Commuting is Not Distance Learning
The other day I met the student who won the prize drawing in my library’s new student orientation scavenger hunt this semester. She was delighted as I handed her the gift card to the college bookstore, and I was delighted that she had the chance not only to win the prize but also to get to know the library’s resources and services. As it turns out her odds were quite good, because unfortunately participation in the scavenger hunt was somewhat less than overwhelming. There are lots of possible reasons for that which we’ll try to get at them when we make changes for next semester.
But thinking about those reasons started me thinking about commuter students. I’m at a large urban public commuter college within a large urban public (mostly) commuter university. When many people think of college they likely conjure an image of a traditional campus with residence halls, as we tend to see in movies and on TV, but I’d guess that a sizable number of college students commute to school. After all, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, in Fall 2009 fully 44% of all U.S. undergraduates attended community colleges, most of whom are commuters.
When we talk about library resources and services I think there can be a tendency to conflate commuter students with distance learning students. Both groups spend large amounts of time off-campus, but I think there might be real differences between them. Distance learning students have chosen their off-campus program of study, which presumably means that they have the space, time, and technology available to them somewhere off-campus, perhaps at home, to complete their coursework. They go into college knowing that they’ll need to carve out an acceptable study space for themselves, and that they’ll need to access college and library services online. We may worry whether distance students are finding all of the great content — online tutorials, ask a librarian, ebooks — on our library websites, but at least we can be reasonably confident that they have the technology to do so.
I don’t think we can necessarily assume the same for commuter students. I’m deep into analyzing and writing up the data a colleague and I have collected about the scholarly habits of students at several colleges at our university, and it’s clear that for many of them the above assumptions don’t hold true. They may not have a quiet, solitary space for study in their homes, which they often share with family members or roommates. They may not have reliable access to the internet or even a computer in their homes, and while some have and use smartphones for many information and communication needs, not all do.
What do commuter students need from their college library, and how are we doing at meeting these needs? Two thoughts spring to my mind:
Quiet study space: Earlier this year a great post over at Confessions of a Community College Dean caught my eye. The library on his campus designated one room as a “tech-free quiet study space,” and the students flocked to it, even going so far as to self-enforce the rule for silence. At my library students sometimes come to the Reference Desk to ask a librarian to shush a noisy group of students, so I find it especially interesting that students self-monitored the silent study room.
Accessible collections: Even though not all college students have mobile devices or reliable access to the internet in their homes, it’s clear that smartphone ownership is increasing. I imagine that it would be very useful for students with unreliable internet access (or a long commute on public transportation) to be able to download relevant content at the library for use later, when they may be offline. When we acquire ebook packages with restrictive DRM and downloading policies and multiple, confusing steps required to access content on a mobile device, it presents a barrier to students using this content in the ways that may be most supportive of their learning.
What other resources and services can academic libraries offer for commuter students? I’d be interested to hear what’s happening at other colleges with large commuter populations — please leave a comment!