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Distance Learning: Navigating The Maze

Nikki Dettmar is the Acting Education and Assessment Coordinator. She earned a distance learning MSIS from the University of North Texas while living in Seattle and currently teaches via online distance education modalities. This is the first in a series of Technology Tuesday posts about the types of  distance continuing education available, the technology involved, usage tips for both students and instructors, and the opportunities & challenges of distance learning.

Winnipeg Maze of Lifelong Learning, photo by Stephen Downes

Have you thought about distance learning but weren’t sure where to start, or taken an online continuing education (CE) course and found that the experience wasn’t what you were expecting it to be? Join us as we explore some of the distance learning opportunities available to medical librarians and some navigation tips on how to have them be productive experiences.

With reduced institution funding and limited release time for staff to attend face-to-face CE classes to stay on top of the latest in the field, distance education opportunities are becoming more readily available as a way to meet this information need. The National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM) includes Distance Learning in their Training & Educational Opportunities, as does the Medical Library Association (MLA) Education website with Web-based learning classes and tutorials.

What are some of the different types of distance education learning formats (online modalities) ?

Web conferences, also called webinars, use streaming video and audio technology to connect individuals at computers together in a group for a live (synchronous) session that can include slide presentations and following along with website navigation. Web conferencing can either involve the speaker presenting to a mostly silent audience, or interactive with group discussion and polling options. Our free RML Rendezvous sessions are an example of live webinars using Adobe Connect that are recorded for later viewing and reference. If you have not previously used Adobe Connect, be sure to test your connection and it will assist you with any needed free upgrades.

Online courses usually have a website that uses a course management system (CMS) such as Moodle or Blackboard that students visit to access class information. These can be publicly accessible or limited to registered participants, involve instructor-student interaction or serve as a self-guided student resource, and have both synchronous  and asynchronous components to them. One online course involving some instructor-student interaction on MLA Moodle but is mostly self-guided is the free tutorial Gail Kouame & Jean Shipman developed, Prescription for Information: Addressing Health Information Literacy. Please note:  If you have not previously taken an MLA Moodle course, creation of a new account is required to access the tutorial.

How can I find out more about what the distance learning experience is like?

As with most things, sometimes the best way to see what something is like is to jump right in and explore it. The suggested web conferences and online course above do not require a time commitment or tuition and don’t worry… you can’t break them, only the distance learning teachers can do that!

Extensive information about the distance learning experience is often geared towards online students seeking a degree, which is a different educational environment than those seeking CEs for professional/lifelong learning. For online CE courses, look for for a welcome message that is usually at the top of the class website. Either the welcome or other resources near it contains information about who the instructors are, how to contact them, class objectives (these are important to review and know what you can & can’t expect to learn from the class), and explains how to navigate the website. If anything is unclear to you don’t hesitate to be proactive and contact the instructor or post a discussion forum message to ask… chances are good you are not the only student with the same question.

Do you know of additional free distance learning resources for medical librarians or have your own ‘dont miss’ webinar sessions? Please feel free to share in the comments for others to learn from as well!

6 Responses to “Distance Learning: Navigating The Maze”

  1. Kathy Fatkin Says:

    I tried the free Webjunction “LibraryU” course Shelving with NLM. It was designed for volunteers or students to teach them shelving using the NLM call numbers. Very basic but well designed and you definetly set your own pace.

  2. Hope Leman Says:

    This was edifying, “Web conferences, also called webinars.” Helped me get a grip on terminology–thanks, Nikki!

  3. Nikki Dettmar Says:

    I’m glad you were able to access the Shelving with NLM course for free and that it was helpful, Kathy, it looks like there’s a tuition cost now.

    Staying on top of terminology is sometimes a full time job in and of itself, Hope!

    Thank you both for your perspectives

  4. Michael Learner Says:

    Online learning is about to go through an explosive phase of growth. I know its been around for ages but I feel the technology with the internet and communication is so much more advanced now than ever, and widely available, it is finally coming together.

    RE: “Have you thought about distance learning but weren’t sure where to start, or taken an online continuing education (CE) course and found that the experience wasn’t what you were expecting it to be?” …

    I have a special section on my new site for any graduates of distance programs to share their stories to help create a resource, or repository, for others to learn from. If interested to share or just take a peek then click on my name in this comment above. thanks!

  5. Michael Learner Says:

    I think that online education is about to see an explosive phase of growth. I know that it’s been around for ages but really the timing is just right with the pace of technology and the point where it is so much more widely available now, I believe it is finally coming together and we’ll see online learning become much more commonplace

    RE: your opening, “Have you thought about distance learning but weren’t sure where to start, or taken an online continuing education (CE) course and found that the experience wasn’t what you were expecting it to be? ” …

    I have a special page on my site to collect stories from graduates of distance programs, to funtion as a resource, or repository, for other to learn what the experience is really like and how people have been shaped by it. If you get a chance stop by, or if you are reading this and want to share your story just follow the link to my site by clicking my name in this comment. thanks!

  6. James Says:

    The best resource that I know of is the Open Courseware Consortium ( It list free courseware from universities such as MIT and other great higher education institutions.