Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; 
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;
Steven Bell
, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
Vol. 27, No. 2 November 2006

Distant Learners and the Library

by Mignon Adams


Distance learning has moved into the mainstream. A 2005 Sloan Foundation study found that 63 percent of U.S. institutions teaching undergraduates in regular classrooms also offer online courses, 44 percent of schools with MBA programs offer an online MBA as well, and 56 percent identified online education “as a critical long-term strategy.” Over 2.35 million students are enrolled online. Distance education is no longer an exotic sideline but a part of what American higher education does.

At the same time that online education has expanded, academic libraries have been adding more and more electronic materials. It might be logical to expect that online programs would have integrated library resources fully into their offerings, but that hasn’t always happened. Students who enroll in online courses often have very little experience in using an electronic library (or any library at all). The staff responsible for overseeing the programs and course software may be administratively and psychologically far removed from the library staff. Librarians may not have considered how services might be changed to meet the needs of distant users. Faculty may be unsure of copyright requirements and may choose not to use library materials to which they have full rights.

Student Issues

Students enroll in distance learning classes or programs for many reasons. They may be already in a traditional program, taking one or more online courses to balance a tight schedule; they may be working full time, squeezing time out of busy lives; they may be located far away from a degree-granting institution. According to a study done by Noel-Levitz, 79 percent of online learners are over the traditional college ages of 18-24; 70 percent are working fulltime; and the top factors in their decisions to enroll are convenience and their work schedules.

The courses themselves may differ. A program may be entirely online, with each student working individually. There may be virtual chat sessions, in which students are involved in discussions with each other. The course may be a “hybrid” one, with some classes online and others face-to-face on campus. Or classes may meet occasionally at locations remote from the school.

Consider one hypothetical student, Cathy, an ambitious single mother who works during the day and fits her college work around her three-year-old’s sleeping schedule. While the university where she is enrolled in a distance program is only two miles from her home, Cathy finds that each trip to campus cuts into her time with her daughter, her study time, or her work. She appreciates being able to purchase textbooks online, and last semester purchased two books from Amazon she needed for her research rather than make a trip to check them out of the library. She has never visited the physical library, although for one course her instructor told the class to read an article from an electronic journal. She tried, late at night, but was unsuccessful and did not try again. Instead, she found information on the topic through Google.

Another hypothetical student, John, lives in a rural area 300 miles from the institution where he is completing his undergraduate degree after a thirty-year hiatus. While most of his sessions are online, once a month he travels fifty miles to a high school where he meets for several hours with the others enrolled in his course. He hopes he can actually see his soon-to-be alma mater by coming to his graduation. While he has good computer skills—he uses a computer daily in his job—he has not used a library since his first college days.

Both these imaginary students have issues in common. They are both adults, with limited time to visit a physical library. While each has proficient computer skills, neither has experience with an electronic library. Their instructors have provided no information or instruction, and their respective libraries have made no attempt to reach out to them.

Need for Information Literacy

All college students need to be able to locate, evaluate, and use information in a legal and ethical manner, and at most institutions librarians are involved in teaching and promoting information literacy. Distant learners need formal programs in information literacy perhaps even more than do on-campus students. These learners are not likely to see promotional materials and displays in the library, nor will they be privy to knowledge from fellow students. Given their age, distant students probably did not learn in previous schooling the skills needed to search a database effectively or how to sort through the incredible amount of information a simple Google question returns.

Libraries have developed many ways to reach off-campus students. The University of Texas has made its TILT (Texas Information Literacy Tutorial) available as open source for other libraries to adapt for its own use, and many have. Using various kinds of specialized software, librarians offer online “Ask-A-Librarian” services that allow users to submit a question online. Some software allows for chat and the ability to demonstrate websites to students wherever they might be.

Many larger libraries have a designated a “distance learning librarian” or office, some of which have been in existence for a long time. But as online courses have displaced the former “extension courses,” libraries have not often developed the same kinds of working relationships they have with on-campus faculty and their courses. The reason for this may be the administrative distance between the library and the local distance education staff who build and maintain courses.

Administrative Distance

On many campuses, the office that oversees distance learning may be both administratively and geographically far from the library. Those responsible for promoting online courses, recruiting instructors, and creating or helping to develop the courses may not be aware of the library as a potential partner. On one campus, the instructional designer responsible for an online MBA program provided links to Findarticles.com (free articles available on the Internet) for each course, but never thought at all about including links to the library’s expensive purchased databases.

Adjunct faculty are always difficult to reach, even when they are teaching on campus. When they may be teaching from anywhere in the world, the difficulty increases.

Obviously the library and the distance learning office need to communicate with each other in order to make sure that course designers, faculty, and students are aware of what the library has to offer. Here are some suggested steps:

· There should be a link on the default template of the course management software to the library’s electronic resources page so faculty and students in each course can connect directly to the library without leaving the course shell; the distance education page should highlight links to the library and its services.

· If not already in place, one librarian should be designated as the contact person for distance programs; this person should be proactive in working with the distance education office and with faculty and students.

· The librarian should be provided with a way to reach all faculty teaching in the program—perhaps by being able to send a message to a listserv or distribution list, or by being provided with a list of email addresses.

· Each semester the librarian should contact all faculty with a reminder of what resources and services are available.

· Librarians should develop a web page especially for distance students that outlines how they can use the library and what help is available; many good examples already exist.

· Course designers and the designated librarian should meet on a regular basis, with the librarian willing to write content that pertains to the location and evaluation of information.

· The library collections and services should be evaluated as part of any assessment carried on by the distance education office.

Distance learning is now a regular part of academic communities. Both those who run the programs and those in the library need to make sure that they communicate and ensure the utilization of library offerings. For example, the Community College of Vermont has created a program called “the embedded librarian.” An “Ask-A-Librarian” component is inserted as a discussion thread in Blackboard courses so a librarian can easily communicate with students and individual students can easily contact a librarian. The “embedded librarian” has also looked at the assignments for the course and can make suggestions for topics and strategies.

Library Services

Not just information literacy programs, but all library services should be examined to assure that they meet the needs of distant learners who sometimes cannot make use of services originally developed for on-campus users. As an example of what can happen, one institution offered a master’s degree to students who came from five states for an intensive weekend once a month. To complete their master’s papers, enrollees often needed materials not owned by the library. Interlibrary loan was provided at no cost, but the ILL office had a requirement that loans were to be picked up in person. So that the students would not have to wait until their monthly class, the department offering the program, upon notification from the student, retrieved the loan, wrapped it, and mailed it out, thus replicating some of the work and adding days onto the process.

Even when the library doesn’t make it harder, users are seldom happy with interlibrary loan turnaround times. Libraries serving distant learners should be willing to fax articles or adopt the web-access option available through Ariel, an Internet-transmission system used by many academic libraries. They should also be willing to mail or fax books and copies of articles from their print collections, rather than expecting users to make hundred-mile or more trips to the library. Some libraries charge for this service; others see it as a cost of providing library services, just as they absorb the cost of circulating and shelving books at their campus location.

If distant students meet at another location, librarians should consider meeting with them to establish a personal contact. Not only will the students learn about library services or specialized databases, but also the visiting librarian will learn about student needs.

Finally, as part of its own assessment exercises, the library should make efforts to determine what distant learners are like, what their needs are, and whether library services meet their needs.

Copyright Issues

On many campuses, librarians take an active role in helping to understand and apply the “fair use” provisions of the copyright law. They find that faculty members tend to fall into two distinct groups regarding copyright: those who feel that since what they may copy is for educational use they may copy whatever they want; and those who are so concerned about copyright they think they cannot copy anything without permission or payment. Neither group is right.

In an online course, students may be expected to buy a textbook as they might for any class. Other materials, though, must be made available electronically if they are to be useful. For many materials that might be included in an online course, the answer is simple: the institution’s library may already have an electronic subscription. If this is so, and the license provides for remote access, then the college has already paid (and sometimes paid quite a bit) for all its students to access the article.

While the 1976 Copyright Act was enacted before the Internet, the TEACH Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act) codifies the use of copyrighted materials in online education. The TEACH Act has fairly rigid requirements, but using a course management system such as Blackboard or WebCT meets many of the requirements for digitizing copyrighted materials:

· limited only to students enrolled in the course (a password is required to enter the course page)

· available only for so long as needed for course requirements (the instructor can use the timed display feature)

· should not be copied or redistributed (the right-click option can be disabled on the page the material appears on, or a notice can be included that prohibits copying)

Each institution that follows the TEACH Act should make sure that its employees are familiar and follow all the provisions of the Act, including the requirements for a campus copyright policy and education of faculty and students about copyright.


The number of online students continues to increase and must also serve those students whose only contact with the campus may be electronic. Good service will only happen when distance education offices and libraries work together and libraries recognize that their traditional offerings may present barriers to distant students.

While this article has concerned itself with colleges and universities with a physical campus, a recent phenomenon has been the growth of institutions, most of them proprietary, that exist only online. It is these institutions that have been growing most rapidly. From the beginning, accrediting agencies have insisted that online colleges provide libraries. Some of these colleges have met the challenge very well and others not so well. In the accompanying sidebar (see back page) is an analysis of the factors involved in creating excellent online libraries. Those in academia for whom distance education is an add-on should see what they could learn from their successful competitors. Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia

For More Information

Crews, Kenneth D. New Copyright Law for Distance Education: The Meaning and Importance of the TEACH Act American Library Association Washington Office, 2006.

Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005. Sloan Corporation, 2005. (Downloadable from http://www.sloan-c.org/publications/survey/index.asp )

The third annual report on the state of online education in U.S. Higher Education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on responses from over 1,000 colleges and universities.

Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services. Association of College and Research Libraries, 2004.

National Online Learners Priorities Report. 2005 Research Report. Noel-Levitz, 2005. Downloadable from: https://www.noellevitz.com/Papers+and+Research/Research/ResearchLibrary/Satisfaction+and

TEACH Act Best Practices using Blackboard™. American Library Association Washington Office, 2006.

TILT Tutorial. University of Texas at Austin. Information available at: http://tilt.lib.utsystem.edu/resources/index.html

Examples of Excellent Distant Learning Library Websites

North Carolina State University: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/distance/ (welcoming attitude)

Southern Connecticut State College: http://library.scsu.ctstateu.edu/de_home.html (librarian blog)

University of Louisville: http://library.louisville.edu/dlls (evaluation component)

How Online Libraries Can Succeed

by Jinnie Y. Davis

As many states draft anti-degree-mill legislation, the term “online university” can still evoke images of colleges that are not quite up to traditional standards. Similar questions arise about the libraries serving these institutions. Findings from a study of libraries at six online institutions show that many are quite adequate for their programs, and some offer excellent services equaling those in traditional academic libraries. Factors contributing to their success are:

  • Commitment and support of university administration. Administrators must recognize the fundamental role of the library in academic support and be willing to commit adequate resources to it.

  • Limited range of graduate programs. Online libraries tend to be more successful in universities that offer graduate degree programs in limited fields (e.g., Fielding Graduate University). Librarians are better able to target collections and services to the demands of specialized programs.

  • Presence of professional librarians. Institutions lacking library professionals had acquired online databases but had not developed collections, services, instruction, or management adequately. They also lacked a network of professional contacts. While varying staffing models exist—from in-house staffing to outsourcing to a commercial company or an existing library—Capella University’s use of experienced librarians at Johns Hopkins is one of the more successful examples.

  • Incorporation of library in organization. When a library is distant not only from its users but also from university administration, formalizing its role in academic decision making is critical. A library reporting to the chief academic officer is more likely to be included in academic processes that foster communication and understanding, including strategic planning, outcomes assessment, committee assignments, and curriculum discussions.

  • Balanced and appropriate collections. Online libraries tend to offer basic e-collections through large aggregated databases. For graduate programs, however, the selection of specialized resources is particularly important. Access to printed books, older journals, and primary source materials remains critical; thus interlibrary loan and document delivery services must be well supported to achieve rapid and affordable turnaround time.

  • Full array of library services. University administrators (and accrediting agencies) typically focus on collections. Other critical services, however, are orientation, instruction, reference, in-depth consultations, and interlibrary loan/document delivery services. Most online libraries do offer these services. Few have electronic-reserve systems as yet. Detailed instruction in information literacy tends to be the area of greatest deficiency.

  • Compensation for the dispersed environment. Lacking a physical library, online libraries focus on developing a rich Web site, including specialized tutorials. They maintain a strong presence in course management tools and set up online chat rooms and library discussion forums. Most institutions send their librarians to face-to-face colloquia held across the country to give instruction and in-depth consultations. They equip librarians with toll-free lines, cell phones, and even home offices. Many also pay for their students to obtain borrowing privileges at local libraries; one arranges for reference and instruction from a physical academic library for their students located nearby. Online institutions also pursue membership in library consortia to gain resource-sharing benefits but are often ineligible because they are unable to reciprocate with reference or interlibrary lending services.

  • Active engagement of faculty. A sterling example is Antioch New England’s Ph.D. in Leadership and Change program. A faculty member requires each student in a critical methods course to perform database searches, select relevant articles, and demonstrate their accompanying thought process. More commonly, faculty admit they are not comfortable or familiar enough with online resources to use them fully, or to require their students to demonstrate competence. Most are adjunct faculty with limited contacts within the institution, outside of class time.

  • Knowing the users and how to market to them. Most online institutions target the working adult population. Often these older learners are unfamiliar with computers; they do not demand more library services because they are unaware of digital library capabilities. Successful online libraries are assertive in promoting outreach and tailor their instruction to these students’ skill levels.

These success factors are not all that different from those of traditional libraries; rather, the difference is one of emphasis and degree.

— Jinnie Y. Davis is Coordinating Consultant, Ohio Board of Regents, and Librarian Emerita, North Carolina State University



Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 27, no.2  © 2006 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: apdougherty@CompuServe.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified: November  2006


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