Learning Librarianship
from 300 Miles Away

The pros and cons of an online master’s program.

Because my already-overfull schedule just didn’t seem busy enough, I’ve decided to take a big step this year. Now, I’m a mild-mannered librarian by day … and a mild-mannered grad student by night. Yup, I’m going online to get my master’s degree in library science.

I had been hearing a lot about online degree programs since I first entertained the idea of going back to school. That option didn’t originally interest me, because I’ve always enjoyed traditional classrooms (ah, the smell of chalk, the spirited discussions, the giggling over passed notes from classmates, the enthusiasm of a really fantastically geeky/brilliant professor). But a few of my coworkers had done online courses and really got a lot out of them. Some research through the American Library Association showed me what sorts of schools were out there and steered me toward the ones that were accredited and reputable. The accredited program closest to my house, in southern Maryland, turned out to be all the way out in College Park — which would require a lot of schedule-juggling on my part, as well as driving an hour through rush hour traffic to get there. Plus, I really like eating dinner at a table and seeing that guy I married on a regular basis. I was afraid I would lose momentum very quickly if I went that route.

So, online classes it would have to be. But for some bizarre reason, most of the schools I had considered charged an arm and a leg for the privilege of sitting at my own computer in my pajamas. Some charged out-of-state tuition, even, despite the fact that I would never set foot on their campuses. After a lot of searching, I found Clarion University — a reputable school in western Pennsylvania that was much more financially accommodating to its online learners. I was accepted into its program, assigned an advisor, and mailed my bill. I was an official grad student, complete with a courseload of two classes this semester and an oversized “Property of Clarion” hoodie to wear around the house. (Hoodies are the official uniform of harried college students, after all.)

Clarion runs its online classes in an online forum called Blackboard, which is basically a one-stop shop to access all of my class materials, grades, faculty information, and e-mail. I had used it a little during my undergrad years at Washington College, but not to the extent I am now. So far, it’s been extremely easy to navigate — very intuitive and well-explained. One of my professors even has a link to her “virtual office,” where we are able to informally post questions or concerns. (Another professor has a whole section of his course page devoted to library humor, including a fairly fantastic reference to Conan the Librarian.)

My program is considered “asynchronous,” meaning there are no set lecture times and I can choose when I participate. Each week, my classes are given particular assignments and a series of conversations to participate in via the online discussion board. Considering how bizarre my work schedule can be (libraries are open at night and on weekends, you know), this means I’m able to keep working full-time without having to further rearrange my time — which is a very, very good thing.

Plus, I will forever applaud online learning for the fact that I can wear pajamas while I work. I can also eat and drink tea and cuddle with my dog and listen to obnoxiously loud Beatles songs and take breaks.

Considering all that, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much interaction I have with my peers. Both of my classes require us students to bounce ideas back and forth in the discussion forum, and one class even requires us to complete group projects together (I’m curious/nervous to see how that will turn out). The format gives us time to compose our thoughts before we post to the discussion board, so everyone’s insights have been articulate and well thought-out, giving the whole process a more professional feel. Both of my classes are filled with a good mix of students from all sorts of backgrounds — some are older, some are younger, some (like me) are already librarians, some have just graduated, some are changing careers or going back to work after raising kids, one lives in the Netherlands, and so on — which makes for fascinatingly multifaceted discussions.

That’s not to say there aren’t downsides. The lack of structured classroom time is more than made up for with the copious required reading in my textbooks, which are just entirely too heavy to cozy up with in my reading chair. I always end up rushing to find time to read all the chapters that pile up from week to week. Plus, being required to post in the online conversation each week means I have to race to come up with good points and get them up as fast as I can, so that I’m not one of the poor students who get there last and end up having to rehash what everyone else has already said. It’s a lot of online interaction for someone who’s always been behind the times when it comes to tech stuff (I still don’t text message or tweet, I use my phone only to make and receive calls, and it took me an embarrassing number of years to figure out what on earth a podcast was).

The most difficult thing is my utter dependence on all that technology to get through my classwork. For me to succeed, my electrical service and my computer and Internet connection always need to work perfectly. So, naturally, two weeks before the semester began my trusty laptop Frank (yes, I name inanimate objects; why do you ask?) decided it had had enough of my shenanigans. Three Blue Screens of Death prompted me to reluctantly cough up the money to buy an external hard drive to back up my files and a shiny, pink replacement laptop with a lot more disk space and the latest software. Thank goodness, at least, that this happened before I was in the middle of classes, or that could have been a fairly catastrophic situation. Now, good old Frank is enjoying retirement in the laptop case beneath my desk while his sleek replacement Penelope carries on the torch.

As long as this computer and I keep our happy new relationship alive, I should be in good shape. And in two years or so, this lowly librarian will be declared a Master of Library Science, which is frankly the best title I’ve ever heard. (Note from the eds: It’s second only to being a Master of Divinity.”)

Until then, I will be taking up residence beneath a pile of rather heavy textbooks — but at least I’ll be wearing my pajamas.

Article © 2010 by Molly E. Weeks