It’s 8:15 pm. After working until 5:00, I came home, played with my dog, made dinner, cleaned up my kitchen, and now I’m sitting down with my laptop and signing into my online class portal.
This scenario is becoming normal for me, but until this semester I had never done online graduate education. For my first master’s degree I packed up and moved my life for two years, attended all my classes in person, worked on campus, and completed an on-campus internship. Sometimes I felt that it would be simpler and save time to just sleep in my little shared office, and I suspect that some people in my cohort did so on occasion. Now, as I’m beginning my second master’s degree, in library and information science, I work full-time in a university archive at the same job I started before beginning my MLIS degree, and do all of my coursework from home. This transition has brought its own set of benefits and challenges.
For starters, there are some obvious benefits: by continuing to work full time in my field of study, I am gaining experience that will fill in my resume nicely, while earning the degree that I need to advance my career at the same time. As a homeowner with a husband and a very energetic dog, I can schedule my “school time” so that I still can complete any home improvement or maintenance projects I need to do and spend time with my little family. If I’m really pressed for time, I can read for class while I cook dinner or take a break from schoolwork altogether to play with my dog for a while.
Some other positive aspects to online education surprised me. Because I am required to post my own thoughts on our readings for the week, I find myself taking more time to think about them, and coming up with more ideas to share than I ever did in a traditional classroom setting where we just jumped into the conversation. I also find the dialogue with my classmates to be richer. When sitting in a classroom my thoughts started to drift when a classmate brought up a topic that did not interest me. I read everybody’s comments online, but I can choose a few to respond to that hold the most meaning for me. The conversation unfolds differently in an online discussion board than in a classroom, but I have found it to be richer and more meaningful. Everyone participates, and nobody gets interrupted, or finds that the conversation moves on before they are able to share their thought. In fact, the discussion board is organized in such a way that we can position our posts in relation to previous comments even as the discussion moves on. Just last week, someone commented on one of my posts after several other people had already changed topics, yet she was able to insert her comment in its logical place. I was notified that it was added—and I had the opportunity to respond and to hear a perspective I would have missed in a traditional classroom.
Even with its many benefits, online education is not all roses and butterflies. Organizationally challenged individuals like myself have to make a schedule, double and triple check it, and stick to it or die trying. After turning in every assignment, I have a moment of panic when I wonder if it loaded successfully. I miss bumping into my classmates on campus or around town and being reminded about important things I need to start working on, or hearing how they are progressing on a paper or project.
Along these lines, there is little to no opportunity to talk informally outside of the virtual classroom with your peers. While we have rich classroom discussions, some of the most stimulating conversations I had as an on-campus student took place at our knitting group we started for fun, or at our writing circle that met on Saturdays to edit papers over breakfast. For me, these extra opportunities to learn from my peers outside the classroom proved to be some of the most rewarding aspects of my on-campus education that I miss as an online student.
All education benefits the student in proportion to their commitment and involvement, but this seems especially true for online education. It is easy to get distracted by work, family, and things that need to be done around the house and to put your online classwork on the back burner. It is especially tempting for programs like mine that are completed at your own pace to simply tell yourself, “I’ll do my work later.” Being an online student means that you will not have to physically travel to class and you will not encounter your classmates or professors outside of class. If you neglect your online classes, you will become completely isolated in a way that you just can’t be when you are on campus.
Yet this approach to learning seems particularly useful for librarians in training because it is helpful preparation for our future work environments. As online students and as library professionals, we must be flexible and adaptable to new ways of accessing information. In my online discussion boards, I get the immeasurably beneficial experience of hearing how each of my classmates’ institutions function and learning from how they operate. Most librarians I know can only dream of exchanging ideas with other professionals in this way. For months they eagerly anticipate attending the next professional conference on their list just to dialogue with professionals from other institutions, whereas I have this opportunity on a daily basis. As librarians, technology is a key component of our jobs. When I struggle with my internet connection, have trouble accessing a resource I need, or use Google Chat to talk with a classmate, I am preparing for my role as a librarian when I may need to resolve technological problems or consult with a patron remotely. So when I shut down my laptop at the end of the day, I feel that as long as I stay committed to the program and keep in touch with my classmates, I will leave my online program with the degree and experience that will open many doors in the world of professional librarianship.
Jaimie Kicklighter has a master’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts and is currently working on a Master of Library and Information Science online at Valdosta State University. Jaimie works as a Library Technical Specialist in Auburn University Special Collections & Archives.