In defense of online LIS education

CC image courtesy of cindiann on Flickr

In online discussions about the current state of LIS education, I’ve seen heavy criticism of online education.  Of course, I can’t seem to find many of these discussions now that I need to reference them — but you can check out these blog posts, especially the comments, for some context.  I think the general perception of online programs, LIS or not, is that they are easy and students enrolled in them are recluses, hiding away from interacting with other people.  While I can’t speak for all programs and all online students, my experience has been that online programs are challenging — though in a different way than offline programs — and I certainly am no recluse.

My main problem with many comments criticizing online education is that they are entirely disparaging.  To those who are dismissive of online education, stop putting down those of us who choose to be students at an online program.  Your overwhelming negativity is not constructive.  I absolutely believe we should be critical of LIS education — as a whole, online and offline — but discussions shouldn’t just turn into stubborn debates.  If you personally don’t like the idea of taking classes online, it’s just not a fit for you!  But for many others, online education is a fit.  A profession that’s built on the value of access to information should not have a hard time understanding the benefits of online education.  I work full-time, as many people do, and online programs are more flexible and fit better with my lifestyle.

Not everyone needs an in-person classroom, and not everyone excels in that type of learning environment.  LIS programs should absolutely be exploring and implementing alternative teaching methods.  Online programs aren’t necessarily easier or harder than offline programs — they require different skills.  Additionally, in-person classroom discussion doesn’t work for everyone because it has to be facilitated well (and I personally think a well-facilitated classroom discussion is much rarer than generally acknowledged).  Online programs offer an alternative.  Either way, discussions shouldn’t only take place in one environment.  Students should be having these discussions both online and offline.

Thinking that online education is going away is unrealistic.  As it is, I challenge you to find a class that isn’t already a hybrid.  Most offline classes have an online component, whether it’s professors posting articles on Blackboard or students contacting their professors through email.  Since online education is only going to increase, be supportive and encouraging instead dismissing our choice of program delivery.  If students, online or offline, aren’t taking steps to gain work experience in a library or other information environment, that’s a different issue altogether.  And it has nothing to do with the type of program.

Again, I think we should be critically examining LIS programs, but I’m tired of seeing online programs get targeted more than offline ones.  They all have issues.  Let’s be constructive in figuring out how to solve those problems together.  So let’s start — what are the top two issues in LIS education that you think need to be addressed first?

Categories: Distance Learning

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49 replies

  1. I do like taking online classes (even though I’m not a LIS student yet, on the way!), but the downfall is not enough individual attention from the teacher when the class has more than 50 students taking it at the same time. I succeed better when the class is 15 students or less. Then again, it’s personal preference. I like more interaction between teachers and students instead of being forced to interact simply with JUST the students who are afraid to ask the teacher questions, and so on.

    I chose online classes due to location (currently attending University of Wisconsin: Milwaukee and live in Minneapolis, MN).


  2. Roselle, I think that’s an issue of how the instructors approach the online environment. If they think, “online needs no attention, I can teach 50 students when I would normally do 15,” that’s a problem. Some professors seemed to me not to dedicate the same time to online students that they would to in-person students (especially in the form of office hours, time that would normally be taken in after-class chats, etc.), and that shortchanges the students. The best online instructors I had took the time needs seriously and approached the students with an eye to their specific needs.

    That said, I loved being able to do my MLIS remotely. In part, the expanded discussion Roselle mentions was nice. Learning to negotiate group projects at a distance is certainly applicable in today’s work world. And most importantly, it allowed me to get my degree when I otherwise couldn’t have, and to do so *while working full-time in a library.”

    I totally agree with the poster – issues in LIS education should be discussed, but don’t think for a minute that “online students” are the problem.


  3. The program at UT during the regular semesters are entirely in the classroom with online components, but this summer they introduced an online cataloging course. I didn’t take it but I heard that some students didn’t like that they didn’t meet the other classmates and it was weird to only identify each other with email addresses or whatnot. Do you feel you get to know your other classmates?


  4. Do I know my online classmates? It depends on the class. When courses require group work (which I am increasingly in favor of) I feel like I really get to know the other students. I think the success of online classes really depends on how a class is structured around interactivity. Discussion, chats, and group work all help.


  5. I think one of the main reasons a lot of folks – myself included – pursue an online MLIS program is that we’re already working in a library environment. Online education gives us the flexibility to pursue an MLIS without having to seriously rearrange our schedules, something which would be impossible for many 9-5 paraprofessionals. Finally, I really think people who criticize online LIS education need to realize is that in some cases, it is much cheaper than a traditional bricks and mortar program. I love library work, and I have no illusions I’m going to get rich doing it, but that also means I need to be responsible for my future financial health and debt load, and choose a program that might be cheaper delivered online than a bricks and mortar option.


    • Well put, Eira. These are the exact reasons I’m currently applying to online only programs for my MLIS. I need the degree to further my career. However I already have a Master’s degree so I don’t want to take more years out of my professional life pursuing a second one and I definitely want to keep costs down since I’m still paying off the first. 🙂
      SJSU is my first choice and from all I’ve heard, it is a good program and just as rigorous as a traditional classroom option.
      I do think I’ll miss the camaraderie of the traditional Master’s program (I made a lot of great friends in my first MA program because we were a small tight-knit program — I always described it as like high school but with more happy hours) But I do have to weigh that against furthering my career and keeping my future finances under control.
      Hopefully we do get more people sticking up for online programs like Rose did and we recognize that one is not better than the other but that they are simply different sides of the same coin and it really depends on the student and where they are in life.


  6. My LIS program ended up being about a 50/50 split between online and in person. The online classes had some issues, but no more or less then the classroom setting. My biggest complaint was many of the online classes insisted on using Blackboard, of which I have nothing nice to say at all. It doesn’t foster discussion and is just plain difficult to use. I did have another class where the professor created a section of their own website to use and it was radically better.


    • I’ve luckily never had to use Blackboard, but I’ve heard many horror stories! The learning management system used at SJSU is D2L, and previously it was Angel. I haven’t had problems with either of them.


  7. I had a similar experience to Michael’s above. When an online course is handled well, it can be very challenging (sometimes more challenging, as there is often no “regular” class session to keep you in the rhythm of the class). I had a particularly good experience with my first online class – the professor had us post answers to a basic questionnaire about our goals for library school education, personal interests, etc. The final question was “name something you have in common with one of the other students based on their answers to the questionnaire,” which I thought was a fantastic way of fostering a sense of community among all of us (even though I was the first to fill it out and therefore couldn’t yet say what I had in common with the other students!).

    I ended up getting to know several of my classmates from that class extremely well – even though I didn’t share another class with some of them. And I give a lot of credit to the professor for being very thoughtful and proactive about creating community in that space.


  8. I finished my online degree in May, and trust me, it was not easy! I was uncertain about taking online classes at first, as I am the opposite of a recluse, but it really worked out, and I feel that I got a good education. But it definitely takes discipline and time management! I wrote about my experience at my blog:


  9. What RachelW said. I’m the product of an online MLIS and my concerns were entirely based on instructors that didn’t know how to teach in online environments, not based on those environments themselves. Teaching online is not the same as teaching in a physical classroom, and the instructors that don’t recognize that do a disservice to their students and whatever program they represent.


    • I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. The success of the class relies heavily on how well the teacher/professor knows how to use the online environment. I’ve had some good ones and some bad ones, but I have definitely been challenged.


  10. As someone in their second year of a hybrid program (we have face-to-face weekend classes about once a month, and some electives are entirely online), I can safely say that any issues I’ve had with my education thus far have not stemmed from the fact that I did not physically see my classmates and professors. They stem from the two issues that I feel like need to be addressed across all mediums of LIS education–practical application of theory and the “how-to” of advocacy. In our program, taking a practicum is still optional. I understand that a lot of people chose online programs because they are working full-time or have families and therefore may not have a chance to do a practicum, but I feel like that’s going to be the best way to synthesize what you’re learning in the classroom (physical or virtual) with what you’ll be doing in a future job. In terms of advocacy, we learn a lot about the crises happening in libraries, but we don’t learn much about what to do about that. My program used to offer a grantwriting class, which has since been unavailable. I feel like if LIS education has some sort of public policy angle to it, we might be better prepared upon graduation.


  11. Jake has articulated my experience with online classes, too. Some of my instructors really “got” the online environment, how to make classes dynamic and how to foster connections. Those classes were fantastic! Other instructors created classes that felt like very poorly designed independent study courses where the bulk of the class consisted of reading copious amounts of text, completing assignments that felt like busy work and receiving very little of the professor’s expertise or knowledge.

    I would love to see a push to make sure LIS professors are well-versed in effective approaches to teaching online. In addition to improving the education experience for LIS students, it would provide great modeling for those of us who go on to professional positions that involve instruction.


  12. I definitely agree with many of the comments above about professors making the class — in-person or online. If a professor doesn’t adapt her/his teaching methods according to delivery method and class size (or isn’t an engaging teacher in general), it can be very difficult to feel like you’ve gotten the most out of a class.

    I’ve had some excellent professors and some so-so ones, and that’s true of both my in-person and online classes.


    • I definitely agree that you get both awesome and not-so-awesome professors in either in-person and online classes. In the online SJSU program, I’ve had the good fortune of having some really excellent professors who know how to utilize online technology appropriately to facilitate classroom learning just as well as any in-person program.

      The SJSU program has also helped me learn how to successfully work with other students remotely, which has been extremely valuable as I work in committees with library professionals all across the country. I’ve also been a remote library user through this program, so I feel that I can really relate to the specific needs of remote users.

      Thanks for a great post, Rose!


  13. Great post and discussion! Even though I’m an ‘analog’ LIS student, I’ve met a lot of people who have completed (and loved) online programs. In a discipline where technology and specifically, tech-based collaborations are key, online courses aren’t necessarily less valid than face-to-face learning environments.

    People learn different ways so online ed is not for everyone. Different schools and instructors may be more or less successful at facilitating dynamic online discussions. It is most likely easier for students in traditional programs to create local networks that lead to internships and jobs in a specific geographic area, but many students in online programs are ‘non-traditional’ and balancing full-time work with classes.

    My only general criticism of the online-degree model is the potential for academic institutions to capitalize off of these programs and water down degrees in the process. With one instructor and a TA or Grad Assistant, many online courses have low overhead and huge enrollment numbers. While I would defend many online LIS programs, for some subject areas I think the distance-ed model is less effective. So while online courses can be great, I do think some of the increased popularity of online ed is due to cost-saving measures by universities who want to increase enrollment without expanding staff or facilities.


  14. I received my MLIS online through the Univ of Southern Mississippi.

    The program was wonderful. The professors made excellent use of Web 2.0 apps to create a dynamic learning environment. I still keep up with classmates and professors on Facebook.

    The campus is about 5-6 hours from where I live. I would have had to leave my husband behind in order to physically attend classes. Plus, we had one young child at the time.

    So what to do if you don’t live near a college/university which has a program for your area of interest? There’s also out of state tuition to consider. USM doesn’t charge out of state for online programs.


  15. Great points, Rose. I was a hardcore online MLIS hater for about two years: and then I researched online MLIS programs and realized most of my criticisms were unfounded, and those that weren’t were challenges shared by on-campus ed as well. One issue I still have, though, is whether or not the perception– not the fact, but the way society views online ed– deprofessionalizes us. I flip-flop between thinking that perhaps online MLIS programs are leading the way for other secondary degree education programs, such as law and medicine, or if we are devaluing our necessary degree by not committing the resources required to an on-campus program. This particularly worries me when it comes to research. I love that a lot of online programs feature courses from leading practitioners, but I still feel that we need the research that traditional academic programs support… though perhaps that needs to be reformed as well, and remote education is the way to do it. Any thoughts on this?


  16. I just started my program (University of Tennessee SIS) and although I’ve only been taking classes for a couple weeks, I can already say that it is definitely not easy! The volume of work alone is much more than I ever experienced as an undergrad. I originally wanted to move to campus, but the campus program was full by the time I was accepted; then they told me that even if I moved to campus, the majority of my classes would still be online. After hearing that it just made sense to stay at home and do the distance program – why spend the money to move, have to find a new job to afford an apartment, and pay more in tuition just to do the same thing I could do where I am now?

    Besides the cost, I really like the online format. I never took online classes before, but I absolutely feel that I know my professors and my classmates. I’m developing relationships through Facebook, especially, and my professors encourage us to get to know one another by assigning lots of group work. In person I’m extremely shy, but online that seems to go away and it is much easier for me to talk to people I don’t know well. I’ve already participated in class discussion more this semester than I typically do in a traditional classroom setting. Just based on my personality, the online program is likely to end up working out better for me than any class I’ve ever taken.


    • Hi Leslie! I just graduated from SIS in May. I am glad you’re enjoying the program. I was an on-campus student, and we got the switch from mostly campus or hybrid classes to mostly online classes my second semester. (Our first three required courses were in-person for campus students.) It was discouraging at first, but as I went through the program I came to enjoy them. I could later replay lectures for clarification, and feel sure that if I missed a class due to illness or a conference I could always listen to it later. Due to the synchronous class software we used (Centra), there was a lot of interaction between all of us: professor, campus students, online students.

      The program was also not substantially different (at least in courses offered) from campus to online. So we received the same quality of education as our online classmates, and they were allowed to continue working or stay in their hometowns and not go broke pursuing an Info Sci degree. I think in the end, that is a good thing.


      • I have kind of wondered how the online and campus classes compared; it’s good to hear that there isn’t much difference between them. I would hate for anyone to act as if my degree didn’t “count” because I did it online; I know by the time I graduate I will absolutely have earned it!


  17. Really enjoying this discussion, and thanks to all commentors for the valuable input. Here’s my two cents, as an online MLIS alumni (Florida State):

    Online or Off there is a perception that “Library School” and the MLIS is a weak graduate degree. That can only be fixed by LIS Students demonstrating high levels of scholarship and engagement with the wider academic and social cultures. Or lets just go ahead make it a certificate/apprenticeship program.

    The emphasis on the quality of the professor and their experience and comfort with online courses is valid. However, there is also the issue of bad technology that is not conducive to real, collaborative, interesting online work. My recommendation on both counts? Take responsibility. Become a professor and stay on top of teaching in diverse methods. Build new, better software or take your classroom outside the institutional structures (blog, tweet, GDoc, Wiki, Skype, etc.)

    Two items I’ve seen recently that are tangentially related:

    1) the Pew Research Center released a report early this week titled The Digital Revolution and Higher Education. A must read. [Also The Chronicle’s follow up]

    2) Some professors are actively working to create true hybrid courses and doing it very well. Check out Brian Croxall’s (CLIR Post-Doc Fellow at Emory) Intro to Digital Humanities.


  18. I started my online program three years ago. I opted for an online program for multiple reasons: cost, location and work. As I mentioned above the online program I ended up with was far cheaper then others I looked at and because it was online I could continue to work at the job I already had. One of my goals is not to go into debt while working on my MLIS; so far I have succeeded. When I started the SJSU SLIS program, I lived in Western Wisconsin where there is not a local library school. Yes, Madison and Milwaukee were close, but not close enough to take classes in person. The online option proved to be even more valuable to me when my husband’s work required us to move from Wisconsin to Northern California (and soon somewhere else). I was able to continue school uninterrupted. I might be taking fewer classes and taking my time finishing the program to accommodate family life changes, but I feel like I am still getting a quality education that will prepare me for working in libraries in the future.

    The online environment is what you make it. I know people who are involved in organizations; who do internships and many of the things that traditional students do. I do miss not interacting in person with my classmates, but there are so many tools beyond those available from the school (Skype, Facebook, Google Documents and others) that assist us now that there is no excuse for not connecting with fellow students whether it is socially or for group work. My first group project (with @eiratansey) online was so scary, just because I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, but I had a fabulous group and still on occasion keep in touch with people from the group as well as others from more recent groups. I am currently taking a Business Spanish class with my program. I am a bit apprehensive about learning languages online or in person, but so far I’ve been very impressed with the chosen textbook and the way the professor is approaching the course.

    I know I for one, would not be getting my MLIS (at least not yet), if I didn’t have an online program available to me.


  19. The criticism I have heard often at conferences from older professionals is that many LIS schools, online or off, admit too many students each semester and create a glut of graduates on the market each year. They then point out that students can’t get enough attention or training, and the professionals are afraid that substandard degrees are being handed out due to too many students.

    I agree with Micah, that in order to dispel these myths we all have to work toward consistently high levels of professional engagement, which includes publication/presentation, networking, education, and when the time comes, mentoring to younger professionals and students.


    • While I acknowledge that there aren’t enough library-specific jobs for current LIS students and grads, I don’t know if limiting enrollment is the right way to go. We should be proud that so many people are interested in joining the profession — as long as graduate programs and professional organizations are being transparent and honest about the job market. If a graduate program has the resources and infrastructure to support a large number of students, I don’t think people should be denied LIS education. Graduate programs and professional organizations should absolutely help students and current staff members think of alternate career pathways to apply LIS skills.


      • Hi Rose,
        Glad I finally got to read your post and the comments! Food for thought all around.

        “Graduate programs and professional organizations should absolutely help students and current staff members think of alternate career pathways to apply LIS skills.”

        It’s a crazy coincidence you mentioned this because I just gave a presentation as a Peer Mentor to new students last week (Sept. 1) on this very topic. I chose to “specialize” in Special Libraries and Digital Services at SLIS and always on the lookout for alternative uses for the MLIS. I’m always quick to point out the non-library alternatives to fellow students.

        Great post!

        — Toni
        Formerly of LISSTEN (-:


        • One of the best classes I took while working on my degree was Information Entrepreneurship. Each student spent the bulk of the course exploring and creating a business plan for an independent information-related venture. It was so fascinating to delve into everyone’s ideas! The skills gained while obtaining an MLIS education are transferable and flexible.

          I work in a library and love it, but I think of myself as an information professional who is currently working in a library setting. It may seem like a small distinction, but to me it represents a much wider field of possibilities when I ready for what comes next. It would be great if schools encouraged a wider exposure to the non-traditional options for MLIS holders.


  20. I personally chose to go to a physical school, but don’t feel that it was better than online, only better for me. It has good and bad teachers who make the most of being there, and make you glad you can meet them, and those you would have preferred to not meet. My favorite part was moving to a new city, meeting new people, but I am in the part of my life where that is possible. I respect the different paths that online education allows, and getting online experience will certainly help those going into online library instruction. One question do online schools give students the chance to make presentations? that has been a huge part of my degree and is an important skill, something that online students might want to seek out experience in.


    • Hi, Alex! I agree that presentation skills are crucial for librarians. As a student in the San Jose State program, I’ve had the opportunity to give many presentations both online and in-person. However, I actively sought out courses with presentation components and become heavily involved in one of our student organizations in order to develop those skills. Our students are generally pretty good about connecting online through Facebook and Twitter, and we have some informal student groups who meet in-person. While I have great things to say about online education, I love that I can meet up once a month with students locally.


  21. I just graduated from San Jose State’s online MLIS program and am now returning to a traditional university to obtain my teaching credential to become a public school Teacher Librarian. What I have found is that the online environment caused me to far surpass my new peers in technological expertise, and that I have also become an extremely independent learner as a result of the online program. I love interacting with my peers more in regular classes, but I am finding it difficult to relinquish the freedoms that I had as an online student. Still, going through that program and working full-time was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I am very proud to have completed that degree, and know that I will be an asset to any school as a result of what I learned there!


  22. Rose, I commend you for tackling this controversal topic. I agree wholeheartedly that the real issue must start at taking a look at LIS programs in general. It hurts to know that some people leave their graduate programs, but lack the ability to handle management or budgeting issues. I am a firm believer that if changes are going to be made– they need to come from students. If a program does not require its students to obtain a practicum while in school, then I question its purpose. I doubt that students can survive on theoretical library-based programs without having a hands-on experience. This does a disservice to the student and the library community.

    As for the online programs, again I think it starts with the individual. One has to do a self-assessment to know if this is a good fit. If cost, locality, flexiblity are issues– online programs might be a great fit. In my opinion, this field is not one for hand-holding. It is one that demands students/future leaders to be proactive in their career. It is here at Hack Library School where like-minded people come together to create projects or proposals to de-mystify the challenges of LIS programs. I challenge followers of Hack Library School to step out of their *LIS comfort zones* and CREATE solution-based projects. Want to be a children’s librarian- start a reader’s advisory blog (i.e. write book reviews). Want to be a reference librarian- start a genealogy blog (i.e. demonstrate your research proficiencies by finding primary/secondary resources). Find a library mentor- offer to do volunteer work. Lack confidence in public speaking- join a toastmaster group.


  23. I think people who often make judgments about these programs don’t have all the facts. I’m a new student and I’m constantly talking to people who have misconceptions about online education.

    When I was deciding on a LIS program I thought about money, but mostly about graduates who were able to get work. I also chose online because I have a 4 month old who is still nursing (that would be very awkward in a traditional setting and would be an unnecessary hardship for my daughter). The traditional programs around me didn’t have good feedback from graduates, so I chose a synchronous online program that allowed me to interact as much as possible with both students and professors. My program also requires on-campus sessions to meet and work with fellow students once a semester.

    Regardless of your take on which is better (which I think is totally dependent on the student), I think it’s realistic to get used to working in an online environment. In the real world you don’t always have the benefit of talking with someone face-to-face. The ability to communicate effectively with your audience no matter what the mode of communication will continue to be an important skill. The nature of library work involves a lot of technology, so people should not shy away from it, regardless of how they choose to get their education. I feel that an online education is one of the best ways to get used to this model, but I don’t judge those who choose a traditional model. I think you have to choose what works best for you.


  24. Librarian distaste for online education is hilarious. You can’t push to get more information online and encourage accessibility and then make a face at online education programs. So I could educate myself using web resources, but not if there is a degree involved? What sort of insanity is that?


  25. I just started library school last month, and my school offers both online and on-campus programs. I seriously considered the online program, but after talking with professors, colleagues at work, students from both programs, I decided to go to class on campus. It’s a personal decision, for sure, but a few weeks into my first semester, I’m glad so far that I went this route. Of course, it helps a lot that the campus I go to is right between work and home, with classes held evenings and weekends. Also, I’ve taken online classes through the local community college, and while it was very flexible and convenient, I missed the campus connection. Already, I’ve forged bonds with classmates in ways I’d miss online, like on breaks and walking to/from the parking lot. Totally a personal thing, I admit.

    I supervise 1-2 cataloging interns each semester at the academic library where I work FT. Completion of a cataloging class is a requirement for the internship. I’ve had one intern from an online MLS program (located in a different state), and the other interns have taken cataloging class on campus at the two local library schools. The intern who took cataloging class online has turned out to be the least prepared for the internship, so I had to take a different approach with training. She was a sharp individual, so I’ve assumed that the online cataloging class wasn’t up to par with on-campus experience in this particular class. I wonder if my assumption is correct or wrong. What do you all think? Maybe the quality of the online classes differ from program to program. (Also, she told me after she’d started the internship that she disliked her cataloging class, so THAT could’ve had something to do with it! Made me wonder why she was doing the cataloging internship in the first place! Food for thought when looking for internships AND jobs.)


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