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Librarian’s Boon or Bust? The Distance Education Conundrum

November 18, 2015

The explosion of distance education programs popping up across the traditional and for-profit education sectors has effectively pushed the reset button on how institutions are thinking about everything from curricular design to new enrollment parameters. With enrollments dropping steadily for the past few years, and statistical analysis showing a further decline looming for the future (as evidenced by demographic population data), engaging and retaining a non-traditional student population is becoming an increasingly important focus to secure the future of many institutions. But with all of the revamped ad campaigns and millions of dollars being spent on web-based educational technologies, it seems to me that efforts to ensure the academic support structures that will ultimately drive success for these students is NOT receiving the same rejuvenated approach.

Online education is a FANTASTIC opportunity for many who had thought that college level education was beyond their grasp. The flexibility of e-Learning platforms and the increasing stability of streamed and embedded media means that instructors are able to paint new vistas for these students to explore. But how do we reconcile this flexibility against the often firm margins we as librarians are asked to work within. The simple fact is that online learners don’t keep Banker’s hours…but somehow, most of us still do. So how are we to continue to play the critical guiding role for these students…many of which are completely without the competencies and academic agilities that we have previously ascribed to traditional students? The good news is that if we are able to carve a viable and replicable niche for our services within the distance learning modules, the critical role we play as a student’s tangible and accessible go-to in an otherwise digital landscape will cement the foundations of our career path and give us even more control over how information literacy and information service offerings are woven into the fabric of education.

Here are my meager suggestions toward bridging this cognitive chasm and ensuring the boon, not the bust:

  • Orientation is your jam! – The first introduction many students have to the library is during tours or orientation. In many institutions, including those on my resume, the librarians were given a small portion of the program to talk about library services and offerings. While it is tempting (or even mandated) that this sort of presentation focus on how great and helpful the library services can be-in the abstract, my approach was to use this time with students to avoid this boiler-plate/elevator speech and instead think of the session as a chance to market the librarians, not the library. Use this introductory period, when they are still forming opinions about what is or is not valuable to them, to market yourself. Focus less on a guided tour of the library website and more on how the people—not the databases—are the real ally to a new student. 15 minutes devoted to demonstrating that you are as approachable as you are knowledgeable will pay off as the term progresses.
  • Rage against the one-off Information Literacy session – Even in traditional classroom settings, a single Info Lit session early in the term is typically little more than an extended preview of things to come—the content of which, even with the best presenter, finds only some purchase with the students. We all know that the real Information Literacy sessions are those which happen in the lab, on the fly as a paper deadline looms. Speak to your faculty and offer a multi-session approach to Information Literacy which matches pace with the demands of the course. Having your input and evidence-based guidance as a more regular facet of a course will ease the non-traditional student mind by making clear the path to assistance—often times at hours when faculty may not be available.
  • Buy Donuts for the Curricular Design Team – …or muffins…chocolates are also nice…do all that you can, through whatever channels appropriate, to garner attention to the fact that including you and your fellow librarians in course planning…even down to the way library services are positioned in the course shell…is one of the best ways to promote success for all students. You are in the trenches term after term, helping students work through assignments which have become familiar by rote, and as such are uniquely positioned to comment on how the presentation of resources can positively influence their outcomes.
  • Librarian 2.0 – As our institutions and the students they serve are increasingly embracing the social and interactive Web 2.0 approach to education, we must keep pace. Non-traditional students come with non-traditional hours, and as such, so must our resource base. Many states offer virtual reference services from the state library, as do many institutions, but for those of us without such an umbrella there are a host of options for assisting that Sunday evening student query. Services such as Google+ or GoTo Meeting have a very low overhead cost and provide an accessible and dynamic platform from which to perform reference interviews through video conferencing, offer numerous tools for group exploration and highlighting of resources, provide printable logs of chats, and allow you to record the sessions in a number of formats—enabling you to start your own dynamic knowledge base which can be embedded into any given course shell. Further, starting your own blog/microblog or podcast can also serve to underscore your ability to match the evolving information services needs encountered by distance learners in a way that a Databases page off of the library website can never achieve.


As this is simply the informed opinion of one librarian, your own experience may differ—and if so I sincerely hope you will take a moment to share a note on this thread. Not only will your thoughts help paint a fuller picture, but if your experience contradicts my own I welcome the hope it will bring for all of us.


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