Distance learning has great potential to reach a wide array of students, or just to cut down on commuting. Four years ago, I took a class on remote sensing through USC’s Distance Education Network as part of my Master’s degree work in geology. While I was delighted to not have to drive down into L.A. that semester, and I enjoyed being able to eat dinner or knit while viewing the lectures, I did feel that the experience lacked something — real-time engagement with the professor and other students.
But technology and pedagogy have been adapting and improving over time. I recently watched a recording of an open house for the San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science. Their entire program is offered through distance learning, even for local students; there are no physical classrooms. As a result, if the Open House is any sample, the professors have developed excellent ways to conduct an online class meeting that involves and engages students beyond passively listening to a lecture. Contrary to my initial reservations, I came away impressed by the use of technology and the clear commitment to a quality experience. There were interactive quizzes, discussion of the results, and a live chat window. I think I was most impressed by the presenter’s comfort with the online environment; she noticed and responded to every comment made in the chat window, seamlessly blending those topics into the flow of her presentation.
SJSU’s program involves ~2500 students (again, all online), with a 25-30 student enrollment limit in each class (interesting given that it’s offered online!). The required introductory course has a peer mentoring component. Students have the option of getting course credit for in-person internships with their local libraries. At the culmination of the degree, students can choose to assemble an ePortfolio demonstrating 15 core competencies or a research thesis. Recent theses cover a fascinating range of topics, including:
- The impact of Hurricane Katrina on Gulf Coast libraries and their disaster planning
- Historical archaeologists’ utilization of archives: an exploratory study
- The rise of Mormon cultural history and the changing status of the archive
- Libraries in American German prisoner of war camps during World War II
The course offerings broadly address issues of how to organize, catalog, access, and share information. There are classes on how “interview” patrons (to zero in on what they’re really looking for), the library’s role in intellectual freedom, archives and preservation, and the history of books and libraries.
I noticed a few interesting differences in word use from what I’m used to. “Research”, in the library context, refers to the process of looking up a desired piece of information, rather than developing new algorithms and conducting experiments. “Implementation” means to install or put something in place, not to write code.
Here stands revealed another world of new ideas and information to learn. And with distance learning, it’s made super easy! Hmm…