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. 😉