I’m just full of questions today.
For some reason, lately I’ve been hearing or reading more about so-called distance education. One of the perks of working in academe, I fear. There’s no doubt the trend is increasing, especially with the growing popularity of the for-profit online universities (or perhaps "universities" would be better). Supposedly the separation of higher education from face to face contact is a good thing. Students don’t have to waste all that time hanging around college campuses. The classes are available anywhere with an Internet connection, which would include everywhere in America except parts of Appalachia or somewhere like that, and hillbillies don’t go to college anyway. When I look around at these distance education programs, they don’t tend to be in any serious academic subjects, though.
Look at someplace like Walden University. They have programs in "education" or "nursing," not physics or economics. They do offer degrees in engineering, but it turns out to be "software engineering" and "systems engineering," not regular engineering. They offer undergraduate degrees in "business administration" and "criminal justice," but not in any of the subjects one would normally find in an arts & sciences curriculum at any ordinary college. I’m pretty old fashioned, I know, but I find it hard to take seriously any institution of so-called higher education if one can’t study physics, chemistry, economics, history, or foreign languages. The subjects seem to be ones that lend themselves to conveying information rather than educating people.
Speaking of, the trend is obviously increasing in library schools as well. I’ve heard of at least one that has no in-person component to it at all. Thus, one can earn their prestigious ALA-accredited MLS without ever setting foot in a classroom, or even the library associated with one’s university. There are classes where the students don’t even have to come together for virtual meetings. The whole thing is asynchronous. People read stuff, do stuff, write stuff, and they have a degree. What a brave new world we live in!
I hesitate to admit in these days of distance education and twopointopia that the trend is a bit after my time. When I was in library school, I had to sit in classrooms and associate with other students and listen to the instructors drone on about reference or cataloging or whatever quaint subjects we studied in those days. Had there been a distance ed option, especially an asynchronous one that was as dirt cheap as my program, I would have considered that route, except for the undeniable fact that I learned more from a couple of years actually working in the university library than I ever did in library school. I might not have liked it any better, and based on my experience of a few "webinars" and such I probably wouldn’t have, but it would have beat showing up in class to cover material that probably could have been condensed into a longish email. If only I could have worked in the library but taken all correspondence courses. Now, that would have been ideal.
Thus, it came as something of a surprise to me that some professors at library schools with distance ed programs don’t like teaching in them, and don’t even have much respect for them. This is obviously some sort of LIS heresy, because it was my impression that these programs were big cash cows for the library schools, since the classes can be taught by almost anyone and students never get tuition waivers or assistantships or anything like that. And since cash cow=good, we should all like these programs.
And then I heard another interesting story, this one about a dean at a library school with a distance ed component. This dean allegedly said that while the MLS degree was online, the PhD would never be put online. Hmmm. What are we to think of that?
I think it confirms several of my suspicions, both about library school and about distance education. First, distance ed has always featured those semi-vocational subjects that the old normal schools of yesteryear exploited to offer "graduate" degrees and then promote themselves to "university" status. They aren’t real academic degrees, but vocational degrees, or to put it more charitably, "professional" degrees. Distance education just doesn’t lend itself to advanced degrees in real academic subjects. I’ll admit that I’m wrong when lots of schools start offeringPhDs in traditional academic subjects in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. Until then, I think the evidence speaks for itself.
The other suspicion concerns the MLS, and, what’s more, its distinction and separation from an LIS PhD. The MLS is a vocational degree. There’s little academic content. It doesn’t require much thought to acquire. There’s not much in the way of a body of knowledge one would expect a holder of the degree to have, which distinguishes it from most academic degrees. Programs have a grab bag of requirements, and little consistency among different programs or even within the same program.
Given this, we can only speculate what ALA accreditation means. My guess is that a school has to meet two criteria to gain accreditation:
- It has to call itself a school of "library science" or "information science" or studies or something similar. Alternate spellings such as "liberry" or "libary" are not allowed. No one is quite sure what library science really is, but information science, so I’ve been told, is like computer science, except for people who can’t do the math.
- The school actually has to notify the ALA that it is now calling itself a library school. That is the crucial step that some places inexcusably forget, which explains why sometimes fine programs such as that at East Carolina University go unaccredited.
Contrast this with the PhD in LIS. Depending on how it’s done, this borders on being a serious, respectable degree. The only problem is it doesn’t have much to do with libraries or librarianship (which is why it bugs me when $600,000 of our Federal tax money goes to support a handful of LIS PhD students at Missouri in the form of an IMLS grant, but that’s its own sordid story). I wonder if the alleged opinion of this one alleged dean represents the norm among "library educators."
If so, isn’t this an admission that the MLS is a vocational degree with little academic merit? If that’s the case, why do we need one to work in libraries? (My next post, inspired by a listserv discussion last week, will be on this topic.) And why do they cost so darn much? I hear of some darn fool people spending $20-30,000 on an MLS, apparently not realizing that the motto of some MLS programs is "There’s a sucker born every minute."
Admittedly, I live in a rarified world of cocktails, jazz, and serious books. But as always, I want to know what it’s like out in the real world. For those of you who got your MLS online, was that the way to go? Did you miss out on anything? I liked rummaging through a good size university library during my MLS days, but is that an advantage? Or for those of you who went the traditional route, would you have chosen online if you could? For those who mixed both on-campus and distance ed courses, was one better than the other? Should an MLS just require reading a book and taking a long quiz? Enquiring minds want to know.