The past five years have seen many posts on Hack Library School about the virtues and vices of online education in library and information science. After publishing two new additions to our Hack Your Program series—one featuring an all in-person program, the other featuring an all online program—two of our writers came together to discuss the issues around their education in our increasingly digital age. Jennifer Eltringham is in her first year with the in-person program at the University of Denver. Jay Granger is concluding his studies in the online program at the University of Southern California.
MJG: I read your post on the program at the University of Denver, and I was struck by the similarities between our two programs, despite the fact that yours is all face-to-face and mine is all online. I felt right after reading your HYP post that it might be interesting to compare the offline and online educational experiences we’re receiving. My initial thought was that we may have a cultural bias against online education that is built into the very language we use to describe it. Yet it’s a massively popular form of education—and not that inferior after all. Reading your article, it seemed to me that our experiences have more in common than not.
JE: I don’t think you’re wrong about the cultural bias. I spent a lot of time deciding whether I should attend the University of Denver—which is pretty expensive and about an hour’s drive away from where I live—or an online program that is generally convenient, perhaps less expensive, and, as you say, probably not that different of an experience. I’m not sure if my decision had anything to do with the actual merits of the program. I’m probably biased to the in-person experience, and I justified this bias by telling myself that it would afford me more professional opportunities. While I’ve been connected to a lot of great opportunities through this program, I’m sure online programs don’t just leave you hanging.
MJG: I know I was concerned about joining an online program. A little embarrassingly, I’ve already completed two other advanced degrees: one in a very traditional face-to-face setting, the other in what was called a “blended” program in which once-a-week meetings were combined with online elements like discussion boards. The face-to-face experience was far superior. When I imagined the experience at USC, I imagined it as a lot of very solitary busy-work: endless discussion board posts about equally endless reading done on a computer screen, all completed without knowing anyone personally. It was not inspiring. I may be an introvert at heart, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I like working in isolation while grinding away at confusing material. I like the ability to ask questions. I like the ability to bounce ideas back and forth. I like the ability to work with other people to create something better than the thing I could have envisioned on my own. It felt to me like signing up for an online program was signing up to give up on all those experiences. I’ve been continually shocked that my experience has been to the contrary.
JE: Though it’s not advertised as such, I think my program might be closer to your blended program. It contains a lot of the aspects that you mentioned dreading—discussion board posts, reading on a computer screen, isolated work. I was expecting a rigorous program, and while it has been challenging, I’ve also been surprised by some of our assignments. In my first ever class as a graduate student we watched a movie. A movie. It made me so angry. I had driven an hour to be there and was paying a lot of money to watch a movie I could have easily accessed from home. Nothing makes you feel like you’re in eighth grade with a substitute teacher more than watching a movie for the majority of the class session. So that was my first experience as a “traditional” student, and it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting or hoping for.
MJG: Ha! There really isn’t anything quite like the communal misery of a late night movie in a college classroom is there? And that is one advantage of the online-only education: we’ve watched our share of films—clipped and complete—but all from the comfort of our own living rooms. I literally cuddled on the couch while streaming Desk Set (1957). I’m betting that experience was far superior to yours on that first night.
My own first classes were as surprising, but in a different way. We were invited before the official start of the semester to participate in a live orientation, complete with webcams and microphones, dignitaries, and guest speakers. Then, within the first week of classes, each individual instructor held a similar session for his or her particular class. We all sat awkwardly in our offices or living rooms or bedrooms (an unexpectedly high percentage of headboards were featured as backgrounds those first nights), and for an hour we stared at each other’s faces and listened to each other’s voices doing all the typical ice-breaker activities that we might have expected to avoid: What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your experience in libraries? What are your goals as a student in this program? What’s something interesting about yourself? Then we had to go type it all up on a discussion board. By the end of that first week, I not only knew everyone in my (admittedly small) cohort by name, face, and voice, but I had distinct opinions about each—and, no doubt, they had opinions about me. We had not escaped a bit of the social experience of students by enrolling in an online program.
JE: What strikes me here is that it almost seems easier to avoid social interaction in an in-person program. It’s easy enough for me to not make eye contact, sit quietly, or hide in a corner between classes and not talk to people. But it sounds like in your program the camera is unavoidable. Do you find that this actually makes you more engaged, not only socially, but academically?
MJG: Sometimes. I remember an article that came out a couple years ago in The New York Times: “The Trouble with Online Education” by Mark Edmunson. It stuck with me because it seemed really true to me at the time. “Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor,” the author asserted. “It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue.” How true, right? The face-to-face experience in a classroom must breed interactive dialogue more successfully than the face-to-computer-to-internet-to-computer-to-face experience, right? Not so, it turns out in practice. While technology may once have been clunky enough to prevent effective interaction, advances have resulted in an experience that is so low friction that it’s often easier than real life. After all, I don’t have to drive an hour to get to class. And when I log-in, my professors and I have a much wider range of tools at our disposal than we would in a traditional classroom. Which—and this may be our next topic—is not to say that they all know how to use those tools or choose to.
JE: Absolutely. I think much of the quality of the education is dependent on the individual instructor, and, of course the student. Any given student isn’t going to totally jam with every professor and it’s especially hard to decide if you like an instructor’s methods before you start a program or a course. And this is true across institutions, degrees, and online vs. traditional. Though I was feeling bummed about the movie being aired in my first class, I went to my second class and absolutely loved it. The organization of the course, the professor’s teaching style, and the content were much more in line with my own learning style.
MJG: I love that point! Since publishing my own Hack Your Program post, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a number of other students about their own experiences. There’s certainly a fundamental similarity: we study the same curriculum under the same professors and interact with the same peers. The learning experiences that have been most meaningful have been really different for each of us though. One person’s wasted movie night is another person’s insightful film screening, right?
Can we return for a moment to the anti-online program bias? I’m really interested in the ways our words reflect our thinking—often unconsciously. As we’ve been chatting casually about this subject, I’ve struggled a lot with how to describe our two experiences in a way that is respectful to each while capturing the differences between them. “Online” and “offline” don’t do justice to the in-person experience: lots of your coursework is done online. “In person” versus “online” fails to recognize the extent to which my program requires person-to-person interaction. “Digital” and “analog” seem conveniently congruous but are technically incorrect. It seems to me that we don’t really have a good way to describe the two experiences—particularly as they become increasingly similar. So-called online classes now often require synchronous in-person interactions that, as you noted, are often even more intensely personal than traditional classroom meetings. And so-called in-person classes regularly insist that participants engage in asynchronous work online. On consideration, it begins to feel like the only really meaningful distinction between one program and another is whether physical attendance in a common classroom is a required part of the experience or not. Old Skool Hacker Rose L. Chou actually made the same point way back in 2011 when she wrote these fighting words: “I challenge you to find a class that isn’t already a hybrid.” I’m not sure I could—then or now.
JE: We certainly lack a useful vocabulary to describe this difference. And while I’ve been wondering when we’ll just start calling all of these aspects “education” and not trying to differentiate, there are also people for whom this distinction is extremely important. I think specifically of single parents, those who are less computer literate, and people who work full time. The physical classroom component can be a real barrier for some, and the difference isn’t inconsequential. Where we run into the real issue is when we use our identifiers as signifiers of value. Analog programs still carry the weight of academic prestige, of a “quality” education, while online programs are often viewed as the easy way out. We need to break down these associations to change the way we speak and think about continuing education, and the only way I can really see that happening is with time and with people in programs like yours speaking up about their experiences.
MJG: I totally agree! I live close enough to the host campus for my program that when people ask where I’m studying, they can reasonably assume I attend classes on campus. I often let them. And I’m conscious of a change in people’s tone and expression when I tell them that I actually attend classes online. The thing is, the diminished expectation may be coming from me as much as—or more than—from them. I’m guilty of putting the word “only” in front of the words “an online program” when clarifying my situation. Why do I do that? Is it a hangover from the early days of online education when it really was an inferior experience? Academic elitism? A native inclination for self-deprecation? Whatever the reason, I think you’re right that the change in perspective must originate with the participating persons—students and teachers alike. The quality of an educational experience is always a product of the engagement of the participants. That, ultimately, is why some face-to-face classes suck and why some online classes are fantastic.
JE: This conversation has been really eye-opening and changed a lot of my opinions about MLIS education. I only wish I could have learned these things a few years ago when I was deciding on programs! It’s important to remember that a program isn’t one, unified experience that is the same for every student. There are lots of variables at play, and when you start to think about it, whether it’s online or in-person starts to seem less major.
As of this writing, the American Library Association lists 59 institutions accredited to provide degrees in library and information science. Of these, 22 are called “primarily face-to-face” and 29 are called “100% online.” Which did you choose? Tell us all about it in the comments section below.
Categories: Education & Curriculum