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.


My Library School Experience: The Ugly

September 17, 2008

Writing these wrap-up posts on my educational experience has been much harder than I anticipated. All in all, I tend to be a person that actively tries to find the best in every situation and tries to forget about anything bad or contentious. A big part of me wanted to stop after I wrote My Library School Experience: The Good. I didn’t want to relive some of the more difficult moments; I didn’t want to get bogged down in the negativity; and I wasn’t sure if I could write about some of these things without being too emotional. Ultimately, I decided that I’d already written about most of the ugly experiences in earlier posts – and that some serious reflection on these experiences could be a good thing. Hopefully, this post doesn’t make me sound whiny, bitter and/or pissy. I’m trying to be fair. However, these Ugly experiences are ones that I found to be truly unacceptable in a graduate program that cost me a significant amount of money – regardless of the mode of instruction.

The Ugly Classes:

I consider 3 out of the 12 classes that I took to be not in any way worth the money that I spent on them. I think it is important to note that 2 of these classes were required or core courses (reference and cataloging). In my second semester, I took the first of the three classes. I was horrified by the class. It seemed to me that the professor was barely present. She did not participate in any discussions (which seems to be somewhat normal in distance education – and I don’t get it). She was slow in responding to emails and even very slower in returning work. I know that professors might not think this way, but it was vitally important to me that my first assignment with a new professor be graded (with helpful feedback) prior to the due date of the second assignment. In a distance class, there is no opportunity to “read” the teacher. There is no way to glean what the professor might be looking for by listening to him/her or by interacting in face-to-face discussions.

When there are only 4 graded assignments which make up one’sfinal grade, I think that students must receive some type of feedback before successive assignments are due. When assignments were returned, there was very little feedback. With no feedback and no teacher participation in discussions, it didn’t seem as if there was any personality in the class. Where was the expertise of the professor? I never saw it. I remember talking to my Mom about this class at one point, and I know that I told her that this was the worst class I had ever had the misfortune to take. I wasn’t kidding. Little did I know that it would get worse.

During the next two semesters, I had two more classes with another professor that seemed as if they were self-taught tutorials. During the summer session class, which began on the Tuesday after Memorial Day Weekend, the professor sent us all an email on the first day of class asking us to let him know that we were able to get into the course site. Each week, lecture notes and assorted information for that unit were made available in the course site. I, personally, did not hear from the again professor until he returned the first graded assignment on July 29th (which as due roughly a month before).

Essentially, there were two months without any type of direct contact from the professor. Several students mentioned that they had sent the professor emails, and did not hear back from him until weeks later. I was blown away by this. I never specifically received a grade on the other three assignments or the final exam – only a final course grade. I didn’t know what to think. I could only hope that no school would think this is acceptable behavior on the part of a faculty member. Certainly when I wrote a letter to the ILS department chair, she seemed to take my complaints seriously. Of course, I’m not sure that there is anything a chairperson can do other than simply talk to a tenured faculty member.

Regardless, I had the same professor for a class that fall. While his grading time frame was a slightly better, he was still a non-existent entity in the class. All three of these classes were a waste of my time and roughly $4000.00 of my money. These are definitely examples of the worst that distance education has to offer.

The ILS Administration:

I hate to taint the entire ILS administration here, but when the dean of the school blatantly ignores a letter that a student sends (twice), it sends a rather negative message. As part of an effort to put together some concerns and problems that were specific to distance students, I worked with a fairly decent size group of students and recent graduates (as many as 60 at one point). As a result, I wrote a letter and emailed it to the professor who was the chair of the ILS department. She was quite receptive to the letter, and it seemed to be a good starting point for a discussion.

Things, however, went quickly downhill and some serious us vs. them vibes sprung up with angry students and some defensive professors. I felt awful about the entire situation. However, I believed (and still do) that there were some serious problems that really needed to be aired. With that in mind, I emailed the dean asking if I could send him a letter with some of my concerns and those from other students. He responded quite quickly in a positive manner. I emailed him the letter that I had written with absolutely no reply, not even an acknowledgement.

With the understanding that people could have busy schedules, vacations, email problems and other freak things happen, I emailed him at least a month later with the same result. I discovered from another source that he had received my email. To me, this was the low point of my entire time at SCSU. Whether this was intentional or not, this experience was the one that truly made me believe that concerns of distance students were not even on the radar screen of the administration. This was a huge blow that made me feel as if I was not even an insignificant part of the SCSU community. This is where I decided that I needed to remove myself from the effort to get the voices of distant students heard. I will admit that this failure to offer any type of response to my letter will always color my view of my time at SCSU in a negative way. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it.


My Library School Experience: The Bad

September 16, 2008

 

The Distance Education Infrastructure

After having completed a program online, my thoughts about distance education are rather jumbled. Online classes are highly convenient – and I will be the first to admit that this fact can overshadow the many problems that I think plague distance programs. I have to say that I would not have gotten my MLS if it had not been for the availability of an entirely online program. I do not live close enough to Simmons College or the University of Rhode Island to attend face-to-face classes on either campus. (For reference, I live roughly half way between Boston and Providence. Plenty of people that I know do travel to Boston for school. However, it is not something that I was ever willing to do.) As such, I only considered programs that I could complete online without any type of residency requirement.

While I do not regret having attended SCSU, I do consider the distance education component of the program to be one of the bad parts of my experience. I do not think this is solely an issue at SCSU. I have come to suspect that the types of problems that I had may be inherent to the way that most online programs are conducted.

I plan to dissect the issues that I had with the distance education part of the program in a separate post.

Online Information Systems for Students

One critical issue for distance students is finding out what they need to know when they need to know it. I will be the first to admit that I did take my first class before I was accepted into the program. When I made that choice, I did not expect that I would receive any type of orientation or welcome packet. However, I did have some expectation of this once I was formally accepted into the program. Instead, I received a letter of acceptance, information about filling out my planned program and the contact information for my advisor (which was hands down the most valuable piece of information).

Throughout the course of the program, I was often confused about the graduation requirements, the capstone portfolio, the special project and the planned program. It was never clear where to go to get my questions answered. While I was in the program, the graduation requirements changed. I was unaware to this change for quite some time. Fortunately, the change simplified the course requirements which made following the new guidelines desirable. However, these changes were not publicized. If not for the fact that I made and and effort to keep in touch with my advisor, I would not have known about the changes.

It is important to mention that there was some talk from the ILS department chairperson about trying to institute an orientation for new students. I believe that at the time, it was only for people who could come to campus. I hope that somebody is able to push that idea. I could not continue to discuss with the chairperson because of my frustration with the ILS administration (more on this in the ugly post).

Another major issue when I began the program was the Information and Library Science website. The website was difficult to use; it had broken links; and it did not have a section for the distance students. It was not a good resource for students. I expected that the ILS website would be my primary contact point for all school-related concerns – and that I would be able to use it as a resource to answer the majority of the questions that I would have. This was not the case.

Again, I want to note that the ILS website was redesigned during my time at SCSU. The new site was a definite improvment, and it even included a section dedicated to distance learning. There was an effort made to survey students for input – including distance students – for this redesign. This new site was a definite improvement. It had much more information – and I think it would have made a more positive impact on my educational experience had it been implemented sooner.

Lack of Community Feeling

To this day, I don’t feel any sense of belonging to SCSU. There was never any opportunity to bond with the school in any substantial way. Given that this is my only full experience in a graduate program, I don’t really know whether graduate students develop a sense of loyalty to their school. My intuition tells me that they probably do to some degree. However, I feel a large disconnect to SCSU, the ILS department and its community. I often felt as if the school as a whole did not really care about their distance students (certainly there were individuals who cared, but not the school in general). Sometimes, it seemed that online classes were primarily a way to increase revenue rather than extend the educational mission. The bottom line is that I do not feel any sense of loyalty to SCSU like I do my undergraduate institution. I do not know if the Alumni Relations Department cares or not, but I am highly unlikely to make any monetary contributions.

I doubt that it is easy to work at developing a way for all students to develop some sense of community in the virutal world for a large university. However, in this day in age of social software, social networking sites and Web 2.0, it certainly isn’t a unknown concept. I felt as if the program definitely suffered because there was no way for distance students to interact with those at the physical campus except through email. There was something missing from the overall experience. I attended classes; I did my homework; I interacted with a couple faculty and a couple students; and that is about it. I would have liked to have gotten more from my time at SCSU.


My Library School Experience: The Good

September 1, 2008
  • My Library School Experience: A Wrap Up
  • My Library School Experience: The Great
  • My Library School Experience: The Good
  • My Library School Experience: The Bad
  • My Library School Experience: The Ugly
  • I have to say that I consider the majority of my library school experiences to be good ones. I do have a couple of notes or caveats about this categorization. Good is a very difficult word to define. I think that people (and I do include myself in this group) use good to mean a variety of things. In this post, good may mean adequate, average, acceptable, fine, ok, or some other comparable word. I have lumped many experiences into the category. To men, this means that these experiences were as I expected them to be. They were at the very least acceptable. Some might have been better than others also labeled as good, but they were all good experiences. Even more so, they were all positive experiences.

    The second point that I want to make is with my claim that the majority of the experiences were good. By majority, I do not mean that over 50% were good. Rather, I mean that of the four categories I am using (excellent, good, bad and ugly) to evaluate my overall experience, more of those experiences fell into the good category than the others. This is by no means scientific. Admittedly, I don’t intend to write about every aspect of my time at library school or to quantify these. My notion that the majority of my experiences were good is a personal judgement.

    So on to the good:

    The Classes and the Curriculum

    Overall, I generally liked the curriculum in SCSU’s MLS program. I did find he four introductory classes to be rather basic. However, when I started the program, I had been working as a professional librarian for over five years. The curriculum in those classes was appropriate for people learning to be a librarian. It centered around customer service, patron-centered service, ethical concerns and library history. I probably should have looked at a program that would have given me credit for work experience. I would have found it more useful to be able to take other classes instead of these. Side Note: most of these classes were not a loss. I did learn things in most of them.

    My favorite classes in the program were the management ones. I made a conscious efforts to take as many as I could (which comes to three – Library Management, College and University Libraries and Library Personnel Management) because I know that management is one of my weakest areas even as it is an important component to my current job. Not only were these classes especially helpful, some of the assignments in these classeswere my favorites. Some of these included an in-basket exercise where we had to sort through several emails waiting for a library director on a Monday morning and decide how to deal with them; a statistical analysis of a library using National Center for Education Statistics data to compare data to that of peer libraries; an exercise to write an employee handbook for all employees of a specific type of library; and an assignment to design a performance management system for a library staff. These assignments were all very practical in nature and required thought and attention rather than extensive research. I learned a great deal from these more practical-type assignments.

    While I do not think that I can adequately (or impartially) assess the level of technology in the curriculum (due to the fact that technology is my area of expertise in the library field), I did take two technology-related classes: Digital Libraries and Information Architecture. Each class was well worth taking – and very important to learning about and understanding the library landscape. I would have loved to have taken several other technology-related classes, but they did not fit into my schedule.

    While there has been some debate about the state of library education, I am overall happy with the curriculum. I think that the practicalities of technology need to be included in greater depth, but I’m not sure how to accomplish that. Personally, I believe that technical competencies are critical to the survival of libraries, but am starting to believe that this is something that may need to be imparted on the job.

    Administrative People at SCSU – including Library Staff at the Buley Library

    As a distance student, one of the more difficult things to figure out was who to go to when I had a problem. Fortunately, the people that I had to contact to resolve issues or to ask questions were always responsive – and better yet, always gave me the right answers. Specifically, I had a couple of issue for which I had to deal with the people in the Registrar’s Office. In one case, no none I spoke to knew what the problem was. However, one wonderful woman in the Registrar’s Office (who deals with graduate students with the last names starting with M-Z) figured everything out for me.

    Also, the women who worked in the MLS office as administrative assistants warrant mention. There were two women who worked in the office during my time at SCSU, and they were so helpful. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have been able to graduate if they hadn’t been willing to help me figure out what I needed to do – especially when applying to the program and when trying to figure out how to actually graduate.

    One of the other seemless services was that offered by the Buley Library. While I never had to set foot in the library, I did use their collection and their services. ILL was easy. Using the library’s electronic collections was also easy. I admit that I already knew how to use their proxy server to access their databases (since the library where I work uses the same service via the same integrated library system), but I never had any problems getting to the databases that I needed to use.

    The Majority of the Faculty

    While I had some awful experiences with some of the professors at SCSU, I took classes with 6 different professors. One of them was excellent – far beyond the others. Three were very good (and yes, they get put in the good). And two? I can’t discuss them quite yet. As a whole, the faculty were intelligent people who cared about the education of their students – who cared about the world of libraries and imparted that care to their students. Faculty, in my opinion, can make or break an education. For a while, I did think that my awful experiences would outweigh the positive ones. However, that was not the case. I do think that some of the faculty had problems or issues teaching in the online environment, but that may have more to do with the issues surrounding distance education itself rather than specific deficits on their part. The bottom line is that I am happy with the majority of professors with whom I studied.

    So, the good was good. And overall, I would say that my education at SCSU was a good one – and I can live with that!


    I Almost Made it to SCSU!

    August 5, 2008

    Thinking back, I’m pretty sure that during the 2 1/2 years that I attended Southern Connecticut State University, I never actually set foot in the state of Connecticut – never mind made it to New Haven. So, I find if fairly ironic that I’m writing much of my library school recap while in a hotel in Hamden, CT. I’m currently attending a training class on load profiles for my library system at another university – which if Google Maps is correct is only about 16 miles away. I actually came close to SCSU when I was out looking for something to have for dinner. Someday, I’m going to have to actually make it to campus.

    As a side note, I’m very appreciative of the free internet access at the hotel. While I was in Seattle and Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, I refused to pay for internet access because I thought it was way too expensive. Internet access makes me happy!


    My Library School Experience: The Great

    August 5, 2008

  • My Library School Experience: A Wrap Up
  • My Library School Experience: The Great
  • My Library School Experience: The Good
  • My Library School Experience: The Bad
  • My Library School Experience: The Ugly
  • A Wonderful Sense of Accomplishment & Personal Fulfillment:

    One of the things that prompted me to write this post now is my own reaction to receiving my diploma in the mail last week. I was utterly surprised by the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that I felt when I saw the actual piece of paper for the first time. Regardless of the worth of the program, the value of the MLS, the positive experiences or the negative ones, I am deeply proud of myself for going to graduate school and completing the MLS program at SCSU. It wasn’t easy. I learned a great deal. There were many challenges, and I think that I met them in a appropriate manner. Personally, I got something important and fulfilling out of my graduate school experience – and this is worth a great deal to me.

    Also, I was going through this blog last week, reading some of the posts about my negative experiences at SCSU. More about some of these will come when I get to the Ugly post. However, I was reminded about something my mom said to me once when I was talking to her about a particularly awful class that I had when I was in college. My mom told me that she agreed with me about the quality of the class (it was a dogmatic ethics class based in theology where there was no room for discussion or disagreement – something with which I was quite uncomfortable), but she thought I should try to look at the experience in a different light. From her perspective, she saw the hours and hours that I spent talking about the class with her and my dad – discussing my thoughts about the course material; arguing why the professor’s logic was faulty; developing my own sense of what it meant to be ethical. Possibly without meaning to, that professor made me think more than most others. My mom was right. There is something critical to be learned from bad experiences. I can’t change the bad experiences, the bad classes, the bad professors, but I can take something positive from them and try to learn from them. As I thought back to this discussion with my mom, I realized that I did learn something from each bad experience at SCSU. These experiences did not ruin my education. They changed the direction that my education took. Would I pay for some of the classes that I took again? Absolutely NOT! Despite this fact, I did use the bad experiences to make the rest of my journey a more fulfilling one. I gave more of myself to my remaining classes because it was important that I not let myself get mired in negativity.

    My Advisor – Dr. James Kusack:

    The unsung hero of my graduate school experience is my advisor, Dr. James Kusack (I did ask if I could mention him by name). I feel truly lucky to have worked with him and even luckier to have studied with him. He is a wonderful teacher – and way by far the best teacher from my time at SCSU in the online environment. He was engaged in each class that I took with him; he participated actively in online discussion; he was incredibly responsive to student inquiries; he graded assignments with tremendous speed, yet in such a way that revealed he had indeed taken time to read the submissions; he gave tremendous feedback at every opportunity; and he seemed to truly enjoy teaching. I agonized over many of his assignments – mostly since many of his management exercises seemed to overlap with the reality of daily life in an academic library. However, I learned a great deal from them.

    I’m not sure that I was able to appropriately than Dr. Kusack. I came close to leaving the program last summer – mostly because there were several months where I really believed that many of the ILS administrators at SCSU had little regard for the distance ILS program and its students. Dr. Kusack reminded me that there were people at SCSU that did care, and I am extremely grateful for this. I do wish that I could have taken a face-to-face class with Dr. Kusack. It is very strange to get to know people without ever having met them in the physical world. Regardless, Dr. Kusack was one of the best experiences from my time at SCSU.

    ILS680 – Evaluation & Research & The Research Project:

    The thing that surprised and shocked me the most was ILS680-Evaluation & Research. I can tell you that I was petrified about taking this class. Students talked about how difficult this class was – and I got too caught up in that. Additionally, I wasn’t entirely sure how valuable a research class would actually be. After all, I was a history major in college – and had written many, many research papers in my day. This meant that I was expecting the class to be lots and lots of work with little reward. Boy, was I wrong. ILS680 ended up being my favorite class. It was extremely difficult. There was so much work to do in a short amount of time. However, the professor had a suggested timeline. I admit that I got sidetracked a couple of times, but I was able to get myself back on track.

    Additionally, writing the paper for this class was extremely fulfilling. I was so utterly amazed – and happy – with the end result. As I think I have mentioned before, this was the perfect ending to my MLS experience. It really served as a capstone experience for which I was able to pull together much of what I had learned.

    So really, I did have some great experiences!


    My Library School Experience: A Wrap-Up

    August 4, 2008

    I’ve been meaning to do some wrap-up posts about library school for several months. I specifically made myself wait a bit because I felt that some time away would help me put the experience in perspective – in a more balanced perspective. This was a good decision on my part, because I think that I’ve been able to look back at both the good and the bad experiences with a little less emotion (ok, a lot less emotion).

    So, I’m working on a review of sorts of my educational experience. The first part is broken down into four sections: the great, the good, the bad and the ugly. I can be specific because these posts are mostly written – or at the very least outlined in my head. I have some vague future plans to then write some posts (maybe only one) about the curriculum itself, a post about how the MLS program relates to (or doesn’t relate to) practicing librarianship and then a post about my overall reaction to distance education.

    I’m not entirely sure how long it will take. It is August already and the misery of getting ready for back to school at my place of work has begun. I expect to overwhelmed and overworked as usual. At least I don’t have to worry about going back to school myself. Yeah! 🙂