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!

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!

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.

Online Education: Things That Work & Things That Don’t

April 11, 2007

Over on the blog SLIS Associate Director: Discussions on a Curriculum for a 21st CenturyLibrary School, there is a bit of discussion about things that work well and things that work poorlyin online classes – and it looks like the comments are from students. I have to agree with most all of the comments expressed. Even more, I love the fact that students and the administration at San Jose State University are having these conversations!!!!

How To Make The Most of Distance Education

March 21, 2007

Recent events at SCSU have been making me think seriously about how students can optimize their distance education experience. It is undoubtedly may well be true that students in online classes should be prepared to take greater responsibility for their own education than their counterparts in face-to-face classes and that they may be required to extremely resourceful to make the most of their program. This is an important point for people to consider before applying to a distance program. The ability to discipline oneself is critical to finding success. There are many distractions at home – family, the tv, the telephone, the refrigerator, etc. – so that finding time can be difficult.

Support for distance students can be very different than for on-campus students, especially if one attends a program where there are no residency requirements or established cohorts. At SCSU, it is extremely easy to apply and start taking classes. If accepted, one is in. It becomes more problematic when students have questions, need help and/or want to talk to someone. There is no general orientation. Students don’t really “meet” unless they are in class together. There isn’t much opportunity to officially bond outside of class. It can take one a while to get comfortable with the system and understand how it works.

However, there are advantages to a program like the one at SCSU. There are no residency requirements, so one never has to set foot on campus. Courses generally don’t require any live meeting times for chats, etc. This program is incredibly convenient, and for me that was the bottom line when choosing a program. It has been a challenge to adapt to learning online, but a rewarding one (for the most part).

So, how does one make the most of distance education? Here are some my suggestions – in no particular order:

  1. Create a blog– There are some wonderful online communities that can offer great support. Some of the people that I have relied most heavily upon are fellow bloggers who aren’t associated with SCSU. Other bloggers are often willing to help answer questions, offer stories of their own educational experiences and act as sounding boards. If you do know some students in your distance program, try and start blogging together. You might be surprised how quickly a community could evolve and expand. I think this would be a wonderful project for newly accepted students into any MLS program.
  2. Make friends with the distance education librarian – You may encounter all sorts of situations where you need some guidance. Distance education librarians can really help and not just with library questions – even if only to point you to the right person on campus. There may be problems with the course management system, questions about classes or registration, or confusion over student services and how they relate to distance students.
  3. Research the faculty– Relationships with faculty will be key. It can be very difficult to develop a rapport with any individuals in the program – especially faculty. Chances are you won’t learn much about professors until you actually take their classes. It will be critical that you have a good relationship with your advisor. Determining faculty research interests before you apply can help you determine which professor your interests coincide with most closely – and help you figure out where you should be going to school.
  4. Get to know your advisor early– You will need to rely upon your advisor a great deal. Make sure you are comfortable with the advisor you have been assigned. Don’t be afraid to ask for another advisor if you think that would be best.
  5. Don’t be afraid to get a bit personal in course discussions – This is really a good way to let a bit of your personality shine into the digital world. Otherwise, you may never really get to know your fellow students – or your professors. You may feel a bit left out if you don’t develop some personal ties. Honestly, I was very hesitant to join in on discussions that seemed to consist of mostly banter during my first semester. As such, I didn’t really develop any friendships in that class.
  6. Don’t give up – keep asking questions– Distance students can feel left out or a bit removed from things that take place on campus. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a little bit of work to get questions answered sometimes. It isn’t always straightforward to figure out where to direct questions. Fellow students sometimes may be the best resource you have.
  7. Create a comfortable school-work zone – You will need a place at home where you do your school work. I found it helpful to designate a spot as a study/work zone – where I had all of my books, articles and notebooks (yes, paper is still key for me). My husband quickly came to understand that when I was in this zone, I was doing homework – and should not be disturbed unless necessary (He learned that helping him locate his shoes did not qualify – and that “YES, you need to answer the phone”). I also had to learn to be clear with my family about my due dates and what days I wanted to reserve for homework. There were things I couldn’t do without adequate time for scheduling. One caveat: you don’t want your work zone to be too comfortable. I made that mistake also and learned that almost everything is more exciting that homework (including napping).

Update: I added to this list. I noticed last night that some things were missing from the original post. I would love to blame WordPress, but sadly think it was user error!

Working Together – It’s Good For You

March 15, 2007

On Monday evening, I put together (with lots of help of several of my wonderful colleagues from school) all of the concerns and suggestions that students from SCSU put together last weekend on a wiki that I specifically created for this purpose. I added a cover sheet and sent the email off to the ILS department chair. On Tuesday, the chair sent an email acknowledging receipt of documents that I had sent and explaining that she did intend to share the information with the ILS faculty at the meeting that afternoon. She also mentioned some suggested times that might work to get local students to meet with the faculty. One of the other faculty sent me an email on Wednesday with some positive feedback about the document. Given that I had an immediate feeling of “Oh-my-goodness-what-did-I-just-do?” once I emailed the document, this feedback calmed me down considerably.

After a bit of rest from the whole subject, I regrouped a bit. I sent an email to the student listserv today asking students if they were interested in a meeting with the faculty and if so, if one of the suggested meetings times that the chairperson suggested would work. This definitely sparked some serious debate. Distance students feel a bit left out (which I entirely understand and agree with). Others think that meeting with the faculty in late May or over the summer is too late – and that this will let too much time pass between now and then. I’m not entirely sure where all this will go, but I’m trying to give students the opportunity to speak out.

I’m still amazed at how many students have banded together to work together in this project. I’ve been in contact with more SCSU students over the past week than ever before. It has been exhausting in the extreme – and a tad bit stressful. Currently, I’m in the process of cleaning up the wiki that I created so that I can publish the URL to the student listserv. Hopefully, this will encourage continued participation. I’ve also created a new blog that I can use to keep everyone in the MLS program at SCSU informed. Boy, no wonder I’m exhausted!

It Is All Coming Together

March 12, 2007

I’m in the final stages of putting together the document that contains student concerns about online classes at SCSU for the department chair. It has been a rather time consuming task that has had some ups and downs. Some students have expressed concerns about anonymity – not wanting it to be known that they were involved in the process, others thought some of this might have been prompted by one event and others weren’t exactly sure what we were doing. I have been extremely anxious about student reactions to the wiki and incredibly careful to try and not make people uncomfortable (hopefully, I succeeded). Overall, everyone who contacted me with questions, however, was extremely polite and positive – even if they wanted out. But in the end, I worked with about 30 people – 28 of whom are current students and 2 that are recent graduates of the program.

Since I started in the program, I have keenly felt the lack of community for the students. To combat this feeling, I’ve been doing quite a bit to find some way to help students find a sense of camaraderie amidst the impersonal communication that can permeate the online world. Ironically, this entire discussion about these concerns has been a massive exercise in helping to build a sense of community among many of us in the program. I’ve been working more closely with a handful of students – those who took time to edit the wiki that I created, proof read the document that I wrote and took lots of time to say thank you. I would love to say thank you back to them.

Ultimately, whatever the outcome of our attempt to get our voices heard, I would have to say that this effort has been successful. We are working as a community to try and accomplish something positive. We have bonded. And, I have never felt more a part of SCSU than I do today.

I’m So Far Out Of My Comfort Zone

March 10, 2007

Life has been crazy, crazy, crazy. Without quite knowing how this happened, I got myself involved with many MLS students at SCSU who have serious issues and complaints about some of the online classes. Last week, there was a rash of emails on the student listserv with various complaints – most of which were well thought out emails rather than diatribes. I participated in the discussion and tried to promote the group that I created on Facebook in order to find some way for students to openly discuss these issues in a forum without faculty or administrators. Several people joined the group. We had all sorts of issues with people who couldn’t join the group, and it became apparent that this isn’t the best avenue for such an online community.

A bit later, one of my current professors mentioned (in both a class discussion and on the student listserv) that there would be an ILS department faculty meeting coming up – and that the issues raised on the listserv by the students were on the agenda. She suggested that someone might want to email the department chair to ask about avenues for student participation. So, I felt compelled to do something. Without a doubt, the online classes need some improvement (not so much in terms of academic rigor, in my opinion). Complaining about this is easy. Taking a step forward to try and effect change in a positive and constructive manner isn’t so easy. However, this seemed to be an opportunity to get our voices heard – one that shouldn’t be passed up.

So, I stepped forward and emailed the department chair. The chair responded quite quickly and asked for a list of concerns and suggestions that she could distribute to the faculty. I was pleasantly surprised by the email – and really thought that this was something that I could easily do. Of course, I think that the document that I send to the faculty should come from as many students as possible. In the spirit of trying to get input and cooperation from other interested parties, I set up a wiki. I added the list of issues that students had emailed both to the listserv and to me personally. I then emailed the student listserv inviting students to participate. I sent the wiki url and password to students individually who expressed interest. Some students were concerned about faculty and administrators having access. Of course, the wiki is publicly available, but I figured if I didn’t advertise the url access would be somewhat limited.

Response has been great – better than I expected. I have about 25 students who are interested in being a part of this (some anonymously). Several have already edited the wiki and added to the list of concerns, commented, etc. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to monitor the site, add concerns and make other changes. I’ve found some good web sites about support services for distance students and some good historical information about SCSU’s online program that I have added. I’m not entirely sure that I wanted to unofficially head this mission. However, here I am doing it – and ultimately, it is important that distance student (and any taking online classes) feel like they are connected to program and that they have a voice. I hope that this is a good first start in that direction. But, I’m exhausted and I still have lots of work to do to actually put together a coherent and well-worded document.

 How did I become the point person on all of this?????