Surviving Tech Courses

As more MLIS programs integrate tech courses and requirements into their curriculum, many MLIS students who are not tech-savvy nor have a tech background struggle in these courses. At the University of Washington, there are numerous tech courses available for students and a requirement that every student takes at least one of these courses. I’ve heard stories and also personally experienced the struggles of these courses and even some of the mental breakdowns. Many students dread these courses and the long hours they often require.

Here is some advice I’ve collected from other students and from my past and present experiences as a non-tech savvy student attempting to succeed in tech courses.

  • If you have a choice, be diligent in choosing which tech course to take
    • Identify technical skills you would possibly need in your desired career path and match them to a tech course. Look at job postings for positions you’re interested in and see what kind of technical skills they require or desire. For example, I’m interested in digital archives and knew, after looking at job postings, that XML would come in handy. Knowing that these are skills you can apply later in your career will help you feel more motivated to put in the time and effort in the course.
  • Be deliberate about when you take a tech course
    • Pairing a tech course with an “easier” course during the same quarter or semester can help you dedicate the necessary time to understanding and working through your tech assignments.
  • Dedicate the time
    • This tip, though obvious, deserves its own bullet point. Tech courses, I’ve found, have taken up more of my time than my other courses. For once, don’t leave your assignments until the day before or day of they’re due. Start early in the week if possible and reach out with questions early as well. It makes it easier to get through your assignments when you can walk away and come back without being up against a deadline. Because I didn’t have a lot of prior knowledge, I’d sometimes have to learn certain topics on my own to understand the assignments. Even if a course advertises itself as introductory, there are likely concepts you’d have to learn on your own if you don’t have any technical experience.
  • Form study groups and/or make friends with students who have already taken the course
    • When I took my first programming course, I felt way out of my comfort zone. Luckily, my professor had us form groups at the beginning of the quarter so we could reach out for help and compare assignments. This was incredibly helpful as some of the instructions were for Windows and not Macs (I was using a Macbook) but talking to my fellow group members helped me complete these assignments. One of the hardest parts was just setting up all the programs on my Macbook the first week as the instructions were for Windows exclusively. It’s less frustrating when you have others you can talk to than working out a program or assignment alone for hours.
  • Reach out when you’re struggling
    • For many students who have never coded before, jumping into a programming course can be daunting. It becomes even more difficult when your code, no matter how many times you update it, doesn’t seem to work. I know others, including myself, have broken down in frustration. Reach out early to your professor or TA; they might even help walk you through an assignment. If you find your mental health deteriorating as the course goes on, reach out to your advisor or school counselor. Take care of yourself if you find yourself struggling and frustrated; you’re not alone, other students have gone through the same course as you, and it’s just one course. Your mental health shouldn’t come second to your academics. On this point, check out HLS writer and my fellow UW MLIS student Hanna Roseen’s post on self-care and medication.

Don’t be scared off from tech courses; in fact, you might find you really enjoy a certain course. Choose a tech course that matches your experience and interests, and don’t be afraid to talk to other students or your advisor as they might have favorites to recommend. Remember that these tech skills you learn now will likely help you in the future!

Featured photo by Ilya Pavlov


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

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