If you read my blog, then you know I’m a big fan of Will Manley’s blog, Will Unwound. The posts are well considered, and the comments are insightful. He has many loyal followers.

If you read Will Unwound, then you know that there’s been a series of recent posts about the library job market, library science master’s degrees, and the value (or not) of online library science degree programs. The implicit message underlying all these posts and the comments seems to be that an online education is inferior to a classroom education and that these programs are not selective and are churning out library science graduates like crazy and glutting the market. There also appears to be some misconception about online education in general. Please visit Mr. Manley’s blog and read some of the recent discussion threads.

I’ve had to defend my online degree in various venues in the past month, and I am frankly surprised. In fact, just over a month ago, I received this email from a prospective online student-

I came across your blog while researching the Clarion University Library Science Master’s program. I haven’t found much in my research in regards to how students like the program overall, or how potential employers view the degree. Could you give me some insight into the experiences that you and your classmates had with the program? What kind of jobs did your fellow peers end up getting with the degree? Does the degree say that it was an online program/has the degree been ‘looked down upon’ so to speak, because it was fully online? Do you feel you lost something in not going to ‘offline’ classes?

Since up until this past month, I have never had to defend my degree, this was part of my answer-

I remember being in your shoes and worrying that the online degree would be snubbed. But that has not been the case, and I have never been asked how I obtained my degree. Taking classes online was the only way I could go to school full time, work full time, and tend to a family full time. It was a lifesaver.

It is somewhat ironic that I now find myself writing a post to defend my online degree! And if the person who wrote to me is still reading my blog–sorry! I really meant what I said at the time!

Before you even say to yourself, “Well…most of Will’s readers are older and retired or nearly retired, so…” Not so fast. Will’s blog isn’t the only venue where I’ve had to defend my degree. The other venues are populated by working librarians who are not even close to retirement age. (I suspect it’s also not true that Will’s readers are mostly older and retired. It’s definitely not true that even if they are older and retired they are out of the loop.). A fairly young librarian actually said, “I don’t believe in online education.”

I should say up front that I’m a big believer in traditional classroom education. There’s more to learning than just reading and writing and completing assignments. Part of a good education includes great discussion. And if you think that’s missing from online classes, well, you’re wrong.

One of the biggest components of my online education was the discussion board. I often learned more from my fellow students than I did from my professors. It was a rich environment, albeit a virtual one. And it took much more time to write a thoughtful post or response than it would have taken to simply answer a question in a real classroom.

We had group assignments; we had papers to write and share. We had to prepare presentations and archive them for listening/viewing. We were required to visit libraries. We were required to do lots and lots of reading. There were guidelines and rules and restrictions. There were lecture notes and recordings from the professors. There were a few real-time discussions and presentations. I learned. I contributed. I collaborated. We all did.

What about this kind of education, exactly, is not real? Or easy? Or inferior?

The only thing missing was our asses in the classroom chairs. Instead, our asses were in our own chairs in our own homes, or in our own offices, or reclining on chaise lounges in the backyard. I guess the other thing missing was personal interaction between the professor and the student. A good teacher is valuable indeed. This I know. However, it is still possible to learn without that physical presence. And all professors are not created equal. And neither are all online or traditional library science programs.

I may have to concede the point that because it is more convenient to get an online education, there are more students graduating from library school than ever before. And it’s no secret that there aren’t enough jobs. But that’s not exclusive to library science–there are many other online programs for all sorts of vocations. And there aren’t enough jobs anywhere.

I doubt that the many problems that libraries face can be pinned to online library science degree programs. And I know that wasn’t necessarily the argument being made. I would hate to see such an issue divide the profession at a time when we need to be united to find answers to the very real problems that face libraries and librarians. Does anyone really believe that someone who graduated from a top, traditional library school will always have more to offer the profession than someone who graduated from “Laptop U?” Is that a given? No.

Any education–online or in a classroom–is as good as what the student makes of it. There are certainly ways to skimp on work in an online course just as there are ways to skimp on work in a classroom setting. It comes down to motivation and self-respect and work ethic. Do we need more traditionally educated librarians? Or do we need more librarians who think differently and behave differently and see the world differently? I’d argue we need the latter and those kinds of graduates can and do come from any program.

A quick note about entrance requirements. Should the GRE be required for admittance to all library schools–online and traditional? Why? I’m not a fan of standardized testing, and I don’t see it as a very accurate indication of what a person is capable of doing in school or in the real world.

One thing I learned very early on in this profession is that the MLS (or equivalent) is the key to unlock the magic door. But it only promises admission to the club. It doesn’t guarantee that it will be comfortable, or that there will be room to dance, or that the drinks won’t cost a fortune. But without that key, you’ll need to be admitted as the guest of a member. And you won’t have the same privileges. You may be allowed to dance and order drinks, but you’ll probably have to stand and offer your seat to a member if the need arises. And it will be loud. And your voice will not be heard.

So, in a way, it really does come down to getting that piece of paper. I’m not sure how you get it matters nearly as much as what you do with it. Now a bigger question would be whether that piece of paper should be the key to the magic door. And that’s another discussion as is the concern over the deprofessionalization of librarianship.

I’ve asked my fellow classmates (if you want to know more about us, click here) to offer some insight and opinions with regard to our online degrees. I hope to share those insights and opinions in my next post. Stay tuned-