The Librarian of MOOC

It seems that everybody is talking about massive open online courses (MOOCs). Steven J. Bell sang their praises during a doom and gloom ACRL/NEC keynote. The Ubiquitous Librarian, Brian Mathews, credited the universities who pioneer(ed) MOOCs with “inventing the future,” in a recent essay for The Chronicle Blog Network. And, the New York Times published a story last week about how the ventures of MOOC companies, like Coursera, are “part of a seismic shift in online learning that is reshaping higher education.” Readers’ reactions were mixed.

Feeling curious, and following an incredibly simple and intellect-affirming admissions process, I registered for a free, six week Coursera class to, hopefully, learn more about US Food Systems through the lens of public health. Though I would have preferred to enroll in an art, theater, or historical topic course, there were almost none. At first the limited selection of Humanities courses discouraged me, but I persevered, knowing that I may skip class, ignore assignments, and withdraw at any point. There are no grades, no pass/fail. Without spending a dime (or thousands of dimes), I’ll be learning for the sake of learning, and from experts in their fields. I like it. What librarian wouldn’t?

MOOC status update

Smart U: MOOCs interface with social media for bragging.

This leads me to my primary reason for enrolling. I’d like to evaluate MOOCs from my perspective as an academic librarian. When I reviewed Coursera’s online offerings, I could not find a single course that required research. Even in a class with multiple writing assignments, such as A History of the World since 1300, students aren’t asked to seek, read, or reference evidence to support their theses. To be fair, the instructor suggests a textbook for serious students: his own, in fact. He provides a hyperlink to Amazon, where you may purchase it for $106.25. If even a quarter of my 2,000+ registered classmates –a MOOC’s goal enrollment– buy the textbook, then our professor has grossed over $53,000 in book sales for his publisher! This type of indirect financial transaction must, somehow, be a component of the MOOC business model. To be sure, I am conjecturing here, and getting away from my real concerns, which relate to the importance or research and discovery as part of learning.

While I am fully aware of the licensing and copyright laws that prohibit MOOCs’ prestigious instructors from recommending that students exploit collections of scholarly resources, I see no reasons why these online learners can’t be urged toward authoritative websites, open access articles, works in the public domain, and the physical and digital holdings of public libraries. These are students that choose to educate themselves on a topic, and, of course, they will want to know more. It is the job of the librarian to connect learners with relevant information.

In my review of Coursera and one of its top competitors, Udacity, I see no evidence of either virtual libraries, subject/course resource guides, or recommended websites. Librarians don’t teach courses, nor will they find employment opportunities at Coursera or Udacity (I don’t know about the others). Perhaps references to relevant, free resources are integrated into course content by the instructors; I’ll know more when my course begins in January 2013.

Readers, have you taken a MOOC? Do you have knowledge about how information, outside of a course’s content and textbook, is organized and shared with students? Do you have ideas about how it could be? If you have experience with any aspect of the latest MOOC ventures, then please share it with us. We’d be glad to hear!

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6 thoughts on “The Librarian of MOOC

  1. I believe I know something about licensing and copyright, but I do not understand this statement:
    “While I am fully aware of the licensing and copyright laws that prohibit MOOCs’ prestigious instructors from recommending that students exploit collections of scholarly resources,”
    -Is it that no library/university is willing to pay the fees in order to provide access to thousands of students for one course?
    -If so, what would be wrong with a “recommended” list of readings and resources?

  2. Hi Marci,

    I’m very happy to clarify my statement. From what I know, the libraries affiliated with the universities that participate in MOOC initiatives, through third-party companies such as Coursera, do not provide full-text access to licensed materials to MOOC registrants. This is fair for many reasons: A.) because Coursera students are not enrolled at these institutions, nor do they receive credits for their classes; B.) contracts between libraries and vendors are usually priced according to full-time enrollment totals, which limit access to currently enrolled students and staff only; and, C.) in view of the number of participating universities, it may be difficult to determine the burden of cost for each institution and its library.

    Ideally, MOOC-venture companies (e.g. Coursera or Udacity) would recruit librarians as talent, in a similar manner to how they attract well-known professors. Librarians would be responsible for solving the problems of full-text access to peer-reviewed articles and developing guides to free, authoritative information floating around on the web or in other libraries (think: digitized archives!).

    From an instructional point of view, there is nothing wrong with recommending course-relevant licensed resources to students enrolled in a MOOC, with the understanding that students will not have full-text access to the articles or e-books. Students will choose whether or not they want to spend $36.99 on a PDF article, and they may! Information has value, regardless of who pays the bill. Yet, there is a lot of reliable information published online for free….

    In my course I hope to see a variety of suggestions for further reading and/or research on US Food Systems- books, articles, and websites, which may or may not be free. Based on what I’ve read, I’m pessimistic about its existence, but I hope that I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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  5. I’m a librarian who enrolled in MITx Intro To Solid State Chemistry last semester. I did it for my own interest and I was curious about MOOCs. It was a very intense course.

    While there were TAs for the group, they mainly just made sure that questions in the forum were tagged properly and that no cheating happened. It was the thousands of students that put together all the extra resources, including links in the WIKI, opening a facebook page and offering coaching among their peers. I offered some of my own, too.

    One thing with that size of group is that people didn’t bother checking if something had been posted before or if an answer or resource was always available. And to be honest, some of the resources were borderline cheating or questionable. (To be fair, MIT did police the forum to ensure no one posted answers before deadlines).

    But the age range, the level of experience, the language barriers, online access and the needs of 10,000 students can’t always be easily parsed into one easily done library BI. And as the courses are free, I imagine MIT Libraries wouldn’t allow access to their resources.

    Librarians may be able to develop the basics of the course resources, but these courses don’t match what we usually consider academic work.

    (I later enrolled in a Coursera MOOC, but dropped after 2 weeks because I felt the teaching was sub-par)

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