The Library as a Place for Distance Students

Heidi Steiner (L) and Beth Filar-Williams (R)

A recent poll showed that over 90% of academic libraries are offering courses online or at a distance.  Although distance courses offer  select courses leading to associate degrees, undergraduate degrees, and graduate degrees, most of the programs seem to be at the associate degree level.

This was an interesting session in which two librarians from differing academic environments–Heidi Steiner from Norwich University and Beth Filar-Williams from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro–described their experiences with distance education.  Although their environments are quite different, their experiences and the issues they have faced are similar.

About 1/3 of students at Norwich University are distance students.  Norwich is a small private military university with about 1,000 students. Classes are held in 11-week quarters, and the programs are designed to be completed in 18 months.  Many students are deployed overseas, and many of them have slow Internet connections.  Others are retirees who like military history; the concept of an online library is very foreign to them.

The UNC-Greensboro has 17,000 students, about 950 of whom are enrolled in completely online degree programs. Many students pursue a hybrid program, taking some courses online and some physically.  The university wants to increase the online learning programs; distance education has been growing rapidly, with a 120% increase since 2003.  Now, new faculty hires are required to teach at least 1 online class.  Many undergraduates take a class online even though they are on campus, and many are in rural areas where Internet connections are problematic.

The largest challenges in distance education are communication and technology, but others such as geography and resources are also important.

  • Communication in virtual media is less natural and more labor intensive than face to face.  It is difficult to do a reference interview–if it happens at all.  Questions take longer to answer because of the absence of facial expressions and body language.  The personal connection is lost, so there are lots of assumptions and miscommunications.
  • Geographic issues revolve around the impossibility of synchronizing schedules: you can’t be there 24/7.
  • Technology problems are worse in a virtual environment.  It is hard to diagnose tech prob at a distance; firewalls, blocked access, lack of software, compatibility issues, and popup blockers are common difficulties.   User error, such as entering the wrong password, also occurs frequently, and the virtual librarian does not have ability to help as fully as possible.
  • Resource problems are going away because of the rise of online resources, e-books, etc., but e-journals and books don’t always fill the void.  Interlibrary loan is very difficult with remote students.

Despite these issues, expectations are high, and there are ACRL standards for equal services to distance students.

At Norwich, online students use a customized web portal.  Every program has its own specific library homepage.  The platform is coded in Drupal, so it is easy to maintain and customize.  UNC has a large library IT department, making it easy to maintain system.  They run their own library web servers.

At both institutions, e-books are very heavily used by the distance students.  Norwich uses Ebook Library, and UNC has several e-book programs.  However, sometimes students still need access to a print collection.  Norwich  will send books anywhere. They pay postage to send; the student pays for return.  However, they also encourage students to use local resources and to choose research topics that they have resources for.  UNC will mail books to students, and they send a prepaid return label.

It can be difficult to convince online students that there really is a person, not a robot, behind the library services.  Both institutions make significant efforts to help students by including personalized chat, screen sharing, “Ask A Librarian” services, and video clips of the librarians running the system in their services.  Norwich has an interesting approach: a generic librarian is enrolled in every online course, making it easy for students to access the library services.  This has proven to be a big advantage for online students.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor






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