Student Experiences: Michael Harris on Online Programs

This post is part of the Student Experience series, which features current and former archives students as they reflect on graduate school, internships, and early career issues. If you would like to contribute a post for this series, please email me

Guest poster Michael Harris, Simmons College online student and archivist at the University of Colorado Special Collections and Archives, discusses how he chose to do an online program and the successes and struggles he’s found with it. 


It was the fall of 2014 and I was only a few months into my new job as an instructional librarian in the Special Collections and Archives department at the University of Colorado Boulder. I was settling back into a more “normal” work day after spending the previous year as an adjunct instructor of musicology at CU Boulder and Metropolitan State University in Denver and the previous six years before that completing my PhD in musicology at CU. I had taken the long way ‘round to becoming a librarian (having worked constantly in libraries throughout my educational career) and had made the choice to embrace my new job and my librarian nature. I was about to apply to library school.

It was not a decision I made lightly. The idea of taking on more student loan debt on top of the six-figure sum I had already taken out for my PhD was not easy, nor was the prospect of possibly leaving my new job for the uncertainty of moving to a new city and state with no connections—and networking is not a natural skill for me.

Which is why when I was I was selecting schools to apply to, I had 3 basic criteria:

  1. An archives program. I already knew that I wanted to specialize in archival work.
  2. A well-established and well regarded program. My experiences on the musicology job market had made me quite cynical when it comes to name-brand degrees and the preference they seem to engender on the market. While I despise this aspect of my criteria, I made the decision to “play the game” and target schools that seemed to rank high in various lists of library schools and archival programs regardless of cost or location.
  3. I wanted at least some of the schools to have an on-line option so that I could consider staying in Boulder while completing my degree.

Of the five programs I applied to, two had on-line options: the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne and Simmons College, the latter being where I decided to attend. As with any decision, this is not come easily. I almost decided to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, but the longer I went in my job at CU, the more I wanted to stay for as long as I could in Boulder and the on-line option become more attractive. It also helped having a steady paycheck that I could rely on. Being older than many students because I had already been in school so long, my thinking bent towards the practicality of finances, retirement planning, and wanting some stability in my life.

I will admit that I had my doubts about how good an on-line only program could be. I am no luddite though, and consider myself more tech savvy than the average person. I am usually up-to-date on tech trends and also serve as the unofficial tech support guru for my family and friends. This is to say that I am comfortable using technology and will both praise its usefulness while also pointing out its flaws.

But I was dubious about on-line education. I dare say that even when I sat down for my first on-line class experience I was still quite skeptical. After one semester, though, I was a convert and praised its flexibility and ease of use, while also pointing out is obvious drawbacks (lack of face-to-face contact, threaded discussion boards) whenever asked by peers and the curious. But despite drawbacks, the experiences of on-line classes have exceeded all my expectations.

Granted, my experiences at Simmons might not be the same as in other programs and I have no other experiences to compare it to. Not to mention I still find threaded discussions to be a bit cumbersome at times, requiring multiple check-ins for posts—something difficult to remember when you are working a full-time job and have other commitments. However, the insights that you can explore via a longer comments or posts more than make-up for the lack of immediate back and forth dialogue that can occur during in-person classes and seminars.

As for any concerns regarding class projects and group work, I have encountered no issues with them, and have had very positive experiences with them. In my first semester I led a web development class project in which the four members were scattered across three states and two time zones! And one of my group members was an active duty army officer stationed in the South who sometimes had crazy hours because he was working in a unit leading drone operations in the Middle East.

My point here is that if you are like I was, tentative and unsure about taking on-line courses, you should not be. I am very much an old school teacher who has been resistant to on-line classes but via my experiences with Simmons’ program have become part of the converted. And at least at Simmons, the faculty who teach the on-line classes are the same ones who teach the in person classes which means I am getting the same education as I would be had I moved to Boston—though that does not mean I am saving on living expenses since Boulder is almost as expensive as the east coast.

Bottom line, my on-line classes have provided me with great experiences and great discussions with fellow students. For those considering it, on-line provides a great option for those already in jobs and who are seeking a degree to help with career advancement, changing careers, or as a means to secure a permanent position if your current position is temporary. An on-line degree from an already good library program offers the working student flexibility in scheduling while losing very little from the in-person experience.

Michael W. Harris is a librarian, archivist, and musicologist who works an instructional librarian, archivist, and digital humanist at the University of Colorado Boulder Special Collections and Archives department. He is currently enrolled in the Simmons College Archives Management program and plans on graduating in December, 2017. You can find him on-line at his website or see the DH project he works on here.