We often speak of the role librarians can play in facilitating MOOCs, but how often do we talk about librarians enrolling in MOOCs for the sake of lifelong learning and our own development as information professionals? In September 2013, I took the rather ambitious step of simultaneously enrolling in two library-related MOOCs. Here are some of my reflections on two contrasting MOOC experiences and some cautionary thoughts about the future of online learning.
I enrolled in and was active in both the eagerly anticipated The HyperLinked Library and Coursera’s MOOC on Metadata. Juggling both at once was difficult. These courses were not *formally* important for me, but I decided to take them seriously to the extent that I could (though others took them even more seriously by throwing themselves into the paid “Signature Track”).
Through the #HyperLibMOOC and #MetadataMOOC Twitter tags, I was introduced to a surprising number of others who happened to be studying both MOOCs. I guess there was an overlap in demographics, as both appealed directly to information professionals and librarians. A common theme of our discussions was how difficult it was to commit to two MOOCs at the same time while concurrently attending to our formal studies and/or work.
So why *did* we enrol in two online courses at once, despite having day jobs and studying at the same time? The fact is that there’s huge appeal in zero-commitment enrolment in courses free of cost that come across as trustworthy and educational. It doesn’t particularly matter much whether you do your exercises diligently or poorly, whether you do assignments at all, or whether you fail. At least, not to the same extent as when you’ve spent $20,000 on a degree and are banking on its completion to get a job, pay off student debts, and keep up with the bills. This is clearly both a strength and a weakness.
So although MOOC EduTech companies will boast of a teeming influx of five-digit numbers of enrolments, the overall level of engagement with the content and community is often quite low. To illustrate this, let’s take a brief look at the data for Coursera’s Metadata MOOC. By the end of Week 1, a total of 27623 students had registered – a huge pool of participants. However, the percentage of total registered students who completed the course was a tiny minority of 5%. To take another measure, of 25867 registered students in Week 8, only about half of them (14130) were “active” (defined as having logged into the MOOC), and only 3334 had been active in the final week of the MOOC. To be fair, the meaning of these statistics and categories is debateable, but the general point stands – a large volume of people enrol in MOOCs, but levels of engagement vary considerably amongst these students.
My own personal experience of the Metadata MOOC reflected much of the story illustrated by the data. I kicked off the course with a bang, studiously watching every video, completing the quizzes, as well as introducing myself to others and answering questions on the course-specific forums. But as the course wore on and the concepts became more challenging to wrap my head around, I stepped back a bit and found myself spending more time on The Hyperlinked Library MOOC. Looking back on the experience, I now think one of the central reasons for this was that I didn’t have a direct line of contact to a tutor or lecturer for help in the same way that I would have when studying full-time and face-to-face on university campus. Which highlights another of several weaknesses of MOOCs: the general lack of support structures to consult when the subject content escalates in difficulty and you find yourself overwhelmed.
Speaking of structure, though, I thought I’d say something on my Hyperlinked Library MOOC experience and how it differed to the Metadata MOOC. Over 12 weeks, more than 400 information professionals and librarianship students actively participated. It was dynamic, fluid, highly networked, and to me the gold standard of my experiences in online learning so far. In this sense it contrasted sharply with the Metadata MOOC, which was excellent in content but very linear and standard in structure, akin to an online portal for a typical university subject.
A key feature of the Hyperlinked Library MOOC was its focus on embedded social networking (inside and outside the MOOC) and collaborative creativity. Although the weekly lectures were important, they were not necessarily the core aspect and they primarily served to provoke us into thinking about professional issues broadly and creating new content while interacting with other students’ content. It seemed almost every object in the course was interactive and had comments and debates hanging off them.
The fact that the course felt like such a microcosm of human interaction encouraged students to network, discuss, debate, and create their own videos and personalised assignments and blog posts. To ensure we had support structures to buttress our learning, we were divided into separate “Home Groups” which were run by friendly facilitators. Breaking us up into these groups gave us a sense of belonging and strengthened the feeling that we were part of a learning ecosystem where we could stand on our own digital soapboxes, bounce ideas off each other, and exchange our real life experiences as librarians.
Despite the benefits of particular MOOCs, I think it’s important for information professionals to critically appraise the impact that the proliferation of these courses are having on our learning environments. This is especially urgent because MOOCs are being touted from some quarters with a little too much hyperbole. Librarians will no doubt play an important role in facilitating the development of MOOCs in higher education, but that role should not just be one of uncritical championing.
I see MOOCs as a useful learning supplement for information professionals – a “gap-filler” of sorts. For example, as a medical librarian, I enrolled in Interprofessional Healthcare Informatics to get my head around the future of healthcare data and information management. It helps to fill a gap in my knowledge that’s relevant to my professional environment.
But I think we should guard against grand proclamations about MOOCs becoming *the* future of education. There are several dangers involved, including the role of MOOCs in pedagogical “outsourcing” and the ongoing questionable restructuring of higher education. The debate about the pros and cons of MOOCs is a complex one with plenty of nuances, so I can’t cover all the talking points in the scope of this blog post. But I hope I’ve given a sense of what it’s like for an information professional to participate in MOOCs designed for information professionals.
MOOCs for librarians
For those interested in pursuing a MOOC to enrol in, I’ve thrown together a list of MOOCs that may be particularly useful for librarians and information professionals:
The Emerging Future: Technology Issues and Trends - through San Jose State University (who also offered the Hyperlinked Library MOOC that I studied and just discussed)
Metadata MOOC – through Coursera. The next edition runs from 14th July 2014 to 8th September 2014 (Jeffrey Pomerantz, University of North Carolina)
Library Advocacy: Unshushed - through EdX (Wendy Newman, University of Toronto).
Human-Computer Interaction – through Coursera (Scott Klemmer, University of California, San Diego).
(Image credit: Giulia Forsythe)