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Career Strategies for Librarians
Going Online for Your Degree  
by Loretta Dunne

I first started the MLS program at Drexel University in Philadelphia eight years ago. As a full-time
employee and resident of New Jersey, I found it difficult to get to Drexel in time for the start of the night
classes. Also, the course required me to go to Drexel Library every weekend to do my homework -- not
an unreasonable request, but one that required me to once again go into the city. Due to this
requirement and a heavy workload at my job, I gave up the idea of the MLS degree.

In 2003, enticed by a flyer from a local library, I attended a meeting at which I discovered that Drexel
University had begun an online masters program in Library and Information Science. I returned to the
program and am now halfway through.  

The online program works well with my lifestyle. Drexel’s program uses software called Blackboard for
the online courses. Teaching does not occur in real-time. The professor puts the “lecture” onto the
bulletin board at the beginning of the week. There is generally a question or topic for class discussion.
Students post their comments in the format of a threaded conversation similar to many other discussion
threads on the web. In most of my classes, a portion of the grade is based on participation in the online
discussion. Of course, there are assignments as in any class.

Drexel is an international program. I have attended classes with students from China and Mexico as well
as all areas of the United States.

Students who need to travel during a class term are still able to attend classes. I have logged in from
Virginia and Wyoming to post comments to a class discussion or send in my assignments.

I often do school work online on my lunch hour or early in the morning before I go to work. There are
night owls who post to the discussion at 1 am, long after I have turned in for the night.

Each Program Differs
A number of schools now have online MLS programs, including Syracuse University, University of
Arizona, University of Illinois, University of Pittsburgh, University of Tennessee, Connecticut Statue
University and others. Most of the programs require some on-campus attendance. For example, the
Syracuse University program requires a six-day on-campus residency in July of the first year, plus some
courses require an initial two-day residency. The University of Pittsburgh requires an initial five-day
residency and a weekend residency during each subsequent semester. Six credits on campus are
required at the University of Arizona with the option to take a number of progressive summer and winter
courses. I decided not to attend a school with residency requirements because I felt uncertain that I
could commit to being on campus when necessary because of the demands of my job.  

Another difference between programs is the technology used to present the online courses. Some are
similar to the Drexel program, using Blackboard or instructional software like WebCt. The University of
Illinois uses live web-based instructions. The students can hear the faculty speak and see slides as the
professor presents them. Live chat with the professors is also part of the University of Illinois’ online
methods.

Weighing the Options

I considered a number of programs, but eventually decided to eliminate those where a stay on campus
was necessary. For me, part of the attraction of Drexel was its proximity. If I need to, I can go and see a
professor face-to-face. I have attended potlucks for MLS students, programs on career developments
and meetings of the Drexel SLA student chapter. At Drexel, the online students can take on-campus
courses and vice versa. The ability to go onto campus has been advantageous.  

Sometimes the inability to meet other students face-to-face proves challenging. For me, communicating
via email seems somewhat limiting. With twenty to twenty-five students in the courses, I have a hard time
differentiating between students since I have no image to associate with their name. My ability to go to
Drexel has helped me overcome this occasional feeling of isolation. This sentiment sometimes extends
to my feelings about the professors. When I have had the occasion to contact previous professors, I feel
the need to mention something about me that they might recall, such as a paper that I wrote, because I
fear they will not be able to distinguish me from other online students.
As in any university setting, some professors are more responsive than others. The online program
seems to require more frequent interaction for professors than on-campus classes, which happen over
finite periods. I know some professors have told me online courses are a lot more work. Because
students can be online potentially 24/7, questions can be posted any time. All professors handle this
differently, but I have most found to be very involved with their online classes.

Perceptions of Online Degrees
I was already finished with a few classes when I learned that some librarians and information
specialists question the quality of the online MLS. The first hint of this for me was a NMRT-L discussion
on the value of a MLS earned in an online program. I also found a survey  (http://www.camden.lib.nj.
us/survey/results.htm) aimed at accessing the attitude of professional librarians toward the online
degrees. The survey found that a number of librarians do not feel it is possible to receive an adequate or
complete preparation for the field via an online program. Eighteen percent of respondents indicated that
they would not hire someone who had graduated from an online program.   

My experience with the program causes me to question their opinion. The ALA certifies all of the
programs mentioned above. The range of students online is certainly as varied as those I found in the
on-campus class I recently took. Some are already in the field and are getting their credentials, others
have come directly from college into the program and many are like me, professionals in other fields
who have decided to make a change. Many of the students are attending part-time and taking one or two
course a semester. At Drexel, the student body is even more diverse than most, due to the lack of
requirement for on-campus attendance.  

Pursuing an online program may require more discipline and independence than earning your degree
on campus. As in any learning environment, some people put in a lot of time and others may try to skate
through. But overall I have been very impressed by the depth of knowledge of the other students and their
interest in learning about the field of librarianship. I certainly think that the quality of the courses and
program is related to the quality of the staff and the institutions’ dedication to improving the program.

The separation between online and on-campus students is blurring at Drexel. A number of on-campus
students have taken one or more online courses. And those online students that are within striking
range sometimes take on-campus courses. I know that I will again before I get my degree.  

Make Sure Online is Right for You
Questions that should be considered before selecting an online program:

Are you a self-starter or do you work best with the impetus of a weekly in-person class to encourage your
studies?
Are you comfortable around computers? Although a lot of technical expertise is not required at Drexel, I
spend many hours with my computer.
Does the program meet my needs? Sometimes there are differences between the online programs and
on-campus programs offerings and degree requirements.
Is the university dedicated to the program? As far as you can ascertain, will it be staffed adequately and
will the best technology be used to hold the online classes?

I am generally pleased with my experience in an online program.  I encourage all potential MLS
candidates investigate online programs, especially those who want to get an MLS degree but feel they
will never find the time to complete a traditional on-campus program.   

About the Author:

Loretta Dunne is an online student in the Masters of Library and Information Science program at Drexel
University. She is the Programs & Professional Development Liaison of the Drexel University Student
Chapter of the SLA. For many years, she has worked for Computer Sciences Corporation and currently is
a cost account manager for a number of software projects.

Article published August 2004

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