For the newest survey, What Should Potential Hires Learn in Library School?, the responses which have received the most comments are the ones which express some sort of bias against online schools or classes. I’m a graduate of an online-only school myself (SJSU). I had thought the prejudice against online degrees was not prevalent, and was surprised to see it crop up in the surveys. But how frequently?
Here’s what I did. On the Excel spreadsheet of responses, I used the Find All tool to find all responses which contained: “online” “on-line” “on line” “brick and mortar” “face to face” “face-to-face” “f2f” and “distance” (if I missed any key terms, let me know and I’ll search again).
Out of 291 responses, only 52 contained those terms (17.86%).
Of the 52, 11 responses (3.78% of 291 total) were using “online” or “distance” in another context, such as describing a commonly lacking skill like “understanding the importance and significance of cataloging and our online catalogs,” expecting students to have skills in “online tutorials,” describing skills needed by librarians working with distance learners, mentioning something often repeated in online discussion, or advising students to “be very, very careful with your online reputation through social media.”
Of the 52, 3 responses expressed a positive opinion about online classes (1.03% of 291 total responses). One named SJSU online as a school whose alumni were preferred, and the other two suggested that students should expand their experiences by taking online classes in another discipline (e.g. coding) or at another university.
Out of the 52, 1 response was neutral, saying,
In this order specifically….hands down I prefer graduates from the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign. NEVER been disappointed in any of their graduates and they excel! After that, U of North Carolina – Chapel Hill; U of Wisconsin-Madison; Indiana. I don’t care whether they got their degree online or on-campus.
So out of 291 total responses, only 36 expressed a negative opinion about online schools. That’s only 12.37%.
Analysis of Negative Responses
I characterized the negative comments about online education in three categories.
12 responses expressed concern – concern for students of online courses or concern for the state of library education. These respondents said things like:
I feel bad for students who have to do everything online now. It’s difficult to really learn effectively without being around other students and having personal interactions with instructors and peers.
Library schools have been moving to the online model of instruction but in the case of our local school, it seems to coincide with the watering down of the curriculum a LOT. If libraries need motivated, tech savvy leaders, our local school is not turning them out.
It’s a hard job market and has been for the near 30 years I’ve been a librarian. Sadly the MLIS degree has been oversold, particularly by online programs but ALA has been a willing partner in the deception. Not a one of the librarians I work with is contemplating early retirement and just one is planning to retire at 65. Most are going to be working to at least 70 and some plan to work until they die. Despite what ALA says, libraries are filled with librarians who cannot afford to retire and make way for new librarians.
The reasons for a “concerned” response included the perception of online schools as degree mills – particularly in light of the tight job market (3), the perception that online education was of poor quality (1), the perceived lack of professional contact (5), the perception that online school did not develop of people or customer skills (1), the perceived lack of real world experience (1), and no reason given (1).
I characterized 18 responses as “hesitant” (4 respondents talked about online education in more than one question, so I’m actually looking at 39 individual responses, from 34 respondents). The “hesitant” responses expressed a reluctance to hire candidates from online schools, but did not dismiss them entirely and often suggested techniques for mitigating the “negatives” of online education. These responses included:
I wouldn’t be reluctant, exactly, but I’d want to be sure the applicant had significant real-world library work experience, as the degree itself does not prepare graduates, IMO.
None that I can think of … except if the program was entirely online, I would be a bit hesitant. I’m old school enough to think that there is real benefit in at least some face to face time with the instructor. There is a real benefit in a live classroom experience in terms of learning to work in teams (because librarians are constantly working together in internal working groups and so on and you have to learn to play nice). I am not saying that the classes all have to be held in person, but I do think that at least some classroom attendance is a good thing.
Prefer someone who attended graduate school in person over and online degree, but would still hire an online-degreed person if they had the right mix of personality and experience.
There are many more MLS holders than there are jobs, so we can be picky. Personality is important. People generally learn the theory of libraries while pursuing an MLS, but personal organization, people skills, and enthusiasm are not things that everybody possesses, but are key when working in a service-oriented library. We want people with experience, but lack of experience is not a dealbreaker. However, if someone received an MLS through an online program, and has no experience, we are not going to grant an interview. As librarians we are concerned about the dumbing down of the education system, which we are a part of, and many of us here feel that an online degree is not the same as immersing one’s self with other MLS candidates.
The reasons given for hesitancy could be categorized (with some responses falling into more than one category) as perceived lack of real world experience (4), no reason given (6), perceived lack of people/customer service skills (4), perceived lack of professional contact (3), perceived lack of quality of education (3), and past experience with poor candidates/programs (1).
I characterized the final 12 responses as simply “negative.” These responses do not try to advise the candidate on how to mitigate their online library education, and they did not express the possibility that online learners *could* be good candidates. They simply expressed a negative opinion about online education. These responses included:
I won’t state specific schools in this forum, but there are those that typically graduate very underachieving graduates with marginal identifiable skill sets. I will say, and it pains me to say this, but exclusively online programs don’t graduate the same caliber students as those who have at least some on-site matriculation. There’s no substitute for creating relationships in the classroom that you’ll carry with you your entire career.
Alumni from completely online programs. To me, it’s important that a student at least attend a class or two in-person, even if it’s just an introductory and a final meeting. I don’t trust completely online programs.
Something that is totally on-line and no face to face is required. “Most” librarians work with people. It is odd to get a degree for that kind of job online…I believe that many folks are graduating that should not….university thoughts are we promise folks an education not a job…however, that is messy on the other end when they try and get a job. We are not doing them any favors!
The reasons given in this “negative” catch-all category include perceived lack of people/customer service skills (2), perceived lack of professional contact (1), past experience with past experience with poor candidates/programs (2), no reason given (5), perceived lack of quality of education (1), and the perception of online schools as degree mills (1).
Addressing Concerns about Your Online Degree
If you’re worried about a negative response to your online degree, these responses suggest that you might be able to do a few things to address employer concerns.
Demonstrate your people skills and customer service expertise
Respondents are concerned that the online degree doesn’t allow students to develop good people skills. While you and I know that people can and do develop strong connections online, you might want to supplement your online work with face to face interactions. If you’ve got customer service experience, you might highlight it in your application. You might talk about the number of disgruntled customers you’ve soothed, or about all times you’ve volunteered to work closely with children, or seniors, or teams of other librarians. Be friendly and outgoing. It might not be a good idea to sarcastically point out that you’ve got friends – close friends – from all over the world on Twitter, but if there’s a way you can show that you’re ever so charming online and that virtual people skills are increasingly important, go for it.
Build a Good Professional Network
Professional contacts will help you be a better librarian, enjoy your career, stay relevant, and get a job. Employers who know you, or who know people who know you, will be more likely to advance you in the hiring process. Don’t just take the time to build friendships with your virtual classmates, attend professional opportunities in person. The SF Bay Area, for example, has several LIS social groups, including both The Information Amateurs Social Club and The Information Professionals Social Club (both groups welcome amateurs and professionals). And of course, keep in contact with professors, librarians you volunteer for, librarians you run into at the grocery store, fellow conference attendees, and anyone you ever meet in your entire life.
Get Library Experience
Some respondents were worried that you got your online degree in a virtual bubble, and are totally practically inept. Get some library experience to show them that you can work synchronously just as well as asynchronously, and that you can deal with being around physical items such as books and chairs. Seriously, get library experience. Volunteer and/or intern, while you’re looking for paid work.
Be a Scholar
Prove that online education can be high quality by showing off your big brain. Do research and get published. Review books or articles. Engage in intelligent discussion with other librarians, online or in person. Show off your theoretical understanding and rhetorical prowess.
Contribute to the Field
Demonstrate that you’re not a puppy from a degree mill by making your own positive, individual contributions to the field. Take part in committees or run for association office. Think about a unique project that might benefit other librarians – a database of a certain book genre for example, or an open source program or app, or … I don’t know! Be you! Be you and help other librarians!
We could all get very mad that biases against online degrees still exist. But, I think it’s a great opportunity to understand factors that might weigh against you, and what you might do to mitigate them. I think it might be likely that the general population reflects the population in this non-scientific survey – and in this survey only 12.37% expressed a negative opinion about online schools, and most of those opinions were hesitant or cautious, rather than dismissive. So don’t sweat it too much.
There’s a recent Reddit Discussion about online versus campus-based library school.
You can search the ALA Database of Accredited Schools by online/in-person options. The list that resulted when I asked for schools that offer 100% online degrees was as follows:
1. Clarion University of Pennsylvania
2. Drexel University
3. Florida State University
4. Indiana University
5. Kent State University
6. Louisiana State University
7. North Carolina Central University
8. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
9. San Jose State University
10. Southern Connecticut State University (Conditional)
11. Texas Woman’s University
12. The University of Southern Mississippi
13. University at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York (Conditional)
14. University of Alabama
15. University of Kentucky
16. University of Maryland
17. University of Puerto Rico
18. University of South Carolina
19. University of Tennessee
20. University of Washington
21. University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
22. Valdosta State University (Conditional)
23. Wayne State University
Hack Library School has several posts about online school, including: Online Classes: A Non Love Story, The Perils/Possibilities of attending Library School Online, and In defense of online LIS education
Michael Stephens talks about it in Online LIS Education – or Not
Brief discussion of Online Classes in an interview with one of LJ’s teaching award winners: LIS Education Q&A with Martin Wolske
Finally, here are all 42 Negative Responses to Online School, with my coding/analysis.
**Edited 8:50 AM 9/28/2013 to add Further Readings
***Edited 8AM 10/2/2013 to add in responses using the term “distance”