Online PhDs for Librarians

There was a very interesting discussion on the JESSE discussion list on the need for/use of library/information science PhDs provided remotely, e.g., online. If you have about a half hour, you might want to read or skim it. I found some of the discussion fascinating:

  • One of the major reasons library science faculty who responded cited for obtaining a PhD in library science is to teach in a library school and do research. A few suggested that what practitioners really needed was an applied doctorate, e.g., DLIS, not one that focused on research. There was also discussion that an online PhD might be construed as a second-class degree (my words).
  • Academic librarians who responded discussed the fact that faculty-type librarians are required to do research, publish, make presentations, and teach courses. Although a degree like a DLIS might be helpful (although I don’t think anyone knew of a DLIS-type program that was available), the PhD provides the type(s) of training they need.
  • In addition to this schism, there was discussion of the online or remote aspect of a doctorate. Most library science faculty thought that residency was required for a PhD, e.g., “enculturation into the academy,” discussion among colleagues and professors, locating and acquiring quality resources, taking courses in other areas with acknowledged experts, and generally becoming part of the university by serving on committees, dealing with academic politics, interacting from faculty from other departments.
  • Brian O’Connor from the University of North Texas discussed the “distance-independent” PhD program there. Although not 100% web-based/online, it is an IMLS-funded project to see if it would work. He has balanced comments and I appreciated his thoughts that we shouldn’t throw the idea of an online PhD out. There may be changes to make and questions that need to be answered — “I would suggest that we not necessarily hold the face-to-face course as a gold standard; rather, that we consider deeply just what are the characteristics of engagement with faculty and other students that make for asignificant doctoral experience.”
  • Frank Cervone of Northwestern University, who is enrolled in a distance PhD program, had some interesting things to say on the other side. He states:
    • Practitioners do want the PhD as a form a professional development.
    • Most distance and extended PhD programs are aimed at mid-career librarians who want to do research and stay in their field. This is typical of an academic librarian.
    • Practitioners do need to do research.
  • Dawn Walton also mentioned that many positions require a PhD for tenure.

I think Charles Bailey from the University of Houston summed it up best:

However, they [academic librarians] find it difficult to understand how, in 2005, with the wide array of digital technologies at information schools’ disposal why, in light of their unique circumstances, their needs cannot be adequately met with these technologies, supplemented by brief on-campus stays.

As someone who does a lot of face-to-face and web-based training, which I understand is different from the type of education being discussed here, I have had many people tell me that the online environment (web-based or not) required them to learn the material better than a traditional classroom environment. Is it easy? No. Is it for everyone? No. Both teachers/faculty and students need to understand, not just recognize, how to learn in an online environment. Can a PhD be done online in an effective and efficient manner? I haven’t a doubt that it can. It would require, however, faculty and students that were willing to make the changes (sacrifices?) to make it work.

There’s a lot more in this discussion — I’d encourage you to have a look.



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