February 17, 2018

NYPL and U. Penn Partner for In-Person MOOC Support

modpoPoets through the ages have managed very well without institutional backing. The study of poetry, on the other hand, requires a little more infrastructure. This fall, the New York Public Library (NYPL) will team up with the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House (KWH) to provide a physical space for participants in Professor Al Filreis’s popular massive open online course (MOOC), Modern and Contemporary American Poetry—“ModPo” for short—to meet and discuss class content.

Filreis, the Kelly Professor of English in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and the founder and Faculty Director of KWH, the university’s literary salon and gathering place, has been teaching the course in various forms for 30 years. It started out as a traditional class, but he began incorporating online material in 1994. By 1999 the class was fully online as a series of live webcasts, much of which originated with KWH. KWH, founded in 1995, has been recording poetry readings since 1997—thousands of hours of video that, as Filreis says, “All I had to do was curate.” He still uses some of that material for ModPo.

Penn is strongly committed to its Open Learning Initiative, offering the public access to high-quality courses and expanding the university’s reach beyond its campus. The University was an early adopter of MOOCs—and in 2012 began collaborating with the online education technology company Coursera. The university has invested $2 million in equity in the company; in turn, the partnership allows instructors to design their own open courses through Penn’s Center for Teaching & Learning. This fall 34 courses taught by Penn faculty will be available through Coursera, including the latest incarnation of ModPo.

Over the past three years more than 115,000 participants have taken ModPo, which covers the work of modern and contemporary U.S. poets from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to 21st-century conceptual poets like Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bok, and Caroline Bergvall. No previous knowledge of poetry is necessary to enroll in the ten-week course. Each week participants are introduced to a new collection of poems, accompanied by approximately two hours of pre-recorded video discussion. They may then go over the material in regularly scheduled live webcast sessions, or in an online conversation forum at any time. Short quizzes and essays are assigned as a requirement for the course’s certificate of completion, though not everyone chooses to complete them.

Now, New York-based ModPo students will have the opportunity to talk about what they’re learning in person. Beginning September 11, the Hudson Park Library in Greenwich Village will host a series of discussion gatherings every Thursday for 10 weeks, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The first session will be hosted by Filreis himself, who will encourage participants to help out as facilitators. NYPL had originally offered to engage some graduate students from Columbia University, but Filreis believes that a more informal approach is more in line with ModPo’s ideology. As he explained to LJ, “This is a democracy.… I don’t want this to be top-down.”

NYPL instituted a partnership with Coursera earlier this year, as part of its Learning Hubs Initiative, which arranges free in-person discussion groups to enhance the content of selected courses. Luke Swarthout, director of adult education services at NYPL, explained that as libraries already play this role for people interested in pursuing interests outside of an academic setting, the collaboration with Coursera was a natural progression. This past summer, for instance, participants in a computer programming series at the Bronx’s Tremont branch wished to continue meeting after the class ended, and NYPL has made space available to them for several months. The main question, Swarthout told LJ, was: “What is helpful to lifelong learners? Does the physical space add value to lifelong learners?”

The first NYPL Learning Hub collaboration, a study of 20th-century photography called “The Camera Never Lies,” began meeting in August at the Grand Central and Mulberry Street branches in Manhattan. Attendance has varied, with some participants active in the course itself and others simply interested in the subject. But Swarthout feels that having a physical meeting space generally enhances “positive support and accountability” for the course, no matter the level of participation.

Coursera has more than 50,000 users in the New York City area, and while there have been local get-togethers organized through services such as Meetup.com, a discussion group coordinated through an establishment like NYPL will be able to provide additional services. The ModPo collaboration has received positive attention, thanks largely to an already active and engaged presence in New York. Swarthout hopes that the course will also engage course participants with NYPL collections that contain material from many of the poets studied, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s extensive Harlem Renaissance archive. Over the next year NYPL will be selecting additional courses, inviting users in Manhattan and the Bronx to participate, with trained facilitators leading the meetings and Wi-Fi connections provided.

The idea of a public gathering space could change the game for MOOCs—at least for those participants who have access to it. MOOCs were originally conceived as learning opportunities that could be accessed by anyone with an Internet connection, without much concern for building physical communities among users, or tapping into regional trends. But as early research has shown, many MOOC participants don’t stay the course, particularly those without a preexisting background in higher education. Interest has grown in the question of whether the additional support libraries can provide—such as physical meeting places, supplementary materials, and one-on-one help from librarians—can make a difference to engagement.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Offering a space for MOOC-users to gather and discuss the particulars of their online course is a fantastic idea. Not only does it make online learning a slightly more social experience, it also encourages a sense of moderation that is otherwise absent in MOOCs. Many online resources present themselves as supplementary options. Courseworld.org, for instance, offers educational videos, rather than extensive curricula, to its users. MOOCs want to be fully fledged classes with discussions, homework assignments, and grades. By allowing a location specifically for social interactions, this UPenn course makes it possible for students to have face-to-face discussions in real time that can be both impassioned and immediate.