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?
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!