“So what do you study exactly?” Part 1: Online Education

This post is the first in a two-part series on how, why, and when MLIS students explain this degree to others. Stay tuned for “Part 2: Library & Information Science” next month!

When I tell friends and coworkers in California that I go to school at the University of Washington, I get varied reactions. Some people express confusion, some don’t seem to believe me, some are curious…and some just give me the proverbial smile-and-nod.

No matter the reaction, every time I exit a conversation of explaining and clarifying and describing my education, I think to myself, “There must be a better way to do this.”

I am lucky to be part of a cohort of dozens of fellow online MLISers, so I recently turned to them for advice. How do we all explain this degree? What does it mean to us, and how do we express that to others in everyday conversations?

Online and traditional education at odds

We all have different ways of describing online education – and they often do not involve the word “online.” One of my peers phrases it as “a distance program through the University of Washington.” Another uses the word “remote” instead of “online.” I often use the word “based” to delineate between the location of my university and the location of my home and work – as in, “I am a University of Washington student based in California.”

Sometimes I get lazy, and I just go for shock value. I say that I go to the University of Washington as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, and let people connect the dots.

Once I get past simply naming the program, the conversation moves to nitty gritty questions. How do you do that? Why did you choose this? How does your education work?

My go-to phrase is that my school “walks the walk” when it comes to information science. Information schools talk about how they use technology to make amazing things happen—and here’s my school, actually using technology to widen and serve its own circle of students, faculty, and staff.

One of my peers has a similar, simple response ready to go: “I’m learning information science. What better medium than information technology?

And she has a point! As another one of my peers said, “I wouldn’t advocate for every degree to be online (for example medicine), but this kind of topic works really well.”

Sometimes, to distance myself from the stigma of studying “online,” I also tell people more about how my school works. While some library schools are all online, half of my peers are “normal” students studying full-time on campus. I describe the Information School as a brick-and-mortar school, with classrooms and events and long hallways of offices. And I tell them that a degree from my school is, in practice, often neither all-residential or all-online – most students spend some time campus as well as some time in online classes.

If I know someone a bit, I will also tell them how this extends to my own personal reasons for choosing this mode of education. I value managing my own time, the flexibility to pursue work and research in any location, and the freedom to travel. For many of my peers, the reasons range from families to homes to careers to full-time jobs, all of which can demand our time in non-structured ways and prevent us from moving to a different place for school.

On this topic, one of my peers said simply, “I don’t talk about the online aspect. I don’t want to have to justify my choices.” And at this point in the conversation, after I get past the naming and the explaining, I have to admit that I agree with her. All this justifying can be exhausting.

But it can be worth it. I know the value of my degree, and I am confident that different modes of non-traditional, flexible education are the way of the future. A lot of people have simply never heard of this, or have never met someone actually doing it. Ultimately, representing my degree is a privilege – even if it is sometimes a tiring one.

2 replies

  1. My favorite response when I tell people I’m in library school is, “Oh, so you just read books all day?” Grrr. I usually start by telling them that my school has one of the top ranked programs in the country. I also give them an idea of what type of classes we take, from programming to reference to management. It’s annoying to have to justify myself all the time, but giving them specific examples of what I study seems to help change some minds.


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