March 16, 2018

Where the Opportunity Is | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAccording to some research I came across, there are few academic library positions devoted to distance learning. You wouldn’t know that by the crowd that showed up for the 16th Annual Distance Library Services Conference. Trends in higher education suggest that distance library services may be where the opportunity lies.

If your college or university has yet to develop a significant number of online course options, multiple online degrees and certificate programs, or possibly an entire online education college or division, chances are it soon will. Excepting some selective institutions, distance learning is an option that can no longer be ignored by any college or university planning for survival well into the 21st century. Just looking at the demographics, institutions that traditionally draw on residential and commuter students from a two- or three-state region, particularly in the Northeast or Midwest, know that it is just a matter of time before that enrollment pool dries up. Higher education enrollment, generally, is flat or declining. Right now, for every 100 18-year-olds nationally, there are only 95 4-year-olds. Any college enrollment planner looking ahead ten to fifteen years must be getting nervous, wondering where the future students are going to come from or what it’s going to take to get those who are college bound to enroll at his or her institution. That’s why expanding distance learning options is looking extremely attractive right now. What’s holding some institutions back is concern about whether the timing is right for the investment required or their ability to offer it without diluting the quality of their traditional programs.

Higher Ed’s Growth Spurt

One simple thing sets distance learning apart from all the enrollment trends in higher education: It alone is growing. The Instructional Technology Council, in its 2013 report on distance learning, found that, at its member institutions, student enrollment in online courses grew at a higher rate than overall enrollment at colleges and universities. While the growth is steady, it now falls below the double-digit numbers of five years ago. But the modest five percent growth reported looks far better to administrators than the one to two percent declines affecting overall enrollment between 2012 and 2013. In addition to demographic changes, when the economy improves, as it steadily has since the great recession of 2008, more adults get jobs and fewer attend college in order to re-train for new careers.

Getting Faculty On Board

Another favorable trend that speaks to continued growth for distance learning programs is increasing faculty acceptance of online education. According to Inside Higher Ed’s 2013 survey of faculty attitudes on technology, while only one in five faculty members believes that online education is as effective as face-to-face learning, the number of faculty who have taught an online course is increasing—up five percent from the 2012 survey—and 50 percent of those who have taught online believe it is equivalent in effectiveness to face-to-face learning. As more faculty members accept that online learning can equal the quality of traditional programs, they will support their institutions in developing online programs. All the indicators point to continued growth of distance learning at colleges and universities, whether current students opt for online courses or they bring in new students from around the globe.

Looking Ahead with Enthusiasm

Perhaps that’s why I detected an upbeat mood at the 16th Distance Library Services Conference. Hundreds of distance learning librarians, or those whose positions involve some delivery of library services to online learners, were gathered to exchange ideas and information about the best ways to serve and educate distance learners. Coming from a library where service to distance learners is too often an afterthought rather than a priority, it was clear this conference’s attendees are taking distance library services to another level.

Given the growth of distance learning in higher education I would have expected an even bigger turnout. The reason for that may be that our profession is still surprisingly low on librarians who specialize in services to distance learners. According to research published in 2012, a study of job descriptions issued from 1996 to 2010 found that only two percent of the position announcements required distance learning skill sets or responsibilities. Another study published in 2013, examining distance education librarian position descriptions, found that only 82 distance education librarian jobs had been advertised in American Libraries (AL) since 1980. Those position descriptions also peaked in 2000 and have since declined—although that finding may be more a reflection of the decline in overall academic positions advertised in AL than the percentage of academic librarian positions which support distance learning. I suspect there is more library service being provided to distance students than these numbers would have us believe.

Not There Yet

Like my own institution, many colleges and universities offer online courses, possibly some degree or certificate programs, but they are often loosely coordinated and decentralized. Online learning is not yet an institutional priority. In these types of situations, librarians are likely providing a minimal level of services, and have yet to evolve to the point of centralizing the services around a single staff coordinator. That’s considerably different than the situation at Central Michigan University’s Global Campus, Penn State’s University’s World Campus, or Southern New Hampshire University, which are highly structured and well organized to compete in the world of online learning—and the library services are structured to reflect the institutional commitment. As more colleges and universities, realizing the need to compete for online students, develop rigorous approaches to organizing and offering their distance learning programs to best serve their students, I anticipate that more academic libraries will create distance library services positions in order to support online program growth.

Let’s say that my observations are fundamentally correct and that we do see growth in opportunities for distance services librarians. That could be good news for librarians seeking out the next big area for professional positions. Consider in-demand positions such as digital humanities or data management librarians, and then think about the next big wave in higher education where librarians with unique skills will be in demand. That’s where I think distance services are headed. If that’s true and you are a librarian who wants to get ahead of the game, what exactly does it take to prepare for a position as a distance library services specialist? Based on multiple sessions at the DLS Conference, distance librarians are doing many of the things that reference and instruction librarians are doing—only with patrons they may never see, from all around the globe, at potentially all hours of the day, while dealing with many adult learners who are attempting to adapt to their return to higher education and its confusing array new learning technologies. Perhaps what distance librarians do best is establishing the infrastructure to deliver quality library services at a distance. It’s more than just providing remote access to e-resources. Being highly skilled with all those technologies that support remote learning and communication is a must. Distance learning librarians are also highly attuned to the additional standards put in place to assure the quality of online learning. I learned some new things at sessions on embedding in distance courses, assessing online learning, creating effective learning video, and real-time remote instruction. Providing distance library services is always a unique challenge, but today’s tools and technologies are giving academic libraries the resources they need to make a difference. I saw a great deal of enthusiasm for what’s ahead in distance library services. Is your library ready?

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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