MOOC-ing it for all it’s worth

Between all of the heartwarming stories about the demise of Big Bird...

Between all of the heartwarming stories about the demise of Big Bird and imminent southern European bankruptcy, you may have noticed that the word MOOC is quickly becoming the academic mot du jour. Believed to have helped cause the UVA presidential saga, and liberally splashed over even the Chronicle of Higher Education, the humble MOOC, or Massively Online Open Course has been credited with either being the savior or the downfall of higher education. And while the real meaning of MOOCs is probably spelled h.y.p.e., I think there are several important concepts at work here, which could have interesting implications for our role as librarians of the future. This column will therefore attempt to trace some of these changes, albeit in a very exploratory manner that doesn't come to any hard conclusions...

So, a quick recap. The MOOC is an online course that operates under three major principles. Firstly, it's massive. This means that the number of students is not capped, but it's open to anyone who wants to register. Secondly, it's open, in that it's free and anyone can register, wherever they are located in the world. Thirdly, and this may change, MOOCs generally don't offer official credit for taking these courses, though some offer certification. To complicate things further, there are two types of MOOCs; xMoocs, such as those provided by Coursera, which are more traditionally lecture and quiz based and cMOOCS, which are more community driven and focused around building knowledge and learning through the creation of networks.

Within these new structures, there are several implications here which affect librarians. On the one hand, there are purely practical or structural concerns. How does the librarian fit into the structure of a massive course that isn't tied to an institution? How will traditional academic support work with these new models? How will students unaffiliated with institutions access library and research resources? How will the librarian's role have to change to meet these (or variations of these) upheavals in the provision of higher education?

On the other hand, and looking in particular at cMOOCs, it could be said that while these practical changes are important, the real potential transformation here is not just in how institutions “deliver” higher education. cMOOCs also imply a change in teaching and learning approaches, where learning is not seen as fixated on content but is instead focused around creating connections and networks between people and knowledge. Just like web 2.0 tools, learning is informal, lifelong and personalized. In other words, it's working from student needs to teach people how to learn rather than just focusing on transmission of content from teacher to learner. This may sound familiar to librarians- even the ACRL IL Standards highlight how in the information era, librarians need to be teaching lifelong skills. And cMOOCs focus a great deal on information navigation and use, another of our specialties. However, this doesn't mean that librarians are off the hook. Teaching lifelong skills doesn't always sit well with our licensed walled garden databases and resources. Non-textual sources, for example, are rarely considered even though workplace information literacy studies show the importance of the social in information literacy. And, we kind of like content. We've spent a long time organizing that content and our instruction often focuses on what content we or faculty think students *should* know. Even the idea that librarians are educators is still controversial in many institutions. So while I think we're in the right place, we're not quite there yet.

So what am I saying? To be honest, I'm not really sure... I did warn you that there would be a complete lack of answers or concrete steps to take! I think that in truth, I'm trying to make the point that for me, we need to pay attention to more than just the visible structural changes that MOOCS represent. We must also look at what MOOCs represent in terms of a greater focus on holistic, personalized education. And while it seems obvious that librarians have a definite role in the networked information rich future we need to reflect on our potential role in this new context now in order to be ready to advocate for it in the future. Supporting the open access movement, as well as digitization of resources and other changes are steps in the right direction in the open education environment. However we must also reflect on the more subtle changes in the position and purpose of education too. Otherwise, and despite our obvious (to us) role in the information age, it will be easy for education to develop in a way that cuts us out of the picture when we have so much to offer.

Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder
alison.hicks at