Last spring, when the pandemic forced the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to go to fully online classes, the program affected the least of any on campus was the MS in information sciences.
Out of necessity, the program has pioneered remote learning for decades. It educates information professionals to work in all varieties of libraries and other information intensive settings. “If you are going to be a top-level librarian or other information specialist, you need a master’s in information sciences,” explained Chancellor’s Professor Carol Tenopir, interim director of the School of Information Sciences. “Many of those who decide to become information professionals are adults in their 30s working full time who can’t come to Knoxville.”
UT’s program is the only American Library Association–accredited master’s degree program in library and information sciences in Tennessee, and until recently there was no such program at all in Virginia. To accommodate its far-flung students, the program innovated in ways that evolved from closed-circuit TV to iterations of distance learning online.
“Since this was my first distance education experience, I was anxious about it,” said John Metz, a Richmond, Virginia, resident who recently completed his degree. “But it worked so well, in part because the professors are so trained and engaged in their online teaching. Early on I found it kind of cool to be working on a project with a fellow student in Roanoke, Virginia, and another in Arkansas. Every week we met, and it was like we were in the same room.”
After 27 years as a pioneer of distance learning at UT, Tenopir is preparing to retire at the end of July. She had planned to retire a year ago but agreed to serve for a year as interim director of the School of Information Sciences when the previous director, Diane Kelly, was named vice provost for academics.
As a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and the author of five books, 28 years of the “Online Databases” column for Library Journal, and more than 200 journal articles, Tenopir has been an important voice in the ever-evolving discipline of information sciences, information access and retrieval, electronic publishing, and the information industry. “Libraries are busier than ever as people seek resources they need in digital form,” said Tenopir, whose journey as a scholar has paralleled the innovations that have sparked dizzying change in the information world.
California, Hawaii, Illinois, and Tennessee
A native of Whittier, California, Tenopir went to the same high school and college—Whittier High and Whittier College—as her hometown’s most famous native, former President Richard M. Nixon. After getting her master’s degree at California State University, Fullerton, she worked for an information consulting firm in Southern California and then as an automation librarian at the University of Hawaii in the era of the mid-to-late-70s, when automation was just becoming viable.
After earning her PhD in library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Tenopir returned to the University of Hawaii as an Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science. There she got her first taste of distance teaching broadcasting her classes via TV to the other Hawaiian islands.
Tenopir married fellow Hawaii IS faculty member Gerald Lundeen. They both moved to UT in 1994, where he taught part-time for several years while running a rare book business out of their home specializing in art, science, and technology books. Their son Andrew Lundeen is, naturally enough, a digital projects librarian at Michigan State University.
A History of Remote Learning
Tenopir arrived at UT’s School of Information Sciences, which had been accredited by the American Library Association since 1972 and in the 1980s had been the first school at UT to establish a distance education program. Initially that meant flying professors to Memphis to teach students there.
“In the mid-90s,” said Tenopir, “we did closed-circuit television. There was a studio in what is now Patrick Auditorium, and we would have two technicians behind a one-way mirror, a video camera, and there would be a TV we could look at and see and hear the students on.” She and her longtime colleague and innovator Peiling Wang broadcast classes to eight locations—four in Tennessee and four in Virginia—where students gathered in a classroom. When students wanted to ask a question, they’d press a button and speak through the system. “It was two-way interactive,” explained Tenopir. Each site required an on-hand technician to facilitate the broadcast and troubleshoot problems. One bonus for students was that, since each class was videotaped, VCR tapes were available for anyone who had missed class.
Even with Tenopir’s Hawaii TV experience, there was a learning curve. Wang said she had to learn how to stay within the video frame and to ensure that students could see what was on overhead projector slides. She eventually started sending copies of the slides ahead of time to sites so students could have them in-hand during her lessons. The program was deemed a success as enrollment from residents in Tennessee and Virginia continued to increase.
The next advances in distance education came with the advent of home computers and the World Wide Web. “The internet got faster and stable enough for us to use it for distance education, but we still had issues,” Tenopir said. “A lot of our students didn’t have good internet, and some still had dial-up.”
Since video took up too much bandwidth, the classes were audio-only with PowerPoint presentations visible during the lessons. Students were able to communicate with teachers via chat features. One thing that has never changed throughout all the years of SIS distance education is that the classes are mostly synchronous, meaning that everyone attends class in at the same time, just as if they were present in-person.
“We thought that was important, that face-to-face is a better experience. It’s more personal,” said Tenopir. Students have echoed her sentiments, stating that synchronous classes allow them to feel included in a community, and that they aren’t just taking a class by themselves. Both Tenopir and Wang had learned the importance of breaking out into groups for discussion and to encourage interaction. “Technology doesn’t determine how we teach,” says Wang. “It just facilitates it.”
The World of Zoom and Beyond
Lately, of course, Zoom technology has revolutionized online learning and made commonplace and familiar the distance techniques that SIS had used for some time. A familiar bonus is that, just as videos of class were available during the early broadcast days, video recordings of classes are instantly available once the class ends.
During the pandemic, said Tenopir, “Our day-to-day operations were affected the least in our master’s program. Only about a quarter to a third of our 300 MSIS students are on campus.” SIS has offered an undergraduate minor in information sciences for some time, offering mostly asynchronous classes, but starting two years ago they have offered an undergraduate major that includes face-to-face classes. It has some 50 students, all on campus.
In the most recent US News & World Report rankings, the SIS library and information sciences program was ranked tenth in the nation and No. 1 in the SEC. Additionally, the SIS school library media program ranked 13th overall and the digital librarianship program 14th in the nation. Enrollment in SIS graduate programs has grown from 171 in 2017 to 308 in 2020.
“In the future,” said Tenopir, “clearly we will continue to offer courses in a variety of formats. Masters classes will be mostly synchronous, with some asynchronous and some face to face delivery, and we want to keep that personal touch. In undergraduate classes we are experimenting with face-to-face, synchronous, asynchronous, and mixed mode. In the information professions, a lot of the work they do will be collaborative work, so we offer our students many chances to work together, get to know each other, and get ready for the information workplace.”
In her retirement, Tenopir plans to continue some of her UT research projects and working with doctoral students. “The rest of my time will be split between family in California and Michigan,” she said, “doing lots of birdwatching, hiking, and kayaking. We also have plans to return to Finland as well for several months next year. I have kept in touch with Fulbright Finland and hope to participate in a reunion for previous Fulbright recipients in Finland.
“The University of Tennessee has been very good to me, and I have embraced what it truly means to be a Tennessee Volunteer. That means being fully engaged in the campus and my academic discipline, giving back to the community, and having a life-long commitment to scholarship and service. And my niece is also a Volunteer—she is a student in our distance-education master’s in information sciences program!”
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