While much has been written about the role of academic libraries in supporting massive open online courses (MOOCs), the inclusion of MOOCs in a public library setting is largely unexplored territory.
This past summer, the Ridgefield Library included a MOOC as part of its adult summer reading program. I believe that public libraries offer the perfect “meet-up” location for MOOCs and wanted to put this theory to the test. A Coursera class entitled The Fiction of Relationship taught by professor Arnold Weinstein from Brown University was selected, based on the library’s previous success with literature-based programs and with requests from patrons for more.
After contacting Coursera and receiving approval for this use of the course, the library made The Fiction of Relationship the centerpiece of its adult summer reading program. Patrons who participated registered both on the Coursera website and with the library, and those without access to computers at home were able to complete their sign-up at Ridgefield. Curriculum materials spanned works from classic authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf to more contemporary authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, and J.M. Coetzee. The library acquired multiple copies of assigned books through interlibrary loan. For those with access to an ereader, many of the classics were also available as free ebooks.
The meet-ups occurred one evening a week over the course of ten weeks. Attendees watched Weinstein’s lectures, which were projected on a screen, followed by a facilitated discussion of both their content and the week’s readings. This was a relatively “low-tech” program to present, needing only a laptop attached to a projector with a sound system. Lectures were downloaded ahead of time to avoid any potential problems with streaming. Staff members and volunteers served as discussion facilitators. In order to give these individuals time to prepare and to preview the lectures, public viewings ran a week behind the official course schedule. Owing to this time lag, participants chose to forgo the option of receiving an official certificate of class completion, which would have required submitting weekly papers online for peer review.
Initially, about 40 patrons signed up for the course, which by the end had become a group of about 20 dedicated participants. Since much has been written about the low percentage of people who finish MOOCs (often estimated as about ten percent of those who register), the completion rate of library participants was encouraging. Feedback from a survey conducted at the end of the course was overwhelmingly positive. Respondents almost universally expressed an interest in participating in another MOOC at the library and offered suggestions for topics of interest. Patrons commented that watching the lectures at the library and discussing them as a group enriched their experience and added to the insights gained from the course. Those who did not finish the course cited the time commitment as the main drawback. A few decided to complete the course online at home. In response to a question as to how the experience could be improved, participants recommended shortening the length of the individual meet-up sessions, which typically lasted three hours.
Based on this experience, the Ridgefield Library plans to continue as a meet-up destination for MOOCs as part of its mission to be “an intellectual and cultural center” and to support lifelong learning for all ages. With the growth of MOOC providers and the increase in the number of colleges and universities that partner with them, the opportunities for public libraries to incorporate MOOCs into their programming seem endless.