March 17, 2018

Best of Both Worlds | Office Hours

An LIS student’s letter to the editor of LJ gave me pause. Krystal Taylor, studying at IUPUI (Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis), detailed the move her program is making from classroom-based instruction to almost 100 percent online delivery. A big-­picture concern is evident: “What cost will this be to the library and information science field?” Her word for those completing an online MLS: ­lackluster.

I have more than a passing interest in this change. Yes, it’s indicative of a major shift in LIS education, but my interest is also a personal one. I teach via the San José State University online program, and I graduated from Indiana University (IU) SLIS in 1995. Back then I took classes on the IU South Bend campus one or two nights a week with adjuncts or via closed-circuit TV and a phone system that linked my fellow students and me to the classroom. One summer, I drove 200-plus miles each way for three weekends to take “Fiscal Responsibility in Libraries” at the Bloomington campus. Many, I’m sure, have a similar experience.

Turning the tide

Taylor writes, “Having taken both types of courses, I am convinced that face-to-face [F2F] courses are the better option.” I might argue the tide is turning on that sentiment. In 2011, I wrote “Online LIS Education or Not”on the choices between F2F and online programs. In just a few short months we’ve seen the announcement of a new online library management degree at the University of Southern California and now the evolution of the IU program to mostly online classes. Frankly, a brick-and-mortar LIS school without a fully online option may become a quaint reminder of days gone by in the next decade. With this shift comes a few important considerations for the various stakeholders: students, faculty, hiring librarians, and accrediting bodies.

Students will have more choices of schools, but those will most probably be online. I appreciate Taylor’s candor in her letter as she worries about the loss of passion in the field. F2F discussions and debates in the classroom can be truly exhilarating. Those with a similar concern might explore some of the newer methods of online learning to see what’s possible with emerging technologies. Attend a free webinar, try out a MOOC, or explore the bleeding edge of library communities by participating on Twitter #libchats or the thriving “Library Related People” group on Facebook, 1,300-plus global library folk strong. I promise: passion is present there.

Faculty moving from F2F to online should seek out best practices in online learning. Remember: text-based lectures and text-based discussion forums are not a 21st-century model. I’ve learned that my students respond positively when they see and hear me via short presentations recorded with Panopto. That they can respond via their blogs, video, audio, or in our weekly chats as part of class discussion adds to the interaction.

Revamp assignments and rubrics. I would suggest assignments that allow for a broad range of creativity and exploration. What might have been “Write an eight-page paper on new types of literacies for young people” might become “Create a synthesis of recent research and thinking about new literacies for young people via the delivery channel of your choice: video, audio, etc.” Assessment would include a statute that addresses mode of presentation and synthesis of the topic.

Hiring librarians may find with more LIS programs online they have choices of candidates from all sorts of programs across the United States and beyond. A new hire in youth service may come from a highly regarded children’s program far away, while a user experience job may go to someone from a thriving technology-focused program nearby. The negative view of staffing a local library from the local library school fades when local hires are globally educated.

Keeping pace with change

Our accrediting bodies must consider these changes as well. Paul ­LeBlanc’s recent piece at EDUCAUSE Review, “Thinking About Accreditation in a Rapidly Changing World,” includes this response to the question of classroom learning versus online: “We now ask, ‘How can we make traditionally delivered learning the equal of the best-designed online learning?’ This is because disruptive innovations always start as inferior to incumbent models.” LeBlanc explores some important ideas about accreditation in a time of great change within higher education. Can we evaluate online programs the same way we’ve evaluated traditional F2F delivery? He urges, “Accreditors need to think about their relationship to innovation. If the standards are built largely to assess incumbent models and are enforced by incumbents, they must be—by their very nature—conservative and in service to the status quo.”

As more LIS schools move online, the opportunities for library education to emerge as dynamic, thought-provoking, and innovative multiply with every new option, while the modality isn’t as important as the students and professors giving it their all.

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 ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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  1. Victoria says:

    I am a SLIS grad student at San Jose State. It’s interesting Taylor has these opinions. My undergrad was F2F, and I loved it and it does has it’s benefits. What Taylor is forgetting is that once you graduate & are trying to find a job and/or work full time, your only option, both financially and logistically, is to join an online Master’s program. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to pursue this without the online format. It can also be cheaper this way, depending on the school you attend. There are technological issues to overcome, but overall, I’d say this has been a great experience; SJSU is also a good school. No regrets so far!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Victoria. I, too, am a grad student as SJSU. I am two semesters away from graduation and I cannot say enough wonderful things about the school! I work full-time, as well as take care of elderly parents. The online aspect has allowed me to obtain my master’s where otherwise I might not have been allowed the opportunity. I feel my course work has been just as challenging as any F2F work, maybe much more. Online course work requires self-motivation, organization above and beyond the norm, and self-control. I feel like my knowledge-base stands up to any other SLIS grad program. Distance learning is just like F2F. It is all in what you make it.

  2. Heather says:

    I am a classmate of Taylor’s, and what has been left out of this is that up until now our program offered evening and weekend classes. IUPUI is an urban campus and most of the students in the graduate program are working full time, so we were switched mid program from F2F classes on evenings and weekends to only online classes, without being given an option other than to drive an hour and a half to the main IU campus. Many of our online courses have, unfortunately, been as the author states they should not be, “text-based lectures and text-based discussion forums”. I work a full time M-F job and was very excited to be able to join a program where I have the benefits of F2F learning. While online courses are, of course, handy for scheduling, I think something is lost when you do not meet in person, and I think we have been done a disservice by being switched to an online program in the middle of obtaining our degrees when many of us specifically enrolled at IUPUI to get the F2F experience.

    Additionally, this change was not made to make our educational experience better, it was done because enrollment is down and it is less money for the program to offer online classes. It is not a good feeling to know that if I had been spending my educational dollars at the school five years ago, they would have purchased a better experience then they are purchasing today.

    • Margaret Driscoll says:

      Online courses require doing more than dumping content into a course management system. It takes great skill on the part of the professor to make an online course hearty and interactive. I graduated from SJSU SLIS (totally online) and feel that I am better prepared for the professional librarian workforce of today because of it. However, there was a course or two which did not display the adaptation in design that is required for e-learning. Professors who simply take their F2F course and plop it online are doing a disservice to their students, and online education in general.

      Even text-based discussion boards can create lively and passionate interaction when well-designed questions/prompts are employed. We also utilized web-conferencing and applications like Skype with webcams so that we were actually meeting face-to-face, albeit virtually. It is extremely important (and vitally necessary) to foster the creation of community and connection in the distributed environment, and my program at SJSU did an excellent job of that. It may be that this transition phase is the hardest part, as faculty learn more about teaching and learning online. Those students caught in the transition will probably be the most disappointed, but there is definitely hope that the online program can be exceptional in time.

  3. carolyn manning says:

    I graduated with my MLIS via all online classes and I agree with Margaret’s points. It worked well for me because I was a full-time mom and worked part-time. Universities who offer classes online are meeting the needs of a wider range of people who want a degree. Are some universities doing a better job than others? Probably. Providing input will only help improve the experience of online classes. I don’t feel like I missed out and I definitely don’t feel like I didn’t learn enough. If you work hard, join in the discussions, and read the enrichment material they point you to, most of the classes can be very rewarding.