From a Distance

Library professionals have long been at the forefront of information technology

September 22, 2009

As of November 2008, there were 62 ALA-accredited MLS graduate programs offered by 57 U.S. and Canadian institutions of higher education; 50 of these programs either teach their curricula entirely online (see box) or offer a blend of face-to-face and online courses.

A study released this spring by the U.S. Department of Education jibes well with this trend in LIS education. According to a May USDOE report titled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, online learning has definite advantages for students over face-to-face instruction. The DOE summary concludes that “instruction conducted wholly online was more effective in improving student achievement than the purely face-to-face.”

“This new report reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a June 26 statement, urging educators to consider the study’s findings.

The increase in the number of adults earning degrees online is nothing short of remarkable, according to a 2008 Sloan Consortium report. Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 stated that approximately 3.94 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2007 term—an increase of nearly 13% over the number of online students Sloan-C documented for 2006. Moreover, the 12.9% rise in online enrollment far exceeds the 1.2% increase in the student population registered for higher education, according to Sloan-C.

Expanded opportunites

Interest in the MLS degree will no doubt continue, as employment opportunities in the library and information science job sector are projected to experience positive growth in coming years, according to data reported by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (sector analyses for 2006 to 2016), United States Bureau of Labor Occupational Employment Statistics, and reports from the American Library Association.

Eduventures, a higher-education research and consulting firm, estimated in a January report prepared for Drexel University Online that more than 21,400 graduate students will be enrolled in a fully or blended online MLS program in 2009, and that nearly 7,300 MLS degrees will be awarded this year. Eduventures projects a 3% annual growth in MLS enrollment between now and 2011.

Among those newly minted MLS holders who got their education online is the amazing Heidi Grant, who graduated from Drexel in 2005. Grant underwent chemotherapy for an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while continuing to work towards her master’s degree in library and information science. 

“My family encouraged me to finish, so by completing coursework from my hospital bed, I was able to plug away and get it done,” Grant recalls. In addition to her health and coursework demands, Grant had just gone through a divorce. “The fact that there were no set class times made all the difference. Of course there were papers and deadlines, but I had the freedom to sit at the computer at 2 a.m. and get work done.” 

Today, Grant is cancer-free and credits Drexel’s online learning program with helping her to achieve her master’s degree and secure a better career. “It was all very stressful; however, I knew the secret to a better life for me and my children rested on the completion of my degree.”

Ann Coster, a classmate of Grant’s, earned her MLS degree in 2008 while residing in Cairo, Egypt. The biggest challenge for Coster was overcoming the fear that she could not work full-time while taking online classes. However, her fear turned out to be unfounded. “I found my classes to be relevant and helpful in my day-to-day work responsibilities,” Coster said. “Life becomes much more manageable when your coursework complements your job, and you complete assignments around your daily schedule.”

Best practices

In The Perfect Online Course: Best Practices for Designing and Teaching (Information Age Publishing, 2009), editors Anymir Orellana, Terry Hudgins, and Michael Simonson highlight the existing body of literature related to best practices and guidelines for designing online education and teaching. A key component emphasized in the book, and one of the basic pedagogical principles of teaching within an online community, is student engagement.

Clearly, there are a host of different strategies (asynchronous, synchronous), utilizing a variety of technologies (wikis, multiuser virtual environments, Second Life, etc.) currently being used by online instructors for engaging online learners.

James E. Andrews, director of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Florida in Tampa, states that his school’s faculty “generally engage their online students through the use of asynchronous tools in the learning software, such as weekly discussion boards and blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools.” He adds, “We also use audio and video in lectures, and many professors design creative projects that involve such activities as online group work, library visits, or others that go beyond merely presenting the content online. The key to the most successful use of these is sound curriculum and instruction design that goes beyond merely the gratuitous use of technology.”

San Jose State University has positioned itself as the “global e-campus in library and information science,” according to Ken Haycock, professor and director of SJSU’s School of Library and Information Science. “We have invested heavily in web-conferencing software for both audio and video synchronous class sessions,” he says, noting that the graduate school “also sponsors SLISLife, a Facebook-like program allowing students to connect by interest, by course, by geographic region, and more. With students in 46 states and 14 countries, both academic and social professional engagement is critical to student success.”

Drexel University Professor Kristen Betts developed a framework to engage online students called online human touch (OHT). The framework enables faculty to welcome new online students to Drexel and invite them to attend a “virtual tea.” “Tea sachets are sent to them in the mail and they’re invited, usually the second of week of enrollment, to attend a live lecture. At the lecture, the students introduce themselves to their fellow online classmates, and they meet Drexel support staff such as librarians, technology support specialists, and writing coaches,” Betts explained.

Throughout the academic year, other online events are held to keep students engaged, including a “virtual wine-and-cheese party” and alumni lectures. These interactive events enable students to learn about new technologies, discuss career opportunities, and network.

Down the road

The only thing certain about the future of online learning is that technological developments will enhance online instruction, and that prospective LIS graduate students will increasingly enroll in those distance-education graduate programs with the demonstrated ability to provide a practical and engaging learning experience.

Interestingly, it may be the significant movement toward online learning in the K–12 sector that will drive higher education to expedite its delivery of online instruction (e.g., over 700,000 K–12 students took online courses in 2005–06, and some states now require one online course for high school graduation). School librarians, in particular, will be called upon to help teachers develop and teach online K–12 courses.

Also, studies and reports on the merits of online learning, such as the May USDOE report, will continue to validate new pedagogical approaches to online instruction, highlighting best practices in the field.

Librarians must lead their respective organizations into the 21st century’s era of e-learning, or risk being viewed as dinosaurs by colleagues and constituents.

And we all know what happened to the dinosaurs. 


Links to Learning

Of the 50 graduate ALA-accredited programs in library and information science that have incorporated an online-learning component into their curricula, 14 offer programs that are conducted entirely via distance education, according to the Directory of ALA-accredited Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies maintained by ALA’s Office for Accreditation. Besides Drexel University (see article) the 13 other institutions offering online-only instruction leading to the MLS are:

  • Clarion University of Pennsylvania
  • Florida State University, Tallahassee
  • North Carolina Central University, Durham
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
  • San Jose (Calif.) State University
  • Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven
  • Texas Woman’s University, Denton
  • University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
  • University of Puerto Rico, San Juan
  • University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg
  • University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
  • Wayne State University, Detroit

The list is available at Choose Office for Accreditation from the Offices dropdown menu, and then select from the Accreditation Resources links.

Distance education can also enable busy library workers to pursue continuing-education opportunities. Several ALA divisions offer webinars as well as online courses extending over several days or weeks through such interfaces as Moodle. Content ranges from serving children with disabilities to podcasting and an introduction to taxonomy.

Details about programming, as well as registration forms, are located at under Conferences and Events/Upcoming Events/Distance Learning.