Librarians: Your Most Valuable MOOC Supporters


What about libraries? That’s the question on our minds as the world declares its love for massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Libraries are a major part of universities, but they’re almost entirely missing from the MOOC conversation. That’s a big mistake.

Libraries offer resources, from research to licensing support, that are essential to the future of MOOCs as they grow both in numbers and in seriousness. As MOOCs become an increasingly valid and valuable resource, it’s clear that they can benefit from another great educational resource: librarians.

The MOOC Library

MOOCs have sparked an educational revolution in recent years, but the academic library has gone through its own major changes, commonly known as Library 2.0. Libraries have expanded their offerings beyond traditional paper books and journals to include digital resources including search engines, databases, and active online communities and assistance.

In their latest iteration, libraries have grown to become an information commons in physical and digital forms, with study rooms, computer labs, and virtual reference. And these resources make them a perfect complement to MOOCs. Rebecca Miller, information literacy coordinator at Virginia Tech, views MOOCs and libraries as a natural partnership, as libraries have always been about providing access to information and education. “MOOCs are just the newest incarnation of this goal,” she says.

Miller sees libraries supporting MOOC students by doing many of the things they’ve always done, like providing access to resources, and even existing as a place where learners can use the Internet to access a MOOC. Miller points to the many potential MOOC support roles for librarians: as copyright consultants to MOOC faculty, tech and research assistance for MOOC learners and instructional design consultants as MOOCs are built.

Librarians can extend beyond the role of MOOC support, though. Librarians are experts in information and other resources that can help both faculty and students in MOOCs. In addition to a support role, Miller would like to see librarians move to the role of collaborators in growing MOOC potential.

Librarians can lend legitimacy to MOOCs as well. Critics like Elizabeth Dill, library assistant at Georgia Military College, question the research MOOC students use to complete their essays. In MOOCs: Where are the Librarians? she asks, “From whom are the references coming? Are they scholarly? Peer-reviewed?” With a librarian weighing in on a MOOC, students can get connected with the quality references they need to be a part of serious scholarship and satisfy critics who question the validity of MOOCs.

The MOOC Challenge

It’s clear there’s huge potential for librarians in MOOCs, so why aren’t they there? “There is still no clear standard for how library services should be integrated into the online learning platform,” says Forrest Wright, author of What do Librarians Need to Know About MOOCs? Librarians may be doing their part to help MOOCs here and there, but their contributions are far from widespread. Wright highlights common approaches including embedding librarians in courses for student questions, or requiring that students work through research tutorials that teach them to use library resources.

But according to Wright, these tasks may be difficult, as MOOCs bring in many more students than conventional online courses, students that are not officially a part of the institution. “These realities pose both logistical and moral challenges,” Wright says. Can librarians reach all of these students, and, is it a good idea to use library resources to support these unaffiliated students? Merrilee Proffitt, senior program officer with Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) agrees that the MOOC student population is a concern, identifying the size, diversity, and unaffiliated status of the MOOC student body as a big shift for libraries. This, according to Proffitt, is what libraries are most carefully considering.

In addition to the challenge of supporting thousands of students at once, a lot of work goes into creating and supporting a MOOC. Duke University reports their first MOOC took over 600 hours of effort to build and deliver. And Duke librarians have been integral in gathering materials for massive courses and integrating technologies into MOOC lessons. Lynne O’Brien, the director of academic technology and instructional services at Duke University, cautions librarians getting involved with MOOCs to be prepared for questions from an international audience, with differences including languages and technological resources.

While the massive influx of nonaffiliated students can be a challenge for libraries, that’s also part of what makes them such a great opportunity. MOOCs are free and open to all and easy to access, so they attract students from all walks of life and locations around the world. Ed Rock, provost and director of open course initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania explains that MOOCs may be attended by residents in assisted living facilities and autistic children. Librarians supporting MOOCs are able to reach these students that go beyond the scope you’d expect to find in an academic library.

Yes, it’s difficult to help so many students, who may not have a reliable Internet connection, be able to use Flash, or even speak English. These are challenges that can’t be ignored. But dwelling on these difficulties is beyond the point of MOOCs. The point is that participating in MOOCs allows university libraries to serve populations they’ve never reached before, and an opportunity like that is worth rising to meet the challenge.

What MOOC Librarians Can Do

We’re still at the beginning of exploring support for MOOCs, Proffitt explains. Even leaders are still working to become grounded. But she highlights providing scholarly materials and embedded research skills as the resources most academic libraries are currently bringing to MOOCs. Still, Proffitt insists in these beginning stages, we’re going to see a lot of development in MOOCs and how they relate to learning on campus.

Proffitt recently hosted MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge?, a conference at the University of Pennsylvania with thoughtful discussion on how libraries can move forward with MOOCs. In the conference and her related work, Proffitt has seen academic libraries embrace open courseware and new learning for their residential students as the field of online learning has grown.

What’s next for librarians and MOOCs? Librarians can take open education to the next level, with course-specific research guides, advocacy, and course materials, among other resources. Attendees of the OCLC MOOCs and Libraries event identified some of the next steps they hope to take in working with MOOCs, including:

  • Take a MOOC.

    You can’t support, grow, or advocate what you don’t fully understand. There’s no better way to gain an understanding of MOOCs than to jump in and take one from the student’s perspective. You might even consider taking the MOOC MOOC, a course designed to inform students about the many aspects of MOOCs. Proffitt encourages librarians not to worry about finishing, but to poke around to better understand opportunities for support. “The discussion boards and other places where students hang out can be overwhelming but also quite revealing,” says Proffitt.

  • Become a part of MOOC development.

    As institutions scramble to get MOOCs developed, they may overlook the resource they have in academic librarians. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be involved. Don’t wait to be asked, just find a seat at the table. “Approach the faculty and see what the library can do to help,” says Proffitt. “Everything is highly experimental right now, and I’m a big fan of learning by doing.”

  • Offer licensing and access support.

    One of the most valuable things librarians can do to support MOOCs is offering assistance with licensing and access. Librarians can share vendors, provide advocacy, and point faculty to public domain and open access resources.

  • Develop course research guides.

    Work with faculty on their course plans and identify where students might be able to take advantage of library resources, including journals, books, and reference materials, both online and off. You can create course guides that point students to quality scholarly materials that they can rely on.

  • Encourage MOOC use.

    As an information hub with computers and a reliable Internet connection, it’s hard to think of a better location where students can go to take a MOOC. Promote your institution’s MOOCs as a host and create local MOOC learning communities. You can also offer library resources for MOOC study groups and face to face discussion opportunities.

  • Create library MOOCs.

    Teach information literacy, library research skills, and more in a librarian-led MOOC. It will help teach important skills, and give students an introduction to the process of completing a MOOC.

In addition to OCLC attendee recommendations, City University of New York suggests librarians can advise faculty on open access content, create course-specific resource guides, and negotiate with MOOC-featured publishers. Gerard McKiernan, author of the MOOCs and Libraries blog, encourages librarians to subscribe to open education resource blogs, like Open University’s ORIOLE. Discussion groups like Library 2.0′s Open Educational Resources can keep librarians in the loop as well. McKiernan also points to white papers like MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses as useful resources.

“We’re at the beginning, not the end,” Proffitt says. MOOCs have a lot to offer students and the future of online higher education, and librarians are in a great position to help this fledgling resource grow in depth and quality. There’s so much librarians can do, and there are many opportunities for development.