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So one of the reasons I’m at Midwinter this year is to begin to get ZSR prepared to support distance learners. With the impending arrival of the fully online Masters in Counseling program coming at some point in the next six months or so, we need to be sure we are ready for them. So several of us went on Saturday evening to the social event for the Distance Learning Section (DLS) of ACRL. Giz and I spent a long time talking to librarians from ECU and National University in California. Both support thousands of distance learners. We talked about how they handled reference. Neither provide 24/7 reference help, but both have librarians/full-time reference staff at their service points and answering chats/emails for longer hours than we do, especially late night and weekends.

Then on Sunday I attended the DLS discussion group on providing document delivery services for distance learners. The discussion was enlightening to me as I realize that there are issues we have not even considered about supporting distance learners. One of the issues was how you define a distance learner. Is it the program they are in or the place where they live? And how do you identify them in your system. Can you tell when a student logs in to your ILL system what there status is? If someone is in your city but in a distance program do you make them come in and get a book, or do you send it to them? How far away is too far away to live for that requirement? What about military students stationed overseas? ECU says in-county students must come to campus but out of county ones do not. Other places send the materials to you no matter what if you are enrolled in a distance program. But as more distance programs exist at your campus the line between who is ‘online’ and who is not is harder to define.

Another thread of the wide-ranging conversation is how to get your IT department to understand the unique characteristics of distance students. Many will NEVER come to your campus, so if you require a wired Internet connection for your students to do something (like change a password) then plans need to be made for the distance students. Downtime for systems is also a HUGE concern. Your on-campus students may not be on Sakai on Saturday mornings, but your distance ones may be flooding it on the weekends, so if your scheduled downtime for systems critical to distance learners is Saturday, you need to rethink it. Do you require an ID# for any of your systems (I’m thinking of you, Voyager)? If so, are your distance learners getting an ID?? If not, how are they told what their ID# is?

Another thread was how to market the services your library does offer to your distance learners. When I mentioned that we have been tasked with developing a mandatory library orientation module for our program, there was some envy from the group. This is not, apparently, a common practice. They mentioned that often the faculty and the advisers for the online students are the best way to get information out to distance students. One librarian does a live online introduction to the library several times a semester and has seen the numbers grow each semester. She also records it and makes it available asynchronously.

I could go on and on about the issues this discussion raised, but I’ll end it here and begin writing my vendor floor post (note: LOTS of cool things). What these discussions did make clear to me is that we still have a lot of learning and thinking to do to be out ahead of distance programs and not struggling to play catch up.