Academic Librarians and Distance Education: Challenges and Opportunities

Article excerpt

The phenomenal growth of distance-learning programs at colleges and universities has tremendous implications for providing library services to distance students. Academic libraries are trying to meet the accreditation requirements for providing "equivalent" library resources and services to on-campus students and distance learners. This article reviews the literature and presents an overview of distance-learning services offered by academic libraries. The impact of distance-learning and accreditation requirements on the work and roles of academic librarians is explored, and shifts in the roles of librarians serving distance learners and educators are discussed. The focus is on examining additional responsibilities, opportunities, and challenges encountered by academic librarians in serving distance learners.

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The technological revolution brought about by the World Wide Web has permeated colleges and universities and catapulted distance learning to the forefront of more and more institutions. While distance education has existed in the form of correspondence and independent study courses since the 1800s, the added convenience of taking courses via the Web has tremendously boosted student enrollments in distance-learning courses. (1) Enrollment in distance-education courses offered by postsecondary degree-granting institutions almost doubled between 1995 and 1998, increasing from 754,000 to 1.6 million, and is expected to be around 2.23 million by 2002. (2) In 1998, 54,000 academic courses were offered via the Internet. By 1999 more than 1,600 of the 5,000 two- and four-year public and private colleges in the United States offered undergraduate and graduate degree programs via the Internet; and by International Data Corporation estimates, more than 3,300 colleges and universities will offer distance-learning courses by 2004. (3) Stallings expects online courses to capture the lion's share of the distance education market within the next ten to twenty years. (4) According to Merrill Lynch, the postsecondary distance-education market will expand from $1.2 billion in 2000 to $7 billion in 2003. (5)

Trends such as telecommuting and the changing profile of "traditional" college students are fueling the demand for distance education. More and more adults are working full time, balancing family responsibilities, and returning to college to pursue degrees part-time. (6) Distance education is also an attractive alternative for working mothers, low-income persons, individuals with disabilities, military personnel, and rural residents. (7) With distance-learning programs, institutions of higher learning are trying to boost declining enrollments in traditional on-campus programs and cater to the needs of these "new" students.

The basic premise of distance education is to "deliver education to people, instead of people to education." (8) Many "virtual universities" offer only or mostly distance-learning courses. The University of Maryland University College, Western Governors University, and the University of Phoenix Online are some of the largest virtual universities, offering a myriad of courses and degree programs through the Web. Nova Southeastern University, which has offered distance-education programs since 1972, is a pioneer in this field. (9) In addition to being integrated into the course curriculum of many public and private universities and colleges, distance education is also infiltrating the "for-profit" higher education sector. Many prestigious universities have created for-profit virtual universities in partnership to deliver distance education. Cardean University offers Web-based courses and degree programs designed by elite universities such as Columbia Business School, Stanford University, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Fathom.com is a collaborative distance-learning effort of Columbia University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, the British Library, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, and the New York Public Library. …