Libraries and Online Learning: A Powerful Partnership

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ALCTS Midwinter Symposium 2013

Libraries are engaged in a long and deep-seated relationship with learning, so it is natural that they should wish to develop and further strengthen that connection in an online world. On Friday, January 25, 2013 ALCTS offers Libraries and Online Learning: a Powerful Partnership, a day-long symposium featuring five outstanding speakers representing a range of constituencies engaged in online learning. A complete symposium schedule is available in ALA Connect.

To give ANO readers a sneak peek of the symposium, we asked two of the speakers, Mike Eisenberg, dean emeritus and professor at the University of Washington Information School, who will deliver the opening keynote address and Meredith Farkas, Head of Instructional Services at Portland State University, whose remarks will chronicle her experiences in integrating an online learning program into the fabric of an institution, to answer a few questions. Their comments are timely and insightful. (Ed's Note: Mike adds that he hasn’t done any systematic data collection about this, so these comments are based on his online teaching experiences and perceptions from interacting with academic, school, and public librarians over many years.)

Meredith Farkas, Head of Instructional Services at Portland State University
Mike Eisenberg, Dean Emeritus and professor at the University of Washington Information School

ANO: How are libraries engaging with online learners? Are there areas where the relationship between online learning and libraries is strong and other areas where libraries need to catch up?

Mike:Unfortunately, I don’t think there is very strong relationship today between online learning and libraries. At best, the relationship seems to be “adequate.” The primary service functions supporting online learning are e-reserves and access to databases. These functions are usually based on existing systems, infrastructure, and interfaces. That is, we are still adapting the e-reserve and database systems that were developed for on-campus courses and instruction, not thinking about the unique needs and opportunities in online settings.

For example, why aren’t digital, chat-based reference services emphasized and targeted for supporting online learning? Why aren’t librarians offering these services receiving timely, cutting-edge, and special training in the needs of online students and faculty, online learning systems and pedagogy, student-faculty interaction, and participation in online learning? Digital, chat-based reference services could be an essential success factor in online learning, but only if the librarians are online learning experts—fully knowledgeable and skilled in learning, teaching, information use, and production in online settings.

Successful library and information services for online learning are not simply about automating successful face-to-face services. Online is not a poor substitute for face-to-face. I’ve taught online for more than fifteen years and can state confidently that online learning can be better than face-to-face. And again, library and information services can be crucial to successful online programs, but not by simply making a few adjustments or adaptation of existing services. It takes an intimate knowledge of the online environment and capabilities, how students learn, how faculty teach, and how all involved interact.

Meredith: It’s difficult to generalize about how libraries are providing services to online learners, because libraries are all over the place, just as are the institutions of which they are a part. Some libraries have been developing new models to serve online learners for well over a decade where others are only beginning to see this population as one that has special needs and requires new thinking about service provision. Some librarians are embedding themselves in individual classes to provide deeply personal and individualized support to students, while other libraries have adopted more scalable solutions using online learning objects. Some librarians have collaborated deeply with disciplinary faculty to support online learners while others have created a one-size-fits-all presence for online learners. Some libraries have worked to create a sense of library presence in the online learning management system while others have developed a single library presence that works for all learners. There is no one-size-fits all approach to serving online learners, but I think there are a few things that are critical for libraries to be cognizant of:

  1. libraries must collaborate with departments and groups involved in online learning (IT, Centers for Teaching and Learning, and others) to truly embed library services into students’ learning experiences
  2. libraries must work to deeply understand their patrons’ needs and their information behavior in order to develop targeted services
  3. serving online learners must be seen as the job of every member of the library staff

Many institutions have rightly realized that successful online learning initiatives require strategic investments in the infrastructure of the University, including the library and IT. Unfortunately, not all institutions see the additional pressures that serving online learners place on these units or they don’t have the will to do what it takes to develop adequate support for online learners. Libraries today need support for the additional demands that come with online learners—whether it’s the purchase of new online resources, increased staffing for greater virtual reference demands or interlibrary loan/document delivery services, or in the development of online learning objects and instructional design and tech skills among the staff. Woe to the institution that does not support the library adequately as it ramps up its online learning offerings, as access to library resources and services are a critical part of the student experience... even online.

ANO: What is your vision of the future of online learning and how do see libraries fitting into that vision?

Mike: Online learning is not the future--it’s the present in higher education and increasingly K–12 as well. And the mix of online to face-to-face is only going to increase. The mass-market, factory model of education is breaking apart, to be replaced by more and more customized, individualized learning plans that combine a rich combination of learning opportunities and assessment metrics.

This future of education—learning and teaching—requires a sophisticated information infrastructure in terms of resources, tools, systems, approaches, know-how, and options. Libraries can be the key institutional unit responsible for this sophisticated information infrastructure or they can be a small player as the information technology units (academic, administrative, and instructional) assume more and more of the information responsibilities. Are libraries and librarians involved in selecting and supporting the course management systems of the institutions? Are libraries and librarians intimately involved with faculty in selecting and providing the full range of resources to support learning—full text of essential, required resources (aka textbooks) as well as additional readings and databases? Are libraries and librarians supporting students and faculty in creating and producing content and assignments using a wide range of electronic, video, web-development, virtual worlds, and other digital tools? Are libraries and librarians directly and intimately engaged in ensuring that students in every educational environment are information and technology fluent, or at least literate?

Meredith: For a long time, online learning was quite distinct from face-to-face learning. People took online classes because they were physically distant from campus and could not take face-to-face classes. Some libraries hired distance learning librarians to serve this specific population. However, the boundaries between online and face-to-face learning have blurred and will continue to become more blurred over the years. Online learning has become mainstream. We’ll see more and more institutions offering a mix of face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes to students who may live on-campus or a thousand miles away. In a world in which even face-to-face classes can have online components, libraries have lots of opportunities to provide outreach and instruction at students’ points of need. Librarians can play an important leadership role at colleges and universities with regard to online pedagogical innovation, and I was pleased to learn this year that our University’s President shares my vision. I think librarians can and should focus on supporting faculty teaching online, which would position us as partners in student learning and allow us to better embed information literacy instruction into the very fabric of a class, rather than "library instruction" being seen as some sort of add-on to the curriculum. This mainstreaming of online learning into the fabric of higher education requires all librarians to become distance learning librarians, making support for online learners just another thing we all do. It will mean that in the future, we won’t be able to simply rely on distance learning librarians and instructional design librarians to handle the development of online instructional materials and online outreach strategy. Instructional design and technology skills will be part of the basic skill set that reference and instruction librarians or subject librarians need to be successful in their work.

ANO: How can practicing librarians educate themselves to support the online learning environment and what sort of preparations will the next generation of librarians need to remain relevant?

Mike: First and foremost, attitude is everything. Practicing librarians must embrace the changing learning environment. Online learning can be an improvement--it can be more individualized, relevant, and focused. The” glory days” of face-to-face may not have been so glorious for the bulk of students anyway. Think of the waves of students taking courses they can “get into” not what they “want” or “need,” stuck in large anonymous lecture hall courses, forced to buy outdated, expensive textbooks, and often taught by teaching assistants with little personalized interaction. As people-oriented professionals, we should help schools capitalize on the new opportunities and help to make them work. Librarians should embrace the important changes taking place in education—not pine for the good old days of passive services and restricted access to limited print and expensive online services.

Second, practicing librarians must fully retool—engaging in immediate, crash-education in online learning, pedagogy, and systems. They need to fully understand and be able to use and teach course management systems, collaborative and production systems, and be masters at weaving together the rich information and technology infrastructure that new online capabilities require. They must be master teachers—able to plan and deliver information and technology literacy instructional programs that are fully integrated in content learning and online pedagogy.

Many in the next generation of librarians are already well along the way. Most professional library education programs now offer online degree options. At my own school, we have approximately 350 MLIS students, and two-thirds are learning in online mode. This isn’t because we can’t attract full-time day students--we admit less than 50% of applicants for the day program. Rather, we seek to meet the needs of a geographically and personally diverse student population. We choose to have a strong online program because it better meets the needs of society, our students, and the library field.

So, the next generation of librarians is online-focused from the beginning. They live, learn, and perform in online settings—blending together a rich range of experiences.

I’m an optimist. We work in a great field—the information field—which is at the center of every aspect of human endeavor. Our job is to meet the needs of our constituents—wherever, whenever, and in whatever form. We have new tools, means, and opportunities to do so. How cool is that?

Meredith: I was never more creative in my career as when I was a distance learning librarian. I started my career as the Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University in Vermont and switched gears to a management position when my Director and I saw a need for coordinating what we did instructionally—both online and face-to-face. Norwich University has a really impressive online learning program and is especially exemplary in its financial support of other campus units and in its high-touch support of online students to the point where they actually feel a sense of belonging to the University (which is rare in online learning). We were able to do a lot of really meaningful stuff because of the strength of our collaboration.

At Portland State, support for online learning is still in its infancy. There have been lot of online courses offered, but until recently, it’s been really decentralized.  It’s been a great at Portland State to work with our Distance Learning Librarian to help build library services for distance learners from the ground up, especially now that I have learned from my own early failures and successes in serving online learners at Norwich. It’s certainly more difficult to create anything sustainable in a large and decentralized environment, but we’ve had some early successes and are really focused on building partnerships with our Center for Online Learning.

Eight years ago, there wasn’t the tremendous wealth of literature that exists today about how other libraries have served online learners, so many of us were making it up as we went along. And it was fun! These days, it’s easy to find inspiration and best practices from what other libraries have done. However, one must really look beyond what libraries have been doing, because we can, at times, develop tunnel vision in this profession. Attending conferences in the areas of education and educational technology is a great idea. Also, seeing how companies and other organizations are approaching online training and learning can lead to some pretty innovative ideas. Most importantly, librarians need to assess the needs and understand the information behaviors of their own patrons. There are a lot of great ideas out there, but you’ll never know what will work best for your patrons if you don’t know your patrons. We need to develop skills in qualitative and quantitative research in order to understand our patrons’ needs and how well our services are meeting those needs. In libraries where there is not much instructional technology support, instruction librarians may need to develop strong technology skills. At a minimum, we need to be aware of trends in technologies for delivering content, instruction, and other library support online. Librarians who serve online learners need to be incredibly strong advocates. They must constantly remind their colleagues in the library of how proposed services will impact distance learners and they must constantly remind units involved in supporting online learning of the important role of the library. This is vital to our ability to collaborate with other units tasked with supporting or implementing online education.