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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 149-136-E
Division Number: VII.
Professional Group: Continuing Professional Education
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 136.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Distance education in Library and Information science studies: administrative issues and implications from a pilot study on power and status among recent graduates

Brooke E. Sheldon
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas, USA


Maria Aragon is proud of her Masters degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Texas at Austin. When she received the degree in l995, she was immediately promoted from her paraprofessional job with the city to an entry level professional position. Her new duties brought new responsibilities, a "significantly" higher salary, supervisory responsibilities, and participation in library wide planning and decision making. But Maria, who found it took almost four years to complete her degree via Distance Education classes (working full time) says that to her the most important thing about completing the Masters degree is her "increased self-respect in that she has set a strong example for her three children" …and "I'm in a profession where I can be employable anywhere" even though at this time she feels unable to relocate.


The world wide expansion of distance learning is one of the most powerful and significant trends in modern education. While it has long been recognized as an effective mechanism to reach students who are geographically remote from colleges and universities, only in the last twenty years has technology provided the impetus and means to not only reach huge numbers of students, but also to in some degree ameliorate the disadvantages of lack of face to face contact with the instructor. Distance education is most often defined currently as having four basic attributes: (l)teachers and learners are separated during more than half of the instructional process (2) an educational organization influences the process, including some form of student evaluation (3) educational media are used to unite teacher and learner and to carry course content; and (4) two way communication is provided between teacher, tutor, or educational agency and learner.(Verduin and Clark, l99l, p.ll)

This paper will discuss:

As distance education has developed throughout the world library education has not been slow and in some cases has pioneered in providing opportunities for the nontraditional learner. As Barron points out " summer sessions, weekend sessions, intensive and compacted courses, federally funded institutes, evening classes, and other configurations of time have been used to accommodate learners who work during the regular weekday, teach in schools, or live so far from traditional LISE programs that "regular " attendance has not been possible. These concessions, along with LIS educators' acceptance of part-time students, are noteworthy. They demonstrate that LIS educators have realized the futility of insisting on full time residency, and have accommodated and supported the non-traditional learner, which is the first step in legitimating distance education" (Barron, l996, p.806)

While there apparently are no extant studies of the emerging growth and pervasiveness of distance education specifically for librarians and information managers worldwide, current surveys show that distance education in general is rapidly accelerating in almost all of the countries of the world. (Roberts, l996, p.8ll) indicates that the l99l special issue of the American Journal of Distance Education contained examples from Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Australia, Finland, Eastern Germany, China, Spain and Latin American countries. One can certainly assume from these data that, to a greater or lesser degree, LIS education in these countries is mirroring the progression seen in distance education generally.

Barron (l996,p.806) notes that in the United States Florida State University began in l947 by sending teachers out into the state in automobiles. Other library schools employing various techniques followed. By l980, 223 courses were offered, and in l996 schools reported 795 courses offered "off-campus". By l996 seventeen schools indicated that they were using various forms of telecommunications to deliver courses. These mechanisms include closed circuit two-way video/audio, video cassette, and more recently complete degree offerings using live interactive satellite, supported by e-mail, electronic and audio conferencing, and gopher and websites.(South Carolina, Texas, Florida, San Jose). Other schools (i.e. Syracuse, Arizona and Illinois) are among those offering full degree programs but each requires some time spent in residency on the home campus. In several cases (Emporia, Texas, Syracuse, Drexel) the LIS school has been the academic unit on campus to pioneer in testing the use of telecommunications to deliver distance graduate education.

At this time it seems clear (as instructors become more at home with WEB based instruction, and costs of various forms of telecommunication continue to decrease) that the opportunities to obtain an LIS degree from one's home or workplace will continue to accelerate.
The point was made earlier that LIS educators and administrators have been progressive in recognizing the educational needs of would-be librarians who are employed full time and/or unable to relocate to a university offering the MLIS. Still we must recognize that the motives of those who plan and deliver distance education programs are never entirely altruistic. For many schools the primary motive is economic. It is possible for most schools (or at least publicly supported ones) to charge higher tuition and fees for out -of-state students and additional fees for in-state students. One has only to scan the annual statistical reports of the Association of Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) to observe that the "institutional support" of schools heavily engaged in Distance Education has markedly increased almost in direct proportion to their enrollment increases.

But whether or not the School's motives may be largely economic, it becomes quite clear that there is substantive justification for this increased emphasis on distance education. Douglas (l996,p.875) in describing the history and rationale for South Carolina's program quotes a professor at the University of South Carolina who said in l937 "Surely a state supported institution such as the University cannot discharge its full obligation by ministering merely to the needs of the relatively small group who can establish residence on its campus. A forward looking aspiring university should say to the citizens who sustain it: 'our campus is the state. If you can't come to the University, then the university will come to you'.

The strong supporters of distance education would applaud this statement, and perhaps go further and acknowledge that in addition to the geographically isolated, there are many individuals who have not had access to the same quality and choice of educational services. In Texas for example there are parts of the state where the population is largely Hispanic and the nearest Library School is hundreds of miles away. The decision to institute a full MLIS distance education program in both El Paso and San Antonio in l99l was made in part because of the perceived need to provide LIS education in the region, and increase the number of professional librarians serving Hispanic populations.

Another important justification is made by Douglas(l996,p.876) in her statement " The College of Library and Information Science's distance education program is based, in part, on the principle that the entire southeast region is dependent on all of its sub-regions for maintaining strong levels of information services. In other words, the strength (or lack of strength) of the profession in Charleston, West Virginia, can produce an impact on the profession in Charleston, South Carolina. Technological applications link information professionals in local and multi-state networks, resulting in the expansion of services and resources available to all citizens of the region."

In support of this last rationale, it should be noted that while possession of a Masters degree in LIS does in theory at least make it possible for the graduate to move anywhere to pursue a career in librarianship, in actual fact, graduates of distance education programs tend to stay in the same region after graduation.
Finally, experimentation in distance education as it is now being conducted by LIS schools, seems a natural for our profession. As Liebscher and McCaffrey(l996, p.384) have noted "Distance learning technology is also information delivery technology and as such fits well in a program for library and information professionals who are examining a range of information technologies"

This places a special responsibility on designers of LIS programs to efficiently and effectively provide library and information services for distance education students. If schools are to train librarians to be effective managers of electronic networked information, then the system set up for student use should be models of excellence. In discussing infrastructure, Besser (l996, p.817) differentiated between resources needed to support the equivalent of classroom instruction, those needed to support interaction between the individuals involved in the educational process, and those needed to provide instructional support material. For all three areas faculty need to carefully plan with skilled support staff especially in these relatively early days of distance education in LIS.

In enumerating the important reasons why an emphasis on outreach utilizing distance education is very appropriate for the information professions one should not discount the many other problem still to be resolved in providing advanced LIS degrees at a distance. Such discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but some of the other yet to be resolved issues include: need for richer opportunities to build collaborative and mentoring relationships among themselves, and with the faculty; need to ensure that off-campus students have equal and adequate access to advising and placement services; examination of the tendency to provide a generic degree to distance learners (i.e. lack of opportunities for specialization). This last issue is somewhat of a paradox because the technology actually enables one specialist to reach large numbers of students simultaneously but thus far in actual practice in LIS, highly specialized courses for credit are rarely offered to distance students. There are of course some notable exceptions as at Texas where preservation and conservation, and archival enterprise have occasionally been offered via interactive television.

As noted earlier, the investments in planning and expenditures for equipment and resources have not always been forthcoming from administrators whose primary motive has been to increase credit hour production. Most programs have been initiated with minimal process evaluation procedures in place, and little provision for rigorous evaluation of outcomes. Besser and Bonn(l996, p.883) state " The largest question and the one we need to ask consistently and repeatedly is the question of whose interests are really being served in distance independent learning programs." No one expects that the expectation of increased revenues will ever be out of the picture, but the LIS profession will not be well served by a proliferation of programs that lack quality control and thus disenfranchise the non-resident student.

Learner outcomes in higher education have been researched for many years in various countries and all evidence shows that distance education methodology appears to achieve cognitive outcomes equal to those achieved by the more traditional means of education delivery (Verduin and Clark, l99l, p.ll7) Besides learner outcomes, the criteria offered by Gooler (access, quality, cost effectiveness and efficiency, impact, relevance to needs and generation of knowledge) seem also to support the efficacy of distance education. (Gooler, l979)

Some researchers have argued that many of the current studies which compare distance education student's progress and cognitive accomplishments with resident students lack validity. In fact DE students may have more in common with those who may be "in residence" but attending part-time. In any case, because there is little extant research beyond the comparison of DE students with resident students, and a scarcity of anecdotal material about the added value of a masters degree in LIS provided to non resident students, I decided to pursue this topic with recent (3-5 years) MLIS graduates.

Since planners and administrators and legislators need tangible qualitative data for decision making the focus of the pilot study was on graduates self-perception of rise in status (economic and position power) as a result of attaining the degree.
In May, l998 a questionnaire was sent to l2 graduates of the University of Texas GSLIS distance education program. Only one person did not respond. A copy of the questionnaire and the accompanying letter is attached as Appendix I.
All but one of the graduates responding are currently employed, and all (but one) report an improvement in economic status as a result of obtaining the Masters. Almost all report greater participation in decision making, and in administrative responsibilities.
These preliminary findings are not surprising, but what is interesting are the reasons given for seeking the MLIS degree. These relate as much to joining a profession that they respect as to finding greater job security. As one put it "I wanted a career where I'd be constantly learning new things…"

From this very small and preliminary study, it is apparent that there are few major changes in the careers of these librarians although most moved from para-professional to professional jobs. It is evident that it would be better to study the power and status changes after a period of seven or even ten years have elapsed when in-depth interviews might reveal not only individual economic and status changes, but also the degree to which these graduates are contributing to an expansion of information services and resources to businesses, public and private agencies of all types, and individual citizens of the region. So that in an expansion of the original premise of the study, our major research question might be: The Masters Degree in Library Science has been offered since l99l in Southwest Texas via distance education. What has been the impact, not only on individual graduates, but on the provision/diffusion of information services and resources throughout the area? Such an approach would take much longer as it significantly broadens the scope of the study, but it is likely to result in findings that would be of interest to a broad spectrum of LIS education planners and university administrators.


Barron,D.(l996) Distance Education in North American Library and Information Science Education: Applications of technology and commitment. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 47(ll);805-810.

Besser, H. and Bonn,M. (l996) Impact of Distance Independent Education. Journal of the American Society of Information Science. 47(ll): 880-883.

Besser, H. (l996) Issues and Challenges for the Distance Independent Environment. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 47(11):817-820.

Douglas, G.(1996) MLIS Distance Education at the University of South Carolina: Report of a Case Study. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 47(11)875-879.

Gooler, D.(l979) Evaluating Distance Education Programmes. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education. 6(1):43-45.

Liebscher, P. and McCaffrey (l996) Library Education at a Distance. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science. 37(4):384-388

Roberts, J. (l996) The Story fo Distance Education: A practitioners perspective. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 47(11):875-879.

Verduin, J. and Clark, T. (l991) Distance Education: The foundations of Effective Practice. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

To: Recent Graduates of the UT Austin El Paso MLIS program

From: Brooke E. Sheldon, Professor

As you may know I am no longer Dean at GSLIS, but a regular faculty member. After a year's sabbatical I returned to teach last spring. Currently I am contemplating a study that would provide information on the impact of having the MLIS degree for distance education students.
If this little pilot study yields useful information I may extend it to selected graduates of DE programs of other LIS schools. As I noted in my proposal for the study, it "could bring useful information to GSLIS as to the long range significance (or lack thereof) of our efforts in distance education. It may also provide information that will be of interest to legislators and other higher education planners in Texas and elsewhere." However, I hope you will be absolutely candid in your responses so that the results as much as possible represent reality.

Needless to say, I will keep your comments absolutely confidential. That is, you will not be quoted without your explicit permission. I would like you to identify yourself with an email address or telephone number in the event a follow up interview seems advisable to amplify or clarify some points.

Finally, I am on a fairly tight schedule and I would appreciate it very much if you could take a few minutes within the next few days to answer the questions, and return the form to me in the enclosed stamped envelope. If I have questions or need more detail, I will contact you.

Thank you very much for your help!

June 4, l998

Questionnaire for University of Texas at Austin Graduates -El Paso Program, l995

  1. Are you currently employed?     Yes     No

  2. Current Position Title:

  3. Name of Agency:

  4. What led you to seek the MSLIS degree?
  5. If you have remained with the same organization since receiving your degree, what if any have been the changes in your status?
    ie. Increased responsibility?

    On a less tangible level, has having the MLIS degree helped you ?     Yes     No
    If yes, in what ways? (Any details would be very much appreciated)


    If you had to make the decision again (to pursue the MLIS) would you proceed with obtaining the degree?


    Other comments:

    Would you be agreeable to a followup interview, either by telephone or possibly in person if it could be arranged?



    Date of Graduation