Long-Distance Distance Education

The conversation around the merits of distance LIS education is an ongoing process in the library profession.  Popular discussion points include connecting with peers, job and life flexibility, financial pressures, and the influence of technology on education.

All of these are valid points that deserve further exploration, but in practice, the discussion of distance education seems to revolve around the assumption that the student is not really that distant from the school.  They certainly aren’t living on campus and attending classes in-person, but the general idea seems to be that distance students are at the very least in the same state as their chosen institution, if not within a few hours.  This is not always the case for some students.

I’m a student with Kent State University in Ohio.  I live and work full-time in Minnesota.  There are several LIS schools nearer to me (St. Catherine, University of Wisconsin-Madison and -Milwaukee), but I chose to go to Kent for a variety of reasons.  Firstly, the academic program best fit what I wanted to do.  Secondly, financial considerations played a serious part in my decision.  Already sitting on a substantial undergrad loan debt, moving to another state for graduate school or attending the expensive local school were not practical options for me.  I need to work full-time to afford LIS school, which means that I have less schedule flexibility — I can’t go to in-person orientations because that requires vacation days and money that at the time of my decision, I didn’t have.  Kent was reasonably affordable, even with out-of-state tuition, and the in-person orientation is not mandatory.  (I have never been to my graduate school, in fact.) Finally, I wanted to stay near my family and support systems.  So, this meant that the fully-online distance education Kent provides was a great fit for my personal and professional goals.  

I don’t regret my decision at all, but it does come with some unique challenges that other distance students who live closer to their campus may not encounter, and that I wasn’t aware of when I entered my first courses.  Primarily, it’s difficult to connect with other students and become more involved in the profession.  I was somewhat disheartened when I read the student bios written by my peers in my first courses and realized that 90% of the other students were in Ohio.  The list-serv for SLIS students primarily focuses on Ohio opportunities of which I cannot take advantage. I can’t join Kent State’s ALA/SLA student chapters because going to meetings would require a plane flight (and/or scheduling a Google Hangout around a different time zone).  

I also have difficulty connecting with professors, as stopping in their offices to chat or ask questions requires cross-country travel.  Emails do a little of the work, but they are a lot easier to ignore than a physical visit.  I’ve been lucky in that I have an excellent advisor with a great email response time, but the focus for my concentration seems to be largely based around campus activities, so I don’t get as involved as I would like with the SLIS community.  I work full-time in a library, so I do get some interaction with the profession through my office (I work in administration), but connecting with professionals decades into their careers is a different experience than commiserating with fellow students.    

So far, my tactic in dealing with the isolation that results from the combination of all the above factors is to treat the profession like a long-distance relationship – it requires a little more effort than most.  I read library blogs (like HLS), keep up with ALA happenings through their newsletters, and do extra research to find development opportunities.  Twitter is also a great resource — I’m able to follow chats like #critlib and connect with the profession through social media a lot easier than I am through my school, and I intend to include my Twitter handle in the obligatory bios for upcoming courses to help facilitate some of these connections.

I realize that I’m an outlier in the distance education world, and schools adapt to serve the majority of their student population.  I do wish, however, that the potential difficulties of truly long-distance education were a greater part of the conversation around the future of LIS education.  It might help those future students make a more informed decision about their program choice.

STE-5740Grace Butkowski has worked in all types of libraries since she was in high school.  It took six tries to get that first job, but it was worth it!  After studying history for her bachelor’s degree, she currently resides in St. Paul, MN, and works for the administrative office of the University of Minnesota Libraries.  As an online student with Kent State, Grace is interested in museums, archives, and has a newfound interest in digital librarianship.  Outside of professional pursuits, she’s a seamstress, knitter, and reader.  You can reach out to Grace through her LinkedIn or her Twitter, @gkbutkowski1.


Cover photo from Flickr Commons. Licensed under CC 2.0.

5 replies

  1. I did my MLIS through San Jose State University while living in the UAE. The timezone difference could be annoying as classmates always wanted to do meetings that were convenient to them. I don’t know how many of my cohort were from California. It never occurred tome.


    • With the classes I had, people usually mentioned where they were from, which is how I knew most people were from Ohio.

      And you had a much rougher time zone difference than I have! Did you have a lot of middle-of-the-night meetings?


  2. Grace, thank you so much for writing this! You bring up several issues that I wish would be discussed on a national level. As you know, I also attend Kent State and have noticed that a significantly large percent of my classmates live in Ohio, where Kent State is located. There are a lot of resources for in person students but I question what efforts are being made to support online students like us. You provided links to ALA and SAA but that Kent State Chapter page has not been updated since March of 2015 and the SAA link does not list Kent State. As I mentioned before on a previous post, online students at Kent have no support system in place. We need to do everything ourselves, and while I understand that graduate work is about holding oneself accountable, we are not paying thousands of dollars and racking up debt to be left out in the cold.

    In addition, many students, whether online or in-person, are working in libraries and have had experience in libraries and wish there was a way we could all meet and make connections for networking or just to meet people interested in the same track. Maybe have an online meeting at the beginning of the program scheduled at different times both online and in person. Maybe having social media accounts or student list serv where students can learn about ALA chapters, conferences, or anything else that may be relevant.

    But I agree, I wish we would have known about this sooner. I think it plays a significant role in our development as librarians. I am fortunate enough to have learned about things through Twitter or at my library so I have networked, presented, and gotten experience through other means but institutions like Kent, with online programs, need to provide the support they advertise and make en effort to reach out to online students like us.


  3. When I was younger I watched my cousin go through distance learning. I know that he really enjoyed it. I know that he had a lot of progress.


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