Top 5 Articles

Top 5 Articles on Supporting Online MLIS Students

Compiled and annotated by Brittni Ballard and Chimene Tucker, members of the ACRL DOLS Research and Publications Committee.

Conversations about distance and online librarianship often fail to include distance and online library students. The five articles in this collection explore the intersections of librarianship, teaching, and learning from the perspectives of distance and online library workers as well as library students. With publication dates ranging from years before the COVID-19 pandemic to mere months ago, they offer an opportunity to critically reflect on how we model our values and engage future colleagues while prompting dialogue about what’s working, what could be better, and what’s missing. Unsurprisingly, although the efforts described here target MLIS students, the findings and recommendations are likely to benefit all learners regardless of program.

Stephens, M., Rudiger, N., & Faires, D. (2021). Student perceptions and use of mobile devices for LIS coursework: Implications for educators. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 62(4), 443-459.

This article describes how graduate students use tablets and smartphones (aka mobile devices) for their coursework, including everything from asking questions and completing reading to checking grades and doing assignments. In April 2020, 195 students in the 100% online Master of Library & Information Science (MLIS) program at San José State University (a public university in San José, Texas) completed an online survey featuring open-ended questions plus Likert scale and Yes / No questions. Participants were able to select all devices used for coursework, with 88% of participants using a smartphone and 29% using a tablet for coursework. Ultimately, this article explores student experience and encourages us to do the same. Some findings—such as how difficult it can be to find and read ebooks through the library database—may confirm expectations, but learner workarounds reveal important opportunities for current instruction and future iterations:

I tend to search the library on a computer, but if I’m interested in an ebook, I will redo my search on my iPad so that I can download it. It would be nice if there were a way that I could send an ebook to my device somehow without needing to redo the search on the device.


  • The most common tasks completed on a mobile device are: managing email, accessing the learning management system, and using a web browser. 
  • Most students (70%) found content accessed through the learning management system mobile app very user friendly, excepting discussion forums. They also praised the app’s notification system, as pop-up or email, for automated alerts. 
  • Subject teaching instructors should design and facilitate online courses with mobile technologies in mind. Here are three top learner recommendations: 1) Encourage and adopt quick, informal communication, such as via direct messaging, between students and perhaps yourself; 2) ensure file formats and distribution methods, especially for videos, are mobile friendly; and 3) add deadlines to the LMS calendar.

Oliphant, T., & Branch-Mueller, J. (2018). “Doing the courses without stopping my life”: Time in a professional Master’s program. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(4).

This pre-COVID-19 pandemic article describes how time—notably, lack of time for coursework compared to non-negotiable life and work responsibilities—impacts not only a graduate student’s progression through a program, but their professional pride and personal well-being as well. In Fall 2014, 32 students in a 100% asynchronous online MLIS program at University of Alberta (a public research university in Alberta, Canada) completed an online survey featuring both closed- and open-ended questions. Ultimately, this article prompts an interesting and instructive consideration of time and space in education, especially when mediated through and with technology. Even though online courses and programs resolve some common time-related barriers to higher education—such as commuting or finding a new job—it creates some and exacerbates others. Several participants called out traditional online discussion forum post requirements in particular: “it is time-consuming to read through 20+ comments and by not keeping up I feel isolated from my classmates.”


  • This article revealed two contradictions: First, the primary reasons students complete online programs is flexibility, the need for an education that fits their existing life needs. However, perceived flexibility was tempered by students’ various time commitments, having to conform to program structure (such as discussions only being active for certain days of the week), and underestimating how much time the courses require. 
  • Second, although the amount of time spent on assigned readings and writings is similar between on-campus and online students, online students report spending more energy on online tasks while feeling more guilt and isolation.
  • It’s not surprising, then, that several participants articulated a shared hope for the future of online programs: “A regular check-in with students with how they’re handling the program (I know I feel pretty overwhelmed right now) and I don’t know who I would feel comfortable talking to about it.”

Shahvar, S., & Tang, R. (2021). Toward a conceptual model of online collaborative learning: A multi-phased investigation into experiences and perceptions of online MLIS students. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science.

This article describes a two-part pre-COVID-19 pandemic investigation into online graduate students’ thoughts and feelings about group work, including why—despite so many potential benefits, including less workload and greater motivation—so many dislike collaborative assignments. In November 2016, 457 students from 45 nationwide ALA-accredited MLIS programs completed an online survey of about 50 Likert scale questions. Questions spanned three categories: performance (“I managed my time better in online group assignments than if I was alone”), behavior (“I actively exchanged my ideas with group members”), and perceptions (“I felt comfortable expressing positive feelings”). Then, in December 2016, 29 of those surveyed students participated in a 13-question interview. Ultimately, this article prompts an interesting and instructive consideration of collaborative learning in the online space, including criteria for success as well as common barriers and, more importantly, possible remedies at the levels of both course design and facilitation.


  • Perhaps the most striking takeaway is that “Very few … participants reported having a sense of belonging and being a member of a learning community.” So, how can subject teaching instructors help students help each other achieve more rewarding collaborative learning?
  • Here are five top learner recommendations: 1) Intentional use of and instruction in collaborative tools; 2) less frequent or optional collaborative work overall; 3) standards for communication between group members; 4) direct instruction on relationship conflicts; and 5) enhanced instructor engagement throughout the collaborative process, including team building.
  • Regarding instructor engagement specifically, learners want teachers to: 1) Follow up with group members or the group leader; 2) offer online office hours; 3) collect progress reports or assign rough drafts; and 4) contact students who are not participating early in the group process.

Bettivia, R., & Davis, R. O. (2022). E-Support for e-Learning: A tool to empower students in online courses. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science. 

This article describes a light-touch and low-cost, but high-reach and high-impact way for libraries to support graduate students who are unfamiliar with distance learning. Specifically, two professors at Simmons University (a private university in Boston, Massachusetts) for the MLIS, which can be completed 100% online, created this WordPress-housed E-Learning Guide and offered several synchronous online orientations. During orientations, authors read aloud from the web guide. From Fall 2020 to Spring 2021, 75 students (out of 392 enrolled students) attended one of these voluntary SLIS orientations; 42 students completed the accompanying survey of less than 10 Likert scale questions. Ultimately, this article reminds us that any level of engagement with new technologies—let alone positively integrating tech into pre-existing ways of being, learning, and collaborating—requires intentional time and attention, even when users are digital native.


  • The authors note, “This project was not started as a response to COVID-19 but rather as a tool to provide students with more realistic tips and advice for taking online courses under any circumstances.” Furthermore, although these efforts centered MLIS students, similar efforts to help distance learners outside of their major or area of study would benefit both learners and subject teaching instructors by maximizing available class time for course content and peer interaction.
  • Feedback on the synchronous sessions remind us that all learning is embodied learning and it’s imperative to attend to the same physical, mental, and emotional needs as on-campus learners… albeit in different ways. For instance, one participant remarked, “I am re-thinking my physical area, mostly. Getting a cushion for my chair, thinking about back support!” while another stressed how helpful it was “to hear how normal anxiety is about keeping up with assignments.”
  • And of course self management, including executive functioning skill building in time management, help seeking, and habit tracking, helps all learners but especially distance learners as participants planned to increase their energies spent on “more organized note taking, better self scheduling” and “getting familiar with software programs.”

Burns, E., Kimmel, S. C., & DiScala, J. (2019). E-advising: Expanding advising for distance LIS students. Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning, 13(4), 369-385.

This pre-COVID-19 pandemic article describes graduate students’ experiences with holistic, sustained virtual academic advising offered as part of institutional wrap-around support. At some unidentified point before the pandemic, students in the 100% asynchronous online MLIS program at Old Dominion University (a public research university in Norfolk, Virginia) completed this paper-based survey of 12 questions which featured 9 multiple choice and 3 short answer prompts. In total, 75 students (out of 156 enrolled students) attending the program’s mandatory on-campus Summer Institute opted to complete the survey. The university is a big place that feels even bigger when reduced to a system of hyperlinks and phone numbers to unknown names who may not be the appropriate contact. Ultimately, this article is a reminder that even advanced degree-seeking students in the LIS field require explicit instruction in and help acting on the variety of support services and resources we provide. For instance, only 1 student had interacted with the Writing Center, and only 11 had referenced a library tutorial.


  • The authors emphasize the introduction of an e-advisor was an additional support that did not replace already successful online program structures such as a strong community of practice model, ready access to program faculty through frequent course discussions, and an established practice of holding synchronous office hours.
  • So far, the initiative has been successful. As students themselves put it: They especially appreciate having a knowledgeable staff person to turn to! One wrote, “It is very helpful because when I have questions about the program, I know there is always someone who can help me,” and another added, “It eases concerns and allows for concentrated focus on my studies.”
  • Of course, there is always room for improvement. Specifically, learners expressed a need for more frequent and more comprehensive communications. Several students noted a need for notifications about some of the deadlines the university and program have in place: “Getting more advanced notice about big deadlines, paperwork due etc.”