A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

THE WIRED LIBRARY | Reaching Distance Education Students

by Dilnavaz Mirza Sharma on June 28, 2016

Dilnavaz Mirza Sharma is Survey and Report Coordinator in the Office of Research, Planning, and Assessment at Meredith College, Raleigh (NC).
Contact Dilnavaz at sharmadi@meredith.edu. Dilnavaz is currently reading Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein.

When I worked at a regional branch library six years ago, my least favorite task was to ask a student, obviously busy with an online homework as­signment or even a test, to give up the library’s public access computer to the next person in line as the terminal session timed out. Despite having close to thirty adult-use computers, Sunday afternoons were busy, and it was not unusual for patrons to have to wait a considerable time in order to use the computer for the two consecutive thirty-minute sessions allowed in a day.

Trends in Distance Education

Since that time six years ago, enrollment in distance education (DE) programs has grown markedly. The Babson Survey Research Group, which recently published its thirteenth annual report on the topic, estimates that in the fall of 2014, 5.8 million students were enrolled in one or more online courses.[1] Fifty-three percent of stu­dents participating in a fully online program live in the same state as their school, while 43 percent live in a different state.[2]

While the colleges and universities offering DE programs provide some library instruction and study resources online, students utilize their local public libraries to access the web, take exams, hold meetings, and have a quiet study space. The ex­isting network of public libraries has become a de facto provider of support services essential for online academic success. While this is a familiar role for American pub­lic libraries, which have always promoted literacy and free access to information, there is work to be done to identify the needs of the current generation of users with the goal of aiding and enhancing their online learning experience.

Education is cited as one of the most common reasons for public library Internet usage among fourteen- to twenty-four-year-olds.[3] According to the 2015 Coop­erative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey, 83 percent of all first-year students surveyed nationally said that they had used an online source for independent learning.[4] Given the learning trends among today’s students, public libraries must provide broadband access under optimal conditions in order to pro­mote equity in learning opportunities among students of all backgrounds.

Investment in information technologies, digital training programs for all ages, and a dedicated learning space are some measures that all public libraries should aspire to. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, in a recent American Library Association report on digital inclusion, is quoted describing broadband as “the great technology equalizer of our time.”[5] Wealth inequality in the US is at its highest since the 1920s. Public libraries, now like then, have a role to play in providing for the “public good” by supporting the learning efforts of the increasing number of online learners.

The Library: A Place to Work

According to a 2014 research study conducted by the Online Computer Library Cen­ter (OCLC), 67 percent of college students used a public library website that year.[6] This number reflects a considerable jump in public library website use: In 2010, only 42 percent of students reported having used public library resources online.[7] This further indicates that students see public libraries as an integral part of their academic support system.

The OCLC research study is a compre­hensive report on the state of distance education, pulling together a wide angle view of how online students use the li­brary and the type of services they expect to receive. Nine percent of students en­rolled in an online degree course reported having attended class while at a public library, while only 6 percent had attended a similar class from an academic library.[8] The public library network provides a stable work environment and a depend­able Internet connection, close to home, for those who lack these basics of online learning. All public libraries, in time, should aim to have dedicated spaces that cater to the technology and learning needs of today’s students. These spaces should be developed with e-learners in mind, so that adequate technology and research resources are included from the initial planning stages of the project.

The Librarian: A Technician and An Educator

Online learners look to librarians not just for reference and circulation services, but also for subject-specific research exper­tise as well as technology assistance. In order to provide the best service possible, public librarians assigned to help online learners must familiarize themselves with commonly used online learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle. In the recommendation of reference and research sources, public librarians should balance print sources with online material that best fits the mobility and 24/7 accessibility needs of DE students. Public librarians, at the very least, must be acquainted with digital research tools such as Libguides, subject databases, e-books, and open textbooks.[9]

In addition to digital research tech­nologies, online students require access to communication tools that facilitate one-on-one interaction and collaborative group work. Thus, it’s helpful to gain famil­iarity with commonly used social media platforms, video conferencing tools, blog­ging sites, and e-portfolio systems. Public librarians will be called upon to transfer their in-person research and reference skills to an online environment which best fits the needs of DE students. A librarian can only be of genuine help to an e-learner if she or he has a reasonable understand­ing of the instructional technologies that drive the online educational experience.

Online students in degree courses are most likely to receive information literacy instruction embedded in their coursework. However, students enrolled in non-degree programs rely on public librarians to help them develop information-literacy skills. For these students, the ability to evalu­ate information found online is essential. The public librarian becomes responsible for training distance learners to assess information they have found online for ac­curacy, authority, relevance, and bias.

A New Look for New Services

As librarians expand their skill sets to provide the needed services to a grow­ing number of online learners, public libraries have to convince users that they are ready with learning technologies and expertise essential to a successful online learning experience. In other words, li­braries have to shake the notion that they are mere circulators of books.

Once a library has made an initial investment of time and personnel to introduce DE support services, market­ing those services to a mixed audience of online learners—from the born digital to later-blooming e-learners—becomes es­sential. To a DE student the public library should be a first place of choice to get work done, with access to a full palette of instructional technologies and sound ad­vice on navigating the digital landscape.

The online learners’ interests should be reflected in the programming of­fered. For instance, inviting experienced instructors or successful alumni of an online program to provide study tips or lead panel discussions will help further underscore your library’s commitment to DE students. Online education–related programs, in addition to boosting the library’s profile in the community, offer distance students a chance to interact with other similarly engaged students. Public libraries enrich the communities that support them, and data shows that online learners are a growing part of that base, and should be supported to the full­est practical extent.


Libraries are faced with the challenge of providing dedicated technology and trained librarians who can provide tech­nology assistance as well as subject-mat­ter expertise. As information profession­als, we must familiarize ourselves with widely used instructional technologies and incorporate these new tools into the basic practice of librarianship. Crucially, we should view distance learners as a well-defined group of library users, and intentionally boost services to meet their distinct educational needs. Doing so will increase both their potential for success, and our abilities as librarians.

[1] I. Elaine Allen et al., Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States (Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group, Feb. 2016), accessed June 6, 2016, http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/onlinereportcard.pdf.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Carlos A. Manjarrez and Kyle Shoembs, Who’s in the Queue? A Demographic Analysis of Public Access Computer Users and Uses in U.S. Public Libraries, Research Brief no. 4 (Wash., DC: IMLS, June 2011), accessed June 6, 2016, www.imls.gov/assets/1/AssetManager/Brief2011_04.pdf.
[4] Cooperative Institutional Research Program, Kevin Eagan et al., The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015 (Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2016), accessed June 6, 2016, www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmerican Freshman2015.pdf
[5] American Library Association Office for Research and Statistics, “Digital Inclusion Survey: Executive Summary,” accessed June 6, 2016, www.ala.org/research/sites /ala.org.research/files/content/initiatives /DI2014execsummary.pdf.
[6] Cathy De Rosa et. al., At a Tipping Point: Education, Learning & Libraries—A Report to the OCLC Membership (Dublin, OH: OCLC, 2014), accessed June 6, 2016, www.oclc.org/reports/tipping-point .en.html.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Amanda Corbett and Abbie Brown, “The Roles that Librarians and Libraries Play in Distance Education Settings,” Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 18, no. 2 (Spring 2015), accessed June 6, 2016, www.westga .edu/~distance/ojdla/summer182 /corbett_brown182.html.