Hack Your Program: The University of Alberta

Disclaimer: This post represents the perspectives and experiences of the authors at the University of Alberta. Our opinions are not intended to be the opinions of any other student, faculty, or staff or of the University itself. This post is not endorsed by the University of Alberta.

Introduction

The Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) at the University of Alberta (UAlberta) is run out of the School of Library and Information studies (SLIS) which is one of several departments in the Faculty of Education. To cover the full variety of experiences offered by UAlberta SLIS this Hack Your Program guide is being written jointly by a student in the online cohort, and a student in one of the on-campus cohorts, where possible we’ll indicate when things are only available or predominantly available to one group over the other.  We the authors want to acknowledge and honour the Indigenous peoples on whose land The University of Alberta is located. UAlberta sits on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional lands of First Nations and Métis people. We respect the histories, languages, and cultures of FNMI, and all First Peoples of Canada, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant communities and we call on all those of settler-colonial descent to do their part to continue the ongoing process of decolonization and reconciliation.

Quick Overview

UAlberta is the only Canadian post-secondary institution to offer the MLIS in a 100% online capacity. This makes them the perfect choice for those already working in libraries looking to upgrade their careers and maintain their work/life balance, students who are unable to relocate to one of the locations near an in person program, or American students looking to take advantage of the exchange rate between USD and CAD to save some money on their degree. UAlberta just completed re-certification of its ALA Accreditation in early 2020. The campus itself is located in Edmonton Alberta and in addition to the online MLIS program they offer an on-campus MLIS (either full-time, or part-time) as well as two combination degree options, the MLIS with either an MA in Digital Humanities, or an MBA. Only on-campus students (even though they are the minority) have access to the thesis option. They also support an interdisciplinary PhD that must be done in conjunction with another department, another option only available to on-campus students. You can also get a Master of Arts in Digital Humanities with a Library & Information Studies Specialization, this last one is a thesis-based degree program offered through the Faculty of Arts.

Admissions

Applying for admission is done through the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) and is also where general information about the application process can be found. Applications to the MLIS program open November 1 annually, with a full document deadline of the following February 1. Notifications of admission  are sent out at the beginning of April. There is no interview required and you do not need to have taken a GRE, MAT, etc., it’s just an online application, an application fee of $100.00 CAD, and the submission of other required documentation. The application and admission processes are covered in depth online, with admission requirements to the UAlberta’s MLIS program being fairly typical: a minimum GPA of 3.0, a recognized four (4) year bachelor’s degree, English language and technology proficiency, and supporting documents including three (3) references, transcripts for all other schooling, your CV, and your statement of intent.  

One important thing to remember when you apply is transfer credits. You have to have everything ready for those at the time of admission and acceptance because once you’re in the program UAlberta won’t even talk to you about transferring credit for past graduate courses. Only three (3) courses can be accepted for transfer credit. 

Curriculum

Students in both the online and on-campus streams are automatically registered in the course-based path for the program. The course-based program consists of 13 courses and a capping exercise. The thesis-based program is 10 courses and a thesis paper. On-campus students can transfer into the thesis stream only after their first year of study (core courses must be completed). Part-time and online students are limited to taking 2 courses a semester unless they get departmental permission to take 3. To graduate students in the course based streams must complete five (5) core courses, two (2) IT designated courses, six (6) six electives – and the capping project. As with many graduate programs you are eligible to take up to three (3) courses external to SLIS, one (1) of which can be an IT course if you can get the approval of your instructor for that purpose. External courses count as elective courses and you do not need permission from SLIS to take them, unless you want one to count as an IT option. UAlberta is also a part of the Western Deans’ Agreement enabling you to take elective options through UBC which will require a little more effort to port over to UAlberta.

Overall the courses trend towards being practical while still giving you a solid footing in the theory behind the practice. The online program especially seems to be geared towards creating librarianship practitioners vs. librarianship scholars though there are many options for those interested in flexing those muscles as well.

Course Classes

As we mentioned above, all SLIS students must take five (5) core courses and two (2) IT courses, with the remaining credit requirements to be fulfilled by electives and capping or a thesis depending on the route you choose. For the full-time on-campus students, three (3) of the five (5) core classes – LIS 501, LIS 502, LIS 503 – should be completed the first semester, with the remaining two (2) – LIS 504, LIS 505 – completed the following semester together with an IT course or an available elective. Because both the part-time on-campus, and online students are taking a smaller course load they are only required to take 1-2 courses at a time, in the online program at least this means that in year one you will start with LIS 501 (and 503 if you’re doing two courses at a time) followed by LIS 502 (and 504) in your first Winter. Only those first two semesters are prescribed, but you’ll want to get your prerequisites out of the way first to ensure that you can get the IT options and electives you want. I (Lauren) highly recommend using a planning spreadsheet to track this information as you start the course. If any of you accept admission to the part-time or online program and want to see my spreadsheet look for me on socials and shoot me a message and I’ll happily share my template!

Once the five (5) core classes are complete, students are able to essentially personalize their program by choosing the electives and the IT courses that work with their career goal(s) — with the caveat that there are many electives that don’t get offered very often, and several that will only be offered either on-campus or online. The SLIS webpage of MLIS program courses has been updated within the last year to include a clearly defined and categorized breakdown of required classes, electives, practicum, and the capping exercise. 

Note; no crossing the streams: students in the on-campus program cannot take courses designated to online students, and vice versa. This status will be indicated on the course listings found in Bear Tracks (the online student service center). 

IT Electives

As you would expect in our digital age, a large portion of the MLIS classes are technology focused, and students are required to complete two (2) IT designated courses during their program. As with the electives, the IT courses that are offered each semester are dependent on funding or the availability of instructors. As the SLIS IT courses can be limited students are permitted to take one of the two required courses outside of the program; during this summer semester the Digital Humanities department offered Intersectional Feminist Archives which counted towards a SLIS IT designated course and sounded to be a very popular option with the graduating students as well as my cohort; and with the online cohort as well as it’s offered ayschronously and it’s external to SLIS so online students are eligible (though I recommend online students register in the section offered via the Gender Studies department as they don’t have the same registration restrictions as the Digital Humanities department). Should you want to take a non-SLIS IT course, you must discuss it with your advisor – before registering – to ensure the course you are wanting to take is or can be approved as a designated IT course. The following are the SLIS courses designated as IT:

  • LIS 530 – Technology, Information, and Society
  • LIS 533 – Database Design for Information Management 
  • LIS 534 – Information Architecture: Web Design for Usability*
  • LIS 538 – Digital Libraries
  • LIS 539 – Emerging and Evolving Technologies
  • LIS 598 – Special Topics: Bibliometrics 
  • LIS 598 – Special Topics: Information Retrieval

Note; there are very few IT instructors for the online cohort and one is notoriously problematic and tends to teach most of the available IT courses. We recommend checking the Rate my Professor rankings so you can make an informed decision on whether or not to avoid certain IT classes.

* Depending on the instructor you may or may not actually get to learn about content management systems in this course…

Electives

Once you have completed the core courses, it’s your turn to choose what you want to take, sort-of. With only twelve (12) out of a listed twenty-seven (27) being offered for the 2021/2022 year, the electives for SLIS are currently pretty hit and miss. Keep in mind that directed studies and practicums are also electives to consider if the course-based electives you are wanting are not being offered. As each of these choices are completely based on the individual, our recommendation is to speak with your advisor to talk about what you are looking for and your options. Some electives we highly recommend include LIS 598 Indigenous Contexts in Canadian LIS with Tanya Ball (offered to online students in the summers and on-campus students in the fall); LIS 543 Human Information Interaction with Dr. Sarah Polkinghorne, LIS 594 Records Management with Dr. Margaret (Maggie) Shane; and LIS 591 Publishing with Dr. Tami Oliphant. These are stand out professors and standout courses, and if you get the chance to take anything at all with Michael McNally then you should, you can’t go wrong with him as an instructor.      

Remember if you’re in the part-time on-campus or the online cohorts, you only actually need to take one (1) class per academic year (so long as you finish the program in six (6) years) so if the electives on offer don’t appeal to you, just wait a semester if you can.

Another option for electives is LIS 590 Practicum. This is a great option for those who don’t already have experience working in a library or those looking to transition between library types or into non-traditional positions. In the summers this is a full-time condensed placement over three (3) weeks, whereas in the fall semester it is thirteen (13) weeks of placement. The only caveat is that the practicum placement must be supervised by someone with an MLIS degree.

Capping

SLIS students who are not writing a thesis, are required to register in the capping project for their final semester. This project is an ePortfolio which has no credits attached but must be completed to graduate. It’s not a hugely time consuming process and much of it can be prepared ahead of time so be sure to schedule the time you think you’ll need, plus some extra. SLIS recommends starting to think about what artefacts you’ll want to use starting in your second semester regardless of cohort. As with elective prep we recommend a spreadsheet for tracking all of this as well (same caveat as above, if you want to see mine (Lauren) reach out to me!) For my (Christine) final semester I have scheduled three classes plus the capping exercise, but some of my cohort have taken both spring and summer classes in order to keep their final semester to two classes and capping. According to my (Lauren) advisor, part-time and online students can do capping with either their last course or their last two courses. I’m registered to do it in the fall 2021 semester with my final two courses. 

The portfolio consists of 10 artefacts and a 150 word write up for each, as well as a 300 word value statement. These artefacts demonstrate your learning and growth in relation to the SLIS values. Three (3) artefacts (assignments, presentations, discussion posts, reflections, etc.) need to be captured from your core courses, three (3) from elective courses, one (1) from an IT course, and the final three (3) are very interesting. The final three (3) artefacts need to be experiential in nature. This is why SLIS recommends that you start planning so early, so that you can build in time to undertake experiences that can be used for these artefacts. Examples of experiential artefacts include but are not limited to:

  • Graduate research assistantship work
  • Conference presentations
  • Professional Association participation
  • Participating in partner’s week (see extracurriculars)
  • Participation in the student-run journal Pathfinder
  • Writing for Hack Library School or another professional or research publication
  • Professional development courses either internal to UAlberta or external via professional associations or Library Juice Academy for example

Assessment

UAlberta uses the four-point letter-grading system for calculating Grade Point Averages (GPA), and a student’s GPA affects their academic standing. Student assessment is done by gauging a student’s success in completing the assignment associated with the class specific Program Level Learning Outcome, or PLO. Each class syllabus I received included (besides all the usual information) the grading scheme used in the class, the weight of each assignment, and the PLOs being developed within the class.  

Grading at SLIS is incredibly subjective. Your raw score will not always correlate directly to the final letter grade that you are assigned by your instructor. You need to maintain a B average as you progress through the program to obtain this grade you’ll need to stick around a 77 as per their grading scale. 

Financial Matters

There are fee and cost of living estimates available if you would like an idea of the total cost of living attending the University. 

Tuition

Tuition is assessed based on Canadian or International status, if the program is on-campus or online, and if it is a combined program. For the full-time (three courses/nine credits), on-campus, course-based program instructional fees for one year are $4,006.80 for instructional fees and $1,455.44 for non-instructional fees such as the health plan and various health and wellness fees, with a $5462.24 total. 

Part-time fees, per each three (3) credit course, are $1,859.15 per year, or approximately $930.00 per semester.  

Online students can expect to pay just slightly less than full-time on-campus students for the same number of courses as part-time students. Fees + tuition for one (1) course a semester in the online program works out to approximately $2,606.90 according to UAlberta’s December 2020 estimate. That same estimate also quotes two (2) courses per semester as costing $4,793.98 all together. OH and remember to pay your fall AND winter tuition at the same time or you’ll get slapped with a $40 admin fee each semester. The reason for this discrepancy? The online program seems to fall under the heading of a “non-standard” course, so they can set different fees for those courses. This is also why online students can’t register in on-campus courses and vice versa.

Funding Opportunities

Over $32 million in financial support, in the form of awards and scholarships, is administered each year through the Office of the Registrar. There are multiple grants and scholarships available to full-time on-campus students with fewer than a handful of these opportunities being available to part-time students and online students. You will receive many emails in your UAlberta email about funding opportunities that may be applicable to you, make sure you pay attention to these, bookmark them so you can review them once you’re feeling a bit more organized. There are also scholarships and awards available through FGSR, the Student’s Union, and provincial and federal government sites. Again, just remember that the vast majority of these options are only going to be beneficial to full-time on-campus students which can be very frustrating. Funding opportunities do exist for students who can’t afford to go back to school full-time for whatever reason but they’re harder to find.

Financial support is also offered through various external sources including bursaries, emergency funding, and student loans. Student loans are also an option; there is a lot of detailed information on the office of the Registrar’s site, and the application is fairly easy, just remember to ensure you have all applicable documents before you start.

Keep an eye out for the annual online student award, it’s only $1,000.00 and they only give out one, but it’s worth remembering to apply to. 

Work Experience

As mentioned above all SLIS students are given the opportunity to complete an unpaid practicum during your time in the program. There is a professor who heads the practicum up, but it is 100% up to the student(s) to make initial contact with libraries they would like to partner with. It feels like making cold calls in sales, but remember, generally other librarians want to help you! I (Christine) came into the program thinking the practicum was required but it is not, and because I have previous experience working in both public and academic libraries, I chose another elective.  

There are no teaching assistantship opportunities within SLIS because there are no undergraduate programs. But keep your eyes open for graduate research assistantships, there are plenty of these and they tend to be practical to build librarianship skills in addition to helping you build your research chops. You will generally find out about these positions in the spring and in the fall via emails.

If you’re on-campus either full-time or part-time you’ll also have an opportunity to work at the UAlberta libraries as a students. If you’re an Indigenous person they have a specific Indigenous internship program at the library, Professor Tanya Ball is a former holder of this position as was SLIS sessional instructor Kayla Lar-Son.

You can also check out the Graduate Student Internship Program through FGSR to see if there are any options that match up with your career goals.

Extracurriculars

If being involved with groups on campus or virtually is your thing there are several student organizations to pick from, and even if you’re generally not one to get involved being a part of these groups I (Christine) would recommend at least one as the membership can count towards fulfilling some of the capping requirements. For my first year I belonged to three groups and found that I was still able to maintain a good life/school balance, but as two of my positions are going to require more dedicated time in my second year, and it seems probable that classes will be held on campus for the next year and therefore increasing time spent on group activities, I will likely not join a third group. 

As to the type of student groups, there are over 450 student groups to choose from with several being specific to library and information studies including: 

For those of you who will be taking a combined degree you will also have student groups specific to your secondary component.

Also remember that your status as a student at SLIS gives you access to the student membership rate for all LIS and LIS-adjacent professional associations. Here are a few worth checking out:

  • ALA (mainly for saving on the professional development opportunities and the chance to get committee experience)
  • OLA (largest library conference in Canada!)
  • LAA (if you’re an on-campus student it makes sense to join the Alberta association)
  • APRA (if you’re interested in prospect/fundraising research)
  • CAPAL (if you’re interested in academic libraries)
  • ACA (if you’re interested in archives)
  • CALL (if you’re interested in law libraries)
  • SLA (if you’re interested in special libraries and non-traditional library jobs)
  • AIIP (if you’re interested in striking out on your own in an entrepreneurial fashion)
  • ARMA Canada (if you’re interested in records and information management)

Professional associations as extracurriculars can be a great source of work experience and experiential opportunities for your capping portfolio.

** Existing opportunities for students in the online cohort to participate.

Graduate Professional Development and Training Opportunities

UAlberta actually has some fantastic professional development and training opportunities. SLIS students are exempt from the general UAlberta graduate student requirements of ethics training and a certain number of PD hours because we have those built into the program. But even though you aren’t required to do them, depending on your interests they are well worth checking out being either free or relatively low cost for what you’re getting. Largely these opportunities have only ever been available to on-campus students but COVID-19 lead to these options being made available to online students for the first time, hopefully the school sees how successful and necessary it is to keep those opportunities accessible to their online cohorts, but I (Lauren) apologise to future readers of this piece if that’s no longer the case at some point in the future!

Peter Lougheed Leadership College

PLLC as it is colloquially known has two relevant opportunities, their Teaching Fellow Program for those interested in pursuing PhD studies. As mentioned above there are no ways within SLIS for MLIS students to gain higher education teaching experience through teaching assistantships, but if you’re interested you can try and get one of the coveted PLLC interdisciplinary positions. Teaching fellows automatically get to participate in the second major program offered by the PLLC, the leadership development program. The leadership development program comes in three (3) flavours called wade, swim, or dive, a great metaphor for how in-depth you want your experience to be. At the most expensive ($300.00 CAD) the dive option is also the most in-depth but would be extremely beneficial to anyone who knows they want to get into library management and administration some day.

Graduate Teaching and Learning Program

The GTL program as it is known is run by FGSR and has four levels. You can do any number of the levels but you have to do them sequentially. They are level one (1), foundations; level two (2), practicum; level three (3), pedagogy and course design; and level four (4), scholarship of teaching and learning. Level one is a 25-hour workshop series designed to teach you the basics of teaching at the higher education level, while GTL 2 builds on that in a course environment to help you hone your skill and get practical experience in lesson planning and teaching. GTL 3 builds on that by having you design a course, and GTL 4 sees you working with a professor as a research assistant in the field of teaching and learning that can lead to publication. This whole program is a great substitute if LIS 526 Instruction in LIS isn’t offered during your tenure in the program, but it’s also a great supplement to that course especially for those interested in becoming academic librarians.

There are also various workshops offered by different groups such as the Academic Success Centre’s series on research and writing skills or all of the PD events offered through FGSR.

Student Lifestyle (Living in Edmonton for on campus students, navigating commitments for the online students)

My (Christine) first year of the on-campus LIS program was spent entirely online, so I have yet to experience the U of A campus even though I live in Edmonton. Because of the size of the campus, I plan to go a few times prior to the start of my second year just to become somewhat familiar with where I need to be; getting lost on the first day of classes is something I would rather avoid than experience. UAlberta has provided a Need to Know for Fall 2021 guide that includes links to academic support, student services, campus health & safety guides, and pretty much anything you will need to know for being on campus. 

There are both various on and off campus residence options available to students, with on-campus housing being based on your year of study so you and your neighbors are experiencing similar situations, and off-campus housing being based on what you can afford and/or what is available. 

Edmonton itself has a high number of students, and the post-secondary student lifestyle is a pretty common one with many restaurants, breweries, and local, independent bookstores providing limitless opportunities for procrastination. There are kilometers of walking or biking paths throughout the river valley, a ski hill, and year-round farmer’s markets. There is public transit, taxis, and uber for those who don’t drive, and e-scooters are also available throughout the city during the summer.

As for how to handle the program as an online student, build community with your classmates! You guys are in that together and everyone is so supportive of each other. LISSA is planning on gathering and sending out all of the social information for the various cohorts and groups, the online students tend to gather in an unofficial slack channel that we started in 2019. The most important thing to remember as an online student is to take care of yourself, focus on your needs and don’t overextend yourself.

Strengths of the Program

Without a doubt we would identify the professors (most of them) as being the strength of the program. Coming from a far smaller cohort in my (Christine) undergrad, I had been expecting to be just another student ID in a Zoom room of faces, but each professor that I’ve taken a class with has not only taken the time to learn everyone’s name, but they have prioritized their student’s mental health and during the pandemic this unexpected kindness has gone a long way. The instructors have also been knowledgeable in their fields, and willing to share experiences. I (Lauren) have experienced that 99% of the professors at SLIS really do just want to see you succeed and they want to help you do that, obviously not every professor will be perfect and focused on students but most of the SLIS faculty understand that we’re the future of the profession and they want to see us do well.  

Two other noted strengths Christine has seen on-campus are the program’s flexibility between part-time and full-time, allowing students the option of choosing what works best in their situation, and very limited textbook requirements (so far) as the majority of reading materials are provided by the professor via PDFs or hyperlinks. The shift away from textbooks can largely be seen in the online program as well with the vast majority of the content being made available by the professors or available through the UAlberta library.  

Obviously UAlberta’s biggest strength is that it has an online program. This is a huge plus for it and with driven online students starting to get involved with LISSA and other leadership roles in and around SLIS things are actually starting to be done to really make the experience of the online students a lot more equitable in comparison to the on-campus students. This is an important shift as the online students outnumber the on campus students at about a rate of two-to-one from what I’ve (Lauren) seen in terms of numbers.

Weaknesses of the Program

One of the things I (Christine) found to be the most frustrating during the first year was lack of response by the adviser assigned to me. My advisor is also one of the SLIS professors, so delays may be caused by the pandemic, or any number of other things, but I’m still waiting on a response to an email I sent over a month ago which, as a student with deadlines, is very frustrating. 

The choosing of electives has also been a cause for anxiety as so few have been offered for the next school year. For a student who had no previous library experience, having to choose from the proffered electives could be quite devastating especially if they are looking for some hands-on experience in particular areas. 

A final thing of note, because it is expected that most on-campus students will be working with the public in some form or another, in-class participation is pretty much expected from most instructors. Each class required large and small group interaction, and while this is fine for many people, I’m an introvert and came to dread certain classes because of the high percentage of required interactions and/or group projects.   

I (Lauren) agree with Christine about the elective options being a major weakness. UAlberta touts its rotating electives, but that rotation is lackluster and not as frequent. Even when the electives do rotate they don’t have enough sessional instructors to offer the vast majority of the electives listed on their website. So that’s something to keep in mind.

Another weakness of the online program is their focus on trying to replicate in class discussion via discussion forums, usually through the form of high participation marks and really heavy requirements. LIS 503 and 505 are the worst for this with low word count requirements, high numbers of citations needed, very structured posts and high numbers of required responses and interactions every week. Something to keep an eye out for!

Hack This Program By…

  • Getting to know the second-year students and asking every question you can think of.
  • Introducing yourself, via email or in-person, to your professors and advisor within the first week and staying in touch with them. This goes a long way in communicating the rest of the year.    
  • Doing all the class readings you possibly can. The majority of instructors give readings that are practical and clarify theories or ideas, and the readings all tend to build on each other.  
  • Using Google Drive for group projects. 
  • Seeking out external electives when and where you can, there are some great options.
  • Building networks to share information between yourself and your classmates! This is especially handy for the times when the readings aren’t available from the instructor or the library.
  • Skipping a semester in the online or part-time program if the electives just aren’t up to snuff.
  • Getting involved early and often and making your voice heard at SLIS (especially if you’re an online student)

In addition to being a Contributing Writer here at Hack Library School, Lauren (she/her) is currently working towards her MLIS part-time, online, through the University of Alberta, she expects to graduate in Spring 2022She holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She also co-hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and just finished a stint as a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat | about.me/laurenbourdages


Christine (she/her) is soon to be in her second year of full-time, on-campus MLIS studies through the University of Alberta. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Honours English from the University of Calgary, and is interested in archival theory/preservation, records management, and furthering her research into intersectional gender studies and controversial subjects in LIS. Christine currently serves as president for the Greater Edmonton Library Association (GELA), and as treasurer for the Forum of Information Professionals (FiP) – a UAlberta student group.

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s