Home 9 Uncategorized 9 Libraries and Technology:  A Dynamic Partnership for Advancing Learning and Research

Libraries and Technology:  A Dynamic Partnership for Advancing Learning and Research

by | Jun 30, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Daniela Duca, PhD.  (Head of Product Innovation at Sage Publishing) 

Against the Grain V35#3

Every few years, there are hopes of a groundbreaking technology that can transform higher education, often leaving many of us skeptical that it would ever materialize or change our practices as much as the technologists predict.  However, just as doubts begin to settle in, structural improvements emerge.  From MOOCs to adaptive learning platforms and even augmented, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, these new tools have transported students and researchers to uncharted territories and helped them rethink traditional approaches.  With each wave of innovation, the question lingers:  do you dare to seize the opportunity and take a leap of faith, or will you play it safe and wait for others to make the first move?

While no technology has completely revolutionized higher education as predicted, incremental changes continue to mold and improve the research and learning experience, with libraries leading on several of these.  In recent years, the skyrocketing demand for video content has prompted libraries to expand their role by having to curate digital media content.  The diversity of formats and the volume of scholarly publishing and teaching content have been a big challenge.  However, “technological advancements over the past two decades have enabled libraries to become very sophisticated when it comes to managing their collections,” says Tony Zanders, Founder and CEO of Skilltype.

Libraries are caught in a paradox.  On the one hand, the amount of information available is increasing rapidly, making it difficult for individuals to find what they seek.  On the other hand, younger generations who have grown up with technology may struggle with the necessary technological skills to navigate this vast amount of information.  Even the most advanced search tools can’t always keep up with the pace.  It’s a constant battle to bridge the gap between the ever-expanding world of knowledge and those who seek to explore it. 

As superusers of content and discovery tools, librarians contribute to developing many technologies their patrons use and continue to teach students and researchers how to use them, working with faculty to incorporate newer media and technologies within their courses. 

We talked to five different start-ups that use technologies to improve higher education experiences about their goals and how they work with libraries that take the leap and try them out.

Dynamic Partnerships

Jungwon Byun and her co-founder at Ought developed Elicit.org to help the “power users of reasoning coax insights out of complex sources.” Their approach is to use AI to extract information like experiment details and key findings from research papers.  From the get-go, Byun has been collaborating with librarians, insisting on learning from the “methodological experts [librarians] to guide how AI tools can assist in the research process and what best practices these tools should emulate.”

When Alex Tarnavsky Eitan and his co-founders decided to develop Connected Papers, they knew they had to partner with librarians to improve literature searches and review best practices with new technologies.  “By teaching students how to conduct effective literature reviews, the library is essential to our mission of making literature review quick, fun, and accurate,” emphasized Alex.  The founders used their experiences and challenges as researchers when building the technology.  As students, the founders attended many tutorials on search operators, keywords, and filters run by their libraries, which they found incredibly useful.  Connected Papers’ technology starts with an origin paper uploaded by the researcher on the platform.  The team uses network analysis to support the researcher’s journey of discovering similar papers while also enabling visual exploration of the topics.  

To help researchers cope with the growing number of cited papers, scite evolved out of the challenges of reproducibility and supports researchers to navigate through cited papers by categorizing the reasons for that citation.  The scite team “wants to change citations from a superficial metric into a rich information source for people to understand topics, articles, researchers, and the world better.”  Josh Nicholson, co-founder and CEO of scite, emphasized the importance of libraries in educating students, researchers, and the general public on how to search for and utilize information effectively.  As scite also shares this mission, working with libraries is crucial.  The scite team describes the tool as a collaborator and a support system for librarians to ensure their patrons can access necessary resources, such as databases, articles, books, and more. 

As content curators, libraries are expanding beyond text into immersive technologies that enhance the students’ experiential learning and researchers’ opportunities for experimentation.  Many academic libraries have already purchased hardware and headsets, making the library space the primary locus of VR within the institution.  For immersive experiences to work, librarians play a crucial role in “signposting the right resources and facilitating adoption,” says Christophe Mallet, co-founder of Bodyswaps.  Bodyswaps is akin to a “flight simulator for soft skills.”  The team joined forces with Sage to offer several immersive experiences for nursing students to practice their skills of interacting with patients, something they don’t get to do during their courses and can struggle with during their first job.  Together with Bodyswaps, we are also working on a similar experience to support business students, to be launched later this year.

The reason Bodyswaps’ technology works is inherent in their name.  When you swap bodies in VR, which is almost impossible in real life, and watch your avatar being animated, you are provided “a unique self-reflection experience, as you are sitting across from yourself,” says Mallet;  you genuinely learn how others perceive you.  And you can practice this as often as you need to, without the risks of trialing your approaches in real life when your actions can impact others.

All these technologies require careful assessment, testing, and “not putting the technology ahead of the pedagogy,” argues Mallet, while also considering the ethical aspects and any evidence of perpetuating biases that we all have been working so hard to reduce.  This requires tremendous skill and knowledge that goes beyond curation and referencing. 

For libraries and librarians to deliver on these aspects and to reach their potential, Zanders of Skilltype believes that “the individuals in the library — not the information — need more investment in their personal and professional development as opposed to the collection’s development.”

Skilltype launched in 2020 stemming from an interest in “how software and data could help libraries better manage their organizations in light of a growing talent shortage,” and now offers more than 5,000 trainings that can be tailored and personalized for each librarian, depending on where they are in their journey.  Skilltype also partners with iSchools worldwide to support those looking for a career in the library space.

Challenges and Priorities

Building new technologies doesn’t come without challenges.  Some of these are people challenges:  for Skilltype, it is about understanding and changing the perception of librarianship as a profession;  scite works with publishers to obtain full access to the text;  Bodyswaps continuously engages stakeholders to ensure their solution is safe.  Others are technical:  Elicit is built around large language models, a rapidly evolving technology.  Connected Papers adapted to generate graphs quickly even during sudden traffic spikes, such as when a viral TikTok video led to a night of intense coding and scaling efforts. 

Innovation and sustainability are top priorities for all five start-ups working closely with libraries worldwide to support students and researchers in their academic journeys.  Bodyswaps and scite are integrating the advances in generative AI into their solutions.  Elicit is expanding to support other research workflows beyond the methodical literature review, aiming to help students and researchers find literature gaps or summarize concepts across papers.  Connected Papers is looking to integrate with other researcher tools, making the graph technology part and parcel of the researcher workflow.  Skilltype focuses on supporting libraries to manage their talent pools and find and nurture the next generation of information science professionals that can work with and maximize the potential of new technologies for their patrons. 

The World in 2045

All five founders envision a future where technology is critical in advancing higher education.  Connected Papers, Elicit, and scite will focus on providing researchers with tools to navigate and stay up to date on the latest developments in their fields by integrating within the researcher workflow, providing better answers to questions, and building causal maps of scholarly knowledge. 

Skilltype founder predicts that in the very near future, even before 2045, “the library ecosystem will have collectively upgraded the way we connect both online and offline.”  Barriers will be removed, and anyone will be able to find qualified experts easily. 

Soft skills will be even more critical as we go through another rapid technology development cycle.  “Future-minded education institutions will look to develop their students’ soft skills throughout their journey, offering continuous, flexible, and hyper-personalized modalities,” argues Mallet of Bodyswaps.

The companies’ visions all share a common thread of utilizing technology to make research and education more accessible, efficient, and personalized.  They recognize the need for innovative solutions to address higher education’s challenges, such as the increasing volume of information, the need for soft skills development, and the demand for evidence-based decision-making.  By leveraging advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other technologies, these companies, along with many others, are paving the way for a future where higher education is more inclusive, collaborative, and impactful, and they can do that by working closely and dynamically with academic libraries worldwide.

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest buzz around new technologies.  Nonetheless, as we look ahead, it’s important to remember that not all innovations will live up to their hype.  While some technologies may fall by the wayside, others will prove to be genuinely transformative and slowly become part of the research process or teaching curriculum.  The key is to approach these new tools with an open mind and a willingness to experiment, to work with start-ups, and enable them to find better ways that their technologies can be used to solve the questions your patrons already struggle with.  After all, the next breakthrough in education, which could involve the integration of AI, is happening as I write this article and is engaging those willing to take the risk and try it out and even those who don’t but must respond to its broad adoption.  So, let’s embrace the possibilities of the future and continue to push the boundaries of what’s conceivable in higher education.

Acknowledgments:

I would like to thank Christopher Mallet, Tony Zanders, Josh Nicholson, Jungwon Byun, and Alex Tarnavsky Eitan for their time and effort in answering all my questions and providing input for this article.  

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