Future of Online Education for LIS Schools

Will students still need to make a six-figure investment in higher education in the future? Will college students still receive instruction in classrooms in the next ten years? GSLIS professors have been offering online education programs since the nineties, and the innovations in online education present exciting opportunities and challenges for U.S. academic libraries and LIS schools.

"Online learning offers more control over time and the flexibility of choosing where and when students and professors want to work," says GSLIS Senior Lecturer Dr. Ross Harvey, a recent recipient of a WISE Consortium Excellence in Online Teaching Award. "The faculty and staff's high touch approach to connecting with students can easily be replicated in virtual environments."

As students juggle work, family, and school, an increased demand for online courses is a result. Students seek the flexibility such programs offer. According to a 2009 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than 12 million students in the U.S. participated in distance education courses, with 77% of the enrollments in online courses, 12% in hybrid courses, and 10% in other forms of distance delivery.

Massively open online classes (MOOCs) are the latest attempt to make education accessible to the masses. From Udacity to MIT/Harvard edX, Ivy Leagues and other leading institutions are jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. For example, Coursera offers 200 free online courses from 33 universities worldwide, including Duke, Brown, Caltech, Rice, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of London. Universities are drawn to offering MOOCs as a way to stay ahead of the technology curve and to increase their faculty's exposure. Class offerings like introductory organic chemistry and computer programming enable learners to select classes based on their interests. While classes can accommodate upward of 100,000 students and are facilitated by some of the world's leading experts, the online option offers a way for people to gain marketable skills and knowledge for free.

That said, MOOCs have drawbacks. Many courses rely on peer assessment rather than an experienced professor's feedback. Although MOOCs deliver educational content and instruction similar to the instruction given in their higher education counterparts, the lack of a credential at the end of their study makes it unlikely that MOOCs will be replacing traditional academic curriculums anytime soon. Completing an accredited curriculum with passing grades is still necessary for people to enter the professional workforce. While taking a free metadata course offered by the University of North Carolina at Coursera looks like an enticing way to save money on a graduate degree, accredited institutions currently do not accept transfer credit from MOOC courses. The sustainability of MOOCs is uncertain as we do not know how long they will be able to offer courses for free while depending on the kindness of donors and faculty volunteers.

Moreover, Udacity and Coursera lack access to proprietary library databases and services. While some faculty direct MOOC students to Google Books and Project Gutenberg for free books, it is not always easy for international students to access these sites. As Dr. David J. Staley and Kara J. Malenfant suggest in their June 2010 report, "Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025," it is unclear how U.S. academic libraries will adjust to the changes occurring in online education.

"Libraries will be struggling even more to deliver services -- who will pay? A 'per course' library fee may not fly unless services are meaningful at the individual level. . . . Can an academic library make a shift like this? What about traditional services like circulation, database availability, e-content subscriptions -- how would the library plan for an ever-evolving, moving target of enrollment?," said one of the librarian subjects surveyed in the Staley and Malenfant report. Without access to library services, MOOCs are failing to provide a key element of higher education.

Yet MOOCs may have more lasting impact than the latest fad. LIS schools, like Simmons GSLIS, may have an opportunity to expand beyond their traditional online offerings. GSLIS' online courses include a full master's program with an archives concentration, two certificate programs, a number of courses in the regular master's program, and continuing education workshops. GSLIS is also a member of the Web-based Information Science Education (WISE) consortium. Harvey says he believes there is an opportunity for the WISE consortium and GSLIS continuing education workshops to adopt aspects of the MOOC model. While professors would continue to facilitate courses, classes could be divided into cohorts led by teaching assistants. As a result, more students and alumni could take advantage of such GSLIS course offerings.

The growth of new types of learning mediums is changing today's higher education landscape. GSLIS professors Skype, Tweet, and participate in Google Hangouts to connect with students. Assistant Professor Naresh Agarwal's [see faculty research column on page 4] Fall 2012 LIS 488 Technology for Information Professionals class participated in a cross-cultural collaborative student peer-review project with Singapore's Temasek Polytechnic students. Using Facebook groups and pages to perform the assessments, the project will be presented in a forthcoming study about the effectiveness of social media use in reciprocal peer assessment across countries and cultures.

Like other LIS schools, GSLIS has opportunities to expand its online course offerings, but there are issues to address. Harvey suggests that academic libraries will need to make all library services more accessible to online students, regardless of their location. In addition, instead of investing in building and maintaining physical structures to house faculty, staff, and students, he believes that academic institutions will in future need to develop a robust technology and student support infrastructure. Academic institutions will need to creatively address how to accommodate students with disabilities in virtual classrooms, as well as offer 24/7 support that will troubleshoot IT problems and address all student concerns.

While a 2010 SRI International study for the Department of Education showed that students who participated in online learning performed better on course evaluation assessments than those receiving face-to-face instruction, some students believe they can't learn effectively online. Award-winning online educator and GSLIS Professor of Practice Linda W. Braun suggests that faculty consider incorporating "a variety of tools and formats for learning. An online class that just includes text discussion is going to be difficult for some learners to participate in successfully. An online class that includes live conversation that incorporates audio and video, as well as the traditional components, such as reading and text-based discussion, will work best because of the ways that multiple learning styles are met."

Although many professors agree that students need to be responsible for their own learning, Harvey says he believes that employers are looking for those who "can demonstrate that their motivation extends beyond merely turning up to a class." Effective online learning involves time management and prioritization skills, which are also required to be successful in today's workplace," says Harvey. "More work is being moved online and students today need to know how to be productive in these environments. Graduate school is a testing ground to assess how they can improve their skills to be successful in their careers. Getting a master's degree is the first step in this profession. Lifelong learning is needed to be successful in the field," says Harvey. While GSLIS currently offers online continuing education workshops to help students and alumni achieve such success, how such courses will be delivered in the future is still to be determined.

 by Jennifer Moyer, Dean's Editorial Fellow

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