Can Libraries Save the MOOC?
As massive open online courses move toward version 2.0, libraries are in a unique position to guide and support the future of blended learning.
By Irene Gashurov, Curtis Kendrick
MOOCs are experiencing an existential crisis. They have demonstrated their capacity to spread learning beyond traditional populations and to make learning both less expensive and more efficient. On the other hand, MOOCs can suppress student engagement, compromise the educational mission with the profit motive, and raise hosts of unanswered questions about the integrity of data in the unpoliced realm of the Internet. At their essence, MOOCs are about the flow of information in digital form, not only confidential data about students but also the intellectual property that is the university's stock in trade. And it is in this management of information flows that libraries can make their greatest contribution to the debate about the future of MOOCs, both in encouraging student engagement and managing the dissemination of knowledge.
Libraries and MOOCs
Besides being centers of information, libraries are perfectly situated to deliver the institutional support and physical infrastructure that can help students engage with online courses. The library that delivers support services to a student need not be the one affiliated with a course's originating institution. This August, the New York Public Library embarked on one such venture with its first foray into blended learning, combining MOOC technology with in-person help. In the experiment, the library provided its space as a so-called learning hub for a Coursera class. New Yorkers who signed up for the six-week class, "The Camera Never Lies," met each week for 90 minutes at either of two NYPL branches to discuss their work with each other and with a facilitator. The idea behind the pilot is the hypothesis that the very high MOOC dropout rate might be caused by a lack of pedagogical support and community. Coursera's program at the NYPL is providing participants with the mentors and social experience they need to keep them on the rolls. Each week the library tracked student attendance, their level of engagement with the materials and the range of their skills. "Among the goals of the experiment is to explore what MOOCs mean for libraries," said Luke Swarthout, NYPL's director of adult education services. "We're excited to see how this goes." NYPL is offering another MOOC in poetry in the fall, which uses a community of enthusiasts online to act as facilitators.
Libraries are also taking the lead in addressing the impact of MOOCs on educational norms — on privacy, content sharing, intellectual property and accreditation. Librarians are especially well positioned to help universities navigate copyright legislation. And by participating at the planning stages of MOOCs, they can help ensure that reading materials are open source. In addition, libraries are exploring ways to use MOOCs for professional development and self-directed continuing education. Last fall, San Jose State University professor Michael Stephens taught one of the first library MOOCs, The HyperLinked Library, and is exploring the use of MOOCs in the core library courses at the university's library program.
This readiness to experiment is particularly true in the developing world, where libraries are emerging as the bridge to educational access. Though they have yet to introduce MOOCs, programs like IREX's Global Libraries project help libraries promote development through the use of technology. In Moldova, libraries are teaching girls the basics of programming and entrepreneurship. In Ukraine, librarians are providing technology to facilitate interactions between young women and health experts. Libraries in these regions can serve as learning centers where people can get access to education through open educational resources. The idea, said Robert Cronin, director of IREX's Center for Collaborative Technology, is to help MOOCs work better by reinforcing them with educational resources on the ground.
Most of the institutions now offering MOOCs for credit have not called upon their libraries to provide support for the planning and hosting of the courses. But librarians have launched their own initiatives to help students successfully participate in MOOCs. In 2014, the Georgia Institute of Technology became the first university to offer a degree program entirely based on MOOCs: the Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS), with courses provided by Coursera. Students take proctored exams to assess learning and have access to tutors, online office hours and other support services. Tuition fees for program, which has an initial enrollment of 400, are about 15 percent of what a traditional degree in the field might cost, leading President Obama to cite the program as a future model of college affordability.
Georgia Tech did not initially seek to draw on the expertise of its librarians. When the Institute began to discuss the potential of MOOCs in 2012, it gathered the campus community under its Mini Innovation Hubs Project. "We were an afterthought when the Institute began preparing for the OMSCS program," said librarian Lori Jean Ostapowicz Critz, head of the Faculty Engagement Department. But she made a strong impression at the first meeting and was named co-leader of the library services hub. That fall, when preparation began in earnest, the OMSCS planning group asked Critz and Elizabeth Winter, Georgia Tech's electronic resources librarian, to join and provide guidance on the complexities of copyright, licensing of electronic resources and other library-related services.