John Berry addressed a recent debate on whether competition will improve LIS programs, a debate prompted by the break between the California Library Association and the library school at San Jose State University. The director of the online SJSU LIS program didn’t like it that the CLA partnered with the Drexel’s online LIS program, thinking California was his "turf." He also didn’t like it that SJSU kept encouraging students to join the CLA who didn’t seem to be getting benefits. I thought everyone knew the major benefit to joining professional associations was for the associations, not the persons joining.
Berry raises the issue of evaluating whether online and in-person LIS education are of comparable quality, among other things, but notes that many LIS faculty in a listserv "say the ‘competition’ strengthens all LIS programs." I was too weary to plod through a listserv discussion, because in my opinion listservs should go the way of card catalogs and buggy whips. Nevertheless, let’s accept that some faculty said that.
That just shows you the quality of thinking going on in library schools. Competition has never strengthened all of anything. Period. For many goods and services, competition tends to make the better product more available, more developed, and cheaper. It does this by forcing strong producers to innovate and eliminating weaker producers.
What is the basis of competition? Berry rightly notes some very strong programs (Chicago, Columbia, etc.) didn’t survive. Plenty of good (or what passes for good in LIS education) programs could easily be eliminated in a competition by weaker programs. That’s because quality of LIS education isn’t the most important factor for most LIS students. The most important factor is availability of the education and the least disruption in their lives. This explains the popularity of online programs far more than their supposed quality.
Online students and graduates can protest all they like, but the interaction in online classes cannot be a replacement for the community of an in-person program for any serious education. This is why online programs are so popular in vocational programs that mainly exist to provide a credential rather than an education. As long as you have that MLS, you are a credentialed librarian, regardless of your education. If that’s all you care about, then an online program is great.
That’s very different than spending a year or two in the company of people who are learning what you’re learning, often working in the university library with them as graduate assistants. Library students doing this aren’t just cramming classes where they can into their regular lives. They’re making that learning their life for a while. They’re immersing themselves in a profession and a trade. Their education isn’t limited to showing up to class and doing the assignments. In fact, that can be the least interesting and rewarding part of an LIS education.
The value of that community is that the learning is always happening, and in unpredictable and useful ways. Students hang out in the hallway chatting about a reading, or they sit around over beers talking through their experiences in the library, or they bump into that professor who’s actually pretty good and strike up a friendship that matters long after library school is over. They develop relationships through this intense immersion that are more meaningful than being your Facebook friend. I thought most of the classes in library school were ridiculously easy, but I met many bright, warm, challenging, giving, and sometimes annoying people in library school who are still among my closest friends and professional allies. There are bonds that cannot be forged through emails and tweets and online discussions. They have to be lived in person.
Competition from online LIS programs won’t increase the quality of anything, because the quality and depth of the education isn’t the goal. The goal is pragmatic. Get a degree without having to travel. I would assume some online education is ridiculously easy and pointless, and some is worthwhile, just like in person. But the in person creates an atmosphere and community that online education will never achieve, and this atmosphere and community are unquantifiable, but undeniable, educational values.
An aggressive competition between LIS programs (which in effect means between online LIS programs) probably won’t strengthen anything, though it might eliminate a lot of in-person programs. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, if the goal of LIS programs is to supply librarians for the market. There’s an oversupply right now, but closing in-person programs won’t solve that problem, because the students will just get online degrees. We’ll still have the oversupply, but what we won’t have are better programs. We’ll just have more widely available programs.
We’ll also see in library schools what I suspect we’ll see in much of the so-called higher education – a complete commodification of education and the disappearance of communities of scholars. People who have never enjoyed the benefits of such a community won’t miss them. We can all pose as the rugged individualists Americans supposedly are, ruggedly ignorant and arrogantly individualist. What’s good for online LIS education might be good for Drexel, but it’s not necessarily good for libraries.