Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 4 • April 2001 

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Distance Education and Virtual Reference: Where Are We Headed?
by Steve Coffman

"Of course, it's not easy to walk over to the library after class when your university is a thousand miles away."
Back in the old days when I was going to college (not so very long ago, really), things were a little simpler. You walked to class—or drove, if you lived in L.A.—and you would sit in a room with a couple dozen friends and fellow students and take notes while you listened to your instructor go on about one subject or another. If you had a question, you raised your hand (or if you were rude, like I was, you just blurted it out) and most of the time the instructor would answer you right there on the spot. And sometimes several of you would get to talking at once, and the whole thing could evolve into a classroom discussion.

Your instructors were supplied by the school, and sometimes they were good, and sometimes they were not so good, but no matter what they were, you pretty much had to make the best of it, because they were what was offered, and you couldn't really turn them in for somebody you liked better.

When you had papers and assignments to do, you'd walk up campus to the library, where you and your fellow students would converge on the Reserve Book Room to fight over the only two copies of an article your instructor had left there, or you'd struggle through the catalogs and indexes to locate the references you needed, then you would runaround the library seeing how many of them you could find before your classmates beat you to them. And if you ever had a problem finding something, or maybe figuring out just exactly what it was you needed, there was usually somebody sitting behind the reference desk who was happy to give you a hand. 

Of course, they did have distance learning back in those days as well, but we called it "correspondence courses"—because you and the instructor communicated by mail—and they were OK if you lived out in the boonies, or needed a course your school didn't offer, but on the whole they were a pretty paltry imitation of a real college class. And when the most advanced educational technology was the U.S. mail, there was really no substitute for attending classes in person. So the type of education you got and the resources available to you depended very much on where you lived and what institution you attended. It might not have been the most equitable or the most convenient way of educating people, but it was the best we could do at the time with the technology that was available to us.

A Number of Changes in Distance Education ...
But that was then, and this is now. The past few years have seen some radical improvements in educational technology, and with them distance education is being transformed from a poor cousin of the "real" classroom to a key delivery channel for educational content of all types. Forget correspondence courses! Today you can sit in a remote classroom equipped with interactive videoconferencing equipment and participate live in classes that may be taking place several thousand miles away. Raise your hand, and the camera will focus on you, just as your fellow students would in a real classroom—and you can talk back and forth, exchange notes, and do just about everything else you could in a real classroom, except throw spit wads.

Or, you can log on to classes on the Web, where you can listen to lectures live and in real time, and then you can take advantage of the technologies that are built into the new Web courseware products to participate in live or threaded e-mail discussions with your instructor and fellow students. After class, you and the other students can get together online and set up virtual study groups where you can discuss projects, share applications, and generally do most anything else you could do around a table in the student union.

If you don't have good access to the Web, you can attend class via telephone or packet radio, and, of course, let's not forget the many courses that are delivered over broadcast television as well. And new approaches are under development all the time; I just noticed that one of the preconferences at this year's Association of College and Research Libraries Conference has to do with "Teaching and Learning in 3-D Environments."

As the technology for distance education has been improving, the number of students taking advantage of it has also been increasing rapidly. In its most recent report, the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that enrollments in distance education classes have more than doubled, increasing from 753,640 in the '94­'95 school year to 1,632,350 in '97­'98. The reasons are obvious: First there is simply the convenience of being able to attend class at a time and location that are convenient to you without having to worry about getting to the classroom. But, perhaps more importantly, distance education frees students from the bonds of a particular college or university and allows them to select from a wide variety of courses offered at thousands of institutions all over the world. If your university doesn't offer a course in casino management, try the University of Nevada­Las Vegas. Don't like the prof that teaches the Contemporary American Novel at your school? Take the one offered by John Cheever at the University of Maryland. Don't want to take your business classes from a no-name state university? You can study online at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, which promises "local access to world-class learning." With today's distance education, you could attend all three classes in the same semester, and never even leave the comfort of your own home.

For all of its advantages, distance education can be something of a double-edged sword for the schools themselves. Those that offer good programs, convenient scheduling, well-known faculty, or strong global reputations are likely to prosper, and distance education will allow them to reach a much broader student "market" than they have ever been able to reach before. On the other hand, because distance education frees the student from the limitations of the physical campus and allows them to select course offerings from institutions all over the world, schools whose primary claim to fame had been that they were close to home may be in some trouble. After all, why would you want to go to Podunk U when you could attend classes at Harvard, Wharton, and Berkeley, all at the same time? And you can already see some of this scenario begin to play itself out in the educational marketplace with projects like, where a group of schools with strong reputations like Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics have gotten together to aggressively market their offerings to students online.

... Has Led to a Need for Distance Librarianship
Of course, it's not easy to walk over to the library after class when your university is a thousand miles away. Unfortunately, however, advances in distance librarianship have not always kept pace with the rapid development in distance education over the past few years. OK, we've done pretty well when it comes to content. Although we had little to do with it, the sheer amount of information available online has increased several-million-fold with the development of the Web. And libraries and publishers are moving more and more of their collections online, so that it is now possible to access a good deal of current journal literature on the Web without having to set foot in a physical library. Books are coming along gradually as well, through the efforts of a variety of library digitization programs like Project Gutenberg and Carnegie Mellon's Universal Library, and the work of commercial publishers like netLibrary, Lightning Press, and others.

It has been quite a different story when it comes to providing service in those new virtual libraries, however. In the physical library, you could always walk over to the reference desk when you were having trouble finding what you needed in the stacks. But up until quite recently, we had not been very good in providing reference assistance online. 

But there are good reasons for this: In many cases, the right technology simply wasn't there. One problem is that the same technologies that allow us to hold classes online do not adapt easily for reference use. High-end tools like interactive videoconferencing that work very well for online classes are far too expensive and complicated to deploy to every student's desktop just in case they should want to ask a reference question. More recently, the new Web-based courseware programs like WebCT and Blackboard have allowed us to move interactive technologies to the desktop, but these programs are designed to mimic the classroom environment online and are not well-adapted for one-on-one reference use. For example, when a student wants to ask a question, he clicks on an icon to raise his hand and is then "recognized" or given the floor by the instructor, just as you'd do in a regular classroom. That works quite well as long as you have one or two people asking questions at a time, but the system would quickly break down at a reference desk, because you could have many people in line, and it would be difficult to figure out who came next.

And there are other problems. Most courseware programs have only a limited ability to share content online. Instructors can usually push slide shows to students and push them static Web pages, but the software does not allow you to guide a person through a database search, or escort them around the Web, as you might want to do in a reference session. Moreover, courseware programs make no provisions for knowledgebases, scripted chat messages, bookmarks, or other tools that would come in pretty handy if you were a reference librarian trying to field several dozen questions per hour. 
"... advances in distance librarianship have not always kept pace with the rapid development in distance education over the past few years."

So, until quite recently, libraries that wanted to offer any kind of reference services online were pretty much limited to e-mail and live chat, neither of which has proven to be very well-adapted to the purpose. E-mail reference services suffer from a number of problems, the most obvious of which is that e-mail does not offer the instantaneous response and immediate gratification that our patrons have come to expect from the Web. Also, it is difficult to conduct any kind of an effective reference interview using e-mail—if a question needs clarification, it may take three or four exchanges over several days just to figure out what the patron really wants—and by that time, there is a very good chance that he or she doesn't need it anymore. Finally, e-mail reference places most of the burden of answering the question squarely on the librarian. This is a much more labor-intensive model than what we are used to at the reference desk, where we usually work with the student to help him find the answer instead of doing all of the work for him. Given these drawbacks, it's no wonder that e-mail reference has yet to really catch on at any library that has tried it, and given the extra work it places on us, perhaps it is a good thing that it hasn't. 

On the bright side, live, interactive chat solves some of the problems of e-mail. It's live, so you can talk with the patron directly, and you can conduct a reference interview on the spot, so you don't have to get bogged down exchanging e-mails. However, it also has some pretty serious limitations when it comes to adapting it for reference use. First, it is only chat, so while you can "talk" back and forth with the patron and tell her to go to a specific address on the Web to find information, you can't actually take her there, or walk her through a database search. Finally, chat software was primarily designed for one-on-one conversations with friends and family, not for high-volume question-answering services,and so it lacks many of the features we really need to do reference effectively online. For example, most basic chat or messaging software packages do not allow you to queue and route questions easily, nor do they offer the knowledgebase, scripted messages, and so forth that we'll need if we are going to move reference online and have it work effectively.

Tools That Can Really Help Us Go the Distance
More recently, libraries have begun experimenting with Web-based contact center software, and this appears to offer a great deal more promise as a platform for live online reference than any of the applications we have looked at so far. Some of the better-known applications include LSSI's Virtual Reference Desk, Cisco's Webline product, eshare's NetAgent, and LivePerson, but there are 50 or more vendors developing software with varying degrees of sophistication in this area at present. 

Unlike the other technologies we have tried to adapt, Web contact center software was designed expressly for answering questions and providing live, interactive customer service on very high-traffic e-commerce sites like L.L. Bean, Kinko's, Lands' End, John Hancock Insurance, and thousands of others. The software is based on the call center model, so it queues and routes Web calls to the next available agent (or librarian). The best of these programs feature a wide variety of interactive tools that allow agents to push Web pages to customers, escort customers through catalogs or databases, collaboratively fill out forms or search screens, and share slide shows and other content online. And because the software is designed expressly for answering questions as efficiently as possible, most include these great things: 1) built-in knowledgebases that allow you to capture answers and reuse them, 2) extensive customer profiling, and 3) system reporting and analysis tools that allow you to track exactly who is using the system and how. 

Although Web contact center software has a good deal of promise as a platform for online reference services, it is far from perfect, and there is still a great deal of developmental work that we'll have to do to adapt it for our needs. To begin with, most of these programs currently use chat to communicate with the patron, and chat is a rudimentary and cumbersome way to convey anything, much less the complex content of many reference interactions. The solution here is probably VoIP (or Voice over Internet Protocol), which will allow the librarian and the patron to hold a voice conversation on the same line they are using for the Web connection—meaning they will be able to browse the Web and talk back and forth at the same time, just as if they were on the phone.
"... it is difficult to conduct any kind of an effective reference interview using e-mail...."

VoIP technology is available for many Web contact center applications right now, but it is still a bit clunky. And although many home and office PCs come equipped with built-in microphones and speakers, many people are still unsure of how to use them. All the same, VoIP is likely to come into its own relatively quickly, if for no other reason than it offers free long-distance telephone service, and that is a pretty good-sized incentive for many of us to try it out at the very least.

Knowledgebases are another area that will require a substantial amount of development work. As I said, many of these programs come with built-in knowledgebases that the agents can use to help answer frequently asked questions. However, most of these were designed to be used on e-commerce sites where there are a few hundred products at the most—a far different environment than the standard reference desk where we can be answering questions in thousands of different subject areas. That will require knowledgebases with far more sophisticated classification and retrieval mechanisms than what you would find on any e-commerce site. Not only that, but reference questions can also be so varied that no one library may ever be able to put together one that is large enough to be truly useful. If we are to make knowledgebases work at all then, they will probably have to be developed as part of a much larger collaborative effort with many libraries contributing questions, and they will require great classification and retrieval mechanisms to help us locate useful records from the millions that such a system would hold. OCLC and the Library of Congress' Collaborative Digital Reference project are working to develop the structure for just such a knowledgebase right now, so we have already taken the first steps along that road, and it should be interesting to see where it leads.

Finally, the collaborative browsing features of Web contact center software also need some improvement. Right now, the best of the programs will allow you to push individual Web pages, guide a patron through sites on the Internet, and share the content of search boxes and Web forms. But this software still has problems with many of our proprietary databases, and there are some sites on the Web that can disrupt co-browsing for both the patron and the librarian. Because many of these issues are particular to libraries, they are problems that we will have to resolve on our own. But fear not—those of us who deal with this technology are already hard at work on these issues, so things should get better over time. 

Over the next few years then, I think that Web contact center software has the potential to develop into a truly effective platform for online reference. The question remains, of course, whether our patrons will go for it ... and based on some of the rather disappointing statistics from a few of the libraries that have been experimenting with it, that is still very much an open question. On the other hand, if you look at our commercial counterparts, many of whom are handling thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of questions per hour, there seems little doubt that people need reference assistance on the Web. For this model to work in libraries, patrons would just need to know we are there to provide it. So how we publicize and market these services will also be key factors in their success.

New Models for Libraries
Now let's fast-forward the calendar a little and assume that all of the hard work and effort we're putting into developing this software starts to bear fruit, and that online reference begins to take off much as distance education has over the past few years. What's the likely effect on libraries? 

This is all speculation, but I think we can find some clues in some of the disruptive effects that distance learning is having on the educational marketplace right now. Just as distance learning frees students from having to take classes from a particular college or university, online reference has the potential to divorce the library from the institution it serves. What would this mean?

When the library was primarily a physical institution, it pretty much had to be on campus, and so did the reference staff who were there to help people find their way around it. But as our collections move online and our reference services follow them, there may be less and less reason for colleges and universities to maintain those expensive physical facilities and the staffers that go with them. When you move reference online, you can do it from anywhere. Reference staff members could be sitting in the library on campus, or they could be sitting in their offices at home ... or they could be sitting in another institution on the other side of the county, or the world, for that matter. The system doesn't care where they are, and our patrons may not either, as long as they get the service they need. 

So over the next few years, it is not hard to imagine the development of virtual libraries with well-selected electronic content coupled with online reference services to help students find their way around. Schools would "subscribe" to these libraries, just as they now subscribe to electronic databases. Of course, most colleges and universities might need to maintain some physical collections, because it will be some time before a large percentage of those collections gets converted into electronic format. But—and this is key—online reference services would allow us to radically change the way those physical libraries are staffed, so that instead of having a whole crew of reference librarians sitting at desks in the building, your reference librarians would be online where they could handle reference traffic from many institutions at once. 
Today, Web contact center software still has problems working with many of our proprietary databases. 

The role of the physical library might change to more of a warehouse for books (although it could still be a very nice-looking warehouse, with comfortable reading rooms, etc.), and you would staff it mostly with student assistants and paraprofessionals who would take care of checking items in and out, reshelving, and helping people find what they needed on the shelves. If a patron had a reference question that went beyond the routine sorts of things your paraprofessional staff could handle, she could walk over to a reference terminal and work with a librarian online. That librarian would have access to the catalog of collections that were in that building so he could easily direct her to a local resource if that would answer the question, but he would also be able to draw from databases, the Web, the catalogs of other institutions, and all other online content to help answer the question. And of course, that librarian would be accessible from reference terminals inside the building, but he would also be accessible from the student's desktop later that evening when she got back home, began working on her paper, and found that she had another question.

That's a pretty compelling future on a number of counts. Students and faculty would like it because it would give them far better and more convenient access to library resources and to reference services to help them use resources. And virtual reference services might more easily integrate the wealth of both print and online resources that are available than do current reference services, which tend to focus on the local collections and resources. 
"... by allowing you to restructure the staffing in the physical buildings, virtual reference services have the potential to substantially reduce the cost of library operations."

But perhaps more importantly—at least to the university administrators who will make the decisions about such things—by allowing you to restructure the staffing in the physical buildings, virtual reference services have the potential to substantially reduce the cost of library operations. As it stands, most academic libraries spend around 60 to 65 percent on staff—and by treating the physical building more like a warehouse and outsourcing most of the professional functions, virtual reference could allow organizations to realize tremendous savings in staff costs, even while they were improving access to library services and resources to your campus community.

Like I said, all of this is speculative at this point, and it will be some time before we know the fate of the campus library in the information age. But we may already be seeing some hints at the direction things are going: Take, for example, the development of services like Jones University's e-global library (which offers library services and content to colleges and universities over the Web), and the movement of some accreditation agencies to drop library requirements altogether. Whether these are harbingers of a new virtual future, or merely passing fads, it is still too early to tell. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that whatever direction we are going, we are going there pretty fast ... and it looks as if we are all in for a very interesting ride.*

To Contact the Companies

LivePerson, Inc.
330 W. 34th St., 10th Floor
New York, NY 10001

eshare communications, Inc.
(Atlanta Office—HQ)
5051 Peachtree Corners Circle
Norcross, GA 30092-2500

Virtual Reference Desk
Library Systems & Services, LLC
20250 Century Blvd.
Germantown, MD 20250

(now called Cisco Collaboration Server)
Cisco Systems, Inc.
170 West Tasman Dr.
San Jose, CA 95134

e-global library

Steve Coffman is the product development manager for LSSI (Library Systems & Services, LLC) and a well-known speaker and researcher on the topic of virtual reference services for libraries. Previously, he spent 15 years at the County of Los Angeles Public Library, where he was most recently the director of its business research service called FYI. Coffman has an M.L.S. from the University of California­Los Angeles. His e-mail address is
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