Redefining what service means for online students

With my recent excursion into distance learning, I’ve had to re-evaluate my concept of what service means.

The student population we serve is entirely online – More than 99% of them will never set foot in the physical library. So by absolute necessity, our website becomes the primary point of service. We can’t count on even the limited face time with library staff that on campus students get. Let’s assume for a minute that our website is competently designed to get students to the resources they need. (And I like to think ours is.) Clear navigation, explanations, tutorials, etc. Most students will be able to find what they need on their own. We’ll never even see them at the reference desk to point out where the bathroom is. Of course, some of these students will still need help with the search process itself. They contact us by e-mail or phone, and this service is essentially the same as we provide to on-campus students. But most “overhead” type student questions disappear (ones like “where are your computers?”, “What resources do you have on topic X?” etc).

But after that winnowing, a new type of question rises to fill the gap. For lack of a better term, I’ll call them infrastructure questions. Most common is simple requests for forgotten passwords. Next is questions related to what exactly our distance learning site’s address is – one of our current major hurdles is to communicate better with online professors, and make sure they are giving correct instructions to access the resources. And thirdly, we get a large volume of phone calls from students who have virtually no experience with computers. These questions often become more like tech support calls than anything else. There are issues with proxies, firewalls, internet security software, spyware, viruses, browser updates, cookie settings, and any number of other things to take into account. Sometimes it even boils down to basic keyboard and mouse use. And while we do our best, the most frustrating end to a call is when there is literally nothing we can do to help a student. If they’re at work or on a military base, very often their network simply will not work with our proxy for the databases.

Some of this can probably be applied to traditional reference work as well: build a solid infrastructure for your resources, and many difficulties for users disappear. But with traditional service, there’s almost always a fallback option: the user can come to the library and sit down with a librarian for face to face help. With a phone conversation, and even with online tools to help, that experience can’t quite be replicated for our online students. For example, sometimes it turns out that my instructions weren’t clear to the student. Sitting next to them, I would have spotted the disconnect between us immediately. But over the phone, it may take a very confusing five or ten minutes to get back on track.

Suddenly, infrastructure becomes a more critical element of service. My new goal is to improve our website and online guides so that as many as possible of these confusing conversations can be avoided.


Over at The Liminal Librarian, Rachel has a great post about “Making Our Careers Happen”. She highlights one thing that I really love about being a librarian: we have the power to make things happen in any number of areas. My job has had a remarkable amount of flexibility, letting me get experience in a number of areas: reference desk hours, instruction, systems work, and any number of special projects. Starting next monday, I’ve found a new hat to wear: distance learning.

At UAH we provide library services to Kaplan University, a mostly online school with over 20,000 students (and quickly growing! In 2001 they had just 34). We manage their database subscriptions, provide reference service, set up course reserves, and deliver articles and books to students worldwide. I’ll be stepping in and supervising the department – at first on a short term basis, keeping an eye on how to restructure my role and the whole department in the future. I’m really, really excited about this opportunity! I’ve spent the last two weeks intensively observing and training in the department (causing my online disappearance), and really like what I see. It’s been exhausting, but I still feel genuinely motivated. Distance learning is pretty cutting edge stuff, and the chance to work on emerging services and technologies like this is something I’ve always wanted. On a smaller level, the stories of distance learning students continually amaze me. Today a call came in from a student deployed in Iraq, and I’ve heard about others in the most remote parts of Alaska or central Asia.

I can’t say that I truly made this opportunity happen – to be honest it actually fell in my lap. But I still feel that the skills I’ve cultivated in myself over the years have led to this point like an arrow. Will I stay in distance learning long term? Who knows? But now that I’ve gotten my feet wet in a number of areas, I’m ready to focus in on just one for a bit. I’m nervous, but also excited. And the latter outweighs the former.

With the ability to make our careers happen comes a responsibility to learn to roll with change as it comes – made by us or not. Take the skills learned from change and mash them into your career direction. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in my year and a half since grad school.