Blended Learning

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.

Can Libraries Save the MOOC?

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 Udacity. 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.

As it turned out, copyright was a moot point in the first year of the OMSCS program. None of the introductory classes in coding assigned copyright-protected readings. In 2015, the scenario will change. Critz and Winter need to figure out how to safely open library resources not only to the thousands of Georgia Tech students expected to enroll in OMSCS, but also to the hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world who could potentially take the course. They are considering SIPX, a licensing model that works like a course reserve system, allowing Georgia Tech students to download the reading list and charging external students small administrative and copyright clearance fees to access material that is not open source.

MOOCs 2.0 and Beyond

The MOOCs of today are not quite ready for prime time. None of the public universities that have partnered with MOOC providers to offer courses for credit have had much to show for their initiatives. With no system of credentialing yet established for MOOCs, students have little incentive to finish courses or sufficient educational or technological infrastructure to support them as they learn, yielding a completion rate of only 5 percent.

And yet the need for a new educational platform is acute. Most people in the world still don't have access to learning at high levels. In the United States, tuition costs are growing faster than the cost of living and healthcare. Only 36 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in post-secondary education, and college completion rates are down.

For all these reasons, universities are trying to make online education as engaging and legitimate as courses in the physical classroom. They are using MOOC technology to get real-time student feedback and help with logistical issues like authentication of online learners. Coursera's Signature Track uses multiple forms of user authentication — photo IDs, webcams, credit cards and even individual typing patterns — to verify that people taking a course are who they say they are. Universities are also seeking ideas on how to improve automated assessment of qualitative subjects. Coursera is developing ways to grade the sorts of exams that computers can't, such as essays and performance pieces. To do so, Coursera trains students to grade peers and crowdsources the evaluations.

Apart from measuring results, one shortcoming of MOOCs has been the difficulty of rewarding progress. Universities are now working to develop tools that overcome this limitation. One is the digital badge, which helps students create their own programs. Students get a badge at the end of a short course to verify that they've learned specific skills. But the badges also work as portals leading students to the next course level — just as video gamers advance after meeting challenges. Penn State, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California and the Smithsonian are all developing badges. Mozilla, which is spearheading the digital badge movement, is working with MOOCs to develop a course that would use its system. Ohio's Cuyahoga Community College has used Mozilla Open Badges as part of the game mechanics in its pre-algebra MOOC.

Educators are also adapting MOOCs so they can assess student progress in terms of measurable outcomes rather than hours spent in a classroom. This game-changing innovation may sound familiar, resembling as it does competency-based education programs, through which universities award degrees based on demonstrated competency instead of credit hours. The aim of such programs, which date back to the 1970s, is to show employers a graduate's value. Now these programs are moving online.

In all of these examples, the new MOOCs supplement online learning with real-world contact. Russell Beale, professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, said at the MOOCs4D conference in Pennsylvania in April 2014 that the MOOCs of the future will provide wider access and a more personalized, localized and interconnected education. Richard Levin, CEO of Coursera and former president of Yale, compared the rapidly evolving shape of MOOCs to the creation of a new medium, similar to the relationship of film to theater. As he told the New York Times, "Films don't look like the film versions of stage productions."

In the new model, clients of the university may become its competitors. Soon to launch is the much anticipated open source Created by edX and Google, it will let anyone create and an online course and host it in the cloud. "Whereas MOOCs 1.0 had to do with the democratization of content," said Maureen McClure, associate professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Education, "MOOCs 2.0 will have to do with the democratization of the platform. And when that happens, MOOCs will blow things up." Universities may suffer in this explosion, she added, particularly if they are perceived as expensive obstacles to a tough labor market.

With users expecting immediate access to new technologies, libraries today are facing demands that are making their work and collaborations ever more complex. But libraries control the information stores that MOOCs will draw upon, so they have a chance to take the lead in giving students what they need to succeed: teacher presence, guidance and direction.

And libraries do have experience in adjusting to shifting currents. Google once threatened to supplant the role of university libraries by letting anyone with an Internet connection retrieve information instantly. Libraries adapted by providing services that draw on rapid innovation, such as information literacy instruction and online tutorials. They conducted outreach to let clients know that libraries can help them navigate the new environment. And they redesigned facilities to foster teamwork and to take advantage of the kind of unstructured transactions on which the online world relies.

Since libraries manage the information stores that MOOCs will draw upon, they have a chance to take the lead in giving students what they want: teacher presence, guidance and direction. Libraries will have to be creative in how they present information and services. They'll need to improve the user interface to our material. They might embed library services and collections and consultations within a MOOC or embed subject librarians in a MOOC student forum to help students answer a question. And they can continue to develop online modes of instruction that use open resources.

If they don't help create the future, the future might not include them. But librarians are in the best position to confront these challenges because they are well-equipped to understand technology's broader implications and its impact on teaching, learning and scholarship. By studying MOOCs and the wider online landscape, they can help guide the changes to come.

Editor's note: This article has been modified since its original publication to correct an error. Courses for Georgia Tech's Online Master of Science in Computer Science were provided via Udacity, not Coursera. [Last updated Nov. 10, 2014 at 3:57 p.m.] 
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