Advice for Librarians: Reaching Out to the Invisible Student

Who are the invisible students? They’re the students you never see. They’re distance education students. Or students who never come to the library. They’re the students who may not know what the library has to offer. They’re the students who may be too timid to ask for help.

I’m an invisible student. I’m also a librarian. And I have come to the conclusion that libraries need to do much more in reaching out to their invisible students.

Out of sight, out of mind. As a distance ed student, that’s been my library experience in a nutshell.

Don’t get me wrong, my library at UND provides services to distance ed students, and probably more than many schools do. The problem? I really had to seek out those services in order to take advantage of them. Don’t forget, I’m also a librarian so I know how to do that. Let me just say that many of my fellow grad students do not. In fact, I found myself providing library and resource advice in a number of classes – advice that my classmates needed. Advice that students could have easily discovered had there been a stronger library presence in our LMS.

So, upon reflection, I’ve come up with a number of ways that librarians can improve services for their invisible students:

Make your library presence known. Please don’t wait for students to seek out services. Be proactive. Be assertive. Have a strong presence in your LMS. I’m not talking about a library tutorial that’s hidden inside an orientation. I’m talking about having your own course page that is easy to locate and easy to link to. I want to know who the librarians are. I want to know what the librarians look like and what their specialties are. I want to know exactly what library services are available, I also want every instructor to provide a link to the library course page.

Have a social presence. I enjoy following my library on Facebook. I like that connection. It makes me feel like a part of the community – even from a distance. Facebook is a great way to get to know a library virtually. Every library has a unique organizational personality, driven by the library staff. Facebook can give me a glimpse into that personality. If I can see the library staff smiling and having fun in their jobs, guess what? I’ll be more likely to ask for help.

Be a liaison for distance education. In the library, distance education should not be one person’s specialty. It should be everyone’s specialty. Why? Because distance ed library services go way beyond distance-only courses. Many of today’s students will never set foot in the library, whether on-campus or off-campus. Yet, they all still need library services and instruction. So all librarians should have the skills to tackle distance ed library issues. And all librarians should develop their blended librarian skills.

Make e-books a priority. As a distance student, this is one of the issues that irritates me the most. I am about to embark upon writing my thesis, and I can already tell you that my library’s decision to purchase certain sources in print versus digital is impacting me. Circulating books are one thing (they can be requested via mail). It’s the print reference books that I cannot access. UND has a very large distance education program, and I cannot for the life of me think why access is not taken into consideration when purchasing materials. Access should always be weighed with cost. And if the decision is made to purchase an item in print instead of digitally, then that item should circulate if you are serving a large distance ed population. From a librarian’s perspective, I think that we have hit upon a point in the evolution of e-books that the general print reference collection needs to become a thing of the past.

Personalize information literacy instruction. One of the current trends in education is competency based learning. This allows students to move at their own pace, and earn credit for what they already know. This is especially relevant for invisible students because personalized learning is typically linked to distance education. And this impacts information literacy instruction for all levels of students. With more personalized learning programs on the horizon, librarians should be working with instructional designers to develop prerequisite, self-paced IL courses that students should be required to pass before moving onto additional courses. Even without personalized learning programs, there are plenty of invisible students who are falling through the cracks in terms of IL skills. They could use something that is both required and self-paced.

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