How Online Learning Ruined Classroom Learning For Me (but in a good way!)

I can barely stand sitting in a classroom anymore.
There are other people there! I have to sit in a chair that I don’t own! I can’t noisily slurp ramen noodles! I have to wear pants!

Learning how to learn in an online environment was one of the best things that ever happened to me. When I enrolled in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign GSLIS online program (LEEP), I owned a Macintosh SE/30 that connected to the internet via an external dial-up modem. I had learned BASIC programming in the 1990s and I’m pretty sure I had no idea what HTML meant, had never seen a blog and certainly hadn’t ever learned anything online. This was 2006, btw– not too, too long ago. But I was a restaurant manager and apparently had NO USE FOR THE INTERNET (can you even believe that could be a sentiment?).

The LEEP program had synchronous-online classes– each class met at a specific time on a specific day of the week, just like a face-to-face class. With the wonderful exception of being able to attend classes in my pajamas on my computer (a new Mac laptop!) at my desk in my house. Every class met on-campus at UIUC once a semester, which gave us a unique opportunity to meet our classmates and instructors and do hands-on work that supplemented our online experience.

Since then, I’ve taken dozens of online classes (usually asynchronous, like SLIS classes) in a variety of programs, using many different learning management systems– Blackboard, WebTycho, D2L, Moodle and a few home-grown LMS, too. I love the freedom that online learning affords– the freedom for me to work when I have the time, the freedom to customize my learning environment, the freedom to interact with other students and instructors in a medium that I prefer (I love to write, I don’t love to talk usually). I prefer to read materials at my own pace, interact with lectures on my own terms and collaborate with classmates using the myriad tools available online for that purpose.

The skills I developed by completing my entire MLS online (and continue to develop in other online learning environments) include:

  • Time management— Super obvious, but I hadn’t had to exercise much time management since undergrad. I was working full-time as a library assistant at the Newberry Library in Chicago at the time, but could easily schedule most of my classes for the evening. I had the amazing luck of having a job that allowed me to do most of my assigned reading on the clock (what a job!), but that hasn’t been the case in subsequent online programs. Finding time at the end of the day to get readings done, complete assignments, clock into the LMS, all require a dedication above and beyond the traditional classroom.
  • Tech savvy— The LEEP program’s version of LIBR 203 is affectionately termed “Boot Camp”– a week-long, on-campus immersion experience for new GSLIS students. In addition to completing the 2-hour intro course “Libraries, Information, and Society,” we were put through the paces in a number of non-credit technology workshops. We learned how to use our LMS, the basics of HTML, netiquette for online learning and so much more. The program made me fearless when it came to new technology and allowed me to embrace Web 2.0 when it was ‘new’ and piqued my interest in social media generally.
  • Distance collaboration— No one really likes group projects, let’s admit that. Online collaboration, however, seems to help students hurdle over many of group work’s most troubling aspects. Blogs, wikis, Google Docs, Dropbox and other online resources allow groups to work asynchronously or synchronously, share resources in real-time and see a final project come together more easily.

I’m an evangelist for online learning, but I understand that it is not for everyone. I’m taken enough classes with unprepared classmates to know that Discussion Boards are some people’s worst enemy. I’ve taught online enough to recognize a student who would be better served by a traditional learning environment. Many of my colleagues here at the college have strong, personal, negative feelings about online learning and prefer the lecture hall to the laptop. I think that with enough preparation and awareness, any student can succeed equally regardless of the mode of delivery, but recognizing one’s preference or ideal situation makes such a difference!

Breathing Life into an Old Blog

Hello, blog! It’s been so long! I’m actually amazed that I remember my WordPress password.

This blog is hereby dedicated to the Post-Master’s Certificate in Library and Information Science program at the San José State University School of Library and Information Science (or, ‘my new certificate program’).

If anyone is still following this blog, waiting patiently for me to post about “enthusiasm” or “marketing” or “online coolness” (which seemed to be big preoccupations at one time for me), thanks for not unsubscribing (, Mom)!

To my new LIBR 203 classmates, welcome to my fallow blog! You can go back in time and read about what was fascinating to a new librarian back in 2007 (answer: pretty much any bit of social media that required a new login and password! so many logins and passwords….).

I’m kind of glad to have an excuse to blog again!

Sending out an S.O.S.

I’m preoccupied with style.

Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time making posters, fliers and branded emails; selecting icons that will become shorthand for various projects and communications; tweaking Microsoft Office tools to the best of my ability in order to make text visually appealing; browsing page after page of Creative Commons-licensed Flickr images for the photo that sums up “internet” or “magazine”.

I’ve been seeking the balance between annoying the hell out of people and keeping people informed and feel fairly confident that I’ve more or less found it. Here and there, a flier gets an enthusiastic response. This spring I felt confident enough in how far I’ve come in all of this to talk about process and practices at the 10th Information Literacy Summit.

We’re in the middle of our interim week here in the Library– the short quiet time between the end of Spring and the start of Summer semester. It’s five days of quiet, days for ideas and projects and getting things done. I spent most of yesterday playing around with QR code ideas. I’ve made, revised, edited and re-revised my SOS summer series workshop fliers and have them printed out and sitting on my desk, waiting to be copied until I’m entirely sure I can’t find anything wrong with them.

And now I’m hung up on the orthographic styling of initialisms.

While making changes to the SOS Workshop website, I noticed that one menu item was listed as “S.O.S. Home” another as “SOS Online”. I took out the full stops in the first. Then saw that beneath the SOS logo, the title is written with with full stops. I put the full stops back into the menu item. Then I looked at my fliers: “C.O.D. Library SOS Workshops”.

I can’t very well present “C.O.D. Library S.O.S. Workshops”.  It’s a nuisance to type, for one, and it pretty much offends my sense of style, for whatever that’s worth. Too many full stops.

Personally, I type “COD” and “SOS” in my own writing. I’m fairly sure the “C.O.D.” on the fliers is a holdover from older designs. I can’t see myself typing it and am a little surprised it hasn’t caught my eye before.  Can I change it? Can I present “COD Library SOS Workshops”?

According to the College’s style sheet, College of DuPage is initialized as C.O.D.– with full stops

between the letters. Yet, on the College’s own website, I see a number of stylized examples where the initialization is full stop free. I’m not the only one who thinks “COD” looks better than “C.O.D.”

Without those full stops, though, the initialism can become an acronym. It’s now “Cod Library” and “Connect with Cod”. SOS, on the other hand appears as an initialism with or without those full stops– it’s never “Sos Workshops”. It matters, too, I would argue, that in the case of the workshop series, “SOS” doesn’t actually stand for anything any more. Where it was once an abbreviation of “Smart Online Searcher”, we’ve expanded our scope beyond that title and now, confusing or no,  “SOS” is just “SOS”.

So what to do? I have a feeling, I’m the only one who cares about this kind of thing, and I’m just stalling, avoiding printing my damn fliers out of a nagging fear that I’ve made a mistake with a date or a time or a description. On the other hand, I’m not going to be happy until my intitialisms are consistent– full stops or not.

My speech for the Phi Theta Kappa Induction Ceremony

April 22, 2010
College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL

I was going to begin this speech with something speakerly like… “As Thomas Jefferson wrote: Information is the Currency of Democracy”.  This sounded like the perfect lead-in for a speech that would touch on Phi Theta Kappa’s Honor’s Study Project:  The Democratization of Information, as well as the work this COD chapter has been doing here on campus.

As a librarian, though, I obviously had to check my sources.  And like any good 21st century citizen, I immediately turned to Google.  While any number of websites were willing to attribute the quotation to Jefferson, none seemed very clear on when he might have said it or in what context.  Until I consulted the online Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia (yes, there is such a thing) and learned that Jeffersonian scholars have tried and tried but have not been able to conclusively attribute this excellent and appropriate-to-my-speech line to Jefferson.  In fact, what they have found is that the likely source of the phrase is… Ralph Nader.

So, as the consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader once said… Information is the Currency of Democracy.  Or in other words, our ability to access, to create and to share information is a fundamental part of our society– the medium of exchange on which democracy is based.  And in a world where I can learn the true source of this phrase in less than a minute by simply typing a few words and clicking a few links, we must be rolling in the proverbial informative dough.

But, to paraphrase something Jefferson actually did say: unlike men (and women), all information is NOT created equal.  And just like currency, some information has more purchasing power than other information.

For every shiny golden fact that keeps us informed about the world around us, there’s the old and tarnished item that doesn’t provide the whole story. With a world of information at our fingertips, we can all be cub reporters and investigate our interests as fully as we like.  Teach yourself to knit using a blog, repair your car with a YouTube video, learn a new language by chatting over Skype with a native speaker.

We can also be detectives, following the digital clue trail that our daily online interactions leave behind.  Meet someone at a party?  Want to catch up with a long lost friend?  It’s easier than ever to learn what people are doing and what people have done.  But just as you’re searching for information on people, people are searching for information on you.  Applying for a job?  Your potential boss can Google your name and find news of your achievements alongside your most recent status update and pictures from last nights’ party.  Almost every online activity leaves its trace– your searches, your clicks, your “Likes” and “Become a Fan ofs”.  When you close your browser or shut down your computer, your digital footprints remain.  And you have little control over how they are used or where they can be found.

Like a bad penny, information about us that appears online has a tendency to keep turning up.

As pieces of information– good, bad or incomplete–become easier to find, our ability to discover new and wonderful things increases, too.  These are the stumble-upon treasures which enrich our lives unexpectedly—the Buffalo nickels and Mercury dimes of information.   Think of internet memes or viral videos– the accidental piece of humor or insight or downright bizareness that’s been caught on film and reached millions.  Or the blog or podcast from a small-town individual with a unique perspective;  the website or forum created to fulfill a need or interest that wasn’t getting attention in traditional mainstream channels.

These moments, these ideas, these points for communication have always been out there–but now they extend pervasively into a society that wants both to feel connected to others in an increasingly disconnected society and also to watch hilarious YouTube videos of kittens falling off of a Roomba vacuum cleaner.

The ease with which information and ideas can be shared– uploaded, downloaded, forwarded, linked to and Digged– allows each and every one of us a platform, a virtual soapbox on which to stand and proclaim our dedication to political causes; our interest in issues that affect our daily lives; our particular love of Hostess cupcakes.

Information no longer comes from the top down, but from the bottom, the sides and the middle.  There are fewer people in control of our information, making decisions about what we have access to and when we can can access it.  The gatekeepers of information (those who traditionally determined which films would be made, which books would be published, which classes would be taught, which news would be news) no longer guard the information turnstile.

Wikipedia, the world’s largest, most used, online reference site, was created almost ten years ago specifically to be developed and maintained by amateurs.  It is the digital definition of democracy– for the people and by the people. We control the content.  It’s like being able to print our own money!  Look around you– you may be sitting next to someone who has written or contributed to a Wikipedia article.  You may be sitting next to someone who has vandalized a Wikipedia article.

The internet, and social media have opened wide those doors which were once so carefully guarded and absolutely anyone can come on in and do whatever they like.

Not all of this information is useful.  Not all of this information is correct.  There is an abundance of counterfeit information, shuffled in among the legitimate stuff.   Rumors, conspiracy theories and wild accusations start, spread, and gain traction quickly in this open environment where information is created democratically.

Content creators lack authority or expertise; bias colors an author’s treatment of a subject; seemingly appropriate information is woefully out of date and therefore inaccurate.

When we hand over a 100 dollar bill in the store, the clerk checks it, proves its worth.  Who is checking the information that we accept unthinkingly or pass along unwittingly?

An old adage reminds us “Not to take any wooden nickels”, to be cautious in our dealings, to read the fine print, to put the coin between our teeth and bite.  Just so, as information is as easy to come by as pennies in a gutter, we must take the time to critically examine the sources of our information and the information itself.  Additionally, we should be stewards of information, aware of how it is shared and how we share it ourselves.

We can spot the fake 5 dollar bill in the parking lot, the one-sided pawnshop flier that begs to be picked up for its resemblance to the real thing.  But can we just as easily judge the information that lies around us, picking out what is valuable and leaving behind what is worthless?

The Phi Theta Kappa Honor’s Project explains that information, and our increased and ready access to so much of it, affects “how we study, shop, [and] socialize.” How we “we share our passions and [how we] develop ideas to address the world’s challenges.”  Your project this year, exploring the role of social networking in academics, where lines of privacy should be drawn between students and their teachers, is an important part of the bigger picture– Information is global, accessible, created and shared and used and misused by each of us.

As Phi Theta Kappa members, you’ll have the opportunity not only to explore these ideas in your project, but also to think critically about the information you use as you go forward in your studies, in your careers, in the service you provide your communities, and in your personal lives.

Your accounts are full of information– spend it wisely.


In 24 hours I’ve heard two news stories that are more or less unrelated except for the overarching theme of content access.  Both reminded me of how Access with a capital ‘a’ seemed such a hot-button issue during my first semester in Library school and how in my current daily life it has since come to signify whether or not students can get into a database from off-campus.

The first story was NPR’s coverage of the new ban on photography in the rotunda of the National Archives.  Despite the temperature controlled layers of glass separating the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights from damaging environmental factors, and the earlier ban on flash photography, the documents still suffer the effects of short sharp bursts of light from tourists who don’t know how to operate their digital cameras.  The ban went into effect today, and although the documents are not, by any means, inaccessible, the price of accessibility is evident in the current and continual degradation of the documents themselves:  “The ink on the parchment is so faded, conservator Kitty Nicholson can only read the big print. . .  thanks to two centuries of heat, humidity and, yes, bright light.”

The second story that caught my attention was the conviction in Italy of 3 Google employees for violation of privacy laws.  In today’s New York Times, Rachel Donadio write:

The case. . .  could have sweeping implications worldwide for Internet freedom:  It suggests that Google is not simply a tool for its users, as it contends, but is effectively no different from any other media company, like newspapers or television, that provides content and could be regulated.

In Italy, where the prime minister “owns most private media and controls public media”, the issue is clearly politicized and Donadio cites sources who point out that the bureaucratization of the Internet can only stifle free expression.

Access, whether free and unlimited or restricted and controlled,  has it’s price.

Google Sites Success

Three academic years, three different tools and finally a web content creation tool that paralegals can use to make an online portfolio.

First, there was Weebly— extremely easy to use with it’s drag and drop formatting. The wide variety of themes appealed to the paralegal students (especially when compared with PBwiki 1.0– the other option I gave them at the time). I thought Weebly was a winner, but after two semesters of glitches, site crashes and page freezings I knew that Weebly was too wobbly to do the job. Students would get frustrated with the slow uploads and frequent page-stalls and I’d run around during our workshops reloading pages, switching browsers and breaking a sweat. I’m sure part of the problem was the lousy bandwidth in the Library combined with the laptop computer processors, but this was the first (and often the last) exposure to this tool that the students had and if I lost them in the first 20 minutes, the whole process was a waste.

Last year, after a lot of asking around, I decided to give WordPress a go. With a little manipulation, the blogging tool could easily become a collection of static web pages– perfect for an online portfolio. If I steered the students toward the single column templates, the site would barely look like a blog at all and the custom-header option was still available.

My over-familiarity with WordPress obviously made me over-estimate the ease with which this could all be done. WordPress, even the free web-version, is a powerful tool with a lot of management options. Although any student who has ever blogged or set up a Facebook page could probably figure out how to create a portfolio using WordPress, I didn’t find many of these students in the paralegal classes. The classes are never more than 9 students, but out of those 9 the range of computer-comfort goes from digital native to digital Dorothy-just-landed-in-Oz.

Where students working with Weebly became frustrated, WordPress students got angry. There were too many buttons, too many options, too many steps. The steps, even when spelled out, were not intuitive and the process overly complicated. After the first session, I created a guide to creating a portfolio using WordPress that went through every possible action they might want to take– adding pages, editing pages, moving pages, uploading documents, inserting photos, managing privacy. But it was all too much.

I tried WordPress one more semester, using the Step by Step guide during the hands-on workshop, but the students were overwhelmed and seemed to simultaneously despair in the face of all the options and rage at the limitations. While they wondered why they would ever upload music or install surveys or solicit comments on their site, they couldn’t understand why the formatting tools were so limited. They couldn’t get their resumes to look the way they did in Word, WordPress seemed to dictate the layout of the page, there were not font options. So long, WordPress.

Today we tried Google Sites. I had used Sites for the Step by Step guide to WordPress and for teaching my Facebook workshop and wondered why it wouldn’t work for online portfolios. I was certain there was a good reason– all my other options had some obvious flaw or a significant weakness or foible that made itself evident once I got it in front of the students.  Google Sites had the advantage of already being what I wanted it to be (a website creation tool, unlike WordPress) and I had been using it, with success, for a couple years now.

Google Sites worked fairly well for paralegal students creating an online portfolio.  Over half of the students were able to jump right in and had either no questions for me at all, or had questions about advanced features.  Initial sticking points for some students included Google’s new account creation process (Google’s a little too subtle in telling you that your URL is already being used or that your password is too short.  Also, I absolutely hate Google’s Captcha tests.  I wish they would use reCAPTCHA like everyone else).

A couple students also had problems after creating their accounts– when they tried to get back to, they would get a Forbidden error.  Each of these students was using IE, and when I switched them over to Firefox, the problem was solved.  I’m not sure what the issue was, but it was the kind of hang-up that has plagued this project since the beginning– getting started with these tools is not difficult but various roadblocks make it seem so, especially to those students who are technology resistant.

Overall, however, Google Sites was a success.  It’s reliable, it never froze or failed to update changes.  Themes are many and varied and it does a remarkably good job at maintaining the look of formatted text pasted into its pages.  It even neatly solves the inevitable security/privacy concerns by allowing users to restrict access to those viewers they invite.

At the end of the session, students wanted to know when my office hours were, suggesting that they assumed they’d have questions for me.  I hope they’ll make use of the latest Step by Step guide I created, though few seemed to turn to it in class.  Next month, I meet with them again to help them insert their photos and with luck, some of them will have continued to work with their Sites.  I hope Google Sites continues to prove itself to be the tool for the paralegal students’ online portfolio.  I’m quite tired of trying something new every year.

Library Secret: Lingo and Secret Handshakes

We’re a little late hopping on the National Information Literacy Awareness Month train, but after an official announcement from our dean on the Library blog and to faculty and staff via email, I thought that de-lingofying the term might make a good Library Secret.  Nearly a decade of restaurant work (in every front-of-the-house position from host to server, emergency bartender to manager) made me fairly conscientious about industry-speak and how it alienates the customer/patron.  Using service industry lingo rather takes the dining experience– you want a cozy table by the fireplace on your anniversary, not a two-top in section 12.  In libraries it perpetuates the prickly stereotype of the librarian as guardian of shrouded knowledge– come to the altar of information and we shall make you literate.  If you’re worthy.  Meh.

It’s ridiculously easy to get caught up in the language of a profession, especially if you spend all of your free time in committees hashing out things like information literacy learning outcomes and the pedagogy of online reference instruction.  Unless you have patient friends and family members who allow you to talk about critical thinking skills and assessment practices at them, then you probably don’t talk about library stuff to people outside of libraries that often.

But, in theory, we’re talking about library stuff to non-librarians all the time– our patrons, our students, our faculty and staff.  How are we expressing these ideas– ideas that are even more important to them than they are to us– to them?  In words and phrases that make the concepts immediate and accessible or in the jargon of our profession?

As for the secret handshake…  I’ll save that for later exploration.  Of course, I’m always inspired by the freemasons, but perhaps a hand signal would be better.  Something that would facilitate across-the-room-acknowledgment of shared knowledge and perspective.   My classmates and I had developed one in library school, but sadly, it looked a lot like this:

The L here stands for LIBRARIAN

The "L" here stands for LIBRARIAN