For those seriously interested in a career in librarianship, a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree is a requirement for full professional recognition and advancement. And with the growing availability of online degree programs, some MLIS candidates are wondering whether a degree earned online is equivalent to or as well-regarded as one earned in an on-campus setting.
What should someone pursuing an MLIS degree consider when it comes to deciding between distance learning or an onsite program? Given the choice, is an online degree worth the investment?
No matter which program you choose, make sure it is accredited by The American Library Association (ALA). The ALA accredits master’s degree programs at institutions across North America, and employers often require ALA-accredited degrees. Many states also require an ALA-accredited degree in order to work in public and school libraries, and in general, a master’s degree assures more career mobility and advancement opportunities. Most online MLIS programs are ALA-accredited, but be sure to check before committing to any institution.
Current Life Status
For someone pursuing a library degree later in life, distance education may be the only option for attending a top-notch program without disrupting a family or current income stream. Not everyone can pick up and move to attend a residential degree program, so distance learning is also ideal for those without an accredited institution nearby. Some schools offer a hybrid model where most of the program is delivered online, but students meet one or two weekends per semester for hands-on labs and class interaction.
Access to Internships or Hands-On Programs
Some have noted that distance learners don’t enjoy as many “extras” as residential learners do, such as access to internships, teaching assistant (TA) positions, experiential learning opportunities, local scholarships, etc. For those students coming right off their undergraduate degrees, this could make a big difference, since those hands-on programs are important resume-builders for future employment. For more mature students, it may not matter as much, since they could already be in library para-professional positions or have other relevant work experience. Distance learners who want internships may need to apply some initiative and creative thinking to develop their own opportunities that meet program and school requirements.
Equivalence to On-Campus Degrees
In addition to not having the on-campus experience, many distance learners wonder whether they are receiving the equivalent course content as on-site students. This is where due diligence pays off. Because online learning can use many more delivery models than a classroom, schools vary in what they employ. There may be additional tools for moderated discussion, workgroup collaboration and assignment tracking, along with both synchronous and asynchronous class presentations. Some schools develop specialized online content, while others rely on the standard curriculum and deliver it online. It will be important to determine whether distance learners are treated and graded the same as on-site learners, and whether the mechanisms are in place to make that possible.
Distance learning requires a high degree of self-discipline and self-motivation, the ability to work independently and collaboratively—often across multiple time zones—and mastery of many technologies. If you’re easily distracted, or feel the need to do that extra load of laundry or empty the dishwasher during lectures, then distance learning might not be the best solution for you. Consider what you know about yourself and your work habits before making any decision about whether to attend classes online or in person.
As online degrees have evolved, so too have employer perceptions of them, but there can still be some negative bias toward programs seen as “degree mills.” This is particularly true for some for-profit programs that may not be as discriminating with their admissions criteria. Generally, academic experts, employers and recruiting professionals agree that the acceptance of online degrees depends largely on whether the chosen program meets three criteria. The learning institution must be regionally accredited, have a traditional campus and encompass a reputable academic brand.
As distance education continues to grow in popularity, the distinction between having an online degree versus an in-person degree will diminish.
In general, employers seeking librarians or library science skills want candidates with master’s degrees, but they don’t really care if the degree was earned online or on campus. Some of the best online MLIS programs available are through San Jose State University, Drexel University and the University of Illinois—all well-recognized universities with strong overall reputations.
Overall, it appears that the reputation of the school matters most. If the school is known for academic rigor and excellence in its degree-granting fields, then whether the degree was earned online is of far less concern. It may also never come up in the job interview since employers tend to assume that a degree earned at a bricks-and-mortar institution was earned on-campus. There’s no requirement to disclose whether an MLIS degree from Drexel University or San Jose State (or any number of schools offering both types of programs) was obtained online.
It’s important to remember that potential employers value hands-on experience, so candidates with prior library roles have better job opportunities than those without. Employers also value the self-motivation and discipline that it takes to obtain an online degree, so distance learners who are currently working may have an edge over those with less experience and a traditional degree.
As with any degree program, due diligence and research are key to determining whether the program advances your career goals and meets the requirements for employment in your field. For aspiring librarians, a master’s degree in library science from an ALA-accredited school is a must. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to choose from.