Just in Time for Back to School!

By Michael Stephens |

I got wind of a recent study by the department of education through the New York Times. The headline, which seems designed to grab an educator’s attention, reads: “Learning Online May be Better,” and the article details findings that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

A press release at the Department of Education includes more useful background:

“A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified over 1,000 empirical studies of online learning. Of these, 46 met the high bar for quality that was required for the studies to be included in the analysis. The meta analysis showed that “blended” instruction – combining elements of online and face-to-face instruction – had a larger advantage relative to purely face to face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online. The analysis also showed that the instruction conducted wholly on line was more effective in improving student achievement than the purely face to face instruction. In addition, the report noted that the blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions.”

I’ve been teaching a hybrid online and in-person course on emerging technologies and an all-online course on Internet fundamentals for a few semesters. I am pleased to see this study and the reported results. Anecdotally, I agree with the findings that the hybrid method--a course that meets face to face with an online component--seems to be a student favorite.

Since I started teaching at Dominican, I’ve been requiring students to blog, aggregate RSS, explore Facebook, try out Twitter, and engage in many other Web 2.0 interactions. Recently, I heard from a former student, who proclaimed that “Most of the LIS students I keep in touch with I've met in your classes, and it's all because of social networking websites.”

At other LIS schools, I’ve seen similar courses or use of the tools spread out across the curriculum either in the hybrid or online model. This can be beneficial--technology should not be just for a technology class but present in the core courses and beyond, woven throughout the students’ learning objectives and deliverables. I would be greatly disheartened if someone graduated from a library school in 2009 without knowledge of and the ability to use emerging technologies.

Another benefit outlined in the New York Times article is that it seems like online courses are inherently student-centered:

"The real promise of online education, experts say, is providing learning experiences that are tailored more to individual students than is possible in classrooms. That enables more ‘learning by doing,’ which many students find more engaging and useful.”

If anything, library education should be based on an understanding of the foundations of our profession with a huge serving of “learning by doing.” That’s why I turn my students loose to explore--to PLAY--as much as possible.

An endorsement of open source technology appears in the form of a quote from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the DOE press release:

“This new report reinforces that effective teachers need to incorporate digital content into everyday classes and consider open-source learning management systems, which have proven cost effective in school districts and colleges nationwide.”

Educators, librarians and administrators should be looking very closely at Drupal and Moodle, among others, and factoring their potential in to long range plans for expenditures on costly, proprietary learning management systems. Would open source alternatives provide savings?

So with all of this in mind for this semester, we’re beginning another experiment - recent Dominican grad Kyle Jones spent some time working with me this summer. He has updated my Wordpress MU classes site with the BuddyPress system, enabling a social network for my students and for me. We can share, interact, and get to know each other online. Already, some of my students are building their profiles and friending each other. Because I’ll be in Australia for a good part of the semester, it makes sense to connect to the students and connect the students with each other as effectively as possible. No, this system isn’t hidden behind a password protected firewall or inside a proprietary super-costly system. Take a look - it’s here:


Our future librarians and information professionals probably won’t be working inside a closed-off network; they’ll be writing, interacting and engaging online with users, faculty and constituents of all kinds. This, I hope, will be a useful way to prepare them to be 21st century librarians.

I’m sure the DOE study will be discussed at faculty meetings and in academic libraries around the country in the coming weeks, as well as in schools. Where do you fall on the continuum of online vs face to face? Have you taken online courses? What was your LIS program or other degree program like? What worked? What didn’t? What new and emerging technologies do you use for instruction? What’s the next step? Could I ask any more questions? :-)

Stay tuned. We’ll be reporting on this again. Happy New School year to all who are going back or those starting for the first time! Happy School Year to all the faculty, librarians and support staff who enable and engage with our students.

Additional information:

Kyle wrote a companion post at TTW: http://tametheweb.com/2009/08/31/piloting-buddypress-as-a-lms/

Read the New York Times article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/technology/24bits-002.html

Read about the Department of Education study here: http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2009/06/06262009.html