Online MLIS student finds opportunities for engagement and connection

I began my master’s of library and information studies (MLIS) journey with all the invigorating excitement of a new semester but without the crisp fall air of Edmonton’s River Valley or the clusters of bustling students. Rather, in September 2017, I sat down at my desk in my quiet home office with a mug of tea and popped open my laptop.

After completing my undergraduate degree in ancient and medieval history from the U of A in 2014, I began employment with Edmonton Public Library as a library assistant. Through this work, I quickly fell in love with the idea of pursuing a more nuanced understanding of librarianship and applied as soon as I learned that the U of A’s part-time online MLIS stream would allow me to continue to work at the library full-time while taking classes. I would enhance each venture with experience in the other.

While this sounded idyllic, I was worried about the potential for an isolating experience. Between living off-campus and prioritizing academics I had completely missed out on engaging in broader campus life during my undergraduate degree. Reflecting on my online experience, however, nothing could have been further from the truth. Despite the remote nature of an online degree, I was far more connected to other students and campus life than ever before.

Namely, finding purposeful connections with others via technology became a professional passion and a personal anchor from the moment I was accepted into the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS). It started small; I joined a cohort Facebook group that a classmate had started and didn’t think much of it. However, as we grew through our courses, it was this group that offered not just critical access to information and but an unfathomably deep pool of encouragement and support for the entirety of my degree.

Inspired by this experience, I ran for a position as Library and Information Studies Students’ Association’s online student representative, determined to explore initiatives that would similarly engage online students. My favorite of these was focused on cultivating play in our online community through piloting a now annual virtual viewing party. In the spirit of Mystery Science Theater 3000, students from across Canada tune-in to synchronously watch a public domain horror movie and provide a collaborative and witty live commentary track!

One of the most exciting opportunities to explore digital communities more formally came when I was appointed as a research assistant to Dr. Adam Worrall. In the research, international student immigrants shared the impact of information and communications technologies on their settlement process. I was fascinated that the usage was not dissimilar to what I had experienced as an online student myself. Technology now only allowed for the rapid exchange of information, but were invaluable in creating networks for support. A resulting paper was given at the 2019 ASIS&T Conference: “You don't feel that you're so far away”: Information sharing, technology use, and settlement of international student immigrants.

I now find myself the 2019/2020 editor-in-chief of Pathfinder: A Canadian Journal for Information Science Students and Early Career Professionals. As an open source journal, Pathfinder represents another digital nexus which ensures that online communities continue to foster rich personal and professional development. I take great pride in the journal being run entirely online and by students, creating more of the opportunities which were so impactful for me.

Distilling what I have learned, I would say this: while we must carry the significance of place with us—I am thankful to learn, work, and recreate in Edmonton as a settler on Treaty 6 territory and the home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region IV—the flexibility of online communities has nearly erased the importance of place in creating connected and dynamic learning networks. This is a lesson that I will gratefully carry forward as I pursue a career in librarianship.