality of output of LIS schools.

2 Contexts

2.1 Employer demand and curriculum content

It is fairly safe to assume that the primary goals of most, if not all the courses (undergraduate and postgraduate) offered by the 16 LIS schools in the UK are vocational in essence [1,2]. One course may vary from another in the degree to which an emphasis is placed on theory rather than practice, but this distinction is between the theory and the practice of information work. Educators design curricula with the intention of providing students with the best preparation for employment in the information-related professions; students enrol on these courses in order to gain a qualification that, they trust, will increase their chances of finding professional employment; and employers are expected to respect the validity of that qualification as an indicator of the level of knowledge and skill that the holder is likely to have.

Not surprisingly, much space in the LIS literature is given over to discussion on questions of curriculum content. Given the vocational aim of LIS courses, what sorts of knowledge should be imparted, what sorts of skill developed, in the classes that students take? The short answer, unhelpful as it stands without expansion, is simply to state: 'those very skills that are desired of prospective employees by employers'. In responding thus, one takes a view of educators as reactive beings, in thrall to the requirements of external organisations. Ignoring (for the moment) the wider implications of such a view, we can observe that debate is commonly deflected only to raise the obvious follow-up: What are those qualities that employers look for in applicants for information-related jobs? And then, in circular fashion: What exactly are these jobs (for which, by implication, graduates with LIS qualifications should be more than suitable applicants)?

In published considerations of questions of these types, three related themes recur frequently, typically in concatenated form as a compelling argument for the reform of traditional LIS curricula. These themes are: (i) the impact of technological advances on the use of information in everyday life; (ii) the emergence of alternative markets for job-seekers with LIS qualifications; and (iii) the value of generic skills that may be applied equally effectively whatever the professional function or employment sector of the holder.

2.2 The information revolution

The characteristics of the late-twentieth-century 'information revolution', and the level of its influence on the nature of work in the traditional LIS sector, are well-known. The driving force is technological, pushing forward through advances in the fields of computing and telecommunications; the essence of the revolution lies in the economic sphere, in the increasing efficiency with which information may be generated, transferred, acquired, collected, stored, located, retrieved, analysed, presented and used in organisations' and individuals' decision-making processes; and many of the consequences are at the social level, resulting in change in the typical activity of people not just at work, but in every aspect of their lives.

The most celebrated technological advance of the last decade is, of course, the growth of the Internet into the global, publicly-accessible computer network that is today used by millions at work and play. Despite the continuing prevalence (and undoubted accuracy) of the perception that much of the information accessible via the Internet is of limited and ephemeral usefulness, two primary effects of the widespread uptake, unprecedented in scale, of the networking technologies have been (i) to increase public awareness of the existence and range of information stored in digital form and conveniently transferable from remote sources, and (ii) to persuade organisations of the value of the client/server model on which the implementation of internal information systems (intranets) may be so effectively based.

At the economic level, a more general effect of the recent technological advances in informatics and telematics has been to heighten organisations' appreciation of the corporate value of their own information stores and assets, of the information-handling skills of their employees, and of those activities by which decision-makers are continuously supplied with access to timely, relevant, accurate, full and easily-digestible information, tailored to the specific needs of the individual. It is now well understood that an organisation which fails to deploy the technology and personnel required for the effective and efficient management of 'the fourth resource' is more than likely to suffer in the competition for profit in the marketplace [3].

The extent of the social impact of these changes is demonstrated by the frequency with which the descriptions of jobs and employees' roles in organisations refer to information-based functions and demand information-handling skills of the post-holder. But the impact on people's lives extends beyond the workplace to the home and to leisure time. Social activities of all kinds are becoming more and more dependent on a computerised, networked, information-driven infrastructure; and increasingly, in order to carry out mundane tasks such as shopping for consumer goods, booking a holiday, or even deciding what television programme to watch, it is information-handling skills that are required.

2.3 Emerging markets

Before the mid-1980s, it was certainly the exception rather than the norm for LIS graduates to find employment outside the 'traditional' library sector-this being limited to public libraries, academic libraries, and a few special libraries in commerce, industry, R&D and government. With the publication of influential reports by the Library and Information Services Council [4], the Transbinary Group on Librarianship and Information Studies [5] and Nick Moore [6], the significance of the 'emerging markets' for information professionals and the developing mismatch between employer demand and library-school supply became clear. The size of the traditional sector was in decline; in contrast, the numbers of jobs in information-related occupations were rapidly growing; yet the graduates of LIS courses were not meeting the distinctive requirements of employers in these emerging markets, resulting in high levels of graduate unemployment and employer dismay.

The implications of these developments were highlighted by commentators such as Brittain [7,10], Moore [8], Davenport and Cronin [9] and Muddiman et al. [11], to be subsequently restated on numerous occasions in the professional literature, and confirmed to varying degrees by surveys of job availability and employer opinion undertaken in the UK [12], North America [13] and Australia [14]. Explanations tend to run as follows. One effect of the information revolution (as we have seen) has been to increase the relative weight of information-based functions in all jobs, not just those traditionally located in the LIS sector. If they are to carry out these functions with an acceptable level of proficiency, the holders of these posts need to be able to call on an appropriate subset of information-handling skills. It is just this subset that, it is assumed, is possessed by the typical graduate of an LIS course. And hence there are very many jobs that may well be classed as falling outside the traditional LIS sector, but for which LIS graduates are (potentially, at least) particularly well-placed to apply.

The key terms here are 'subset' and 'potential'. Clearly, information-handling skills will not be the only ones that are required for effective performance in most of these jobs: in other words, they will form only a subset of the whole skill-set of the ideal post-holder. On the other hand, it is far from clear (so the argument continues) that, in present circumstances, the graduate of a traditional LIS education has more than this inadequate subset at their disposal. The potential nevertheless remains to augment this subset-i.e., for LIS educators to ensure that students are encouraged to develop the complementary skills that will enable them to compete in the emerging markets.

The questions that arise from this kind of debate can be divided into two broad categories. Questions in the first group relate to the way in which the emerging markets are defined. What exactly are these jobs, that are supposedly sufficiently 'information-intensive' to be suitable targets for LIS-graduate job-seekers, but that exist outside the traditional LIS sector? How many of these jobs are there, in comparison with numbers in the traditional sector? In what sorts of organisation are these jobs to be found? What job-titles should job-seekers look out for? What channels should they go through to identify vacancies?

Available evidence appears to suggest: (i) that almost any role whose successful performance is dependent on the effective use and management of information is likely to benefit from the skills of LIS graduates; (ii) that these roles greatly outnumber traditional library-based roles (although to what precise extent is uncertain); (iii) that these roles may be found in sectors as varied as publishing, computing, public relations, health services, marketing, journalism, management consultancy, and financial and legal services; (iv) that, given the wide range of job-titles in current vogue, job-seekers need to be suitably vigilant in order to spot appropriate vacancies; and (v) that traditional sources (such as the UK Library Association's fortnightly Vacancies Supplement) tend to provide details only of posts in the traditional sectors.

Questions in the second group relate to the definition of the skill-set that is appropriate for effective performance of non-traditional roles. What exactly are the skills that are required of graduates by employers in the emerging markets? What is the relationship between these skills and those that are imparted in traditional LIS courses?

2.4 Transferable skills

Discussion about 'transferable' skills in the LIS literature is frequently initiated in partial response to questions similar to those posed above. Skills of certain types may be identified as being 'transferable' in the sense of their being largely context-free: they can be appropriately and effectively applied in the performance of a variety of professional functions in a range of employment sectors, and stand in contrast to 'technical', 'specialist' or 'professional' skills that are specific to function and/or sector. A common argument takes as its starting point the assertion that employers see transferable skills as making up a vital part of the set required of the modern, 'hybrid' information professional.

What combination of skills is it, then, that forms the ideal package, portfolio or mix of core competencies, as far as employers in the emerging markets are concerned [15-17]? The intention of the educator asking such a question, of course, is that any answer should inform the design of LIS curricula, in order to reverse the tendency characteristic of the mid-1980s, when in many cases information-related jobs would be given to non-LIS graduates with the transferable skills that employers particularly valued. Towards the end of that decade, spurred by the recommendations of the LISC and TGLIS, the UK library schools began the process of curriculum reform that continues today.

Perhaps the most obvious of skills to be identified as transferable are those related to the use of information technology. Knowledge and understanding of basic hardware and software (in which category might be included word-processing, spreadsheet, database, desk-top publishing, presentation and Internet applications) is essential for success in an ever-increasing range of occupations. In truth, LIS educators have seldom been slow in taking steps to ensure that all students reach adequate levels of IT skills at the earliest possible stages of their courses, so that these skills may be further developed through practice and application in subsequent modules that do not necessarily have IT has their primary focus. Yet IT skills are not those that are most commonly identified by employers as being of most value in information-related jobs: that distinction is reserved for interpersonal skills.

The catch-all category of interpersonal skills might include: communication skills; leadership, teambuilding and motivation skills; negotiating and selling skills; presentation and training skills; and teamwork skills; as well as certain desirable personal attributes, such as: a 'professional' approach; a customer-service orientation; an enthusiastic, positive attitude; numeracy and linguistic ability; confidence and ambition; dedication and focus; flexibility and initiative; and creativity and vision.

Add these two sets of core competencies to solid bodies of knowledge (i) of the fundamental theory of information generation, flow, use and management, (ii) of technical LIS processes such as information seeking, retrieval, evaluation, selection, acquisition, collection, representation (indexing, classification and cataloguing), organisation, analysis, synthesis, presentation, transfer and dissemination, and (iii) of the information sources (printed and electronic) and services (manual and automated) that are available in the sector in which the post-holder will operate, and the result is a vibrant mix of skills that ideally prepares the LIS graduate for a successful career-or so the employers argue. Whether LIS courses are able to attract students of the calibre necessary if they are to emerge as suitably multi-talented, 'renaissance people' is an altogether separate matter.

3 The PgDip / MSc in Electronic Information Management

3.1 Aims and objectives

The aims and objectives of the EIM course are strongly vocationally-oriented, in accordance both with the University's general statement of purpose: ('... to produce versatile and resourceful practitioners who are relevantly qualified for their chosen professions and vocations ...'), and with the historical focus of the UK's 'new universities' (i.e., those ex-polytechnics, colleges and technological institutes granted university status in 1992). The general aim of the course is stated as being 'to prepare students for a professional career in electronic information management and for an effective role within the electronic information industry', and the intended focus is on the development both of traditional, technical skills and of those transferable competencies valued by employers in the emerging markets. More specific aims are specified as follows:

It is intended that these aims should be achieved through the fulfilment of several objectives, some course-specific, and others more general. The course-specific objectives of the Diploma stage of the course are to enable students to develop:

The more general objectives are to enable students to develop the abilities:

The objectives of the course develop as it progresses from the Postgraduate Diploma stage (Stage 1) to the Master of Science degree stage (Stage 2). As well as providing the fundamental knowledge, skills and stimulation necessary for students to begin practising at professional levels, Stage 1 also provides the appropriate foundation for undertaking independent Master's-level research in Stage 2.

The Master of Science degree stage provides the opportunity for students to use appropriate research methods in carrying out a critical investigation of a specific topic of relevance to the electronic information profession, preferably one that requires a constructive dialogue to be initiated with representatives from commercial organisations, and to present findings in the form of a dissertation. The objectives of the Master of Science degree stage are to enable students to develop the abilities:

3.2 Curriculum

To ensure that these aims and objectives are met, the EIM course provides a programme of study that covers five core areas in the field: information management, information sources and services; computer systems and telecommunications; databases and information retrieval; and research methods. Each core area is represented in the curriculum by one or more modules as follows:

(a) Information management

Coverage: the basic concepts of organisation theory; the key functions and activities of management; the characteristics, use and management of information systems within organisations.

Coverage: the scope, role and impact of electronic and multimedia publishing; technologies for production and delivery; social, economic, legal and political issues.

(b) Information sources and services

Coverage: the meaning of information and the structure of recorded knowledge; the context-specific nature of information need; the characteristics of published sources of information content; the use of information services in enabling information-seekers to satisfy their needs; the process of information access; the social context of information.

(c) Computer systems and telecommunications

An introduction to information technology (IT), which provides a basis for the incorporation of further IT-based work in other units. This six-week unit is not assessed.

Coverage: the role and operation of advanced features of computer systems hardware, and the function and use of systems software.

Coverage: the fundamentals of telecommunication techniques, including information theory, digital transmission, data communication and data networks.

(d) Databases and information retrieval

Coverage: the fundamentals of database theory; the analysis of data models; the practical use of commercial database products.

Coverage: the information retrieval (IR) 'problem'; the elements and functionality of IR systems; the evaluation of IR systems; networking and distributed IR systems.

(e) Research methods

Coverage: strategies and techniques for the conduct of applied research; research management skills; the development of a student-specific research proposal.

The teaching in Modules 5 and 6 is delivered by the School of Electronic and Electical Engineering, and in Module 7 by the School of Computer and Mathematical Sciences. In addition to these nine core modules, all students are required to undertake a four-week period of supervised, unpaid work experience (Module 10: Fieldwork placement). Every effort is made to meet the individual wishes of students in regard to both geographical location and the type of organisation in which the placement is undertaken. For the Master of Science degree stage, the student is required to produce a dissertation (as described in the previous section).

4 Conclusions

A tendency to exaggerate the pervasiveness of the effects of the information revolution and the relative significance of transferable skills has recently led some to the conclusion that 'we are all information professionals now'. All jobs, to a greater or lesser degree, involve information-handling activity; information-handling skills are therefore applicable in a very wide range of contexts, and in that sense may themselves be regarded as transferable. Some (employers, prospective students, educators in other disciplines) might make the leap, and ask: Is the level to which students receive education in non-LIS curricula not sufficient for them to undertake the work of an information professional? Are the traditional, technical skills that are the preserve of LIS courses not outmoded in this modern, electronic age of information-for-all [18]?

The answer to both these questions, of course, is a definitive 'no'. In fact, given the volume of information now available and the proliferation of formats, media, systems and services through which it is accessible, a solid education in the theory and practice of information work, founded on the traditional, tripartite structure of sources (bibliography), processes ('cat. and class.') and operations (administration), and maintaining the discipline's distinctive emphasis on the importance of serving the needs of the user, is in fact more essential for the prospective information professional than ever before.

Nick Moore's latest prediction [18,19] is the emergence of four complementary groups of information professionals, each armed with a different skill-set: 'creators', or developers of information products, services and systems, versed in the principles of information technology and information design and in the importance of a user-friendly interface; 'collectors', or gatherers and organisers of both internally- and externally-produced information, skilled in knowledge representation and database design, and highly knowledgeable about the needs of their users, the objectives of their organisations, and the nature of the environments in which those organisations operate; 'communicators', or information retrieval specialists, able to analyse needs, to evaluate potentially-relevant information, and to select that which matches, with efficiency and effectiveness, using specialist subject knowledge, interpersonal and communication skills, and theoretical understanding of information-seeking behaviour; and finally 'consolidators', processing, analysing, interpreting, filtering, synthesising and presenting information, reducing complexity without sacrificing accuracy, 'making sense of the world' for the benefit of busy managers and decision-makers. It is easy to spot the shadows of more traditional figures lurking behind the newly-minted jargon: systems designers, database producers, reference librarians, and research analysts are all there. In today's job descriptions, of course, these same people might be known respectively as webmasters, knowledge managers, online searchers or competitor intelligence executives [20-22].

As the technologies develop and formats and media change, job-titles change accordingly; both the number of opportunities and the degree of respect accorded post-holders by top management increase; but the functions of information-handling remain the same, and it is these functions that are the preserve of qualified graduates in LIS-related disciplines. Rather than concerning ourselves as educators with the identification of new roles or new skills for information professionals, perhaps we should concentrate on graduates' development of new attitudes: a new confidence, both in one's ability to apply one's knowledge and skills effectively in different contexts and sectors and in a continuously changing technological environment, and in the fact that the particular combination of technical and transferable skills attainable by LIS graduates is already uniquely marketable and, as the information revolution continues and managers become more appreciative of its implications, ever-increasing in attractiveness to employers. The curriculum of the new postgraduate course in Electronic Information Management is one that provides a particularly thorough grounding in the technical knowledge, managerial expertise and practical, transferable abilities that are essential requirements for the information professional in the digital age, and is thus expected to meet employers' needs for graduates with this special blend of skills precisely and comprehensively.


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