November 24, 2014

Online LIS Education—or Not | Office Hours

HAVING JUST JOINED SAN JOSÉ State University’s (SJSU) all online SLIS, I read with great interest the new report from Pew Internet and American Life, “The Digital Revolution and Higher Education.” Pew interviewed over 1000 college presidents and more than 2100 members of the general public.

One of the key findings: only 29 percent of the public says online courses offer an equal value compared with courses taken in a classroom. Half (51 percent) of the college presidents surveyed say online courses provide the same value. I’d like to see a similar survey focused specifically on LIS education. Would students—such as at SJSU, Drexel, or other completely online LIS programs—rate their online experience as equal in value to face-to-face instruction?

That depends on the caliber of the online experience. Are the classes just ported over from face-to-face syllabi and entirely text-based? Read, respond, repeat. This style of online course is frowned upon by many students (see “The Transparent Library School” for more). I wonder how many of the general public respondents had the mostly text-based correspondence-style classes, or if emerging technologies and the social web were used to enhance their coursework.

Also, 50 percent of college presidents “predict that ten years from now most of their students will take classes online.” In our field, more programs will put at least part of their courses online if they haven’t already done so.

Online or not?

The decision to pursue a graduate library degree involves multiple considerations: time, money, and location are but a few. Despite the views and predictions of college presidents and the lower ratings for online education from the general public, many library school candidates will still choose online over on campus. After all, online offerings mean that students are not tied geographically to just the school in their own state.

Before applying to an online program, however, prospective grad students need to do some comparative shopping and soul-searching.

First, evaluate a program’s curriculum. Does it reflect current issues and trends in the profession? Does it include focus on core values and emerging technologies? Can you examine a course catalog and a schedule of current offerings? What’s the process for the ongoing evolution of the curriculum itself?

These things should be transparent and easy to find on the school’s website. The website is also indicative of the school’s attitudes and perceptions as to how the web can be used to share information. Beware PR speak.

Second, reflect on your learning style and comfort level with technology before making a decision. Is course delivery via face-to-face in the physical classroom, a hybrid model of boot camp style days followed by online exercises for the rest of the semester, or entirely online? Whatever your learning style, tech skills and comfort are paramount for success in today’s libraries and information environments. (For more on the importance of understanding and participating to at least some degree in the online world, see my first column.)

Third, do your research! Search for posts about the school on the web. Blogs including Hack Library School and student blogs may offer insights beyond the marketing efforts of the schools being considered. Search the archives here at LJ and look for mention of the program at the American Library Association’s site for the Committee on Accreditation. The degree is a high price tag decision—make it carefully.

Online assets

I may have a bit of a bias, but I would much rather my students make the short trip to their desks and computers instead of commuting across town or farther. Time saved on travel could roll over into time spent on coursework or finding balance among school, work, and life. Money saved on gas and travel could transform into paying for classes or student loans.

Other students may be drawn to the classroom, to in-person interaction with a professor and other classmates. I would argue, however, that the technologies available at San José State that allow me to lecture, interact with, and guide my students rival those classrooms. My weekly drop-in office hours via web conferencing software give students a chance to ask a question or just say hi. An integrated IM program automatically populates class tabs with my student rosters, so faculty and students can exchange quick messages.

Reflecting on Pew’s data, there is no excuse for online education to be rated below face-to-face if students and faculty have access to technologies that not only replicate but enhance the learning experience. In reality, however, there are certain appurtenances and hurdles to consider in e-learning environments. Can we truly re-create all that is well and good in face-to-face classrooms? Are there some things that technology simply can’t overcome? For potential LIS students pondering online, research and reflection should influence the decision, no matter what the Pew data says.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Assistant Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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