Getting my Distance Education: Reflections of an Online Librarian

By Lindley Homol

I recently started a job as a reference and instruction librarian at a non-traditional, large state university, where the majority of our students take their classes online. As a librarian, this means that the chances of interacting face-to-face with a student are slim. My former library positions have involved lots of in-person interaction with students. These encounters at the reference desk were my favorite part of being a librarian, so I did not know what to expect in my transition into distance librarianship. Although I had previously provided online reference services for a traditional university, these experiences did not fully prepare me for the unique challenges and rewards of becoming an online librarian.

The most striking difference I noticed initially was the sheer volume of online interactions. While I had received the occasional instant message before, and might even have had to juggle it with a line at the reference desk, I have now become accustomed to answering four or five IM questions at the same time. Handling several concurrent questions made me realize how much I had previously relied on sight in reference transactions. Students could see that there was a line at the desk and patiently waited their turn. Online students have no idea how many others are currently asking questions--they are simply staring at the message window, awaiting a response. Long delays can cause students to think their session has been disconnected, or that I have forgotten about them. Therefore, quick updates to these patrons to let them know my progress are essential. Frequent checks for understanding are also crucial--I can no longer look at someone and see the dawn of understanding happening. Instead, I must now explicitly ask if something makes sense, or if the student was able to follow my directions successfully.

Having taken several online courses in the past, I know that the process can sometimes make a student feel isolated or disconnected. My biggest reward as an online librarian is making connections with students who may not have any other person to turn to for help. Our university's online courses are conducted asynchronously via the learning management system, so the library's IM service may be one of the only real-time instruction and interaction experiences the student has. I am excited that the library is able to offer distance students the chance for real-time answers, and hearing their positive feedback about the experience is one of the most satisfying aspects of being an online librarian.

Aside from reference duties, instruction responsibilities have proven to be the largest change from the traditional academic library. In the instruction literature, there are many articles covering synchronous classroom instruction, and quite a few detailing the creation of asynchronous instruction tutorials, but what if your classroom instruction had to be totally asynchronous? Nothing in my previous instruction experience had covered this dilemma and I could not wrap my head around how I would effectively deliver instruction asynchronously. Our library has developed a number of approaches, and we are currently working with others in the university to tightly integrate information literacy instruction directly into the curriculum. One of the major approaches in the current model that has been successful resembles a flipped classroom in many ways: an active learning exercise that focuses on developing a search statement and using it to find, evaluate, and cite an appropriate source is inserted into the online classroom, with accompanying explanatory information for each concept tailored to the subject area of the course. The students then have a week to work through the exercise on their own and respond with their answers, including what they have learned from the activity. As students post their responses, the librarian provides individualized feedback that helps students build or reinforce their search strategies, evaluation efforts, and citation skills.

When I was making the transition to distance librarianship, I was concerned that my ability to instruct would be lessened in the online format. Instead, I have found the online format to offer a level of engagement and participation that, in many cases, exceeds that of my face-to-face instruction experiences. So far, I have found that students seem less intimidated about asking questions in the online classroom. Additionally, because students are required to use the library's research tools to complete the exercise, they often run into difficulties with their searches that prompt further questions, to which I am able to provide tailored feedback. There is not often this time for exploration during the typical fifty-minute in-person instruction session; the week-long online format, however, encourages it. This extended instruction allows me to provide a form of individualized research consultation for each student in the class. Student response to library instruction has been positive, with students mentioning increased understanding of subject and keyword searching and citation mechanics.

When I worked at a traditional university, many students would use digital reference services because it was easier or more convenient than walking over to the library on a cold or rainy day. Yet when I became an online librarian, it was with the realization that, for many of our students, connecting online is no longer the easy option--it is the only one. Interacting with students online has shown me just how much I relied on visual checks of understanding in the past, and has helped me become more succinct with my explanations. As more colleges and universities move to incorporate online and distance learning into their programs, academic librarians will need to assess their own online reference and instruction skills. It will become ever more essential for academic librarians to have a deep understanding of online learners' unique needs so that we can provide the same level of service and support to distance students as face-to-face students have come to expect.

Lindley Homol is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at the University of Maryland University College.