MOOCs and Libraries: Production and Pedagogy

[OCLC and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries held a forum on MOOCs and Libraries on March 18th and 19th, 2013. This is the third in a short series on that event.]

One of the great advantages to partnering with the University of Pennsylvania on this event is that they have been through several rounds of course production, so they know the ropes. And even though this event focused on MOOCs and libraries, we did think it would be good for the audience to learn a little bit about course production. Like most of our attendees, I have no experience with MOOC production (although I have taken three MOOCs — I stop at nothing in my quest to bring you information!). Having had some experience on the student or participant side, it was great to glimpse behind the curtain.

I’ll summarize this session below, but here’s my advice for learning more if most of what you’ve done is read about MOOCs in the press. Take a class or two (while you do it, try to think about the role of the library in relationship to the learning objectives for the class). And watch this session to learn a little more about the variety of production styles, and what goes into making a MOOC.

The panel was expertly moderated by Bruce Lenthall (Director of Center for Teaching and Learning) and included participation by Christian Terwiesch (Wharton School Faculty), Jackie Candido (Online Learning & Digital Engagement, School of Arts and Sciences), Amy Bennett (Penn Open Learning), and Anna Delaney (Perelman School of Medicine).

Before the panel discussion Terwiesch spoke briefly about his experience teaching a Coursera class called “Introduction to Operations Management” that is an adaptation of a course he has been teaching for some time at the Wharton School. From his perspective, the economics of MOOCs are simple: more learning with the same resources. He wants everyone to think about process management principles, in order to make life better, and MOOCs are a great way to do that. (I have to admit having heard him speak passionately about his class, I’ve rashly signed up to take it — maybe some of you will, too?)

The panel offered advice and perspectives on production, covering some basics. The ideal timeline for production is about six months: build, promote, enroll (although it can be done in less time). MOOCs are more than just a professor in a video frame — they need instruction design. Streamlining course content is critical with MOOCs — it doesn’t work to take an existing class and plug it into a MOOC. Faculty content is the most obvious component but it’s not all. In an online environment, clear written communication is key. Having a good microphone and a way to engage with the students (forum, blog, wiki, but something that will work at scale!) are two very critical components. Be on guard against technical gotchas. Pay attention to small details; remember that once the material is out, it’s out!

There was an interesting thread around “success” — what are measurements to know when you are there? Returning to the theme for copyright, panelists suggested that “it depends!” Part of this is related to goals set by faculty for students, and therefore is a mater of personal style and preferences. Terwiesch suggested that success is changing what you do for the better. The right team (which right now is people doing work on top of their regular job, with no additional funding) is critical for success. Most good team members are described as doing the work because they are dedicated and passionate (and I would add, they probably are not intimidated by experimentation). The question of completion rates as a measure of success came up, and panelists (and others) pushed back on this: it’s not appropriate to assess completion of a MOOC with the same metrics used with traditional classrooms or even with a “traditional online course” (I love this phrase!).

The panelists also shared what they thought might be key roles for libraries. One area highlighted was organizing and making sense of information contributed by participants; in the Terwiesch course, there was a whole range of user generated content on process management. The suggestion of this type of curation on a massive scale got pushback from the audience, as did the idea of having embedded librarians (“with thousands of students, would we have enough staff?”). Other ideas seemed more attainable: providing pointers to open resources for faculty, and pointer to online communities and other resources for students (perhaps in a dedicated discussion thread). Helping to educate course TAs about resources for to students. Helping to structure discussion forums ahead of time (speaking from personal experience, these can be very wild and woolly).

In summary, all of the panelists conveyed their enthusiasm about MOOCs. Despite relatively low levels of completion, they were energized by the large numbers of highly engaged. In the end, it’s not so much about massiveness, but about human connection and excitement that can be generated, and the community that can be formed.