4 research resources for online students

laptop in library

Online students face a different set of challenges than their classroom counterparts. In addition to needing strong self-discipline, motivation and sharp time management skills, online students might also miss out on campus amenities like libraries and research facilities. For those in research-intensive fields, finding viable alternatives to on-campus facilities is crucial. Here are four ways that schools are helping e-students with research projects.

1. Courses that mirror brick-and-mortar classes

Despite not being on campus, online students at Auburn University in Alabama aren't at a disadvantage, says Dr. Stanley Harris, associate dean for graduate and international programs for Auburn's Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.

"All of our online classes are actually video versions of our live on-campus program," Harris says. "If I teach a class on campus in the MBA program, that's also being videoed live and streamed to our online students. It's almost like they're sitting in the back row watching the class …"

On top of providing videos of the same lectures traditional students receive, Auburn also strives to offer the same course materials, exams and assignments, as well as electronic versions of library resources, online access to campus research databases and e-textbooks to ensure that all students are on a level playing field.

Before enrolling in an online learning curriculum, Harris advises students to "ask how similar the [online] program is to the campus program.

"... They need to ask about what kind of technology they're going to need and what kind of access is available to the university resources," he says.

2. Tech-savvy librarians

Often, having too many research materials is a bigger problem for students than not having enough. A library pro can help point you in the right direction, but you need to be able to reach them whether you're physically on campus or not.

"We have a live chat with the reference desk, so [students] can chat and ask questions to the library," says Judy Puskar, an online support specialist for Northern Illinois University in Dekalb.

NIU's "Ask a Librarian" feature allows info-hungry students to e-mail, instant message or text questions to library personnel during operating reference desk hours.

Having a good reference expert on your side can mean the difference between a mediocre paper and a killer research project, so make sure your friendly college librarians are just as available for students who aren't on campus as they are for those who can walk through the door.

3. Interlibrary lending

Some books and physical research materials located in campus libraries won't be available in a digital format, but you might be able to get your hands on them anyway. Schools such as Northern Illinois University maintain agreements with libraries outside of their immediate ZIP code, allowing students who can't make it to campus to have research materials sent to a library near them. As a member of I-Share, a lending agreement among libraries in Illinois, NIU students can access both digital and physical research materials -- regardless of whether they're studying in Rockford, Chicago, Springfield or somewhere in between.

Many schools also maintain lending agreements both within their state and nationally through systems like ILLiad and WorldShare Interlibrary Loan. A quick call to your school's campus library can give you the skinny on how to get physical research materials where you live.

4. Reliable human resources

Your professors and faculty will be some of the best information sources out there. Just make sure you can easily get in contact with them, says Dr. Jeff Morgan, a math professor and associate provost for education, innovation and technology for the University of Houston.

"Even in face-to-face classes, an awful lot of the correspondence that takes place between [our] students and faculty members takes place on discussion boards and through e-mail," Dr. Morgan says. "... There are also online live office hours that people hold and live help sessions using online meeting software. … I can't think of a resource that [online students] wouldn't have access to that a face-to-face student would."

Students considering an online curriculum should not only understand how and when they can get in contact with their professors, but also what they should do if they run into a technological hiccup that could prevent them from accessing the research resources they need.

"[Investigate] how available is a live person who can actually help you install the software on your own computer and work with you on updates," Judy Pushkar advises. "Strong technology support is essential."

Before enrolling in an online learning program, Dr. Morgan recommends asking the blunt question, "'Are there resources that are made available to students in face-to-face classes that I will not have access to as an online student?'" he says. "That's an important question. These students are paying for their education."


Stanley Harris, Associate Dean for Graduate and International Programs, Auburn University College of Business, Interviewed by the author, April 30, 2014

Jeff Morgan, Professor in the Department of Mathematics & Associate Provost for Education, Innovation and Technology, University of Houston, Interviewed by the author, May 1, 2014

Ask a Librarian, Northern Illinois University Libraries,

ILLiad at a glance, OCLC.org,

WorldShare Interlibrary Loan, OCLC.org,

Judy Puskar, Online Support Specialist, Northern Illinois University College of Education: Educational Technology, Research & Assessment, Interviewed by the author, May 2, 2014