April 19, 2018

As Online Degrees Become More Prevalent, Questions Linger

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.”

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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  1. As someone who graduated with an MLIS through the fabulous online program offered by the University of North Texas and as someone deeply immersed as a participant in massive open online courses (MOOCs), I would suggest that skeptics of the value of online education skim “Research on the Effectiveness of Online Learning: A Compilation of Research on Online Learning,” which is a great starting point and available as a PDF at http://tinyurl.com/mxj2t5b. What I’ve gained through online education (as well as through face-to-face learning opportunities–one doesn’t preclude the other) continues to serve me well with colleagues in libraries and many other organizations.

  2. Joan Zivich says:

    Due to family circumstances, I was unable to finish my traditional, on campus MLS. Many years went by as I raised my children and I was not able to complete within the time frrame the University allowed. I still wanted my degree- so I enrolled in an online one (as I work full time) and – thus – I have experienced both worlds.

    I was very satsified with my online classes. More of the responsibility for work falls on the individual student in an online class. Your voice must be heard. In a traditional class, there is not enough time for each student to voice their question, answer, or perspective each and every class section. So, it is easier for a student to be hidden within the group.

    I also found all the online assignments to be equally as good as my traditional ones. Another plus of the online environment is that I made friends around the country and even in foreign countries.

    Online degrees will differ in quality and substance as much as traditional schools do-some are superior, some are better, others are neither.

    • MLIS graduates completing their degrees online are just as well prepared as graduates from on-site programs. In 2007, I completed the MLIS from FSU via synchronous online classes— real time online class participation, group work in chat rooms, and discussion board postings were the norm—this is in addition to weekly writing assignments as well as research papers. I also had an IT class and an HTML/CSS course. This is the MLIS not a medical degree! I could not agree more with Dean Fenske: “We don’t make that distinction, because there’s no distinction to make.”

    • On that same note, you are so right. I find myself collaborating in ways that I otherwise might not have if I were in a regular setting!

  3. Thanks for writing about this, Ian. The survey was co-conducted by Brianna Marshall from the Hack Library School blog. I don’t think either of us expected to see this (smallish) bias against online school crop up.

  4. I think one reason that online programs grew for LIS education is that for years, many LIS programs only had classes in the day. This is fine, if you don’t have to work full time during the day. Many librarians are second career librarians, and not everyone can stop work for two years to go to school. That being said, there is a bias against those graduating with an online degree, especially if the school is completely online. Will hiring managers say it? No, they won’t Does everyone have this bias? No, they don’t. But I have heard it often enough to know that the bias definitely exists.

    Since there are so many now enrolled in online programs, often not in the geographical region where they reside, I wonder, what kinds of arrangements are made for those students to get internships, part-time jobs, practicums, etc. Is the student left completely on their own to find something in their local area? What kind of guidance is provided for the student? What kind of assurances are provided that the internship will actually give the student valuable experience. When I was in school, we have a listing of approved internships that were acceptable for credit. If you wanted to go outside the approved list, you had to submit evidence from the sponsor of the educational experience that would be provided. How is this done when students can be in any one of 50 states, or even outside the US?

  5. I think it is all in what you make it! Whether online or in person, there are always people who will goof off and not necessarily get the information they needed. There are those savvy enough to make it through the program regardless. That’s why the power of interviewing is so important! I think in many cases libraries must change their ways of interviewing. I have been to many where a simple set of routine questions is asked and whoever gets the highest score based on their answers is the one that gets the job, which is insane! If anything the Library degree is the perfect program to represent what an online program should be since so much of our jobs is dependent on using the internet as a research tool. Having the degree online completely validates your capabilities on the topic.

    As long as you work hard and attempt to make the most of your situation, you can equally be as knowledgeable as someone in the classroom. It’s amazing in this world that one can earn a degree from sitting in their home, and we should embrace what great times we live in. I cant be grateful enough for the opportunity. Without it, i would never have been able to achieve any of my dreams.

  6. I am enrolled in an MLIS program at a University that provides face-to-face classes as well as distance education online. I take the classes online as I do not live close to the University. I know students who attend classes in person but who also have the option to take online classes. My resume will list the University where I attained my degree. It will not specifiy which courses were taken online or not. I personally don’t think it matters since the same courses are taught by the same professors whether online or in person. My point is that a potential employer will not know from my resume that I took courses online so they will not have an oportunity to express any bias when it comes to hiring me.

    • I agree, Ellie. How would they know unless you tell them, or your resume shows you working in another field at the same time you were getting the MLS? I was working 3 jobs at the time, including a library job. A year and a half after graduation, I was running a library in another state. If your degree was earned online, explain why, and explain what you learned. AND while getting the degree, work in a library or do an internship in one. Everyone wants to see that you have experience in your profession, online degree or not.

    • Librarian in Texas says:

      Denton Texas, having two accredited Library Schools, offered classes on Satudays way back when, because Arkansas did not have a library school. Several of my Saturday classmates lived and worked in Arkansas. This was long before online classes. Two other classmates maintained their permanent residence in New Mexico & California, since their spouse & children stayed home. Commuting 3 to 5 hours is nothing in Texas, but in other parts of the country that can easily put you in another state! Living in one state and getting a degree somewhere else is nothing new. If the interviewer doesn’t ask, you don’t have to tell.

  7. As a hiring manager for a special library, I can honestly say that library schools do a very, very poor job of prepearing students for real work, in general, whether the student attends onsite or online. Good librarians, at least in the field of SciTech special librarianship succeed in spite of their library science education, not as the direct result of any “learning” at university.

    • I agree with Wade. The SLIS school in our area, where I graduated in 2009, offered a mix of in-person and online only classes. The in-person classes gave me practical experience in a face-to-face environment with fellow students who were already in the field and enabled me to make a personal connection to professors who could serve as a reference when I began applying for jobs.

      I felt that professors teaching online only classes were less available and also had less vested interested in actually helping you become employable. Students in those classes were compelled to respond to discussion questions for their participation grade, but the level of discourse was repetitive and robotic. There was usually at least one troll. The school offered no formal programs for resume review and interview skills, nor was there even a requirement to take an internship. The SLIS program is known to be a cash cow for the university and many students appeared to be there for a vanity degree.

      Public libraries in particular are a small world. Unless you are already working in a library and garnering experience and connections, an online degree gives you no opportunity to join the community or to grow by interacting with other professionals. It’s a piece of paper. It’s often who you know that can get you a foot in the door. The most valuable part of my in-person classes were the new librarians I was able to meet IRL and who are now my colleagues locally and nationally. The conversations and support we offered each other in class continue via Facebook and in professional meetings.

    • In response to Heather…one of the problems is that professors teaching online classes have never had any formal (or even informal) training on how to effectively teach online. The instructors should take advantage of instructional designers, if available, who have gone through a degree program specifically to help others effectively teach online.

      I’ve taken both in person and face-to-face courses. In each the quality depended on the instructor. I’ve had good and bad in both. In some cases online instructors are given too many students per class and too many classes to effectively manager. Online classes are MORE work for both the instructor and the student.

      I will say that the course work provided online for my undergrad degree was excellent. But you also get what you put in to it. It’s unfortunate your professors did not do more to create engaging discussions.

  8. What if you went to Drexel University Library Science Masters program and graduated Magna Cum Laude? What if you wanted your Master’s degree and worked full time, had a newborn and lived 45 minutes from the school and there are no credible highly praised schools around you to get your in class education? Sorry but the only way I buy the point of this article is if you are trying to say that too many not so great quality schools are providing programs. In addition, The learning online part made it more difficult than going to classes. You have to have more discipline, everything is written so you can’t make mistakes in papers and blackboard posts.

    Lastly, there is no reason you have to tell an employer how you got your degree. The diploma is a normal, no mention of an iSchool education. The library job I have now is the best! They did not care if I went online,when they heard the circumstances in which I earned my degree they were impressed. Personality, experience….. there is no reason to disclose how you earned your education.

  9. It doesn’t seem shocking or alarming that this particular study would show that only 12% of respondents have a “negative view” of online MLS programs. I am currently enrolled in an online ALA-accredited MSLS program and receive very positive reactions from members of our profession when I am discussing it with them. I am finding that a larger number of our colleagues are graduating from online programs, an ones that graduated from “traditional” in class programs don’t express an anti-online bias, at least to me. It seems that the debate in our community follows along the same trends we might find in our society as a whole, or as Mr. Chant points out in the article, our industry shows a greater openness to online education than others.

    My online MSLS experience has allowed for a great deal of team building, formal and informal communication with classmates, and of the building of a great network with smart people entering out profession. Try asking folks like us in 5 years if we have a negative perception of our experience.