MLIS online student makes a world of connections through volunteering

The Information School’s Master of Library and Information Science program has taken Tiffany Coulson all around the world, right at her kitchen table.

As an online student, Coulson sought to complement her master’s degree program with volunteer work that she could perform over the Internet from her home near remote Mattawa, Washington. When the iSchool’s Technology and Social Change Group sought help for the women’s advocacy organization World Pulse, she answered the call for a data analyst. The decision would open Coulson’s eyes to a major opportunity to make a difference.

“I had no idea what I would be learning,” Coulson said. “I am passionate about women's issues now.”

World Pulse seeks to improve the lives of women around the globe by advancing their digital skills. In many countries, women and girls are denied access to education and technology, so World Pulse faces deeply ingrained cultural barriers as it seeks social change. In the United States, women face issues that may not be as pronounced, but there are still obstacles such as online harassment, unequal representation at tech companies, and economic inequality.

World Pulse asked women from more than 70 countries to suggest solutions to the problems they face regarding digital access, digital literacy and digital empowerment, and Coulson was tasked with turning hundreds of written responses into quantifiable data. It was a huge challenge, but one for which her iSchool classes had her prepared.

“My very first graduate research class was super helpful,” Coulson said. “Discussions regarding digital inclusion in my MLIS classes gave me helpful background. And the Capstone class gave me the means to put the project on the road.”

The project grew first into a three-month Capstone project, and then into a yearlong effort. Coulson used data visualization tools for her analysis, identified common themes in the responses and made recommendations based on her results.

“What was great is that I could reach through the Internet and connect with any one of those women. And so I did,” Coulson said. “It morphed from analysis to what amounts to ethnographic research. I just dove in.” 

She fielded requests for her work at conferences around the world, even speaking at the International Governance Forum in Instanbul, all remotely from her kitchen table. Coulson became so involved that she slowed the pace of her MLIS program to pursue her work with World Pulse. While it delayed her degree, the volunteer work also enriched her experience.

“I applied to the program because being an online student was the only way I could go to graduate school. It turns out that everything I learned about working online, communicating remotely and collaborating on the Internet ended up literally opening the entire world to me.”

Coulson also works for a nonprofit organization, writing literacy programming, and she expects to earn her master’s degree in spring 2016. Her volunteer work and her MLIS classes have her thinking more broadly about librarianship than when she entered the program.

“I came into the MLIS program thinking I would learn more about literacy and kids and school libraries,” she said. “My analysis of digital inclusion, my interest in research, engineering education and community literacy programming — all of that is librarianship.  All of my interests came from the iSchool and have been supported by my education at the UW.”