Library Education In The Online Environment

August 12, 2007

In a comment on my I’m Ready To Throw In The Towel post, Joe wrote:

As someone considering a degree in library science via an online program, I would like you to perhaps post on what problems exist and how they relate in a larger sense to the problem of educating librarians in cyberspace. I’m very familiar with online courses and have taken many over the years. I always feel the instructor makes the course. I’m just wondering about the problems of library education in online environments.

I didn’t really want my response to be buried in the comments, so decided to respond in a separate post.

First, it is important for me to note that the only type of online classes I have taken have been library science ones. When I decided to pursue my MLS, I knew I would be doing so in an online program. There was no question of this. I chose to study at SCSU for several reasons – there were no residency requirements, the cost was affordable, and finally, the school was within driving distance in case something happened and I did need to go to campus. Because I was nervous about the online format, I registered for a class in the fall of 2005 before I was accepted into the program. This turned out the be both the best and worst thing that I did. The best because I took the class with the professor who would turn out to be my advisor – with whom I have tried to take as many classes as possible. The worst because the class was so well taught that I assumed this would be the norm. It wasn’t. I decided to attend SCSU’s program based upon how excellent this online class was.

Despite the fact that I haven’t taken other types of online classes, it seems to me that the challenges in providing a decent online programs are probably fairly consistent across disciplines. I have no reason to assume that some of the problems in my distance program are solely confined to the ILS department. There aren’t any forums, services, programs, etc. that bring together all distance students at SCSU, so I haven’t discussed this with any students outside of the MLS program. However, the fact that there aren’t any forums, services or programs targeted to distance student indicates that the distance programs don’t have a strong infrastructure.

As for Joe’s comment about the professor making the course, I do have to agree. Professors have the most control over specific classes – and they have the ability to make a class an agonizing experience (as well as a fabulous one). But, one thing I have learned over the past couple of years is that there is much more than the class experience to a program. Programs need administrative support – and they need support for student services. Without this type of committed infrastructure, distance students have no means of feeling grounded within the program – no means of feeling as if they are a part of the larger school community. This is what I think is missing at Southern.

With all this in mind, my recommendation to people considering enrolling a distance MLS program is to understand what one needs out of a program. Do you have experience working in libraries? Do you need to develop contacts in the library world? It may be more difficult to do some of these things in an online environment. I have found that it is much harder to foster relationships with professors, librarians and administrators online. It may not be easy for distance students to use some of the job placement, resume and job fair services. It can be harder for distance students to network with their professors and with their peers. All of this can be done, but some schools offer more support to distance students than others.

I would think the best way to know how much support is available for distance students would be to try to talk to current students. How do you find them? Southern has a listserv that prospective students can join – I’m sure others have similar things. Join the newlib listserv. There are many current students and recent graduates on this list. Join the LIS students network on Ning. Try and talk to several students – people all have different reactions to things. Get the name of good professors – email them and see what the response is. If I were to apply to an MLS program again, I would definitely do more research. Of course, the best way to learn is probably to take a class.

Joe, I hope this provides some helpful information. I would think that your experience with online classes will give you an idea of what is important to you in your education. Best of luck!