The Ever-Elusive Online Ph.D.

Recently, there has been some discussion of online Ph.D. programs in information studies on the JESSE list. I probably don’t need to tell you that few such programs exist.

The University of North Texas has an online Ph.D. program. However, this IMLS-funded program limits who can apply to school media and public librarians. Nova University has had one for quite some time.

While I’m sure that information school faculty have many good reasons why they believe that such degrees cannot be offered online, I’m afraid that to some academic librarians, who are not about to abandon their day jobs and who have no program within striking distance, this seems like a decidedly 19th-century viewpoint, especially if offered by a school that has morphed into an avant-garde “I” school.

It also seems to be based on the peculiar notion that all Ph.D.s must want to teach. Academic librarians, who are "neither fish nor fowl," may want a Ph.D. for other career reasons.

But leaving that aside, is it really the case that, in 2005, the rich diversity of online tools at our disposal cannot substitute for pressing the flesh, especially if augmented by brief on-campus stays? If that’s really true, why aren’t online MLS degrees second-rate? Isn’t physical proximity as important to future library professionals as to the future teachers of library (and other) professionals?

There is a certain delicious irony in the fact that "I" schools, like my old alma mater Syracuse University, strive mightily and successfully to teach and develop advanced technologies, but cannot bring themselves to use them to deliver online Ph.D. degrees in subject areas like digital libraries. Yet, they offer online digital library CAS degrees (SU and UIUC) without any apparent qualms.

But, it’s unfortunate that, by doing so, they deprive potential students of doctoral degrees and themselves of an expanded client base.

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