Online MLS programs have become more and more widespread, offering people who don’t live near an American Library Association (ALA) accredited university, who work full time, or who are otherwise unable to attend a traditional Master’s program the chance to get their library science degree through online coursework. The perception of these programs, according to a recent poll on the blog Hiring Librarians, hasn’t kept pace with their prevalence. The informal survey found that some librarians remain concerned about the quality of these programs, and question whether they provide students the skills to succeed in the field.
The survey, conducted by Hiring Librarians founder Emily Weak, showed that some employers have concerns about online degrees. In the informal survey of 291 anonymous hiring librarians, conducted with help from Brianna Marshall, managing editor of Hack Library School, 36 respondents—just over 12 percent—expressed negative views of online degree programs. Though based on a small number, the finding was significant enough to give Weak, herself a graduate of San Jose State University’s online MLIS program, who now works as adult and virtual services librarian in Mountain View, CA, a moment of pause and prompt her to dig into the numbers.
Weak found that many of the concerns expressed by potential employers were issues of perception, mostly revolving around questions of whether the programs offered MLS students important face-to-face experience working with patrons and as part of a library team. Of the 36 who viewed online degree holders in a poor light, only three had actually had a negative experience with a graduate of an online program. Still, perception is powerful, especially as employers sift through stacks of applications. Here’s part of what one hiring librarian had to say in the survey:
We want people with experience, but lack of experience is not a dealbreaker. However, if someone received an MLS through an online program, and has no experience, we are not going to grant an interview. As librarians we are concerned about the dumbing down of the education system, which we are a part of, and many of us here feel that an online degree is not the same as immersing one’s self with other MLS candidates.
Whether founded or not, this perspective mirrors larger issues that continue to haunt online education as a whole, from community colleges to Master’s programs. In a recent survey of more than 600 employers throughout the United States, the research group Public Agenda found that skepticism about the quality of online-only education remains prevalent, with 42 percent of respondents saying they thought students learned less in online programs than they did in traditional ones. Fully 56 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer a job applicant who had attended a traditional program at an average university to one who had completed an online course of study at a top school.
“Right now, I think it does raise a red flag regarding what courses are we offering these students online, and whether employers are ready for that yet,” Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research for Public Agenda told LJ. “Not all employers are keeping up on what’s happening in higher education, so their views may be lagging a bit behind.”
The numbers from Weak’s informal poll certainly don’t show an overwhelming bias against online degrees—in fact, when compared to the Public Agenda survey, there’s an argument that they show the industry is more open to online education than others—they do show that some librarians maintain lingering doubts about the equivalency of online and traditional MLS and MLIS programs.
Those concerns are nothing new to David Fenske, dean of the iSchool at Drexel College in Philadelphia. Fenske has been addressing concerns about whether there’s a difference between Drexel’s online and an on-campus degrees for 12 years. Fenske says those concerns are unfounded and admits that it can be a little frustrating to be fielding the same questions after all that time—especially when his answer has remained unchanged. “The online courses are the same as the face-to-face classes, taught by the same faculty, and covering the same content,” said Fenske. “If you like one, you’ll like the other.”
You can get a great look at the employment situation for graduates from Drexel and other schools around the nation in LJ‘s Placements & Salaries survey in the October 15th issue of Library Journal.
As to whether those concerns translate into a hiring bias, it’s very hard to say. At Drexel, there are no numbers comparing the employment rates of traditional and online MLS graduates, or of how long it took grads to find positions. “We don’t make that distinction, because there’s no distinction to make,” Fenske said.
As Weak points out, bias would be hard to prove, due to the often opaque nature of the hiring process. “If it’s been a factor in my job search, I haven’t known about it,” she said. “It’s not like people call you up when you don’t get an interview and tell you ‘It’s because you had an online degree.’”
For her part, Weak thinks the online programs simply need more time to establish themselves, and that acceptance will come with time as more and more librarians who earned their degrees online continue to demonstrate to their colleagues that the differences in the degree are only skin deep. In fact, she argues that online programs may even offer some benefits that face-to-face programs don’t, especially as library services continue to move online. “The more you’re online, the more you realize it’s a connecting experience, not an isolating one,” Weak said. “If you want to succeed and make friends, you have to create online connections, and that’s a skill just like face to face customer service is a skill.”