Should Online Coursework Be a Library School Requirement?

Photo by Wouter Verhelst

This semester I’m taking ‘Distributed Learning Librarianship’ online at the University of North Texas.  Needless to say online learning is on my mind.  In August of last year Rose L. Chou contributed a great HLS post In Defense of Online LIS Education,  and Laura Sanders’ recent post on Teaching Methods Used in Library School generated some good discussion that included comments about online coursework. I’d like to build on some of the ideas presented in these post and in my class.  I feel like every other day I have a conversation with someone about online courses that includes a statement like, “How does that even work?” or “I can’t imagine what a class would be like online.” This weekend it dawned on me–maybe you can’t imagine what an online class is like until you take one. Sometimes I feel like I’m describing driving to someone who hasn’t ridden in a car.

There is a growing population of online students in the United States. According to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning  online enrollment experienced an average annual growth rate of 20% from 2002 to 2009. From fall 2008 to fall 2009 there was an online enrollment increase of nearly one million students for a total of 5.6 million students. Many areas of librarianship are affected by these online learners. As one would expect, online students turn to their University libraries for support–but they also use their local public libraries for school-related needs. Additionally, school librarians may be called on by K-12 students taking online classes. As more people choose to learn online, do we need more librarians who know how to serve them? There are many different ways to approach needs assessment—in the case of online learners I’m beginning to think needs assessment should come, in part, from firsthand experience.

I understand that online learning isn’t a great fit for every library school student and many people still resist the idea of online courses and degrees. 5.6 million online learners are proceeding anyway. How are we going to educate ourselves to meet their information needs?

I want to know what you think. Do we need to do more to anticipate the needs of online learners in our coursework? How does your school’s curriculum address online learning? Should library school students be taking more online courses? Let’s discuss.

32 replies

  1. At Tennessee, most of the courses are offered only online, and we have to take them online even if we’re considered on-campus students. It’s one of the things I don’t like about UT. Online classes are great for reaching a wider audience, but they are really disappointing in generating class discussions. Plus, it’s hard to stay focused when you’re staring at your computer screen the whole class. We have the option of turning on our video so students can see us, but nobody does. Oh well, I guess it’s the future of education, right?


  2. There are definitely frustrations involved in online education. Staying motivated and engaged is a key concern for students. I think as more students turn to online courses (though not all will or should), there will be a greater demand for interactivity and the like.


    • Motivation has been my main issue with online classes thus far. I tend to go through periods where I cannot convince myself to get up and work, mixed with massive bursts of productivity. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the best way to learn for me, but I can see how for plenty of people who are a little better at scheduling their time it would be great.


  3. There are good and bad things about both methods of delivery. In future semesters of the (f2f) library course I teach, I’d like to investigate more hybrid learning models, where students can learn at their own pace through lectures, videos, and tutorials online and use face-to-face time to put those concepts into practice and get clarification.

    I think what is most important regardless of whether you take classes online or face-to-face is that you are able to actually engage in librarianship in some meaningful way outside the classroom.


    • Beyond method of delivery, it also comes down to the teacher. I’m in a number of hybrid classes, and while some professors have really worked to take advantage of the format, delivering the drier material and readings online while utilizing f2f classes for discussion or group projects. Yet for some professors the only difference between f2f classes and online is that the lecture is in person for a two-hour block.


  4. Full disclosure: I am an SJSU SLIS student, and so I have been completing my MLIS in an entirely online environment.

    I’d argue that all library school students need some exposure to online coursework – assuming that teamwork is also built into the online course. In my full-time job at a library, I’ve worked on some projects in which I rarely (and sometimes never) meet with people face to face. Learning how to do teamwork in an online environment is pretty critical to a lot of the work many librarians do in real life.


  5. This is definitely something librarians need to think about, so I’m glad you brought it up! Your post made me think of library instruction sessions, as many new instruction jobs have distance learning as a substantial component of the job responsibilities. I don’t think library schools usually do a great job at preparing students for face-to-face instruction (there’s only one or two specific pedagogy/education classes offered at IU-B, so most people learn while acting as instruction assistants). Learning how to instruct distance learners would be a whole new challenge. I think instruction should be a required class in library school and I think that the questions you posed in this post should be carefully considered by prospective librarians. The skills required will make you more comfortable presenting, communicating, understanding users, etc…even if you have to instruct via a computer screen. I’m not sure that prospective librarians need to take an online class necessarily, but talking about how distance ed and online learning changes users’ needs is vital.


  6. Well said Bri. Even if we’re not exposed to online learning we need to be discussing and learning about the needs of online learners. I would also agree that there needs to be more emphasis on instruction.


  7. Online instruction has spread rapidly without showing times of slowing and best practices tend to lag behind. Then again, early online courses were based on face-to-face courses, some of which are arguably low quality in higher education. So those studies that “prove” online can be just as effective as face to face are a bit suspect, though the consensus seems to lie on the side of hybrid courses. But I digress.

    I don’t think the question is as much about online classes as it is about technology itself. People are averse to or don’t understand new mediums. Ideally though, people who want to serve modern society should understand what is possible. In that respect, I agree that people should be taking online classes as a start, but it doesn’t guarantee anything if they lack literacy around it or see it as a solution instead of just another tool. How many librarians are still scratching their heads about why their Facebook pages haven’t appealed to the broader public despite after several years?

    Students and librarians would need to not only take online classes, but reflect and recognize their pros and cons. They need to understand the potential (which is a lot more than some might expect) as well as the limitations (which might be different once understood, since it seems many are only too quick to articulate their negative perceptions).


  8. Having experience with online education can be a benefit once you’re out on the job. I chose my school because I didn’t want to be in an all online program. I was afraid that because I didn’t have my foot in the door, working at a library, going to school online wouldn’t help me get there. I don’t regret my choices, but my program is a hybrid of in-person and online classes. Online classes can work really well, it just depends on the teacher. The only frustration I have is that it lacks the dynamic discussions. Many times I feel like students just regurgitate what they read to meet a word count, not necessarily reading what their classmates said and responding to them.

    With all that said, having taken an online class has helped me help other students at my job. Education is totally going digital and we need to understand how it works so that we can help our patrons.


    • I agree that we’d be hard-pressed to change the trend towards digital education, but to take it further: I would also advocate for going beyond understanding and pushing for the best in online education/engagement. In that way, we become drivers of innovation in educational settings instead of just being reactionary. When we start offering online instructional material that’s much more compelling than teaching-faculty counterparts, that puts the library at the top of the pyramid. It’ll make us the place that people come to first, rather than–well, I’m not even sure if we’re on everyone’s radar as value-laden–last.


      • I agree, Brian – librarians and info professionals could be leading the way to creatively address the needs of online learners. So much of what we are facing as a profession involves re-thinking how our constituents educate themselves and adapting our approaches to meet them where they’re going. There are plenty of paralells to be drawn between people seeking online degrees and the lifelong learners that have traditionally frequented libraries. Recognizing, more and more, that the starting point is a computer screen or a smartphone, rather than a trip “somewhere,” you’d think we’d actually be ahead of teaching faculty in figuring out how to engage and assist online learners.


    • You make a good point about being frustrated by discussions that aren’t as dynamic. As an online-only student at SJSU, I’ve definitely felt that many classmates’ discussions posts were lacking — but I see participation as a problem in traditional classes as well. In the majority of my in-person classes, it’s really only been a handful of people who consistently participate — and everyone else just listens in or spaces out.


      • I just completed my MLIS at SJSU, and I have to agree about the problems with some discussions being often redundant, and on top of it, they can be quite overwhelming when you have many students making multiple posts within a few days. However, I think that this problem might rest with some instructors having difficulty in properly facilitating discussions online, and engaging students in a real discussion of the subjects at hand.

        I realize that this can be a very daunting task, but I’ve seen other models work just as successfully. I had one course where the professor was (believe it or not) not present at all, but had groups of students take turns in facilitating discussion. The student facilitators would ask open ended questions of the other students, and would try to reply to some other responses, furthering the line of discussion. It was a really great model, and I got a lot out of the facilitating dialog between my fellow students.

        Regardless of how discussions are organized, professors need to model their classes differently to the online environment and engage the students in different ways. What works in a face to face scenario may not work in an online environment, and vice versa. I think that that while every librarian job isn’t necessarily going to take place online, I think it’s important at least to dip one’s toes into it, to have a understanding of how interactions online vs. face to face can differ.


        • I totally agree. It takes a lot of thinking and planning to create environments where dynamic discussions take place. Sometimes technology is a constraint, but well-designed assignments and assessment criteria can go a long way in fostering engagement. The model you mentioned with student groups is actually documented in online learning literature. Unfortunately, more than a few professors lack the time or know-how to explore this further.


        • I am completing my degree entirely online at USC. There is definitely a barrier to engagement in the interface of online learning platforms (I speak of Blackboard particularly) and for me that’s been a constant frustration. However, when I look at the social interactions I’m a part of daily on Facebook, the lively discussions that go on all around me on blogs and twitter, I realize that online discussion and learning has every bit of the potential to be as dynamic as face-to-face interaction – and even solve many of its drawbacks as others have pointed out here – it’s just that the tools for social engagement online have bounded far ahead of those developed for online learning.

          My experience as an online learner has solidified my desire to be involved in bridging the gap between the spontaneous learning experiences communities engage in online, and the traditional sources of knowledge which could be fueling those experiences.


    • You make a great point here, Annie. Online education can be great, but it can also limit your ability to fully create a community of practice in-person, gain advice from advisers and engage in unplanned “water-cooler” chats with peers. If you’re online, you have to be motivated to get out, engage and do more than just your coursework – just as your F2F counterparts do. I think it’s important that you realized that MLIS programs are only one aspect of getting into the profession when you made your decision to go in-person.


  9. Interesting to note that the school where I received my MLS – Pratt Institute – does not offer any online classes (at least in their LIS department, cannot say the same for others). The fact that we are primarily an art and design school is a factor in this decision I am sure.


  10. I attend UT Austin which is entirely in-person. We have the opportunity to take online courses through the WISE consortium, which I’m taking advantage of this semester. So far so good, although I can’t help but think how ill-suited I am for the online environment. I find myself checking my email, working on other homework, and reading the news through the lectures (I know this can happen f2f, too, but because I know this about myself, I never bring my laptop to f2f lectures).

    I also agree about the discussions: discussion boards simply don’t allow for invigorating, engaging discussions mostly because there is little room for digressions, which are the most interesting part of a discussion IMO.

    That said, as educators we do need to understand the online format, what works and doesn’t work, and how to adapt f2f formats for the online environment.


  11. Personally, I think the online classes I’ve had (which were a Bibliographies class and a History of the Book and Printing) were great for me as a learner. Having never taken ANY online classes during my undergraduate years or my first graduate degree, the experience was, I’ll admit, a little daunting. The reason I chose to take online classes for my SLIS degree was out of time/money constraints, and with the transfer credits, I could graduate earlier, yadda yadda, BUT I do think it was an intensely valuable experience for me as a learner, and as a future Librarian.

    The discussion IS tough to facilitate online, and even by creating posting requirements, it certainly allows for students to just scrape by without putting as much effort into the experience as they perhaps would in a f2f situation. But, they do offer easy collaboration — one of my classes built a wiki study site together as part of our final project, which was actually a really great exercise and study tool.

    Overall, I think it’s certainly a good experience to HAVE, but I certainly do not prefer them to the f2f model I’m getting at IU.


  12. I believe online coursework (or at least a hybrid course) should be required parts of MLIS coursework. It’s not only an opportunity for us to observe first-hand the difficulties and strengths of the medium, but it’s yet another chance for us to be critical and intentional in our praxis – understanding the ways in which theories of information-seeking behavior and information literacy manifest online and are tied to practical aspects of online learning like time management, professional language and writing, etc.

    Keeping journals or even publicly discussing not only of how you’re absorbing the material and interacting with the topic-at-hand, but also of how you’re adjusting to online learning, how your own processing of information in this format is going, etc. can be incredibly helpful as well.

    As mentioned in above comments, I agree that the success of an online course depend heavily on faculty and administrators who pour energy and resources into the medium. Professors focused on participating in discussion themselves and developing parameters regarding participation and evaluation can help ensure rote responses and minimal contribution is lessened substantially. I think also taking online courses and encountering a poor online instructor can help our own development as educators and creators of online courses/modules – just as observing a F2F instructor who has minimal interest/effort can encourage us to be better when we might be in such a role.

    From a more personal perspective, I think it’s important to differentiate between synchronous and asynchronous online courses. I completed my entire MLIS online through Rutgers and all my courses were asynchronous. I think that when facilitated well the asynchronous discussion format can actually contribute to more dynamic discussion than in-person ones. There’s plenty of space for tangents (just start a new thread), for re-visiting topics by pointing concretely to previous threads (e.g., check out Rebecca’s post on this date at this time) and for further enriching the topic with new resources/URLs and outside/additional readings you’ve found through intentional or serendipitous searching. For me, the ability to post links and cite readings and lecture to illustrate my points as I’m making them help an incredible amount in my own absorption of the material.

    This is always a great discussion to have, and I appreciate the focus. Thanks!


  13. I’m not sure this sort of coursework should be *required* but i am sure it would be beneficial to be exposed to this sort of learning. the business world (the world in which many of us live) already works this way. I’ve worked for a firm out of my own home–my team was in new york, bucharest, atlanta, and tel aviv. developing people skills which support distance working can only be a good thing.

    this sort of thing *will* happen to you once in your career … perhaps more often. getting ready for it now can’t be a bad thing.


  14. I’m not sure this sort of coursework should be *required* but i am sure it would be beneficial to be exposed to this sort of learning. the business world (the world in which many of us live) already works this way. I’ve worked for a firm out of my own home–my team was in new york, bucharest, atlanta, and tel aviv. developing people skills which support distance working can only be a good thing.

    this sort of thing *will* happen to you once in your career … perhaps more often. getting ready for it now can’t be a bad thing.


  15. My entire MLIS program, at the University of South Florida, is online. One benefit has been that I have had to learn how to use a lot of web and library 2.0 resources. The main issue that I have with a completely online program is the lack of face-to-face discussion. Online discussions, unless in a chat room setting, tend to be fragmented at best. I really wish I had more choice in whether or not ALL my classes are online. I feel completely disconnected from the university- I hardly ever have to go to campus. I would love to have more interaction with the campus library and more involvement from the staff there. There are no graduate assistantships offered at the moment through the library due to budget cuts. I fear that I will graduate without having gained any kind of real life experience. I feel like no one in my department knows me; they just see a digital representation of me. It is disheartening.


  16. I’m in my second quarter in my all online MLIS program at the University of Washington and to be honest I really love it. When I applied to the program I said I was open to either the residential or online programs (I had finished my last semester of undergrad as an online/distance student so I was familiar with the ups and downs of the delivery method). Looking back at the time of my acceptance and placement into the online program I was a bit bummed that wasn’t heading back to the lecture hall, but now I wouldn’t trade places.

    One of the awesome things that UW does is an mandatory in person week long orientation. All 80 members of my cohort got to meet in person and bond before we met virtually for class. We also have many different ways of interacting. We have a closed facebook group and closed student only discussion boards. Both are great bonding and support tools. I feel closer to my UW classmates then I ever did to my in person undergrad classmates.

    Also I have been forced to learn lots of different online collaboration and presentation tools that as residential student I would have missed out on. Programs like Voicethread, Jing, Casmatia Replay, and Adobe Connect. I’ve also learned how to work over large distances and time zones with my group work. I’ve learned to collaborate in Google Docs in real time. I’ve also gotten use to group calls in Skype.

    As far as not getting the best discussion in online classes. Really I’ve been getting better discussion! UW has a policy that we are to give nice short, to the point posts. We are also always broken down into smaller groups (10-20 people). I’ve had some really nice discussions in my first few classes.

    I love my online experience and I think UW has hit the nail on the head with their program.


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