Library & Distance Learners

for GSLIS 790.03, Professor Ping Li

Library Instruction for Distance Learners


As distance learning becomes more commonplace in colleges and universities, it is important to examine how information literacy instruction (ILI) fits into this type of curriculum.   Distance learning presents many challenges to library instruction, and a careful review of the current literature on this subject can highlight successful strategies that allow faculty and librarians to collaborate together to create meaningful courses for non-traditional students who may have a limited knowledge of current technology and whose critical thinking skills may not yet be fully developed.   This paper will examine five recent studies and attempt to synthesize the recent trends in library instruction for distance learners.

Four case studies and one survey analysis have been selected from the recent literature on distance learning and information literacy instruction (ILI).   Behr’s “On Ramp to Research: Creation of a Multimedia Presentation for Off –Campus Students” (2004) is a case study of an experimental ILI course at Western Michigan University (WMU) for graduate students in the College of Education.  It chronicles the life-cycle of course ED601, from the initial struggles to get funding, to development and implementation, to the assessment stage which points to needed revisions.   McLean & Dew’s “Providing Library Instruction to Distance Learning Students in the 21st Century: Meeting the Current and Changing Needs of a Diverse Community” (2006) examines two different programs, one in its infancy at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the other, a more developed program at University of Iowa .  Mulherrin, Kelley, Fishman & Orr’s “Information Literacy and the Distant Student: One University’s Experience Developing, Delivering and Maintaining an Online, Required Information Literacy Course” (2005) is a case study of the University of Maryland University College ’s development of LIBS 150, a required undergraduate ILI course that is presented online, in sections of 100 students each.  It describes how the course was created and how it has matured over a two year span.  Lindsay’s “Distance Teaching: Comparing Two Online Information Literary Courses” (2004), another case study, compares two different ILI courses from a teaching perspective – one is UMUC’s  LIBS 150 (also described by Mulherrin et al.) and the other is Washington State University ’s Gen Ed 300.  Lindsay’s perspective as a teacher rather than a developer provides a different slant on ILI for distance learners.  Finally, Buck, Islam & Syrkin’s “Collaboration for Distance Information Literacy Instruction: Do Current Trends Reflect Best Practices?” (2006) is a re-analysis of the results of the SPEC survey of 2005, a questionnaire distributed to members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) that was designed to explore collaboration and Distance Learning ILI.

All five articles relate their findings to current distance learning literature.  The four case studies primarily use qualitative analysis methods to assess and evaluate specific distance learning courses.  Although pre-test and post-test performance assessment is commonly utilized in each case study, the findings gathered in these articles are more nuanced and gain complexity as they pass through the lenses of actual librarians in the field who are familiar with the literature and who are able to relate it to their observations and make meaningful analyses.  Buck et al.’s utilize a more quantitative approach and base their findings on the results of the SPEC survey, though the authors’ conclusions are largely a product of their familiarity with the literature and the challenges that distance learning ILI presents.


The literature cited in this paper concurs that distance learning is growing rapidly and that ILI needs to keep pace.  Lindsay mentions that the number of distance learning students in the United States has grown from 750,000 in 1994 to over three million in 2001 (p. 482).  But what are the characteristics of today’s distance learners?  Behr’s description of distance learners at WMU is fairly representational.  The majority are female (66%), a vast majority (83%) are employed full-time, and the average student age is in the mid-30’s (although more than a third are over 35 years of age).  Slightly less than half pay their tuition themselves, while the rest receives tuition assistance from jobs or loans or grants (p. 20).  Quite different from traditional students, distance learners may lack technological skills and be unaware of the various methods available to retrieve information (Mulherrin et al, p. 22).

Distance learners like the flexibility provided by non-traditional courses (Mulherrin et al., p. 35).   They are goal oriented, and want ILI to directly relate to their curriculum.  Lindsay mentions their “desire for self-direction” (p. 483) and their preference for a clear connection between course material and real life.  Relevancy matters to distance learners.   Their learning styles vary widely and the literature points out that successful ILI courses offer varied choices in instructional methods and delivery.  McLean & Dew assert that ILI courses should contain all kinds of “instructional services, from high-tech to low-tech,” and be flexible enough to reach all kinds of learning styles.  But they also regret the fact that such format decisions are often not the choice of the designers or teachers, but rather of the administration, whose commitment to distance learning may vary (p. 329).  Re-analyzing the results of the SPEC survey, Buck et al. note that 69% of the respondents have a single librarian who coordinates distance learning ILI at their institution, and of this group of librarians, a little more than half bear titles “specific to distance learning” (p. 67).

Curricular Integration and Collaboration between Faculty and Librarians

According to Buck et al., one of the biggest challenges in providing library instruction for distance learners is the lack of a “physical campus.”  It is difficult for librarians to form “collaborative relationships” with instructors who rarely visit the campus or the library, and who are unaware of library services and resources ( p. 65).   Behr concurs, noting that it is often fruitless to wait for adjunct instructors with no ties to the university to request a library presentation (p. 21).  However, in their study of University of Iowa, McLean & Dew do not observe such an issue: the distance education coordinator sends an e-mail to each distance instructor, offering library instruction and support in a number of ways, including face-to-face instruction at off-campus sites, if appropriate, and reference assistance via phone or chat (p. 325).

Although LIBS 150 has a related module called LIBS 900 for online teacher training and collaboration, Mulherrin et al. seem to largely ignore the larger teaching faculty when they developed LIBS 150.  They built their course from the perspective of IL and did not attempt to address the individual student’s curricular needs.  Their course is more like an economically efficient factory churning out IL aware students, one hundred at a time.  Analyzing her experience teaching a section of LIBS 150, Lindsay feels that students gain more when the topics covered in library instruction are relevant to their current course work (p. 486).  She contrasts it to teaching GEN ED 300, an ILI course limited to 20 students that focuses on research in a particular discipline, and which strongly encourages students to apply what they are learning to their other courses. The final assignment in GEN ED 300 is to create an annotated bibliography for a future research paper. (p. 484).

Collaborating with the faculty, Behr tailored her tutorial to a specific segment of distance learners with a specific goal: graduate students in Education who need to conduct a literature review and write a research paper. Rather than having to go through the whole presentation, her tutorial allows the student to enter at specific “points of need” (p. 27).  It uses concrete examples from the student’s own library and own databases.  As such it requires much “time-consuming maintenance” to stay current, but Behr’s experiences lead her to conclude that such practices provide lasting partnerships between librarians and the teaching faculty (p. 29).  McClean & Dew also point out the trend towards mini-tutorials that focus on particular research techniques, and keep students from wading through a lot of information that is “superfluous to their particular need” (Mclean & Dew, p 328).

Interactions with Technology

Frequently cited is the distance learner’s difficulty with technology.  Lindsay describes it as a “huge hurdle,” finding students often so “hampered by the software,” that simple instruction becomes impossible (p. 485).   More than half the time is spent connecting and getting everything up and running.   Often, an ILI course is one of the first classes a distance student takes, and he or she is totally new to the technology of distance education (Mulherrin et al., p. 35).

With little or no face-to-face contact between students and faculty, ILI courses for distance learners must find alternative methods to stimulate meaningful interactions.  As LIBS 150 evolved, Mulherrin et al. noticed their “online classroom” blossomed, especially after instructors became familiar with the course and set up online office hours and chat sessions, and assigned discussion questions for asynchronous student-to-student interaction (p.26).  In GEN Ed 300, all activities are done as “threaded discussions” and most of the final grade is based on student interaction (Lindsay, p. 484).

Content is typically delivered over the web for distance library instruction. High-tech solutions create multimedia library instruction presentations, utilizing Flash for animation and MP3 for sound, and compensate for student hardware, software and networking incompatibilities by issuing CD-ROM versions (Behr, p. 26).  Lower-tech solutions are based on text, and aim to reach everyone quickly and efficiently.  McLean & Dew describe a blend of course material provided to students at UWI that includes a print-based instructional package, a web-based learning management system, as well as a CD-ROM  with PowerPoint presentations (p. 319).

Screens that require student interaction and provide immediate feedback greatly improve learning, and developers try to make pages more fun and inviting with interesting pop-ups and mouse-overs (Mulherrin et al., p. 25).  Vital to course assessments, pre-tests and post-tests are commonly mentioned in these case studies.  Lindsay stresses the need for testing after each section to provide prompt feedback to the student (p. 486).

At the University of Iowa, video-conferencing allows distance and on-campus learning to coalesce.  Librarians are able to conduct classes directly through ICN, a fiber optic network that provides connections to more than eight hundred classrooms throughout the state.  This allows for discussion, questions and feedback from students at off-campus classrooms (McLean & Dew, p 325).


Designing a library instruction course for distance learners is a lot of work (Buck et al., p. 66; Behr, p. 29) and it must be completely done before the class begins (Lindsay, p. 482).  Development time often cuts into the time spent collaborating with faculty (Buck et al., p. 74) and as seen above, collaboration is vital.  Using tutorials which are already available is often disappointing, since the content may be dated, or too generic, or the “look and feel” all wrong (Behr, p. 25).  Distance learners have distinct needs, and library instruction courses must address them.  Integrating ILI into distance learning programs is challenging and time consuming and often a drain on library resources.

More research needs to be conducted on the efficacy of ILI for distance learners.  McLean & Dew point out a central caveat in ACRL’s Guidelines for Distance Learning Libraries Service: library training for distance learners must be equitable to that of on-campus students (p. 316).  Students like the flexibility of distance learning, but to what degree do they ultimately meet the Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education?  Comparative studies between distance and on-campus learning need to be on-going as teaching methods change, and on-line ILI tutorials become available to both groups.  As the number of traditional students declines and the demographics of distance and on-campus learners come closer, assessments of how well ILI courses help distance students compete with their on-campus peers should become more meaningful.  More research on how Web 2.0 social networking tools can be used in distance learning is needed.  And of course, as new ILI modules are created using the newest technology, research should follow: surveys need to be conducted, opinions analyzed, and computer logs studied to discover which user interfaces work, and which do not.


Behr, M. D. (2004). On ramp to research: Creation of a multimedia library instruction presentation for off-campus students. Journal of Library Administration, 41(1), 19-30. Retrieved September 21, 2008 from Haworth Press.

Buck, S., Islam, R., & Syrkin, D. (2006). Collaboration for distance information literacy instruction: Do current trends reflect best practices? Journal of Library Administration, 45(1/2), 63-79. Retrieved September 24, 2008 from Haworth Press.

Lindsay, E. B. (2004). Distance teaching: Comparing two online information literacy courses. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 30(6), 482-487. Retrieved September 24, 2008 from Library Literature and Information Science (Wilson Web) database.

McLean, E., & Dew, S. H. (2006). Providing library instruction to distance learning students in the 21st century: Meeting the current and changing needs of a diverse community. Journal of Library Administration, 45(3), 315-337.  Retrieved September 23, 2008 from Haworth Press.

Mulherrin, E., Kelley, K. B., Fishman, D & Orr, G. J. (2005). Information literacy and the distant student: One university’s experience developing, delivering, and maintaining an online, required information literacy course. Internet Reference Services Quarterly, 9(1/2), 21-36. Retrieved September 23, 2008 from Library Literature and Information Science (Wilson Web) database.