Response: Thoughts on Online Library and Information Studies Degree Programs

I totally stole this from FSU - but since they get my tuition money, we'll call it even, deal?

About a month ago my colleague-in-internets, Britt Foster, wrote a intriguing piece outlining her thoughts on the state of online Library Science programs as compared to on-campus programs. After reading her article, which you can and should read here, I knew I must respond. You see, I have had the best of both worlds: This spring will be my final semester as a Master’s student in Florida State University’s School of Library and Information Studies and I spent half of my degree “on-campus” and half “online.” The program itself is entirely online, but since I was living in Tallahassee for the first half of my degree, I was able to meet other students, interface with professors occasionally, and be active as a graduate student on a college campus. So I have a unique perspective that I’d like to bring into discussion with Britt’s excellent piece. Here goes…

Britt digs right in with the proposal that, based on her experience and research, on-campus programs have the potential to produce a higher level student.

She states, “I think that being at an on-campus program can raise the quality of their work, just through being around a range of students… This way to be in the information professions– how to speak, how to phrase, what language to use in talking rather than typing– this conveys a lot about the professional exchange of ideas, and at what level that exchange is superior.”

Assuredly, peer interaction is invaluable, and on this point I would tend to agree with Britt. However, this doesn’t take into account those of us onliners who adapt very easily to any environment, and create our own peer networks (online and off) for conversation and sharing of ideas in virtual spaces outside of the classroom. For instance, in one of my first classes I met Natalie Binder. We had similar interests in the web 2.0 space, and had some good chat conversations during class. Natalie works at a small rural library about 30 miles outside of Tallahassee, and since I had never been to a rural library I hopped on my motorcycle and went and volunteered there for a day. Since then Natalie and I have kept up communication through Twitter and commenting on blogs back and forth, and I really value her opinions and ideas on professional librarianship.

Two other points Britt mentioned that are right on – the convenience and cost of an online program is a deciding factor for many. I have found that many of my peers in FSU’s program are working librarians who are finally able to complete the degree because of the online option. All of our classes are in the evenings, and its great to be able to eat dinner (plus wine!) while learning about intellectual freedom. We also have the option for guest speakers piped in via the web that really enhance the literature and coursework. While convenience and cost might convince many to go online, I ended up there because a professor from my previous MA in American Studies suggested it to me as an option before committing to a PhD program. And I am so glad he did, because through my studies I have found a profession that I really enjoy and can see myself working diligently in.

I think that what Britt might have been getting at, and a thought I have had more than once, is that perhaps on-campus programs are more apt to produce Scholar/Librarians, who are more immersed in the physical and mental work of theoretical discourse simply because a classroom setting allows for that, whereas a chatroom (no matter how sophisticated) does not. It is telling that FSU’s PhD track in LIS is an on-campus option only. It would be interesting to compare the ratio of researching/publishing between online and on-campus LIS students. I don’t mean to devalue the caliber of education that is the online program – it has certainly worked for me – but I also came to it from a very small MA program where I learned and shared in scholarship with peers in a face to face environment.  So what am I trying to say? Is the online MLIS watering down the value of the degree? Will a UCLA grad have a better chance at a job than a FSU grad?

One last example: in my current work, which grew out of an internship at Brooklyn Public Library, I have the pleasure to work closely with two capable, interesting and smart MLIS grads. One did an MLIS degree as a hybrid online/on-campus at San Jose State, the other on-campus at Pratt SILS here in New York, and myself, online through Florida State. We all work very well together, have similar interests and really great, difficult, theoretical conversations about the place of cultural heritage, digitization standards, metadata, inter-institutional projects, real-life librarianship and more. I am working at Brooklyn Public, one colleague at Brooklyn Museum and the other at Brooklyn Historical Society. In this case it seems to me that how and where we did our degrees matters very little, and that what does matter is that we are enthusiastic about the work.

I think we could say that overall the cream always rises to the top. And right now, I would think that being visible, engaging and asking hard questions in an online format is a great way to prove ones value to the field. Cheers to you, Britt. 😉

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3 thoughts on “Response: Thoughts on Online Library and Information Studies Degree Programs

  1. This is a really great perspective on the differences between online programs and on-campus programs (and thanks for the compliments!). As you mentioned, I also attend FSU’s library and information science program. If there wasn’t an online option, I would not have been able to attend school and work full-time in my library job. Furthermore, there is another benefit that you did not mention: since more and more library work is digital and online, familiarity with the online learning space is a selling point on your resume. In several classes I have had to make formal presentations on Elluminate or Blackboard. Theoretically begin teaching classes through these media after I get my degree in the spring. I can also help troubleshoot these types of programs in the public library setting. If I want I can set up online classes of my own to help people in my rural community connect to library resources.

    I have my frustrations with the online space as well (see my guest blog on the subject here on the Infornado). I really miss the sensory environment of the classroom and the ability to establish relationships with my professors. When I began soliciting recommendation letters for a Ph.D. application, I realized that there were no graduate professors that I knew well. I still had close relationships with professors and mentors from my undergraduate program, but I’ve never done lunch with a grad school prof. As the technology moves forward, I hope we find a way to build those social relationships, since networking is so important to career success.

  2. I’m seriously considering applying for an online MLIS degree program, and FSU’s is one of the top programs on my list. I’m currently a PhD student at a large university (where I also did my MA). I read Britt’s post about the online degree versus on-campus degree, as well as yours…and what seems to resonate is that the greatest drawback is the lack of face-time in an online degree program. Considering that I’m still working toward a PhD (writing the dissertation at this point, so I’ll be graduating soon) and that I clock a great deal of face-time with professors and fellow graduate students in the field, I’m wondering if the online program might actually be perfect for someone like me. Also, my husband recently accepted a full-time teaching position at a local college, which means we’ll be in this area for a while…but this area doesn’t offer an MLIS degree.

    So, I’m wondering: are there any other foreseeable drawbacks to doing an entirely online program? Are they generally as acceptable as on-campus programs, as far as employment is concerned? (I have received advice to get field experience for my resume while also pursuing the degree, so that’s currently in the works. …as in, I’ve submitted applications for little more than volunteer positions. I’m planning to make phone calls after the New Year.) Thanks for the honest post. I found it extremely helpful! 🙂

  3. Read this on my phone as soon as it was posted, but the holidays got in the way! Lots of time to think about the topic while traveling from family function to family function.

    The first thing that came to mind is both a compliment and a criticism. From the comments on my post, as well as yours, and looking at the work you do, Micah, it seems that the students engaging in this conversation are the students who would excel regardless, because they are passionate and committed to the information professions. Online or on campus, strong students are strong students who will be strong professionals. Regardless of the format of education, I think moving forward we need to think about ways to raise our average. This topic as well as some experiences in my penultimate quarter have me thinking, are the educational challenges affecting the profession, or are challenges in the profession affecting the education? As some of us transition from one stage into the next, remaining committed to the future of our profession in terms of the quality of the degree has to be a priority, I think.

    Your description of how an online program matched your strengths also made me acknowledge that an on campus one meets mine. I’m very active in my department, but all of this activity relies on in-person interaction. In fact, the reason I have an online presence at all is because I recognize it as an area for personal/professional development. The ways in which you and your colleagues and several other people whose work I admire interact online is a real learning experience for me, which may say something about the ability of online interaction to reach students/info professionals and further develop their skills. Of course, this is “unstructured” and independent, not guided by curriculum. I feel online programs might be better equipped to bring this into the degree. Some might be doing it already.

    Lastly, I was thinking about my first internship, where I worked with both UCLA and SJSU graduates (on campus and online programs, respectively). An adjunct at UCLA once mentioned that UCLA grads are more likely to be hired than SJSU grads in California libraries, but in my experience, the quality of these librarians wasn’t a competition. Each had their strengths and weaknesses, which were developed and guided to compliment one another by an excellent supervisor. I’ve been thinking a lot about Andy Woodworth’s recent article in Library Journal on “Big Tent” librarianship (December 15, 2010). If librarianship needs to be an ecosystem, then so does the education of librarians. I will honestly admit before writing my blog post to feeling rather negatively about online programs. I still see weaknesses, but I’ve been rather vocal about the weaknesses in my own program as well, and have taken steps with my fellow students to change them. I love the idea of the same taking place outside of our own schools. I love Andy’s idea of dialog across the info professions, and the same goes for this dialog across MLIS departments, formats, regions, countries! This kind of conversation feels awesomely active to me: no passive degree takers here. Questions and conversations are where it’s at. Thanks for the engaging post, Micah.

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