Since the term was coined five years ago, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been a subject of much debate in educational circles. In their brief life span, the courses, in which up to many thousands of students can participate, have demonstrated the promise of new technology to democratize education by some and been declared failed experiments by others. MOOC professors, though, say that it’s too early to judge how MOOCs perform, and that after just a few years, even those in the know are still figuring out what MOOCs really are and what shape—or shapes—they’ll take in the future. Whatever MOOCs look like going forward, though, libraries—in the academic and public sphere alike—will play a key role in helping to determine their design and success. In just the few months since we looked in LJ at the MOOC environment (“Massive Open Opportunity,” LJ 5/1/13), the quickly moving field has evolved significantly.
MOOCs in the Public Library
Among the biggest contributions libraries can make to the MOOC ecosystem is also one of the simplest—they can provide the Internet connection and resource access that students need to succeed in a MOOC. Chicago Public Library (CPL), where public libraries are looking for ways to increase their worth to the local learning environment by bringing more, tech librarian Michelle Frisque points out that for MOOC students who may have limited access to the Internet at home, public library resources make online learning a viable option. “We are the biggest provider of public technology and wireless access,” says Frisque. “And we have the resources people can use to do the homework in these courses.”
Making Their Own MOOCs
Some library systems, such as the New York Public Library (NYPL), have dipped their toes into creating original MOOC content, like the Sinology 101 MOOC developed for NYPL by former reference librarian Raymond Pun (a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker). NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building houses a huge collection of research and scholarship on the history of China, one that Pun wanted to see promoted more effectively to lifelong learners. Presenting at LJ’s The Digital Shift virtual event on October 16, Pun said that he created the Sinology 101 MOOC as a way to “create a bridge between the program and the collection.”
Learning from Library MOOCs
David Lankes, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (SU iSchool), NY, helped to develop and teach a MOOC titled New Librarianship Master Class. As an experiment in learning how MOOCs could supplement or even replace standard online courses, Lankes’s course was split into two sections. Students could take the MOOC more casually, on their own schedule and at their own pace, viewing lectures and completing assignments as suited them from materials that are still available online. But Lankes and his colleagues also offered students the option to take the course for academic credit at Syracuse through a so-called “guided” section of the class that took place this past summer.
Making MOOCs Meaningful
According to Philipp Schmidt, the cofounder of online education platform Peer 2 Peer University, that sort of learning may be where MOOCs can make the most impact—by helping people learn from one another in a connected environment without worrying about whether that learning is officially recognized by universities. That recognition, Schmidt says, can actually get in the way of education. “Accreditation is the single biggest obstacle to real learning,” Schmidt says. “There’s this idea that learning is only important to get college credit and college degrees. A lot of learning happens after you leave school, by working with other people and starting projects.” Whether accreditation is good or bad, though, experiments in offering credit for MOOC participation are just beginning and are unlikely to scale up soon. And without that boost to the perceived validity of the education they provide, it’s going to be hard for MOOCs to live up to the promise of leveling the playing field for higher education. In the meantime, that may leave scholars and academic libraries in the facilitator role Todd is trying to introduce in Los Angeles County.
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