Since the term was coined five years ago, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been a subject of much debate in educational circles. In their brief life span, the courses, in which up to many thousands of students can participate, have demonstrated the promise of new technology to democratize education by some and been declared failed experiments by others. MOOC professors, though, say that it’s too early to judge how MOOCs perform, and that after just a few years, even those in the know are still figuring out what MOOCs really are and what shape—or shapes—they’ll take in the future. Whatever MOOCs look like going forward, though, libraries—in the academic and public sphere alike—will play a key role in helping to determine their design and success. In just the few months since we looked in LJ at the MOOC environment (“Massive Open Opportunity,” LJ 5/1/13), the quickly moving field has evolved significantly.
MOOCs in the public library
Among the biggest contributions libraries can make to the MOOC ecosystem is also one of the simplest—they can provide the Internet connection and resource access that students need to succeed in a MOOC. Chicago Public Library (CPL), where public libraries are looking for ways to increase their worth to the local learning environment by bringing more, tech librarian Michelle Frisque points out that for MOOC students who may have limited access to the Internet at home, public library resources make online learning a viable option. “We are the biggest provider of public technology and wireless access,” says Frisque. “And we have the resources people can use to do the homework in these courses.”
At CPL, Frisque is hoping to one day bring MOOC elements to the library’s One Book, One Chicago program, which encourages all Chicago library patrons to consider the same work together. MOOC-inspired offerings and platforms could help to connect readers and communities to the project. “These long-term programs are great in person,” said Frisque. “But we’d like to create a virtual presence for them as well.”
In the County of Los Angeles Public Library (CoLAPL) system, librarians are already putting those same resources to work. Director Margaret Donellan Todd and her staff saw making the library a center for learning as a key part of their strategic plan going forward.
Having a virtual component was key to that mission, Todd says. To that end, CoLAPL partnered with Gale Cengage to offer patrons access to a wide variety of online classes through the company’s Learn4Life program. Learn4Life focuses on offering adults and professionals access to lessons in skills they never picked up or want to sharpen. Among the offerings available are courses in “warehouse management, sewing, and cooking,” says Todd. “There are courses on serious, academic-type topics and courses for people who just want to learn something new.”
Making their own MOOCs
Some library systems, such as the New York Public Library (NYPL), have dipped their toes into creating original MOOC content, like the Sinology 101 MOOC developed for NYPL by former reference librarian Raymond Pun (a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker). NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building houses a huge collection of research and scholarship on the history of China, one that Pun wanted to see promoted more effectively to lifelong learners. Presenting at LJ’s The Digital Shift virtual event on October 16, Pun said that he created the Sinology 101 MOOC as a way to “create a bridge between the program and the collection.”
The MOOC portion of the course complemented an in-person workshop on research techniques, but was taken at students’ own pace, allowing them to focus on the subjects in Chinese history they found most interesting. The content presented in the MOOC portion of the course also helped to shape the in-person research workshops Pun oversaw. “I got to spend less time on lectures and more time on hands-on training,” says Pun.
The course’s MOOC component was taken at students’ own paces, allowing them to focus on the subjects in Chinese history they found most interesting while not making too many demands on their time. The content presented in the MOOC portion of the course also helped to shape the in-person research workshops Pun oversaw. ”I got to spend less time on lectures and more time on hands-on training,” said Pun, making the blend of history-heavy MOOC and personalized research workshop as an experiment in the popular notion of the “flipped classroom,” which makes use of online resources for lectures, leaving instructors more time to engage students in practical exercises where they pick up skills rather than learning new facts.
The content creation NYPL got into may be too ambitious for a lot of organizations, though. “We’ve decided we’re not going to create our own content but create partners and host them on our site,” Todd says of L.A. County’s future MOOC plans. “We’re looking at local and community colleges we might be able to work with, as well as developing programs with other county agencies, like the Department of Health and the Department of Children and Family Services.”
Getting MOOCs to work for people who just need to hone their skills for their own use, whether it is repairing a car or programming in Python, is surely in line with library missions. And libraries may also be able to take lessons from MOOC-style learning to drive social engagement for existing programs. For MOOCs to live up to their potential, though, they must be turned from a tool for casual continued education to one underserved populations can use for low- or no-cost credits that are accepted by colleges and employers. And that may prove more difficult than it once seemed.
Learning from library MOOCs
David Lankes, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (SU iSchool), NY, helped to develop and teach a MOOC titled New Librarianship Master Class. As an experiment in learning how MOOCs could supplement or even replace standard online courses, Lankes’s course was split into two sections. Students could take the MOOC more casually, on their own schedule and at their own pace, viewing lectures and completing assignments as suited them from materials that are still available online. But Lankes and his colleagues also offered students the option to take the course for academic credit at Syracuse through a so-called “guided” section of the class that took place this past summer.
The guided MOOC featured more hands-on attention from Lankes and the other teachers involved, and students could take it for academic credit SU. “We’ve always tried to push out that [from] online classes…you get the same level of interaction with the professors that you would in person,” says Lankes. . “We needed to continue that idea in the MOOC. It couldn’t be just good luck, you’re on your own.” Of the 3,000 people who participated in the guided portion of the class, only one took it for credit, performing extra work, including penning a term paper for the course, and paying $3,800 for the credits she, as an SU student, needed for her program. Lankes acknowledges that the cost represented a significant barrier but says that the New Librarianship MOOC was also an experiment meant to “explore different business models and ways of supporting MOOCs,” Lankes says.
In the end, only 281 of the 2,405 students who enrolled in Lankes’s new librarianship MOOC completed the course and earned a certificate to that effect. While the completion rate wasn’t impressive, Lankes says he was surprised by the engagement many students showed—not only in class but in forums outside of it. “I was surprised at how much discussion and support took place outside of the formal class platform… via Twitter, a Facebook group, even in person meetings,” says Lankes. That level of engagement inspired him to think about what would happen if he let the course breathe a bit more, saying that if he had it to do over again, he would have expanded the time available for the guided course, rather than trying “to put a semester’s worth of content into four weeks.”
More than any one trend or style of approaching MOOCs, that sort of experimentation Lankes is engaged in may really be the name of the game when talking about MOOCs today, says Michael Stephens, a professor in the MLS program at San José State University (SJSU), CA, and an LJ columnist. Stephens coteaches the Hyperlinked Library MOOC alongside lecturer Kyle Jones. The not-for-credit course is hosted by SJSU but is aimed less at the library science students that Stephens teaches in his smaller, accredited courses and more at midcareer professionals aiming to develop further their skills in using the latest technology in their own libraries.As such, the coursework tends to be less theoretical and framed in more professional terms, including assignment s that librarians can actually use in their own day-to-day work, like developing a social media policy for their institution and briefing their directors on emerging technologies they could put to good use.
In the Hyperlinked Library MOOC, Stephens modified the common MOOC style of watching a video lecture or reading a lesson and then taking a quiz on the covered material. Instead, student work is reviewed by their peers, who offer their thoughts on what’s working and where there’s room for improvement. Stephens, Jones, and a team of assistants also view the work, but peer evaluation is a huge asset to the structure of the course, Stephens says.While the first course offering hasn’t wrapped up quite yet, he Stephens said that more than 100 of the 363 students registered for the course are well on their way to completing the coursework. Like Lankes, he notes some problems with the pacing, a dilemma he attempted to approach by introducing a week-long break in the course to let students catch on assignments without missing new material. While that sort of break can be a luxury for full-time students, when working with professionals with careers outside the classroom, it may be necessary, said Stephens.
And it’s not just peers in class that are looking at one another’s work. Since the course is open to the public and not protected by a password, anyone can take a look at the ideas being discussed and weigh in on them. “We just did a Q&A in a Google Hangout,” says Stephens. “Not only is that going up in the MOOC space, but it’s being tweeted and reshared in other places as well.” Taking cues from social media not only helps students feel more connected to one another in a MOOC environment, Stephens says, it also makes them more connected to the world at large, citing instances where the authors of readings for the course have weighed in on assignments regarding their work, much to the delight of students in the course.
The next step, as far as Stephens sees it, is taking MOOCs to even larger audiences, including those in far-flung regions who might most benefit from group learning to which they otherwise may not have access. “Reaching isolated librarians with this type of learning will probably be one of the biggest impact factors of this MOOC,” says Stephens.
As Lankes and Stephens both note, one place where MOOCs have the potential to serve is as small, particularly focused social networks, rather than traditional courses. While those networks may be great places for learning, however, getting college credit or an employer’s approval to participate is another matter.
Making MOOCs meaningful
According to Philipp Schmidt, the cofounder of online education platform Peer 2 Peer University, that sort of learning may be where MOOCs can make the most impact—by helping people learn from one another in a connected environment without worrying about whether that learning is officially recognized by universities. That recognition, Schmidt says, can actually get in the way of education. “Accreditation is the single biggest obstacle to real learning,” Schmidt says. “There’s this idea that learning is only important to get college credit and college degrees. A lot of learning happens after you leave school, by working with other people and starting projects.” Whether accreditation is good or bad, though, experiments in offering credit for MOOC participation are just beginning and are unlikely to scale up soon. And without that boost to the perceived validity of the education they provide, it’s going to be hard for MOOCs to live up to the promise of leveling the playing field for higher education. In the meantime, that may leave scholars and academic libraries in the facilitator role Todd is trying to introduce in Los Angeles County.
At Syracuse, Lankes sees MOOCs as fertile ground for academic libraries and the presses they find themselves frequently partnering with these days. A new breed of MOOC could be as closely connected to the world of publishing as they are to teaching. “Academic presses should be working with scholars and faculty to write and publish not only their next book but their next MOOC as well, Lankes says. The MOOC format, he says, could be a great way to supplement traditional publishing, one that can make research mean more in the world of education by sharing it more effectively.
Despite their much touted promise and oft-cited issues, these courses and communities are still largely in their infancy, and finding out what they’re going to grow into necessarily involves some growing pains. “We need to be more ready to fail,” says Stephens of the ecosystem around MOOCs today. Libraries, both academic and public, are particularly well placed to be part of those experiments, whether in helping to design them or ensuring that people have the chance to participate in them. “Libraries play a central role in the learning ecosystem in their community,” says CPL’s Frisque. “We want to look at making MOOCs a library event where we can bring a sense of personal community that will help keep people engaged.”