March 17, 2018

Beyond MOOCs Into Greater Openness | From the Bell Tower

car surrounded by open signs

Illustration by Steven Bell

No single term has dominated the higher education landscape as MOOC did in 2012. By far, it is the number one higher education trend of 2012. But, looking back—and ahead—the concept of openness in higher education might be more worthy of our attention.

It would be great if I could ease into the new year using the Family Circus method. It requires little new thinking. Just provide some “rememberies” that rehash last year’s old stuff. While I’m sure FTBT readers would appreciate a column dedicated to my best work of 2012, I prefer to use the first column of the year to ponder the most significant themes or notable trends that emerged in higher education over the past year. It’s a good exercise for getting us thinking about what’s to come in higher education and what it means for academic librarianship.

When I began thinking about this year’s review a few months back, it was pretty much a no-brainer that the MOOC revolution was the single biggest higher education development in 2012. Back then I thought that this column would devote itself to that topic. Now I am hesitant to concentrate on MOOCs because I am reasonably sure you are sick of reading about Udacity, Coursera, EduX, and all the others. What more can I add to the huge volumes already written, which is more than you could possibly ever read, even if you read just one article about MOOCs every hour of every day for all of 2013? Instead, I decided to expand our horizons and think more broadly about an even bigger trend in higher education, 2012’s noticeable advancement of the acceptance of openness.

Year of the MOOC

It’s undeniable that the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) revolution brought the concept of open education into the public arena. It is amazing to consider that at the start of 2012, few people had ever heard the term MOOC, yet by November the New York Times has already labeled 2012 the “Year of the MOOC.” That’s what happens when hundreds of thousands of individuals around the globe are captivated by a single phenomenon. Nils De Jonghe is a good example of one of those folks. He’s registered for 32 courses through a variety of MOOC providers including Coursera and He hopes to complete the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree within a year, although he’ll never receive any credits that would actually earn a degree. He represents all those individuals who have a thirst for knowledge and are finding that MOOCs provide an excellent platform for enlightenment. De Jonghe and others like him, call them power MOOC users if you like, ensure that there will be no dearth of enrollees for these courses anytime in the foreseeable future.

Year of faculty engagement

While there are still many individuals and institutions that have yet to grasp the benefits of the multiple layers of openness, the one group that matters most is faculty. More than any other stakeholder in higher education, it is faculty members who have the most power to make change happen. They can choose to publish their scholarly output in open access journals. They can decide to forego costly commercial textbooks in favor of free, open texts. They can opt to teach open courses or use open source software as the platform to deliver the learning. We saw faculty demonstrating their acceptance of open options in all these ways in 2012.

Among the most powerful of examples was the work of Timothy Gower, who organized a protest against Elsevier as the symbol of a broken scholarly publishing system in need of an overhaul. Thousands of faculty joined the protest. For a change it was someone other than librarians challenging the status quo of scholarly publishing, and expressing a desire for new open options. When you combine the Elsevier protest with the speed with which 25,000 people signed the White House Petition urging President Obama to expand federal policies requiring free access to taxpayer-funded research papers, it certainly bodes well for the advancement of open access in 2013.

Year of student savings

In a year when the high cost of college and crushing student debt continued to be prominent in the media, it’s hard to imagine there was any good news for students. The one front on which students increasingly enjoyed some savings was textbooks. The impact of faculty becoming more accepting of open approaches to delivering higher education was also evident in the growth of open textbooks and other open educational resources. Several projects announced in 2012 demonstrated that colleges and universities were getting serious about tackling the problem of skyrocketing textbook costs. To simplify the process of identifying whether an open source textbook is available in a particular subject area, the University of Minnesota unveiled a searchable catalog of existing resources, and provides incentives for faculty to review them. New options in the world of open textbooks, and better ways to locate and use them, are sure to encourage more faculty to go “open” in 2013.

Year of disintermediation

A new trend that got attention near the end of 2012 was faculty members emerging as independent educational operators. Much like in the Middle Ages, when college educators sold their wares directly to students, more faculty sought to create and manage their own courses—no university required. Realizing that they only needed a few technology tools, including the learning platform, to offer their personalized version of a MOOC, several faculty went out on their own and connected directly with students. Taking inspiration from Salman Khan, these faculty members are discovering that they can offer a unique form of education, which students can get nowhere else. However, great as that is, faculty members also need to pay their bills. Some took an alternate approach by going outside their regular institution to team up with an existing online provider. Professor Direct courses are not open, but they are inexpensive. Operated by StraighterLine, faculty members are positioned as independent entrepreneurs who develop their own courses and set the price. As in many other information-based industries, eliminating the middleman often results in new delivery mechanisms and vastly lower prices to consumers. While it’s likely that the vast majority of faculty members will remain connected to their traditional institutions, these trends signal a new era of experimentation in the delivery of higher education. With overwhelming numbers of adjunct faculty members who have no permanent institutional connection, who knows where this all might lead?

Year of uncertainty

Looking back, 2012 was a good year for academic librarians on multiple fronts. There was positive progress in the causes that they support and for which they advocate. Court decisions in both the Georgia State University and HathiTrust cases gave reason for hope that the tide might finally be turning in favor or greater openness, enlightened content sharing, and sensible fair use. Ebooks? Maybe 2013 will hold better news. The growing embrace of openness in higher education, while celebrated by the academic library community, also leaves it somewhat bewildered, as in “What does this mean for our future?” Given our long-time occupation as gatekeepers guarding closed systems, what is in store for our profession as more institutions offer free courses to all comers; as faculty branch out on their own, forming mini-colleges; and as students have more learning options than ever but fewer needs for librarians and their formal collections?

Year of mystery ahead

Like many readers of this column, I have no clear picture of what the future holds for us, but we do know that we must take destiny into our own hands. Like others, I’ve been thinking about what shape our future role needs to take. You might be worried about our future, but I think it is a good thing to be presented with a new mystery. Perhaps much of academic librarianship is now algorithmic, too much of a standard procedure based on past knowledge and a science-like approach to our work. While efficiency is good, the danger of algorithms is that they produce a staleness resulting from analytical thinking and data-driven decisions. It makes us complacent and susceptible to disruption. As Roger Martin has said, simply exploiting the same tired old ideas leads to obsolescence.  Mysteries, on the other hand, encourage us to explore new answers and solutions. Perhaps the new mysteries created by greater openness in higher education will stimulate academic librarians to discover better ways to help lead their institutions into the future. Next January, as I look back on 2013, I am hoping there are more stories to share about academic librarians opening doors to new prospects and possibilities for our profession.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. “Massive” not “Massively Open”