Distant yearning

The Bottom Line

ISSN: 0888-045X

Article publication date: 1 March 2000




Maxymuk, J. (2000), "Distant yearning", The Bottom Line, Vol. 13 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/bl.2000.17013aag.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Distant yearning

Keywords Education, Academic libraries, Library services, Partnering

After a long stressful day at work, a worker is hungry and heads out for a bite to eat. Conveniently on the street where he works, there are three restaurants. The first is a Chinese restaurant which is inexpensive, tasty and gives large portions, but is not very fancy. The second is a French restaurant, which features high prices and snobby waiters, but also delicious food and captivating ambience. The final option is an Eskimo establishment that sells overpriced whale blubber sandwiches fried in castor oil and uses blocks of ice as tables and stools.

If the worker were a struggling librarian, he might long for the French bistro, but decide on the Chinese because he would get good value for his dollar. If he were a successful rap music artist, then money is no object so he might choose to indulge himself and his entourage with the fine French food to satisfy everyone's hunger. The third restaurant, however, is not likely to be chosen by anyone; it does not provide value appropriate to cost.

As a general rule, consumers are looking to get the most for their money in all transactions with one major exception - education. Consumers of education, i.e. students, are often trying to get the very least for their money in school. This is particularly true in higher education. The only thing appreciated is the end result, the degree, which is thought to have monetary value. The process of learning, of interacting with teachers and fellow students, of reading and researching varying subjects, of accumulating new knowledge, is frequently looked upon as drudgery to be endured to become employable. I sometimes think that if universities wanted to put themselves on a solid financial footing, they should change their framework for tuition in accordance with these lofty principles. Students paying the basic tuition rate would be expected to attend classes, do assigned work, and be accountable for their grades. Students paying tuition plus fee "B" would be expected to pay their bills on time and would receive a B in all courses paid for, regardless of performance. Students paying tuition plus a still higher fee "A" would be expected to pay with a credit card and would receive straight As. Finally, students paying tuition plus an exorbitant "premium" fee would receive straight As as well, but would also be entitled to entirely-fictitious, glowing letters of recommendation skillfully drafted by faculty from the English Department. State schools would never have to beg alumni or state legislatures for another dime.

Goodbye to all that

These thoughts may be cynical and outlandish, but the traditional college experience has been fragmented over the past couple of decades, remolded by pressures of economics and changing student demographics. In order to try to stay financially solvent by meeting the perceived needs of students of all ages, backgrounds, and needs, colleges and universities increasingly have emphasized practical courses of study, strengthened summer school offerings, begun running short-term classes during the winter break, expanded opportunities for commuting students, opened branch campuses, and promoted distance learning utilizing computer network technology as the wave of the future. The corporate term for these moves would be diversification, but some see them instead as devaluation. Regardless, libraries have to stretch their budgets to try to include equitable services for all these new directions.

In turn, however, diversification has drawn competitors in new non-traditional start-ups. The most prominent and successful example is the private for-profit University of Phoenix (www.uophx.edu/). The University of Phoenix is said to be the largest private university in the USA with over 50,000 students. It was started by a former tenured Economics Professor John Sperling in 1976 and now has over 80 small "campuses" in more than a dozen states. It is fully accredited by the North Central Association Commission on Institutes of Higher Education based in Arizona (www.ncacihe.org/), although questions have been raised about varying accrediting standards since previously University of Phoenix failed to be accredited by a California accrediting body. North Central also accredited Jones International University (www.jonesinternational.edu/) in 1999, the first entirely online university so certified. With the Arizona accreditation, University of Phoenix operates in California and many other states. Primarily, University of Phoenix offers a standardized curriculum for degree and certificate programs geared to adult professionals in the USA and Canada. Teachers are rarely full-time and rarely involved in research or curriculum development. As a logical extension, it also provides an online study distance education option.

On its Website, the University of Phoenix lets a user explore its program and course offerings, look into financial aid possibilities, find the closest "campus", visit their alumni network, and even shop in their online store. There is a link for Distance Education which connects the user to information on taking classes online, and finally there is a link to their "library" too.

Yet, University of Phoenix "campuses" do not include libraries; the library for the entire university, both "traditional" campus and distance education options, is a digital one. In this column, I often extol the virtues of the digital library. In the digital library, a user's access is not limited to a particular place or time, and there are virtually unlimited "copies" of all resources. Materials are readily available in a usable format and are full text. These materials are not limited to journal articles, however, but can include any sort of research matter that can be scanned into electronic form. The guiding principle of a digital library, as with that of any traditional library, is to meet the information needs of the library's users by providing access to the materials they require. The inevitable goal would be to additionally achieve this aim while being cost-effective.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) approved Guidelines for Distance Learning Library Services in July 1998 (www.ala.org/acrl/guides/distlrng.html). The overriding premise of this document is that, "Members of the distance learning community are entitled to library services and resources equivalent to those provided for students and faculty in traditional campus settings". These services provided to distant learners may differ from those given on the traditional campus, but they must be equivalent - a separate but equal clause.

Additional precepts from the Guidelines include an emphasis on the importance in all academic settings of instilling lifelong learning skills through information literacy instruction, a commitment that funding for digital library initiatives to support distance learning not be part of regular library funding, an understanding that distance learning faculty and students will face different challenges involving library access and information delivery, and a need for well-established technical linkages between the library and computing services and instructional media. Furthermore, the Guidelines stipulate that resources and services of local unaffiliated libraries are only to be relied on when formal, written agreements exist between the institutions.

The ACRL Guidelines outline important factors for distance learning libraries concerning management, finances, personnel, facilities, resources, and documentation. Of highest importance is their list of essential services libraries need to supply to distant learners. In ACRL's view, libraries must provide reference assistance, computer-based bibliographic and informational services, access to institutional and other networks, a program of library user instruction, assistance with non-print media and equipment, reciprocal or contractual borrowing, or interlibrary loan services, prompt document delivery, access to reserve materials in accordance with copyright fair use policies, adequate service hours for optimum access by users, and promotion of library services to the distance learning community. Meeting all of these needs would create additional financial strain on a library's budget.

How well digital libraries are meeting these service and resource needs of distant education students is an interesting question with inconclusive evidence according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington (www.ihep.com/). In their 1999 report, What's the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education, many gaps in the research are cited. One of the main ones is whether digital libraries are effective for students in remote locations. They question whether digital libraries are providing adequate support for these academic programs. They suggest that curriculum objectives are sometimes altered due to the limited book and journal resources available online, and that would be contrary to the ACRL Guidelines. The implication is that distance learning library services are given short-shrift in funding.

Equivalent services?

The University of Phoenix Digital Library, the Apollo Library (University of Phoenix is operated by The Apollo Group) consists of full-text databases from a handful of vendors. From UMI comes Proquest Direct 5000 which includes ABI/Inform, Accounting and Tax Database, Periodical Abstracts, and Newspaper Abstracts. From Information Access comes SearchBank which includes General BusinessFile ASAP, Health Reference Center, Legal Trac, and PROMT (covering markets and technology). From EBSCO comes MasterFILE FullTEXT 1,500, Health Source Plus, Facts on File World News Digest, Canadian MAS FullTEXT Elite, and Business Source Elite. What this digital library boils down to is three vendors with overlapping general, business, and health databases featuring perhaps 5,000 full-text journals. There are no online reference works or digitized research or archival materials or separate electronic journal subscriptions. Reference service is primarily by email, although voice and fax numbers are available for certain questions. Users also can call, fax, mail or fill out an online form to request a search be run by library staff on the above databases with results to be delivered within three business days. Fee-based document delivery is available within the same parameters.

All of this seems to run counter to some of the proclamations in University of Phoenix's own online Learning Resource Handbook, let alone the ACRL Guidelines. The first line of the handbook's introduction is that, "Research is a fundamental aspect of student life". Among factors affecting the quality of a project, they consider it the "most important element!" (their exclamation point). In the section on their service mission, they claim to support patrons by "providing research and reference services of the highest quality and integrity"and by "providing library holdings and database collections of the finest academic quality that cross all disciplines ...". However, in the handbook's overview to research services, they state that "students should recognize their responsibility in procuring necessary materials from a variety of sources". What sources, one might wonder, since they are already providing "holdings" and "collections" of the "finest academic quality"? They specify public, private, and academic/research libraries, government archives, and interlibrary loans. I suppose they really are intent about the providing reference services of high quality since they are referring their students to places that are serious enough about research to actually maintain a library. Of course, there is not much integrity involved in this you-do-the-work-and-we'll-take-the-profit approach. If I assist a University of Phoenix student with his research where I work, not only does my library get nothing for my service, Rutgers University (who pays my salary) gets no reimbursement either. Just add a few more pennies to the University of Phoenix's pot.

Partnerships for $ucce$$

My purpose in writing this column is not simply to berate the University of Phoenix and its digital library because I am more concerned with what more traditional universities are doing with distance learning, and what library services they are providing for remote users. There are worse arrangements. Jones International University (JIU) says only of their library services:

Jones International University has e-global library, (TM) a Web-based library. This resource is available for supporting course content. Bibliographies supplied within the course materials identify appropriate publications, some or all of which may be available at your local community library through Jones International University. In addition, Jones International University provides information on accessing reference resources through the Internet and World Wide Web. The President's office maintains a library liaison who assists students in obtaining library materials. A reference librarian is available to assist students in retrieving articles, books and specific information.

They appear to have put even fewer financial and personnel resources into library services than University of Phoenix which means more money for their bottom line. I focused on the University of Phoenix merely as a very prominent example of how such services could be approached in a cost-conscious manner that is accepted with open arms by those who have the attitude of "the less I have to do for this course the better".

This is a growth industry. Just this past summer, the federal Department of Education announced a new pilot program to offer financial aid to students pursuing college-level academic studies and training via distance education ( www.ed.gov/PressReleases/06-1999/distep.html). According to the Department of Education, over 90 percent of institutions of higher education with enrollments over 10,000 students engage in distance learning and over 85 percent of institutions with between 3,000 and 10,000 students do so, while JIU reports that roughly 800 of these institutions are providing their distance classes online. It sometimes seems similar to the contemporary situation in banking where large banks, freed from interstate banking prohibitions, have been racing to move into more and more states. As I write this, the Old Dominion University (web.odu.edu/webroot/FrontEnd.nsf/pages/distlrn) based in Virginia is seeking approval to set up partnerships with four community colleges in South Jersey to provide the Old Dominion University distance education in the Garden State. I understand the moneymaking opportunity for the Old Dominion University which already has distance outlets in seven states, but I don't see this as any great boon for South Jersey community college students who just as easily could continue their education at any of several fine universities in South Jersey or nearby Philadelphia. And while the Old Dominion University is siphoning off tuition dollars in other states, local libraries are left to provide services regardless of whether they see any additional funding.

To their credit, the Old Dominion University does make a strong effort to abide with the ACRL Guidelines - even posting them on its Website. Its digital library (www.lib.odu.edu/services/disted/) makes an array of resources accessible online: encyclopedias, dictionaries, quotation sources, news sources, government sources, and business information (company profiles, industry reports, and directories). Its online periodical databases include five InfoTrac databases (Books In Print, Expanded Academic Index, General BusinessFile, Computer Index ASAP, and Health Resource Center), over 50 FirstSearch databases, six SilverPlatter databases (CINAHL, Criminal Justice Abstracts, ERIC, MLA Bibliography, PsycINFO, and sociofile) and over 50 indexes and abstracts from Cambridge Scientific. Moreover, they set up formal agreements with local libraries at hosting institutions so additional materials are available onsite and via interlibrary loan.

Meanwhile, New York University (www.nyu.edu/) has begun the new millennium by spinning off NYUonline, Inc. (www.nyuonline.com/), the first for-profit subsidiary created by a not-for-profit research university. Its first offerings in January 2000 are a series of courses leading to a Certificate in Management Training. Future plans are to offer courses in accounting, information technology, Internet security, marketing, and nursing. Although these courses draw their accreditation from simply being New York University courses, NYU online is being run technically by Bellevue, Washington, company Click2Learn.com (www.click2learn.com/), which already offers online courses in business management and information technology. It is interesting that two months before online classes are to commence, the only mention of a library is buried on a page about the Learning Community that explains that "tutor feedback, student-to-student chat rooms, an 'outreach' program, and other interactive modes accommodate a variety of individual learning styles and make your time online productive and enjoyable". Further down, under the heading Reference Materials, a digital library is promised, but at that time was still a dead link.

Giving them what they want

NYUOnline and others may be filling a lucrative perceived need by providing distance education for busy professionals who need advanced certification to further their careers and who wish to do it with as little fuss as possible, but simply giving people what they want seems to be an abdication of professional responsibility. This is clearly the case for library services. Undergraduates may want to simply grab the first three articles they come across electronically, but they need guidance to find the best sources to support their work. Graduate students may welcome the freedom to pursue their research when they want from wherever they want, but they need the presence of real research materials to pursue inquiries to their fullest. Returning professional students need to be reminded that you get out of something what you put into it. When students are paying as much as advanced credentials cost, they should demand every penny's worth of value.

Another distance education institution, Western Governors University, has a self-assessment test on its Website (www.wgu.edu/wgu/self_assessment.asp) so potential students can determine whether distance learning is right for them. That test indicates that if students want face-to-face interaction, classroom discussion, and feedback from instructors then they have come to the wrong place. They could have added full library services to that list as well. What these "value-added" services have in common is they cost money, but distance education is more concerned with profit-making. In the hierarchy of university administration, libraries may be the least-likely cost center to receive anything from the move to distance education. But there is no denying the trend toward distance education, driven by our love of cost-lowering technology.

As Vice-President Al Gore wrote to University of Phoenix online graduates in 1995: "Computers connected to modems and telephone lines have allowed you to attend classes with one another, share ideas, and engage in academic debate ... The same skills you have so successfully mastered here will be the ones which will take us into the next century" (online.uophx.edu/accolade.htm). For those of us whose skills are devalued in the process, an education campaign awaits.

Comments on this column are welcome and can be sent to maxymuk@crab.rutgers.edu. Or visit my Web page (http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~maxymuk/home/home.html). Links to Websites referred to in this column can be found there.

John Maxymuk is a Reference Librarian at the Paul Robeson Library, Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey

Related articles