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Wednesday, February 7 • 4:00pm - 5:30pm
Session 3.1A - Juried Papers: So Far Away: Expanding the Boundaries of LIS Education to Include Rural Students.

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The rural landscape often includes expansive views of farmland, woods, and open spaces. Murray (2016) describes rural life as offering decided advantages for connection and a space where community might rally together, for example, to build a new library. But this geography is also often seen as a barrier to access for professional development (Kendrick, Leaver, & Tritt, 2013; Little, 2017) and graduate education (Kymes & Ray, 2012; Mellon & Kester, 2004) in the library field. Rural librarianship is fraught with challenges of isolation, small size, and distance (Freeman, n.d.).
Distance education expands the opportunities of rural residents with the promise of access to online webinars, courses, and graduate programs (Kymes & Ray, 2012; Little, 2017; Mellon & Kester, 2004). In turn, LIS education should also expand the boundaries of our programs away from a “metropolitan-centric” curriculum (Roberts, 2017) to be more inclusive of the rural perspective on librarianship and library education.
Rural school libraries represent a particular kind of geographic and economic diversity and have an under-served need for access to 21st century library resources and school library professionals. K-12 students in rural areas are less likely to have a school librarian with a master’s degree than those in urban or suburban regions (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006). In Virginia, many rural counties face poverty levels well above the state average of 11.3 percent, with the county’s highest poverty level at 26.8 percent (Index Mundi, 2017). Strange (2011) notes the inequities of federal Title One funding to rural schools, citing Virginia’s Lee County Public Schools particularly (p. 15). K-12 students from schools of poverty also have fewer school library resources including staffing, new materials, and access to school libraries (Pribesh, Gavigan, & Dickinson, 2011). Teachers in these areas also face lower professional salaries and geographic and professional isolation (Mollenkopf, 2009).
Purpose and Methodology
While online education has expanded the reach of our programs to rural and remote areas, it is necessary to expand the boundaries of our thinking about librarianship and library education and explore the unique challenges of school library professionals in rural areas. Through an IMLS grant [#RE-01-13-0008-13], NextGen2, coupled with an online program, Old Dominion University was able to provide financial, academic, and mentoring support to a cohort of 11 school library candidates drawn from rural, western regions of Virginia. These students, who were classroom teachers, were educated as a cohort to fill positions as school librarians and as leaders in their communities and the profession. In this case study, we seek to understand their perceptions of distance education, particularly as rural students, and the features of an online program that promoted professional connections. The following research questions guided the study:
What are the perceptions of these participants about the experience of engaging in the activities of an online cohort, including coursework, fieldwork, and opportunities to participate in state and national conferences?
What do participants report regarding outcomes of the online experience, including changes in employment, leadership, and professional engagement?
Participants in this study included the 11 NextGen students and the two practicing school librarians assigned to work with them as mentors. The data sources for this study were interviews with the 11 students who completed the program and the two mentors. Interviews were conducted online through Adobe Connect and transcribed. Transcriptions were analyzed using a qualitative process of coding and developing themes across the participant responses. The three researchers independently coded each transcript and then met to discuss discrepancies and develop a final coding scheme. Our preliminary themes are discussed below.
Preliminary Findings
So Far Away
Distance from the university and each other was an ever-present concern for the participants. Students discussed challenges trying to connect with each other and with their mentors, as well as limited opportunities to get together face-to-face with faculty. Even the distance to travel to regional conferences that were designed to be closer to participants was viewed as prohibitive. While students were assigned mentors in their region, they were unlikely to meet these mentors in-person. This led to weak mentor relationships and furthered feelings of isolation.
Rooted in This Place
Students expressed deep connections to the communities where they lived. More than half of the students have yet to find employment as school librarians because they are unwilling to move away from their communities. Advertised positions are further away than students are willing or able to travel. Community was also mentioned relative to course assignments; many students spoke about those assignments that required them to learn about and work within their communities as particularly meaningful. Additionally, due to the distance from other classmates, faculty, and mentors, students often fell back on their local librarian for assistance.
Building Bridges
Despite distances, the support structures built into the program and learning community that was fostered created a means of engagement for the students. Students frequently mentioned class assignments that required them to work with each other and the design of the cohort model as powerful mechanisms that strengthened relationships. These relationships have continued to endure after the students’ graduation as both friendships and professional support. Distances have been overcome through phone calls, texting, Facebook, and Twitter.
This cohort of students provides a unique perspective regarding the opportunities and challenges found in the preparation of 21st century librarians for rural areas. Their experiences and perceptions remind us of the importance of geography. Some distances can be overcome through relationships developed in a cohort and by harnessing social media and other technologies. Closer to home, family and community relationships are also powerful resources to be leveraged in our graduate courses and LIS programs. The findings of this case study help LIS programs explore practices best implemented to engage and connect with a diverse set of students, particularly those in outlying rural areas.

Wednesday February 7, 2018 4:00pm - 5:30pm
Meadowbrook I

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