My Library School Experience: Distance Education

October 2, 2008

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.

What To Say?

April 16, 2008

This afternoon when I got home from work, a large envelope from SCSU was waiting for me in my mailbox. In it was the Noel-Levitz exit survey which the graduate school gives to all degree recipients and graduate candidates. Well, I’ve been thinking for quite a while about my entire graduate experience, trying to come up with what I would consider to be a fair assessment of my experience. Do I want to share how dissatisfied I am about many aspects of the distance program? If so, with whom? I am starting to be able to look back at those experiences that have bothered me with a little less emotion. But ultimately, I think it is important to voice my opinions in some way.

So, then came the survey. I filled it out this afternoon and have it ready to be mailed back to the school. Now, I know that the Noel-Levitz survey is standardized and that is not tailored to specific institutions. However, it is in no way geared to distance students. There were absolutely no questions about the online/distance experience. A piece of paper was included, and we were invited to write comments on it. I furiously scribbled all sorts of comments in my No. 2 pencil about the need to do some type of assessment targeted at distance students. I hope that others have done the same thing. I’m debating whether I should write a letter with some of my thoughts about my experiences and include it with the survey. I haven’t decided yet. I still need to concentrate on finishing my schoolwork – and making sure that all of my graduation requirements are met.

Random Technical Frustrations

February 7, 2008

Lately, I have been having serious bandwidth issues with my internet connection at home (Comcast is my ISP). These slowdowns seem to last for several days – and I’m starting to get frustrated. Both the email portal and online class portal that are used at Southern Connecticut are fairly intensive applications. They do work well when my internet connection is working at normal capacity. However, both perform pretty poorly when there is any type of bottleneck. Tonight, it took over 5 minutes to log into the MySCSU portal, and at least that long to open each successive page. It didn’t take quite as long to log into the eVista online classroom site. Yet, this site was also sluggish. I was not able to upload or download any files. Fortunately, I knew that I was having issues and remembered to upload my latest files before I left work. 

While mentally whining to myself about my internet issues, I realized that this is really the first time in my tenure at Southern that I have had any serious technical difficulties. Given that my entire experience has been online, I am actually fairly impressed by this. I do know that others at school have some issues, but overall, I have been extremely lucky. Also, I think that Southern has done a good job with the web-based applications that are used in their distance programs.

Hopefully, my bandwidth issues won’t continue. I’m afraid that I am going to have a very limited ability to deal with these frustrations this semester. I know that I do not need any additional frustrations if I want to survive the next three months with my sanity intact. Here’s hoping!

The Beginning Of The End . . .

January 21, 2008

My last class officially starts tomorrow. However, I have logged into the class and posted my introduction. I also started writing my first journal entry in which the professor requests that we discuss our opinions of online classes. It is due tomorrow. As I was working on the entry, I realized how much my overall thoughts about distance education have changed during my time at Southern and how mixed my emotions are on this subject. The bottom line? I seriously do not think that I would ever do an online program again. I might take an online class, but I would not enter a program unless a school had online tools to allow for student and professor interaction outside the classroom. There would need to be a good infrastructure dedicated to distance students – one that made them feel welcome and important. I found it very difficult to write the journal entry, to give form to my jumbled thoughts on this topic. I ended up saving it in draft form so that I can think more about it.

One of my biggest problems with my online program is the lack of community feeling. I know that I have been going to school. My stress levels can attest to that fact. Intellectually, I know that I am going to Southern Connecticut State University. I mean that is the school that is on my Visa bill – and the one that should be on my diploma. However, I feel no sense of belonging to any type of college community, feel no sense of connection the school and feel only limited connections to any peers or professors. While two years ago I probably would have said that this wouldn’t matter, I now believe that it is very important. I have missed this type of connection and do feel as if my degree program could have been so much more than it has been.

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!

Some Needed Inspiration Arrives

July 18, 2007

Yesterday was a fairly eventful day. Blog-wise, things were hopping. I shouldn’t have been suprised by this since anytime one gets mentioned by Meredith Farkas on Information Wants To Be Free, visits tend to skyrocket. I picked up some new readers, got some interesting and supportive comments and found some new educational blogs that are worth reading. Non-blog-wise, I felt the beginnings of a much needed attitude adjustment. I was quite humbled to have played any part in Meredith’s decision to pursue one of her dreams. Once I got over my amazement, I was so gratified to see some excitement over the possibilities in distance LIS education. There is so much room for improvement, and Meredith’s interest in getting involved makes me believe that it just might be possible. Seriously, this definitely helped to renew some interest in my own education – some badly needed interest.

I need to continue my quest to get the voices of distance students (and all students who take classes online) heard at SCSU. I will pursue this – regardless of the response from the dean. This is important. I will try to renew my interest in my education – to care about what I am studying. I will make it through – and I will be okay!

The Worst Part of Distance Education

July 13, 2007

Ever since Five Weeks to a Social Library took place, I have been seriously thinking about what it could mean for distance education. Obviously, I’m extremely interested in the current state of online education – and why it just doesn’t seem to be ready for prime time yet. I will admit that my experiences in a distance program over this past spring semester really highlighted the problems and issues that can make online classes so frustrating. Adding to this were some thought provoking blog posts from a couple of people involved in creating the Five Weeks experience – Meredith Farkas’ Two Models for the Future of Online Continuing Education at Techessence.Info and Michelle Boule’s Unsucking Online Education, Part One and Part Two on ALA’s Techsource blog. Primarily, both authors are interested in the ramifications of the Five-Weeks online education for continuing education – rather than for structured degree programs.

While I am excited about the prospects of such programs for continuing education, I honestly think that the Five-Weeks program could become a great model for distance, degree programs also. Let me tell you something, vendor-supplied course management systems are just as cumbersome and sucky as OPACs. No wait, let me amend that statement – they are much suckier than OPACs. They can be clunky, bloated, irritating to use, resource intensive, picky about platforms and browsers, unattractive and overwhelmingly unappealing. And, they are often THE primary interface that distance students to interface with their institution.

At SCSU, they use WebCT (the Vista release). I hate it. It is very spartan. It has no social functionality to promote student interaction (beyond the standard discussions and tough-to-use chat feature – which, trust me, do nothing to promote student socialization). It seems to use frames – this causes me frustrations when trying to wade through class discussions. When you click on a discussion posting to read (which displays in a pop up window), and then close the discussion, the web page has to repaint itself – marking the discussion as read. It is annoying, especially since it can often take several seconds. Also, when the page redisplays itself, it always returns to the top of the page – even if you had been reading a posting that was below to fold, so to speak. As such, reading discussion postings often requires a great deal of scrolling. This is especially problematic if one does not keep on top of the discussion postings. When I went to Las Vegas in early June, I didn’t log into WebCT for a week. It took me several painful hours to actually wade through all of the discussion postings. I am frustrated by the online course system more often than not. ARGH!

In opposition to this closed, difficult-to-use system, the Five Weeks class seemed to be such an open, social learning experience that had great participation. I realize that many professors might not care for such a public classroom setting, but I would think many would see the advantages to such an interactive experience – publicly available or not.  Amanda Etches-Johnson’s LIS757: Social Software & Libraries course is another example of this. Personally, I think this would be a wonderful way to learn – using blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and other social software tools – a wonderful way to interact with fellow students and professors. I find it impossible to build any type of decent relationship with professors in the current system. It is a bit sad that I have not developed any type of significant relationships with any of my professors – other than with my advisor (and I seriously need to write a post that is an ode to him at some point).

To me, the Five Weeks course and course sites like the one run by Amanda Etches-Johnson highlight how stagnant current course management systems can be. Learning via WebCT is not the most enriching educational experience that I have ever had. It will be almost all that I remember from my graduate experience at SCSU – which actually may make the entire time spent studying seem quite unreal once I finish. I would not do another distance program where the only interface was WebCT – no way. It does not even come close to capturing the realities of the face-to-face experience.

Distance education could be so much more than it currently is – so much more than it currently is at SCSU. There are so many great tools to enhance social interaction and learning – and I think we need to have these things incorporated into course management systems. What are we waiting for?

I Did It . . . Finally!

May 24, 2007

I just emailed a letter to the Dean of the School of Information, Communication and Library Science at SCSU. I had initially sent him an inquiry at least a month ago, and he asked for the issues that I would like to have addressed. With the end of the semester, I had to push it off a bit – and really, I needed some space and some distance from this past semester. Once things quieted down, I began to second guess myself, question whether I wanted to continue to push things, and think about climbing back into my shell and just powering through the rest of the program. I definitely got the impression that several people would be very happy if I just let things go. Fortunately, I had the support of my advisor and with some subtle (so subtle he might even have realized that he was doing so) prodding on his part, I made myself revisit the whole thing. I determined that I needed to say something. We (students) can sit back and complain incessantly about things we think are unfair, wrong or unclear. However, how do people know what is wrong if people don’t tell them? I don’t want to be someone that just accepts status quo. If they will let me, I want to be an agent of positive change – to make things better – to make the education experience more rewarding. Along with some help from Pink and my new favorite song, U + Ur Hand, I got myself fired up again.

So, it is done. I wrote the letter – and we shall see.

Distance Learning & Quality

May 9, 2007

In the recently released issue of Educause Quarterly (Volume 30, Number 2, 2007), Stephen R. Ruth, Martha Sammons and Lindsey Poulin examine the current state of distance learning in an article titled “E-Learning at at Crossroads – What Price Quality?” One of the things that I found very helpful about this article is the section with demographic statistics about online learning enrollment in the U.S. – including the fact that there are about 3 million students (out of 17 million total) enrolled in online programs. While a good portion of these students are studying in community college, approximately 1/3 (or 1 million students) are in graduate programs. The authors then go one to look at several areas that they believe will provide significant challenges to distance programs: use of part-time and non-Ph.D.’d instructors, overall quality of programs, incentives for faculty to teach online programs, faculty productivity and an atmosphere of innovation at the administrative level.

The article is worth a read for anyone interested in distance learning. I can say that I honestly wasn’t aware that some institutions have a great deal of difficulty getting established faculty to teach online – which can often lead to a greater number of adjunct faculty having to teach the online classes. I was also amazed at the number of students taking classes from non-accredited, online programs. This seems to be a large problem – especially for distance business programs where the top three online programs, in terms of enrollment, are not accredited.

These are exciting times in postsecondary education, and there’s probably no issue more significant than the dramatic proliferation of e-learning. The foresight and innovative spirit of academic administrators will determine whether the next few years of e-learning are characterized by discipline, efficiency, and attention to quality—or unbridled growth, decreases in graduation rates, and fragmented service.

Here, they stress the need for an innovative spirit in order for online programs to distinguish themselves. This part caught my attention. Innovation will be the ways the schools and programs distinguish themselves from the crowd. It isn’t enough for schools to take their traditional classes and just put them online. In order to succeed in the long run, online programs need to be better.

Some Thoughts on My Program:

SCSU’s MLS program is accredited by the American Library Association – that much I did check before I applied. Fortunately, there is not a significant percentage of adjunct faculty or instructors versus full-time faculty. So far, all of the classes that I have taken have been taught by full-time, tenured instructors that teach both online and face-to-face classes. However, this was not something that I thought to check before I enrolled. I guess students ought to add these items to the list when exploring and comparing distance programs.

Distance Education & The Library – Web Resources

May 4, 2007

These are web resources that I used for my recent paper on the impact of distance education on the academic library for ILS560-College & University Libraries.

College & University Distance Education Websites

Other Web Resources