My Library School Experience: Distance Education

I have been struggling for a couple of months to actually write this point about distance education, trying to figure out what about my recent school experience has left me unsatisfied. It finally dawned on me that the distance program that I just completed had no soul, no personality and no heart – absolutely nothing to set it apart from any generic online classroom experience. I would like to believe that institutions of higher learning are not implementing distance programs solely as a means to increase revenue. However, it is awfully difficult to avoid this conclusion when faced with accounts of bad experiencesin the online arena.

To me, an education is so much more than just textbooks, reading the literature, writing papers and attending lectures. One can’t in any way discount the important of the academic piece, but neither should anyone rely upon it as the sole component. After much internal debate, I think this is where I see the biggest weakness of distance education programs. They tend to offer little to students outside of the curriculum. Somebody needs to understand that distance students have the same needs and expectations as traditional students, but that those needs have to be filled in different ways.

When one chooses a degree program, they look at many things besides academics. People look for opportunities outside of the classroom, opportunities to develop relationships with faculty and mentors, availability of career counselling, availability to help with academics and research, opportunities to interact with peer and other opportunities that augment and enhance the classroom experiences. These are the types of things that help keep students challenged and engaged. I am certainly not naive enough to expect that a distance education program can fulfill these things in the same manner than a traditional one can. However, it seems as if current programs are doing little to help round out the education experiences of distance students – especially distance students who are not ever able to make it to the physical campus.

This, of course, makes the online environment critical to distance students. Most programs have some type of online course management system to allow students to learn online. At SCSU, they currently use WebCT/Vista. I have to admit that I didn’t experience the level of technical frustrations with Vista as many of my classmates did. However, it is an awful tool – especially considering it is THE primary interface to the school for many distance students. This is THE face of the school. It was clunky, slow, and unattractive. It in no way promoted social interaction. People have commented to me that they do not think that the online course system is the place to encourage social interaction. But, as a student, if this is my primary interface with the college, this is where I want to interact with the school and its people.

Ultimately, I often felt like SCSU did not know what to do with its distance students. There was little infrastructure to support our needs (which I do not think are more important than traditional students – just different). There were several people at SCSU who made an extraordinary effort to help distance students and to make them feel valued. However, as a whole, neither the ILS department nor the school itself made much of an effort to include distance students in events outside of the classroom. Sadly, it seems as if this is a common problem to distance education in general. This is why I do not believe that distance education is quite ready for prime time. It needs to grow significantly – and hopefully mature a lot before it will even come close to offering students the same type of well-rounded education that traditional programs do.

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3 Responses to My Library School Experience: Distance Education

  1. Hello. I just started reading your blog, and thought I would comment on this post. I am currently a distance student in the University of Pittsburgh MLIS program.
    I’m sorry to hear about your bad experiences and I hope your institution can take your criticism constructively, and try to improve their services.

    I have had a very good experience so far in the Pitt program. They put a lot of thought and effort into developing a distance program that supports students, and have some professors there who throw a lot of their professional energy into this concept. There are glitches, or course, but I’ve never felt like they are not interested in fixing problems, and coming up with creative ways to fill some of the missing components of a distance experience that you are describing.

    I think that Pitt is a site of the type of maturation of distance programs you are talking about, and I would encourage anyone interested in this form of education to take a look at what they are doing.

    One of the things I have enjoyed in the distance program is the large variety of work experience that the students have. Distance lends itself well to people who already work in libraries and there also is a range of library types and geographical settings represented in the “classroom.” For me this has been a great learning experience, and something much more possible in a distance program. With professors and staff who are working to support the program, these are the kinds of educational benefits that can emerge.

    Thanks! -Katie

    PS – right there with you on the course management software, though. We use blackboard and it pales in comparison to almost every other website I use in my daily life in terms of usability and features. (not an rss feed in sight!)

  2. Toni says:

    Jennifer, I’ve been thinking back to my own SCSU experience recently because I’m now on the other side: I’m a distance learning librarian.

    One thing that impresses me about the program I now work with is that there is an entire team of administrators dedicated to the online learning experience. This is quite different from the CT State University online offerings because, at least when I was in the SCSU ILS program, there was one graduate program from each of the four CSU schools (Central, Eastern, Southern, and Western) offered in an online format.

    So, what’s different, and I think better, is that my school offers multiple online graduate programs through a centralized administrative office. They share a dean, and each program has multiple administrators (with different roles) for students to contact. And they collaborate. And they are all extremely dedicated to ensuring that instructors go above and beyond for their students. I could go on.

    Perhaps the ILS progam at SCSU would improve if there were more collaboration with the administrators of the other OnlineCSU programs: maybe students wouldn’t feel so alone if the program itself didn’t feel so alone.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Hi Katie,

    Thanks for the comment1 I am extremely encouraged to hear about your distance experiences at Pitt – and am glad to hear that there is a school out there that makes their distance students feel supported.

    I agree with you about the life experience of students in distance programs (not to say that this also isn’t present in traditional programs). We had students all over the world in our program. Some professors were able to highlight some of the more interesting experiences that students had – but as a whole, the school was not able to build upon the experiences of the distance student body.

    Yes, NO RSS!!! It is amazing. RSS feeds would be so helpful in the online course environment. I always thought that being able to subscribe to course discussions would make it easier to keep up with them!!!

    Toni, I’m glad to hear that you are using your experiences at SCSU to help in your job. It sounds like the school where you work is dedicated to its online program. I think you have a good point about collaboration among the CT state schools. There definitely needs to be some online/distance education department where students can turn to when they encounter problems.

    Thanks!
    -Jennifer

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