By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

As unlikely as it may seem today, 20 years ago, someone had the idea that college students could take classes and complete degrees off campus, across cities and states; using postal mail, fax machines and early computer technology to submit assignments; and chat with professors online. It was an innovative–and to some–a somewhat far-fetched idea.

Online capability was essentially non-existent then. Distance classes were an anomaly. The technologies that today makes communicating across time and space—as we do so effortlessly now—was simply unheard of in 1993.

While it may seem hard to believe by today’s standards, consider what it was like for the daring students who lept into that educational unknown:

  • The beginning phases of the commercial Internet had only just emerged   
  • Some major cities were Internet-connected, and had Internet service providers, but access came through phone lines and modems.
  • Mosaic was the default browser.
  • The facsimile machine was the fastest way to transmit words and images—other than the U.S. mail—as a way to send in class assignments.
  •  E-mail was the “big new thing,” but quite the mystery still. At the iSchool, distance students (and faculty) took classes to learn how to use it.

Those are among the recollections of two alumnae of the first distance learning class at the School of Information Studies who came back to campus for the iSchool’s celebration this past weekend marking 20 years of online education, and the enrollment of its first class of distance students.

Dean Liz Liddy welcomed alumni, faculty, staff, and students, and recognized Ruth V. Small, the Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor, director of the LIS Program/School Media Specialization, and now a distributed faculty member at the iSchool,“for getting the whole thing started” in 1993.

“We owe all of our online learning to Ruth,” Dean Liddy emphasized. “It was Ruth’s idea to do this 20 years ago, when no one else thought of it,” she said. Dean Liddy also recalled how then-Dean Ray VonDran “insisted that every single faculty member teach online,” making sure that there were not two segmented groups of faculty. “We all learned to teach online, and it made a real difference in how integrated our curriculums are,” she commented.    

Dr. Small explained how the effort was on the precipice of learning technologies then, and because the concept was so new, she faced a mixed reaction to her suggestion that Syracuse University and the iSchool undertake distance education. “We had the backing of the faculty and the support of the dean, but there were a few Doubting Thomases in Central Administration,” she recounted. They were asking us, ‘Who would want to learn online?’ We said, ‘We know a lot of people who do!’” She noted that help from Blythe Bennett and Barbara Settel was instrumental in getting the program started. Their efforts proved fruitful; 27 students enrolled in the first program, “and it’s just grown since then,” Dr. Small said. She also pointed out how different the situation was then from today.

Two members of the original class in 1993 were present for the anniversary celebration, and offered their thoughts about their interests in the online master’s in library information science program and the efforts it took them to earn their degrees then.

Original Class Members

Jane Verostek, of Syracuse, who received a bachelor’s degree from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in environmental studies, was 23 years old and working three jobs when she enrolled. Her role at the Syracuse University Law Library as an acquisition clerk kept her busy full time; she worked a few hours a week at the Fairmount Library, and pulled a weekend shift or two in Wegman’s bakery. “I knew I wanted to get a library degree, and I just had to figure out how I could fit it into my life since I didn’t want to quit any of my jobs,” Jane remembered. The distance program proved to be that answer.

Today, as associate librarian at SUNY-ESF’s library, Jane is still learning online, and she’s teaching online too.  A couple years ago, she completed an iSchool certificate of advanced studies in digitization. She has been taking a few iSchool courses since then, and is contemplating enrolling for another certificate. In addition, she is teaching a SUNY-ESF course, helping students acclimate to the online learning environment. “I feel like I play a role in other kids’ decisions and the paths that they take, and how they use libraries,” she confides.

Cutting Edge

Inger Curth had worked in a library for years when she enrolled in the program at the age of 51. The native of Sweden was living in Lake Placid, an Adirondack village somewhat remote for tech hookup.

“The whole online thing was so new. Syracuse being cutting-edge, they wanted us to go in (on the Internet) and find information where[ever] we could find it. I had no modem for a computer so I had to use a floppy disc to create a connection to Syracuse. The dial-up connection got to be pretty expensive, and Syracuse ended up picking up the costs,” she remembered. Inger’s efforts also had to be worked around her forest ranger husband’s job, since he need the phone lines to be open. So sometimes, her work was completed in the late and wee hours.

After receiving her degree, Inger became information literacy librarian at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, a role she held for six years. She then became library director and served in that job for five more. “I would never have had that opportunity if I hadn’t taken the MLIS, she noted. “I wanted to come back to see the University where I spent so many good hours and a place that has done so much for me.”