MOOCs and Libraries: Introduction

OCLC and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries held a forum on MOOCs and Libraries on March 18th and 19th. This is the first post in a short series on that event. You can also check out the event page for links to videos, presenters’ slides, and more!

It’s been a few weeks, but it still feels like I’m catching my breath following our well attended (and I think successful!) forum, MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge? This event was an attempt to get beyond the plethora of what I’d call “MOOC 101” and instead focus on the issues facing libraries that are engaging or may soon be engaging with MOOCs. I was fortunate to be tasked with such an engaging topic, and doubly fortunate to team up with Martha Brogan at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues (Anuradha Vedantham, Shawn Martin, and Marjorie Hassen) — the University of Pennsylvania Libraries were perfect partners because they haven’t just been thinking about MOOCs, they have been actively engaged with all aspects of MOOCs from planning, to production, to assessment. U. Penn was an early implementer on the Coursera platform, and have now been through several course cycles. I was also fortunate to work with my colleague Chrystie Hill, who lead the charge in bringing public library voices into the event. I was also fortunate, in event planning, to be able to draw upon the expertise resident in the OCLC Research Library Partnership — in November of 2012, I knew little more about MOOCs than what was covered in the popular press. I was educated by colleagues who are working in the field, who spoke from a basis of knowledge and experience, and who were willing to share with me via phone conversations and emails during December and January (my findings are summarized in an earlier post, MOOCs and Libraries: a look at the landscape).

We had a sell out crowd of 125 people attend in person and record breaking online attendance of over 400 (hardly MOOC like, but for sustained attention from afar, it’s very good). We were also fortunate to have a very strong Twitter stream, with contributions from both in person and remote attendees, which helped to “amplify” the event. And we have a record of the meeting in the recorded video (which you may enjoy watching!). Still, I think it’s important to have a summary of the meeting and some notable outcomes. I hope that some of you who attended (or who are able to watch the videos) will join in the conversation. And keep the conversation going by using the hash #mooclib when blogging or Tweeting on this topic.

Carton Rogers, Vice Provost & Director of Penn Libraries, and Ed Rock, Provost and Director of Open Course Initiatives, helped to set the scene for the group. Rogers underscored the confluence of support that the Penn Libraries provide to support learning — library resources, repository services, and courseware support. Deep engagement with Penn’s MOOC efforts was a natural next step for the library, and led to Penn’s hosting this first-of-a-kind meeting. Rock expanded on this, addressing, “Why MOOCs, why Penn, why now?”

The internet, Rock asserted, is now a place of learning so naturally one expects to find the university there. However, there is no one cookie cutter model for how universities engage with MOOCs — each institution needs to think out the role of MOOCs in their own framework. It’s already clear, from the Penn experience, that engaging with MOOCs has altered how people think about teaching — and this is a good thing. They’ve also seen that MOOCs can be used as an intervention in public discourse (a good example of this is the Penn course on vaccines). Rock also emphasized the democratic nature of MOOCs, with participants from residents in assisted living facilities, to autistic children, these courses are open to all ages and stages. He also speculated a bit about the role of the MOOC in a residential college setting — successful completion of a course that is eligible may be treated like an AP course — there is already a system for this in place. Or, a MOOC may be useful in helping students prepare for and test out of gateway classes.

Jim Michalko, Vice President OCLC Research (and a self confessed MOOC virgin), shared some context about MOOCs and online learning; we’ve been here before — or have we? What we have definitely seen before is the media frenzy around online learning or even distance learning — he referenced correspondence courses, Fathom, and Khan Academy, all of which are part of the heritage of what he called “the big three”: Udacity, EdX and Coursera which only launched a year ago. However, this time may well be different — Michalko cited Bill Bowen’s The ‘Cost Disease’
in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer?
as evidence of a “broken business model,” leaving institutions ripe for disruption (à la Clayton Christensen).

In closing he asked some pointed questions: “what business are we in?” “where is the venue for elite education online?” “are institutions engaging in a prestige arms race?” Finally, he predicted a platform war with MOOCs: “not everyone’s going to win.”

My presentation picked up where Jim left off: in all of this, where is the library? I presented findings from my research (which I have summarized previously): libraries are engaging in issues around copyright and IP, and are actively looking to see how to appropriately embed library services and research skills into these new and evoloving environments. Encouragingly, some libraries are part of the core teams being formed on campus which are planning and executing on MOOCs — these partnerships are vital, especially if MOOCs are seen as important to the campus. To be blunt, if it’s politically important, libraries need to be there. I also touched on the exciting ways that public libraries are thinking about MOOCs — not necessarily from the production side, but from the perspective of how these educational tools may fill a need for the diverse audiences they serve.

MOOCs (and online education) is a space in which things are evolving quite rapidly. I think it’s too soon for best practices, or declarations of success or failure. I think it’s a great time for experimentation, for trying things (and strategic abandonment!). This is also a perfect time to share the results of experiments. We are excited that this meeting was a step in that direction, and an important opportunity to share information with one another. But we’re not done yet — we’re at the beginning, not the end.

Next up, I’ll be summarizing the session on copyright, licensing and open access, so stay tuned!