Have you ever wanted to grow your knowledge, advance in your career, battle internet connectivity issues, struggle to make friends, become a more well-rounded professional, have no personal life, and go into debt all at the same time? You must be an adult who’s looking into or currently enrolled in a master’s degree program! Although many programs share these qualities, for the purposes of this NewsBreak, I’ll be focusing specifically on an all-online M.L.I.S. program.
I started my program in fall 2019, just a few weeks before I became the executive director of my library. In 2017, I graduated with a master’s degree in history from a program that was mostly in-person, with a few online classes sprinkled in here and there, so I felt like I knew what I was getting into with the M.L.I.S. program. I was prepared for the amount of work required, but I was dead wrong about everything else. This is my perspective on online library school—the benefits, the pitfalls, and how we can make the process of learning how to be information professionals better for everyone.
Technology and Access
Technology opens doors that normally would be sealed shut for countless prospective students. There are 62 ALA-accredited M.L.I.S. programs in existence, and 42 of them offer a 100% online program. For people who are looking for a mid-career change, need a higher degree for a promotion, or are coming directly from undergraduate work but cannot change location, online programs are the perfect option for moving up in the library world. However, as online programs grow, new barriers to education arise.
Internet connectivity is essential to online work, but internet infrastructure in the U.S. is still subpar. Census data show that nationally, 78% of households subscribe to broadband internet, but these numbers are skewed toward urban and coastal dwellers. Rural subscription rates are much lower, at around 65%. Similarly, counties with residents in higher income brackets have more access to broadband internet. Not only is access easier to obtain for urban and higher-income Americans, but they also have access to better-quality internet. In many rural areas, broadband access is either limited to spotty satellite coverage or monopolized by a single company that has no market-driven motivation to improve service. Subscription costs are high even for lackluster speeds.
Economically disadvantaged and rural prospective librarians must conquer infrastructure problems, over which they have no control, while completing the same level of work as their peers. I have struggled with internet connectivity at home for years, with no available remedy. When working on a big project, I have been known to drive somewhere that offers a higher speed and submit assignments from the parking lot. Often, this lack of connectivity is not taken into consideration by programs or professors who tend to assume that the situation where the school is located is the situation for all students.
This solipsistic view seems to be common in the online schooling world. While I am learning a great deal in my online program, very little attention is paid to the differing circumstances of small versus large, rural versus urban, or government-run versus nonprofit libraries. If programs are open to teaching students from all geographic locations, they must also acknowledge that libraries come in many different sizes, shapes, and structures. Learning how to run a library with a staff of 100 and a budget in the multimillion-dollar range is not helpful when your real-life library may be struggling to fund 50 dollars’ worth of supplies for a children’s program.
Flexibility, Asynchronicity, and Diversity
The online learning platform offers advantages that were not available in my previous in-person programs. Flexibility, asynchronicity, and diversity are all very apparent and valued in online classes. For most adult students with a full-time job, synchronous programs are not a viable option. That scheduling situation is compounded for others who do not have a webcam or enough internet strength to video chat. Asynchronicity and flexibility in the timing of discussions, assignments, and projects is key for online success.
Diversity is also more apparent in the online sphere because people from multiple walks of life, and not just the ones geographically closest to you, are represented. I have met people in every U.S. time zone, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns, in a variety of library roles from part-time page to library director, and of an array of genders, sexualities, races, and socioeconomic situations. While this diversity tends to go unacknowledged by professors, students seem to appreciate and recognize the different perspectives their peers bring to the table.
Despite their growing popularity, online degrees are still stigmatized by some professionals. In his now-famous 2005 article, James G. Neal included online degree holders in his explanation of “feral professionals” who were not socialized to the profession in residential programs. While this definition continues to offend readers and fails to consider that distance learners often must do so from a distance because they are already gaining valuable socialization in library jobs, it relates to another aspect of why people turn to online programs: cost.
The cost of online M.L.I.S. programs varies tremendously. In creating a comparison, I looked at five popular programs in the U.S.: those from Valdosta State University, San Jose State University, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Kent State University, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Required credit hours range from 36 to 43, with cost per credit hour starting at $293 for Valdosta and ranging up to $850 for Wisconsin (with the 2020 increase taken into consideration where applicable). For the entire degree, online students in these programs could pay anywhere from $13,767 to $33,150. Some programs offer in-state tuition to online students, which is a huge bonus, while others require different cost figures based on geographic location. As an adult student, decisions about which program to attend are not as simple as which school has the best instructors or cutting-edge technologies. Sometimes, it just comes down to what we can afford.
The following table shows the (in some cases, approximate) cost for each of the five schools based on spring 2020 semester figures (*except Wisconsin, which is based on fall 2020) and either universal (Valdosta, San Jose, Wisconsin) or out-of-state tuition (Clarion, Kent State).
Valdosta State University
San Jose State University
Clarion University of Pennsylvania
Kent State University
University of Wisconsin–Madison
Quality of Instruction and COVID-19
The quality of instruction in online classes is more noticeable now than ever before given that remote learning during COVID-19 is becoming the norm. That is not to say that all online teaching is bad and all in-person teaching is good; certainly not. But there are some things that students of all ages miss out on when conversing from afar. It is much easier to have absentee professorship when the class is running itself on Blackboard or D2L. I have had the same experience in online classes regardless of whether I’ve met the professor in person: very little personal interaction. Discussion boards have students bouncing ideas off of one another and giving pleasantries to meet deadlines, while professors get a weekly automated report of how many quantitative posts and comments were written. Some professors are reading the content, but they rarely interact with students regularly.
COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into the spring 2020 semester for all students, although the loudest opinions were from formerly in-person students. While in-person instructors and students had to scramble to adopt an online platform—with variable levels of success—others were already fully online. Those who were already giving or receiving online instruction did not account for the impact the pandemic would have on learning. Adult students who work in libraries while going to school were (and are) dealing with having to manage the wholly new challenges and stressors of life in a pandemic while completing schoolwork and pretending nothing was wrong.
After talking to online students across different M.L.I.S. schools, the theme emerged that assignment deadlines were not extended, the burden of modifying requirements was put on students, and administrators talked about understanding and empathy but rarely put those thoughts into action. There will be a lot of undeserved back-patting after we come out on the other side of COVID-19. Some professors and administrators stepped up to the plate to guide, teach, and help students through this difficult period and should be lauded for it. Just as many others think they are in that group and are actually far from it. The question is whether frank conversations will take place that will allow us to be better prepared for the next time we are confronted with unprecedented circumstances. The first step is admitting that we could have done better this time.
It has always baffled me how society makes teenagers choose what they want to do for the rest of their lives before they have really done anything at all. The same principle applies to libraries. How can you know that you want to work in a library and invest years and thousands of dollars into a specific professional degree when you have never actually worked in one? Library experience (paid or volunteer) should be a requirement for entering an M.L.I.S. program.
In a recent article about M.L.I.S. programs, a former student wrote that they had no idea how much customer service was included in public librarianship. The core of public librarianship is customer service. The absolute center of everything we do, be it collections, reference, reader’s advisory, egovernment, programming, or anything else, is customer service. Having a foundational experience in what libraries are like is essential to taking the knowledge from school and applying it to real life. Not everything is directly transferable. Online school can never teach you how to handle a co-worker dispute or calm an angry patron. It can give you the skills to approach the situation, but the real education is the experience. Library experience should be more valued by M.L.I.S. programs. The perspectives of people who already work with patrons and budgets and stakeholders could be an amazing learning resource if tapped into correctly.
Friendships and Networking
One part of graduate work that online programs of all types struggle to re-create is the bonds that are forged between students. Graduate work is arduous and challenging on its own. When students do not have anyone to commiserate with, complain to, or discuss assignments with, those challenges can create anxiety and loneliness. Misery not only loves company; it needs company to stay sane. Creating friendships via school is how most human beings find their groups. From elementary to middle and high school, then college and the workplace, groups of people with shared experiences are natural breeding grounds for friendship. When those places do not include personal discussions or face-to-face contact, potential friendships struggle to blossom.
Online programs need to specifically focus energy on bonding their students, and not just through group projects (which present their own difficulties for people in different time zones, with different work schedules, and who are part of different family structures). Having a system of mentorship with advanced and new students would help cement early bonds. Schools could have incoming students take a quiz about their hobbies or interests and then place them into first-semester groups that encourage low-pressure, private conversations that will build trust and understanding.
Thankfully, in my first semester, a group of four women and I commented on each other’s discussion boards consistently, and we actively started supporting one another’s work. One of the women friended the others on Facebook, and our group chat has been a lifeline throughout the program. Although we now take different classes, the support of having someone else who intimately understands what you are going through is priceless. Formal education is important, but knowing, trusting, and growing with the people around you are the invisible pieces of the librarianship puzzle.
Like any domain of higher education, there are many things that are right and just as many that could be better. Library professionals rely on M.L.I.S. programs to prepare us for both the present and the future of library service. Keeping up with technological advances, changes in information science, political shuffles, and current scholarship helps keep the lifeblood of libraries strong.
M.L.I.S. programs are beginning to offer courses that are prescient to modern needs. Grant writing, community building, diverse collections, teen services, archival best practices, digital libraries, user experience, copyright, and other boundary-pushing, knowledge-expanding courses are being offered that better prepare professionals for real-life challenges. Libraries will always be relevant, regardless of whatever think piece captivates momentary attention. The leaders of today and tomorrow need to be prepared for how to best serve their communities.
Things are going to look different in a post-COVID-19 world. It is a reality that we cannot escape. Library service will change—and library professionals along with it. M.L.I.S. programs must be ready to mold library leaders for areas that are small, large, rural, urban, impoverished, wealthy, and everything in between. Online instruction is here to stay. The future of librarianship depends on it.
Acknowledgements to Sarah, Genesis, Anna, and MJ for our conversations that informed a great deal of this article and for being the best support system that all library students deserve. Thank you.