Online MLIS Flexibility, Community, and Choice

From this community-building orientation, students begin a flexible master’s program that enables them to pursue one of a variety of professional pathways, from archival and special collections, to research and information services, to data and asset management. Though not required, pathways are structured to align with student interests and match a variety of career opportunities in the real world.

It’s clear that earning a Master of Library Information Science (MLIS) holds value for those wishing to further their career not only in librarianship, but also in businesses which value data curation and the technical skills developed through this type of program. Specifically for students earning an online MLIS, “Employers also value the self-motivation and discipline that it takes to obtain an online degree, so distance learners who are currently working may have an edge over those with less experience and a traditional degree,” says Brad Rogers from LibGig.

Today’s online MLIS students appreciate distance learning but also look for programs that provide flexibility and community. Programs that offer robust curriculums that prepare them for future opportunities while allowing them to engage with others from afar are essential. One of the difficulties with online programs is the isolation students might feel. Many institutions are remedying this issue by incorporating community-building right into their programs. Whether it’s in-person events or virtual ways to connect, the importance of students building relationships with each other, their instructors, advisors and professionals in the field isn’t being overlooked.

All of the programs featured here have attributes that are unique to each of them, but they share key features that make them desirable for today’s MLIS student. They all prioritize the connections students make during their master’s program, and they all offer online, ALA-accredited master’s programs in library science. Finally, they all fit into lives already in progress. (240)


“Online is… were we can help people realize their professional goals while balancing the rest of their lives.” Matthew Saxton, associate dean, the iSchool, U. of Washington

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The online MS in Library and Information Science (MS/LIS) program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign began in 1996. Students in this program take courses online, with the opportunity to participate in virtual classrooms. In a typical semester, each course schedules a weekly synchronous meeting for two hours, bringing together the educator and students in real time. “It helps students make connections that often continue long after they’ve graduated,” says Meg Edwards, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs in the School of Information Sciences (or iSchool).

Organized into cohorts of about 100 students per semester, MS/LIS students experience an on-campus Welcome Weekend four weeks into their journey. This two-and-one-half day orientation is just for online students. The event gives students a chance to bond with each other and engage with faculty. In addition to regular activities like a tour of the campus library, MS/LIS students also have the chance to participate in small group work, discussions on LIS topics, and workshops. The weekend culminates with a Gallery Walk, which asks students to consider, both alone and in groups, a variety of questions about personal and professional responsibility posted throughout the iSchool building.

From this community-building orientation, students begin a flexible master’s program that enables them to pursue one of a variety of professional pathways, from archival and special collections, to research and information services, to data and asset management. Though not required, pathways are structured to align with student interests and match a variety of career opportunities in the real world.

Technology has always a substantial component of the program. Students can take courses in programming languages, coding, databases, and more to stay current with today’s job requirements within library science-related professions, including those that extend beyond working in a physical library.

For candidates in this MS/LIS program, the focus is on the student experience, and the students have access to a variety of services. Students have separate advisors for academics and career support, to create an advisory experience consistent with that of on-campus students. Advisors provide “high-touch” interaction, staying in close contact with students to discuss course options, chances for practical experience and research opportunities. They meet students wherever they are, whether in person, over the phone, through video chat, or via email. The bonds developed through the program are evident:

“Alumni demonstrate such a passion for the program that they often come back and offer to mentor those who are still earning their degree,” says Edwards, who feels that the online MS/LIS program effectively caters to the “whole student.” Learn more at:

University of North Texas

The Department of Information Sciences, University of North Texas offers two different online master’s degrees to help prepare students for their careers. The MS-LS is for students interested in library-based careers, from public to academic to specialty libraries. Students can also earn an MS-IS, which hones in on the topics information professionals need, including electronic publishing and information processing services.

Offering a “blended approach” to study, students have the opportunity to experience both in-person and online lectures within the same courses. While a few courses are offered only online, others provide students with a chance to meet face-to-face once during a semester. For the three core MS-LS courses, sessions occur as an all-day class meeting over a weekend.

For students who can’t get to the main campus, cohorts are created in strategic locations across the country. Online students also come together during All-School Day, hosted by the Library and Information Science student association. This event exposes students to relevant issues in the field and helps them prepare for their career. Students who can’t make it to campus can join virtually.

A variety of specializations help students mold this flexible and affordable program into their ideal master’s degree. MS-LS students can specialize in information organization, youth librarianship, and archive studies, among others. Each student works directly with a faculty advisor to create an individualized program that, “allows for specialization and can accommodate students with widespread interests,” says Nancy Herod, director of marketing for the Department of Information Science. Or, they can pursue a generalist course of study.
Learn more at:

Emporia State University

Distance education in library science at Emporia State University in Kansas began in 1988. Faculty went to specific locations outside of the university to meet with students. The focus was to bring the area of study to underserved areas, where students couldn’t access the courses to earn their degree. The close interaction between students, instructors and advisors became the cornerstone of Emporia’s distance learning program, which has grown into a non-traditional online MLIS program that still includes a face-to-face component.

Since 2010, the online MLIS at Emporia State has been a hybrid program tied to eight specific locations. Students have access to online courses, but also continue to meet in person. In the 36 credit-hour program, students spend half the time in face-to-face, weekend-intensive classes and the rest of the time taking courses online. Emporia offers this program in Emporia and Overland Park, KS; Denver, CO; Salt Lake City, UT; Portland, OR; Las Vegas, NV; and Sioux Falls and Boise, ID.

Curriculum for the MLIS focuses on traditional library science study. Core courses consist of information and instruction aligned with the theory, tools, practical application and leadership development necessary for a variety of careers in library settings and information agencies. A single technology requirement allows students to broaden their skillset in information technology, web development, database design or any approved technology course. The program culminates with a capstone project, where students present what they’ve learned.

The program places significant importance on community, prioritizing the “human touch” that other online programs may not offer. “Students interact with each other more than average through projects and group work,” says Dr. Wooseob Jeong, dean of School Library and Information Management. With students in an actual class four to six weeks each semester, they get the opportunity to engage in person with others in the cohort. They also interact face-to-face with faculty, who teach at specific locations. Local orientations at each location, where cohort size averages around 25, help introduce students to their peers, professors and the program itself.

Emporia also brings together students from across cohorts to expand connections and give students unique experiences they can share. Select students from each cohort are taken to national conferences to gain a broader view of the LIS industry. They then bring what they’ve learned back to their local cohort to help keep students abreast of trends in LIS.

Just as instructors are aligned to a specific MLIS program location to build familiarity and community, there is also a dedicated advisor. With one advisor per location, students are able to access resources where they live. Advisors enhance the student community by helping them transition post-graduation with job placement and regularly sharing local employment opportunities. Upon graduation, the majority of students find positions in public and academic libraries. Learn more at:

San José State University


The first library science classes were taught at San José State University in 1928. Almost 100 years later, the school offers an MLIS program that’s fully online. Addressing students interested in both librarianship and information science, the program’s customizable curriculum fits any career objectives. Students access courses, internships, and research opportunities, which are delivered exclusively online. Students can also participate in a virtual convocation celebration.

Although students don’t physically meet each other or their instructors, San José State helps build community through its access to services. Students can learn more about the LIS community through personalized career coaching and optional virtual internships. Each of the school’s resources support online students with easy interaction via web conferencing, social networking platforms and the school’s LMS, Canvas.

We have such a vibrant global community that brings students together…in a supportive learning environment.” Dr. Sandra Hirsh, director, MLIS Program, San Jose State U.

Students can work through the MLIS program at their own pace, with no set time to “attend” most classes. They have the flexibility to pick courses across multiple pathways and electives, to build their own comprehensive skillsets that are transferable to a wide range of career opportunities. Courses on technology-focused topics within the LIS field are also available for students interested in building skills in data mining, information visualization, metadata, and more. The MLIS program culminates in an e-portfolio or thesis. Learn more at:

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, has one of the longest-running MLIS programs in the nation. The school has catered to distance learning students since the 1980s. Initially, faculty travelled to locations across the state for intensive weekend courses. Now, the program is fully-online. “The SOIS MLIS program allows students to focus on traditional librarianship, but also offers courses in emerging areas like data science, information security and information technology, for future-prepared library and information professionals.” says Chad Zahrt, assistant dean of student affairs for SOIS.

Today’s online MLIS program is also all about inviting students into the LIS community. Professional Immersion Day, which kicks off orientation each semester, gives attendees a chance to connect with local professionals in a “speed dating” format. Students meet with professionals in small groups, rotating through for the most exposure.

Another career-building opportunity for students includes “Enhance Your Chance” week. This event provides an entire week of career-related activities, from resume reviews to mock interview sessions with hiring professionals.

Building community between students, faculty, and professionals is a key component of the MLIS program. The university also facilitates students connecting through a virtual lounge where they can interact with each other. It’s designed to feel like a physical student lounge, where they can meet and discuss projects, courses, or whatever interests them. It’s available to both online and onsite students, as is everything associated with the MLIS program. Learn more at:

University of Washington

The iSchool at the University of Washington features an MLIS program with both residential and online options. The online program officially launched in 2003 but actually began as an on-site evening program for part-time students. With the introduction of online courses, the MLIS program can now “reach a large number of students across the country and maintain connections,” says Matthew Saxton, associate dean of academics at the Information School.

With the flexibility to take both online and in-person classes, the program strives to create one unified student community. The curriculum is the same for all students and the same faculty teaches in both mediums. There is even an in-class hybrid structure in certain courses, where online students virtually attend a class synchronously with their on-campus peers.

The course structure allows all students to take classes of particular interest while still accessing coursework in traditional librarianship. There are no tracks or specializations, just recommendations to help students create a pathway through the program. As befits an iSchool, the program is particularly strong in courses that highlight the intersection of people and technology, with an array of classes including data curation, digital youth, design thinking and introductory programming.

A dedicated team of advisors that serve both online and residential students adds another layer to approaching the students as a single, MLIS community. Supporting all students with the same degree of service, academic and career assistance has led to a high job placement ratio post-graduation, with 86 percent of post-grad survey respondents employed within three months of graduation. Learn more at:

The number of library science graduates entering the workforce rose by four percent between 2016 and 2017, and the availability of online MLIS programs is a contributing factor. With greater access to a relevant education that equips students with the skills they need to thrive, and the connections to opportunities and experiences that help guide their career, MLIS students can confidently enter the next step in their professional path.


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