In a move that will help a leading urban library system begin defining its role in the burgeoning field of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the New York Public Library (NYPL) on April 30 announced a partnership with MOOC provider Coursera. Beginning this summer, NYPL will support a selection of Coursera’s online courses by hosting weekly in-person discussion groups at several branches in the Bronx and Manhattan through Coursera’s Learning Hubs program. Neither organization is paying the other as part of the partnership, but NYPL officials note that sharing information regarding participation in these programs will benefit both parties.
“Online courses can be a boon to increasing learning, especially when students engage with each other, keep each other focused, and have access to advice and further options for study,” NYPL President Tony Marx said in a statement to the press. “The library is proud to be joining this experiment by providing Coursera students with a place to gather, support each other and delve into the library for more information to help them persist and learn.”
“I think it’s a meaningful collaboration on both parts,” Luke Swarthout, NYPL director of adult education services, told LJ. “For us, it’s a way of experimenting with a different type of blending learning, with a real partner who can give us some feedback and even potentially give us a sense of whether these students are more likely to persist and complete [a MOOC course]. And I think for them it’s a way of experimenting with different ways that the material online can be used. I’ve been struck by their openness to think about the multiple ways that these classes could impact people’s lives.”
NYPL and Coursera estimate that about 50,000 New Yorkers are already signed up for Coursera courses. The library is still in the process of selecting the first round of classes it will support with discussion groups. Swarthout explained, “we are looking to find courses that have some broad appeal amongst New Yorkers and that are also consonant with the other work of the library,” adding that overlap between a course and NYPL collections will be one key consideration. NYPL will likely hire facilitators, such as graduate students with subject expertise, for some of the groups.
“It probably won’t be the intro computer science classes or a chemistry class,” he said. “It’s probably more likely to be in the humanities, where we think that there could be a positive engagement dividend and hopefully also persistent dividends as a result of people being able to get together and discuss with their peers what they’ve been studying weekly on their own.”
Though this is a new venture, Swarthout linked it to NYPL’s core mission, noting that libraries have always played a role in directing patrons toward good information, whether that takes the form of a good novel, research material, or an educational opportunity. With a proliferation of online educational opportunities now emerging, “libraries play a role in helping people filter through the clutter.”
Offering minimal or no-cost entry to courses taught by some of the leading educators in their respective fields, MOOCs have been heralded since their inception a few years ago as a democratizing force in education. But the format’s low barriers to entry tend to attract the curious by the thousands, while ultimately retaining a much smaller number of dedicated students. Time Magazine in September 2013 noted that about 90 percent of people who register for MOOCs fail to complete them.
Swarthout acknowledged that the type of people interested in signing up for a MOOC, and then doubling down by signing up for a weekly discussion group in support of that course are “obviously…more interested than your average [MOOC] user.” But one goal of the program is to help determine how libraries, by offering an in-person component, can maintain engagement in these free online courses.
The question of whether in-person engagement and support can help increase completion is particularly crucial because studies have shown that at the moment, MOOCs are not democratizing access to education as much as was originally hoped: studies have shown that most MOOC participants already have college degrees, and that those who successfully complete the course are more likely to have higher education levels already.
“We’re interested in ways we can examine are we making an impact,” Swarthout said. “Is there an appetite for using the library [as part of MOOCs]? Does it have an impact? Are we helping people toward their learning goals?”
With this partnership, NYPL becomes the first U.S. library to join Coursera’s Learning Hubs initiative. Launched in the fall of 2013, the initiative has introduced an in-person, collaborative component to the organization’s courses in 30 countries.
This isn’t NYPL’s first foray into MOOCs, however. Former NYPL reference librarian Raymond Pun (a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker) developed the Sinology 101 MOOC based on NYPL’s collection of research and scholarship on the history of China. Public library involvement with MOOCs in practice remains relatively rare, other innovators in the field include Ridgefield Library, CT, which built its adult summer reading program around a Coursera MOOC, and the County of Los Angeles Public Library, which is incorporating MOOCs into its Center for Learning. If NYPL’s partnership with Coursera is successful, it could provide a model for more library systems to help their patrons engage with MOOC content.