MOOCs and Libraries: Who Are the Masses? A View of the Audience

[This is the fifth in a short series on the forum on MOOCs and Libraries held by OCLC and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, March 18th and 19th, 2013. Look back to the archives for earlier posting on this topic]

MOOC Audiences
MOOC Audiences by *s@lly*, on Flickr, cc-by-nc

We wrapped up the content portion of our meeting by reflecting on the audience for MOOCs (or what we know about participants), and also considering the audience through the lens of public libraries (which I admit, I don’t think about a lot of the time, except when I’m acting as a patron). I find the role (or potential role) for public libraries in MOOCs to be very exciting, and I think you’ll see why if you read the summary or watch the video of Margaret Todd’s talk.


We heard first from Howard Lurie (Vice President, Content Development, edX), who said he was from the “other platform.” (Although we tried to balance the program, many of the presenters were from “Coursera” institutions — I don’t think the platform matters all that much when talking about the library’s role in MOOCs, but there you have it.) According to Lurie, MOOCs provide an opportunity to look at learning/pedogogy through the lens of “big data” gathered during course implementation. Even with “low” completion rates the numbers are still quite high. Taking one edX class as an example (6.002x, Circuits and Electronics): 154,763 registered for the class; 26,349 tried the first problem set; 10,547 took the mid term; 9,318 passed the mid term; 8,240 took the final exam; 7,157 received certification. This is a lot of data to analyize that could help improve teaching — it would take many years of iterating a class in a traditional setting to get to those numbers (and of course, Audrey Watters would ask as she did in an excellent talk at WebWise, “Whose educational data is it?”) As with many presentations on MOOCs I’ve heard recently, Lurie highlighted “global stories” reflecting exposure to a topic for those who might not have had the opportunity otherwise (such as the Pakistani participant who said “this course was the most important experience in my life” One role for MOOCs might be to gather stories of learners around the world, and help universities identify talent.

Next we heard from Deirdre Woods (Interim Executive Director, Open Learning Initiative, University of Pennsylvania) who joked that in this environment, being around for a number of months makes you an old timer. Penn’s is in the open learning business because it’s a public good, and also because it’s good for Penn — online courses provides prospective students a taste of what they might expect from the college before they make a commitment. It’s also a good way to stay in touch with alumni. Woods shared that the faculty who have taught MOOCs acknowledge that it’s a huge undertaking but all say they would do it again. Part of the satisfaction? Faculty members reach more people in one course than in entire career. A little more about participants demographics: the majority of participants in Penn MOOCs were working in full time positions. 65% are male (they aren’t sure why). 30% of participants hang in through the duration of the course, but don’t do assignments.

Finally, we heard from Margaret Donnellan Todd (County Librarian, County of Los Angeles Public Library). Right now, LACoPL is loved and trusted by the community; as evidence of this, county residents recently voted to increase library funding. Not content to rest of their laurels, LACoPL has identified online relevance as an important component of their strategic plan. And the library has a challenge in terms of serving an educational shortfall in their community. Right now high school dropout rates are at about 40%, and community college graduation rates are low. Higher education in California (as elsewhere) is increasingly squeezed, and the option to go to community college in order to catch up, is no longer an option for all. All of these factors will lead to a decline in a local qualified workforce. With fewer and fewer options, LACoPL has begun to see itself as a center of learning, and positioning itself to support very practical and real educational educational needs. Public libraries excel at connecting people to services, partners, and peers. At an academic institution, MOOCs are an extension of existing online presence; in public libraries, MOOCs (and support for those taking MOOCs) may be an extension of their broad public education mission. Todd described how LACoPL has experimented with offering course through Ed2Go — even with little promotion, these courses have been very popular. What might be possible if public libraries extended their online courses, or worked with material being produced in MOOCs? One desire expressed by participants in MOOCs has been a need for a common space to come together with others taking the same class. Why not the public library as that space?

N.B. You may have noticed that in these postings, I purposefully am referring to those who take MOOCs as “participants” and not “students.” That’s a purposeful choice on my part. I don’t think we know enough about who is taking MOOCs and why to label them as students yet.

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