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.
Grace 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.