Distance Learning – Tools & Challenges

by: Caroline Johnson

Academic libraries serve many types of students. Distance learning has become popular due to the ability to complete your degree online while still being able to work. It also allows people to attend universities that are located far away from where they reside. The addition of online students affects how libraries need to provide for these users. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Board of Directors has approved standards for these students to ensure that they have access to the same resources as on-campus students. The full Standards can be found at http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/guidelinesdistancelearning.

Personal Experience

As I am currently attending an online program through Valdosta State University, I am experiencing distance learning firsthand. I had never taken online classes before, so I was unsure of how they would be. VSU offered an online and in-person orientation that answered some questions, but not all. I was so used to a synchronous learning environment, that an asynchronous one seemed too good to be true. The flexibility that it provides is an obvious reason why so many people choose programs like these. I currently have a full-time job in a library. I knew that I wanted to obtain an MLIS and still work where I am currently employed. Having this online program was the perfect fit. Even though I live in Georgia, traveling to Odum Library to use its resources and services for coursework is just not possible for me. Having electronic reserves, Anywhere Access, and live chat help are just a few of the things that I can (and need) to access through VSU and Odum Library. As new gadgets and technology advancements come around, I hope that VSU makes use of them.


The National Center for Education Statistics released “Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State: Fall 2012” in 2014 showing information by state, education level, and completion time. It shows that 2,642,158 people enrolled in online only classes. Distance learning ranks third in enrollment totals versus non-distance and a hybrid mixture. This could be due to the amount of online degrees offered, or by desire to attend in person. Those students who need to access the university library should have the same experience as those who attend the school. With technology advancements, most students access the library or its services from a computer or phone away from the actual library building.

Services & Resources for Online Students

Technology is essential for distance learning. Libraries depend on online methods of communicating and sharing information to be able to assist online students. Current technology allows for the students, instructor, and library to share and reach information in databases, communication tools, and electronic reserves. Through survey results, students said that there top three needs were “online reference, access to full-text databases, and home delivery of books and articles” (Ritterbush, 2014, pg. 30). For materials access, instructors are able to reserve electronic copies of readings for students. The home delivery is accessed by Interlibrary Loan (ILL). For example, distance learning students at VSU can request items through ILLiad or GIL Express and have them shipped directly to their home address. For online periodicals, a scanned copy can be uploaded for you to view or print.

The library also allows access to online databases for students to conduct research. Having an easy to navigate website or tutorials for use would be helpful to online students. Communicating online for additional help is possible by chat, email, or platforms. Some libraries may extend online questions and reference to twenty-four hours to accommodate students who work on degree later at night, for example after work. Platforms like Blackboard Collaborate let users talk and see instructors to give a little face-to-face interaction. The course management systems (CMS) that online courses are conducted through may have an embedded librarian. This is a new concept for me, so I am going off of York and Vance (2009) description of “any librarian who takes an active role inside the online CMS classroom” (pg. 199). Students can contact the embedded librarian associated with their course, a liaison librarian for a department, or a reference librarian to assist with questions they may have.


For those who are new to online classes, it may take some training on how to find all the materials that are presented to you. You also have to manage your time wisely for the readings and assignments. The flexibility of creating your own time schedule can be dangerous if you wait until the last minute. On the university side, librarians or instructors may also be experiencing assisting with distance education for the first time. Fritts and Casey (2010) conducted a survey based on their question of “Who Trains Distance Librarians?[…]” They found that the majority of the academic librarians who participated had “some distance learning-related job responsibilities” (pg. 622). For librarians who are expected to teach or assist with online learners, I think separate training opportunities should be available to them. If they have to use unfamiliar software, then there should be training on it so it can be used effectively. There is already a stigma that an online degree is not as good as physically attending class, so there may be pressure on staff to be prepared in presenting online materials for students.

Though distance education is popular with all ages and types of people, there are users who are not as familiar with technology and may struggle with using it. Students who never visit the library of the university where they are obtaining their degree online may not fully know all of the resources available for their use. Regarding distance education students, Whitehurst and Willis (2009) state that “the two best ways to communicate with them about library services is through the library’s home page and their instructors” (pg. 22). Those are two frequented sources for students, so it makes sense to send information to them via those access points. I believe that distance learning will continue to be popular. Librarians will have to keep connecting their users that they cannot see to the services that the users may not see.

Additional Information on Programs

Not all schools offer a wide variety of online programs, but that may change in the future. Below are some links for finding different types of programs offered.






Fritts, J., & Casey, A. M. (2010). Who trains distance librarians? A study of the training and

development needs of distance learning librarians. Journal Of Library Administration,

50(5/6), 617-627.

Ginder, S., & Stearns, C. (2014). Enrollment in distance education courses, by state: Fall 2012

retrieved from


Ritterbush, J. (2014). Assessing academic library services to distance learners: A literature

review of perspectives from librarians, students, and faculty. Reference Librarian55(1),


Whitehurst, A. P., & Willis, C. N. (2009). Building collaborative reference and instructional

services for distance education students. Southeastern Librarian57(1), 20-28.

York, A. C., & Vance, J. M. (2009). Taking library instruction into the online classroom: Best

practices for embedded librarians. Journal Of Library Administration49(1/2), 197-209.


One thought on “Distance Learning – Tools & Challenges

  1. McKenzie Langford’s response to Caroline Johnson

    This is a topic that really interests me, both because of my enrollment in the MLIS program and because of my job in an academic library. So far, I have found Odum Library’s distance education resources to be fantastic. As an undergraduate I did a good bit of my studying in the library, but I feel like I actually am taking advantage of resources and services over the Internet that I never took advantage of on-site. I’m not sure why that is, and it could be that it says something less than flattering about my use of the library as an undergraduate, but I think I would contribute it to a user-friendly interface that in many ways markets itself. That is, color and signage, I think, can be utilized in an online venue as much as they can in person, although in different ways. And for me, the self-marketing of Odum Library’s website has actually informed me far more of services than I ever picked up on them as an undergraduate in the library (I did not go to Valdosta State as an undergraduate, by the way). I do see the challenges, but in general, I’m a fan of what Odum Library has done with its website, and I think a lot of larger academic libraries are seeing the same kind of success.

    I guess the main challenge that occurs to me is more so one as a library employee in a small academic library. There are two people on our library staff, a director of library services, and me. We work hard and split tasks between ourselves, but as far as virtual reference services (and other features that benefit distance learners), we are just too spread out to add that to our busy schedules. We do take email reference questions, but the thing I’m thinking about in particular right now is the chat feature. I can’t emphasize how often I take advantage of chat features, both with the library and other services and businesses. But I don’t really know how to take ideas like that and others that work so well in a larger library with the staff support necessary to keep it going, and apply them to my sized-down situation. I would really like to learn more about how academic library web services can be adapted for a tight budget and small staff.


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