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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Too Busy Reading to Write

I’m juggling a lot of different things right now, and unfortunately haven’t been able to keep up with my writing as much as I would like. (The quintessential bloggers dilemma.) However, I have been spending a good amount of time reading, digging myself into “the field” and generally being interested in lots of different things. Jeremy Boggs’ tweet the other day made me sit up and say, “Hey! Me too!” and it just so happened that Bobbi Newman went and posted a “What I’m reading” post just today. So, completely unoriginal, here’s how you can see what I’ve been reading:

I am a huge fan of Reeder on the iPad, and have a ton of RSS feeds that I scan daily. The best part is how easy Reeder/Google Reader makes it to share articles. I prefer not to spam my friends on Facebook with my boring professional life, and RT’s on Twitter can only go so far, so…

My Shared Items over on my Google profile is where most of my handpicked, best of, worth knowing articles end up.

I use Delicious less frequently and for stuff I want to read some other time.

So, just in case you were super curious what I find interesting, take a peek over there. Once I finally finish Library School I may even try reading a novel or culture-study book, who knows? (And, yes, I am already making a list of what I’m going to do when I’m out of school!)

[Guest post] School in the Digital Doldrums – What I’ve Learned in Library School, Part 1

Following up on my previous post, I decided to open up the theme “What I learned in Library School” to some of my peers for some guest posts. Natalie Binder, a colleague and fellow student here at Florida State, offered this post on her experience with Digital Learning. Natalie will be following up on this topic on her own blog, and you can catch her on Twitter or Tumblr.  Enjoy!

The communications revolution promises to transform education as thoroughly as it’s transformed newspapers and magazines.  In some universities, it already has. At Florida State University’s nationally ranked College of Communication and Information (CCI), ninety percent of the courses are online-only.  And these are not your mother’s correspondence courses.  CCI students attend courses through a web-based software platform called Elluminate.  Lectures are conducted through live chat, students collaborate on blogs and wikis, and whole libraries—including professional reference services—are available on our smartphones.

Digital learning benefits the university in many ways.  Any graduate of FSU’s communication, information technology and library science programs knows online instruction from the inside out, a huge benefit to potential employers.  It allows working and non-traditional students to pursue degrees on a flexible schedule.  Furthermore, it allows a cash-strapped university to provide classes at a fraction of the cost (if not a fraction of the tuition) of traditional education.

However, a chat room is not a classroom, any more than a picture of a pipe is a pipe.  Speaking as a distance student, a nontraditional student, a teacher and  a technophile, there is a profound loss when classes are moved into the cloud.  The social, professional, cultural and intellectual relationships that develop in a real classroom cannot be duplicated through distance education.

The digital classroom abandons different types of learners.  The primary sensory input for a digital lecture is sound.  The visual aspect is usually very weak—a chat box or a PowerPoint.  The kinesthetic (hands-on) aspect is nonexistent.  For students that learn best by listening, this environment may prove rewarding.  But for the great number of us who need to see and interact with our teachers and classmates, it’s an unqualified disaster.   The situation is even grimmer for students who have auditory or cognitive disabilities.  As schools move to audio-only, these students are locked out and—it sometimes seems—forgotten.  This in a world where a whole generation of “mainstreamed” students with autism, attention deficits and hearing disorders are coming of age.

The real classroom is full immersion reality:  there are things to see, hear and feel.  You catch a professor’s quiet scoff when he doubts your conclusion.  You see the class perk up and take an interest on a certain subject—maybe you should delve deeper.  You recognize the blank look on a student’s face when he misses the point, the light dawn when he finally understands.  Teachers, individual students, classmates and the class as a whole all benefit from these subtle social processes.  The architectural and social structure of a classroom is made to enhance these rich and valuable experiences.

The information revolution is about the expansion of options.  The goal of the educational Web was never to leave students blind and disconnected, with no real alternatives to a chat room.  When universities use technology as a way to enhance the real classroom—and offer cost-effective options to those who can’t make it—then they are using educational technology to its full potential.  Until then, the move from real learning to digital learning is, sadly, a step down.

Ever heard of a Librarian who doesn’t read? – or – What I’ve learned in Library school so far.

No Books - Image from Photobucket user dark_x3r0

I know. This is like the worst confession of all time. I can’t remember the last book I read, and I’m ok with that. Its not that I’m anti-books, I just have other interests. And it was those other interests that led me into Library and Information Studies. I will say I am gaining a different appreciation for books through this degree, but not enough to make me as voracious a reader as many (all) of my colleagues. I can already hear fellow library school students, and future employers fuming “So, why do a degree based on a professional love of books if you don’t care about books?” Simply because, as I have begun to learn through the degree, Library School is much, much more than training in booksmithery.

I would like to borrow a format many of us are familiar with to lay out my reasoning here. This is my “Top 10 Things I learned in Library School (so far)” list. Please hold all comments until the end, and give me the benefit of the doubt before writing me off as a fool. In no particular order —

Top 10 Things I learned in Library School (so far)

  • Libraries are extraordinary institutions in the fabric of society, especially in America. The phrase that resonated with me when taking a library history course with Dr. Wayne Wiegand was “Free and Open to All,” an informal creed adopted by many public libraries. I did a Masters degree in American Studies prior to beginning Library school and as an academic I am fascinated by the institutions and ideas that have created the modern American mind, and this concept is one that is subversive enough to be important to our past, current and future historical context.
  • Collection and organization of information is a skill that can be learned. Despite the fact that I hate math, abhor sciences, and can barely stomach ideas like “data,” I am beginning to understand that the study of information is fundamental to librarianship. The ability to assess the information needs of a population group and also accurately approach data as research are tasks of the trade, and learning these I am becoming a more effective info-conduit for whomever I end up serving.
  • As I already kind of alluded, a major realization in my studies is that libraries are greater than the sum of their books. Concepts like “Information Laboratory” and “Media Center” can almost more accurately describe some libraries these days. Being a media/tech guy myself, this has been incredibly attractive to me considering a future in this field.
  • Following that point, there is not just one type of library. This blew me away as a new student in the program. What the hell are the differences between a public, academic and “special” library? My interdisciplinary radar went off when I realized I could kind of create my own path through the library world. With my background I am hoping to end up in an art library, special collections or museum setting. Being around cultural heritage objects and collections makes me happy.
  • Library 2.0! Emerging technologies are becoming more and more integral parts of the library world, and being a user/proponent of those technologies makes this another exciting selling point for me! One of the best courses I have had thus far was Digital Media Concepts and Production with Dr. Lisa Tripp. Blog for class? OK! Start a Twitter account and connect with other information professionals? Yes, please! Learn and use digital media software to create multimedia projects? Done and Done!
  • The stereotypical librarian is an urban myth. Sure, there are still glasses and cardigans (but that’s just because librarian-chic is “in” right now). The people behind the desks are multi-varied in their interests, cultural and educational background, and most often they are incredibly excited to help out. The shushing, boring old lady-type is not a majority, and in fact I’d argue that many more librarians are open-minded, young (in body and at-heart!), and invested in sharing knowledge and information with patrons at any cost.
  • Libraries are complicated. The multitude of programs, initiatives and staff involved in running a library are astounding. I had considered for a second pursuing a focus in Leadership and Management, but I’m not sure I’d want to take on what some administrators have to deal with! In addition to running the building itself, libraries are always fighting for support from their benefactors, be that a university, the government or private funders. Library advocacy and lobbying is unfortunately an integral cog in the wheel that makes these great institutions function. So, support your library!
  • There is this really weird, community connectedness that comes along with librarianship. I’m not sure if this is the same for other career tracks… like do lawyers really get together and have Library Cart Drills at their annual conferences? Yeah, we are all about to be fighting for the same few jobs (watch out for me!), but there has been a general feeling of camaraderie in the library school that I hope continues into my professional life.
  • Library school is great training for work in a variety of areas. Being forced to think about how websites are constructed from raw code, or how best to meet the real/percieved needs of groups of people through books, media, info-literacy skills, searching techniques, etc, can prepare one to be effective in many careers. I am consistently surprised at the possibilities that exist for some who has better than average understanding of organization, technology systems, and media, which are all basic principles taught in library school. Don’t fret fellow students if the library market looks slim, you’ll just have to start now thinking about other ways to utilize your skills and sell that to an employer.
  • Best of all, I am learning that the faculty in library school, especially at FSU, are invested in our success. They are all expertly trained, and are here to write and research but also to ensure that we leave with the knowledge and connections necessary to do well in our professional life. Am I sucking up? Most definitely. I am young and naive and can get away with a little schmoozing, right? Regardless, I appreciate the time and help offered by my professors and I hope that all MLIS students have as much investment in the relationships they are building as they do in the skills they are acquiring.

So, have I redeemed the fact that I am not a book person? I will argue that I read a ton, and I enjoy it very much, but most of what I am reading is online and better suited to my interests in emerging technology, social media and digital humanities. What do you think? Is there room in the library profession for “non-readers”? What are the most valuable things you learned in Library School?
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I’d love to make this a series of guest posts, so if you are interested in sharing your experience please contact me!

“Post-grad” OR “You Never Know Where You’ll End Up”

Last year around this time I had an eye twitch. I was under the gun to complete my thesis, and was probably behind on some deadlines. For work I was teaching an undergrad class AND single-handedly administrating the American and Florida Studies program, as the director had retired and I was the most invested grad student at the time. On top of all that, I had somehow volunteered to take on the advising of the ~30 American Studies undergrads. For the first time in my life, I was entirely overwhelmed with the magnitude of responsibilities I had taken on.

must... finish... thesis...

Aside from the pressures of my coursework and teaching, I was anxiously waiting to hear back from the 5 PhD programs I had applied to. Wifey and I were on the edge of our seats, ready to move to New York, Texas or Boston depending on which letters came back. A few weeks into March, I got word back from my applications – 5 “no’s” in a row. Needless to say, I was very disappointed and immediately my post-grad plan was thrown out the window. I was unsure of what applicable “work” skills I had after 6 years of writing papers on cultural theory, and despite my enthusiasm for the American Studies program I knew I couldn’t stay there part time.

I spent the summer working as a temp receptionist for a medical supply office here in Tallahassee, and did my best to not get to down about having an unmarketable Masters degree with seemingly abstract skills. It was a long summer. Then, I got the call. There was a position open as an academic advisor at my alma mater that I had applied for and totally forgotten. My brief stint as advisor in American Studies must have caught their attention. I had never even imagined an actual job at the university that wasn’t a professorship, and wasn’t sure what to expect. Turns out there are a million little offices that make the university function as a business in addition to academic institution. Who knew?!?

I begun in early August with 2 full weeks of training and was placed in the College of Visual Arts, Theatre and Dance, an area I knew little to nothing about. But one thing was sure of, I was excited and grateful to have a job at all, and I was going to do my best. I dove in headfirst and would like to think that I have done pretty well advising Theatre and Art History students, helping them navigate university policies and college life. In my second semester now, I am starting to get the hang of things, and really enjoying working in student services.

The moral of the story? You never know where you’ll end up, what you will be good at, or how your path through various jobs can affect your interests differently than you thought. One thing I advise my students is to take every opportunity that presents itself and mold it into your goals. So, I may not always be an academic advisor, but for now I am doing my best and trying to make the position my own. In fact, as I am interested in social media/blogging/ect, I am in the process of proposing an Advising 2.0 strategy to my bosses. Who knows? I could end up being a big time social media consultant for Higher Education someday! (Gotta beef up that resume with “go get ’em” projects, right?)

To seniors who are about to enter the work world: keep your eyes open. The opportunity might not look like you expected, but you will have the chance to start somewhere and get a feel for the amazing amount of options out there. How many people actually go into a job that directly relates to their major right away anyhow? (Pretty sure Lauren Novo will! ;))