As a distance learning student who is about to graduate with an MLS, I think I may have some qualification to talk about distance learning programs in library science. While I can’t speak for every program, I can certainly speak for the one I was affiliated with. I think right now, many distance programs are in their infancy, and they have tried to structure the classes similarly to those offered face-to-face, which has not turned out to be successful. It can’t be made to fit the traditional mold, and I hope that library schools figure that out soon. It is simply not possible to have a class discussion in a chat session with 50 people. It becomes a free-for-all, especially in classes where the professor has not made clear his/her nettiquette rules. Coherent discussions cannot take place with more than 8 people, and this is why the classes I’ve found most successful have been those that break the class up into discussion groups. Live lectures become rather pointless when the professor is simply typing them in. Better to offer the typed lecture to the students in advance so that they can prepare questions to discuss during class. Some professors have more luck with the medium than others. The most successful ones have been those who are relentlessly organized and have a written agenda for each class. I have found that I have learned far less in classes where the professor has clearly not put a great deal of effort into structuring and teaching the class. Some professors don’t have chat sessions or create lectures at all, which makes me wonder what they’re really doing to teach us, beyond commenting on our papers. Online classes require a great deal more structure than regular classes. In the future, I think library schools will gain a better sense of what works and what does not work in terms of teaching distance learning classes. But for now, the quality of the classes varies from excellent to extremely poor.

My advice to those thinking about entering into a distance learning program for libraries:

1. It really is what you make of it. You have to depend almost entirely on your readings to learn, and if you slack off, you may still get a good grade, but you really won’t learn anything.
2. Meet your classmates. While you may not be able to meet them in person, try to build some sort of online relationship. These people will be your colleagues soon, and you should start getting accustomed to networking from day one. Who knows? They might get you a job one day.
3. Learn as much as you can about the field. If you are not working at a library, volunteer or do an internship at a library. Talk to librarians about the field and the job market. Join listservs and read blogs. Join professional organizations and network with librarians in your local area. If you can, go to state or national conferences. I’ve always thought distance library programs should offer a course about librarianship, job searching, and networking, but if they don’t, you need to design your own class on the subject.
4. Learn to love computers. I know you may not care at all about databases, network administration or web design, but these are skills that librarians will increasingly need in the future. And if you have those skills, you will have a leg-up on the competition. When I worked at my local public library, a lot of my fellow staff members were totally helpless when it came to computers and searching the Web. In the next 10 years, those skills are going to be absolutely essential to working in the field.
5. Benefit from your professors’ experiences. Probably all of them have worked in the library and information fields, and sometimes the best thing they can offer you is the benefit of their experience. Pump them for information. “Talk” to them outside of class. The worst you’ll get out of it is a professor who remembers you and can write a reference letter for you in the future. Our school didn’t really have formal mentoring and our “advisors” just signed off on forms for us. You need to take the initiative and get to know the professors who have been involved in fields you are interested in.

My advice to distance learning programs is to get your professors more involved in teaching and mentoring! We had many receptive professors who were happy to offer us the benefit of their experience, but we had some who discouraged students from even contacting them outside of class. Library schools need to offer students more of a sense of what it is really like to be a librarian and what the job market is like. I have never been in a class where the job market or job searching was formally discussed, and I think it is important that professional schools be grounded in the real world. Library schools should teach about networking, about listservs, about creating resumes and cover letters. Library school, especially for distance students, really needs to be grounded in practicality. I have heard these criticisms from many of my fellow students and I hope eventually the schools start to base their course offerings more on what library students really need to be successful in the field.