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The hope and hype of MOOCs

A panel discussion on a new model of education and a new platform of engagement

At the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting, the OCLC cooperative hosted an expert debate panel on MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. More than 400 librarians—live in Philadelphia and via online streaming—turned out to hear whether MOOCs truly represent a sea change for both public and academic libraries, or just a new twist on distance learning. (For an introduction to MOOCs, see MOOCs: a quick background.)

And, above all, what roles might libraries play? What are the potential ways libraries might create and support MOOCs? How are libraries already involved in MOOCs, and what are strategic opportunities and challenges going forward?

The panel was a star-studded cast, including Bryan Alexander, Anya Kamenetz, Ray Schroeder, Audrey Watters and Cathy De Rosa—who shared new OCLC research on MOOCs, online education and what it means for libraries.

The panel was in agreement that the technology is exciting and offers a chance to redefine—or at least alter—learning and education for the better. But how this will work out and what shape it will take is not entirely clear.

Following is a summary of the thoughtful and provocative discussion that took place, as the panelists debated the future of education and where libraries fit in.


The symposium was hosted and the debate moderated by Skip Prichard, OCLC President and CEO.

The event began with a brief keynote by Bryan Alexander, Senior Fellow at NITLE, author of the book, The New Digital Storytelling (2011), an editor of the Horizon Report and a frequent writer/speaker on topics including social media, digital storytelling, mobile devices, gaming, pedagogy, scholarly communication, forecasting and the future of academia. Bryan gave a quick intro to the topic of MOOCs, before joining the rest of the panel for a lively debate.

Joining Skip and Bryan were:

Cathy De Rosa, OCLC Vice President for the Americas and Global Vice President of Marketing. Over the last decade, Cathy has led quantitative library research work that has resulted in seven major membership reports that explore library users’ behavior and the perception of libraries. The urgent need for funding for public libraries also led to Cathy’s work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant-funded “Geek the Library” advocacy campaign.

Anya Kamenetz is NPR’s lead education blogger. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. She is the author of several books about the future of education, including: Generation Debt (2006), DIY U (2010) and the forthcoming The Test (2015). Previously, Anya covered technology, innovation and social entrepreneurship for five years as a staff writer for Fast Company magazine.

Ray Schroeder, Professor Emeritus and Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Director of the Center for Online Leadership and Strategy at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). Ray has delivered numerous national presentations and publications in online and technology-enhanced learning. He has published the popular “Online Learning Update” and “Educational Technology” blogs for the past dozen years.

Audrey Watters is a technology journalist and founder of Hack Education. Audrey has written extensively on MOOCs, including a Library Journal “Digital Shift” blog post, “MOOC Mania: Debunking the hype around massive open online courses.”

The Hope

In their relatively short history of six years, MOOCs have rapidly grown into a major force in higher education, presenting new opportunities in online learning, academic credit and pedagogical approaches.

Why? The rational is straightforward. They offer hope in a higher education landscape that is reeling from reduced funding, shrinking enrollment, and the sky-rocketing expense of obtaining a college degree. MOOC mania is happening at a time when the cost and quality of education at all levels is being questioned.

“The economic case, not the ethical and pedagogical, for MOOCs is pretty strong, at least to reduce costs. One of the greatest benefits of open learning and MOOCs is informal learning. For people who don’t have good libraries or schools or homes, this is a tremendous opportunity.”
Bryan Alexander

MOOCS can drastically reduce costs—most are inexpensive or offered for free, and the possibility of using another organization’s MOOCs can cut instructional expenses. They also provide greater flexibility in course delivery and can reach an audience well beyond the local campus—which may provide an alternative revenue source other than simply raising tuition.

Populism vs. prestige

Because they are widely available, successful MOOCs can raise the profile of a university or an individual in the globally networked, educational environment. The cost of traditional degrees is heavily influenced by scarcity: there are only so many chairs in a room and so many hours of faculty time in a day. Small class size and individual learning opportunities have long been a hallmark of high-end, prestigious institutions. But MOOCs turn that calculus on its head, rewarding audience size—popularity—rather than scarcity. This provides an incentive to develop materials and processes that can be effective at scale, which in turn drives popularity—a virtuous cycle which, in the long run, may support both the best content, and the best ways of delivering online education.

“For hundreds of years, [exclusive universities’] prestige has been predicated on how few people they reach. And suddenly, in two years, they decided their mission statement and their prestige was going to come from how many people they reach.”
Anya Kamenetz

The Internet is the new learning place

The most compelling reason, however, to see MOOCs as a positive force is their promise of establishing new learning models and innovative teaching techniques that could lead to improved student performance.

Everyone on the panel agreed that educational technology in general, and MOOCs in particular, are poised to potentially redefine learning, reshape the student experience and extend quality education opportunities to almost anyone anywhere with an Internet connection.

“This is an amazing time to be a learner. The Internet affords us a lot of opportunities to not just connect with more content but to connect with more humans. And I think that has amazing potential for how we learn and how we teach. The vision of the MOOC is profoundly transformational—community-based, learner agency, on the open Web.”
Audrey Watters

The panelists remarked on the fact that the technology used to deliver MOOCs isn’t particularly cutting edge—it’s largely delivered through online video, wikis, bulletin boards, blogs and comments. What’s changed is their familiarity and ubiquity. Teachers have been working online resources into their curriculum for almost two decades, and have had almost as much time to begin using online courseware, scheduling apps, grading systems and other learning management tools. More importantly, today’s traditional-age undergraduates have grown up with the Web as a comfortable and constant partner in their education. As a result, many MOOC students come to the medium with enough digital literacy skills to join in immediately. In short, not only is the Web now ready for massive numbers of students…the students are already there.

“With MOOCs, students and users are excited about breaking the mold and thinking about education in a different way with a different model. Students are going to have a bigger voice than they’ve ever had to really shape education”
Cathy De Rosa

The Hype

Despite the potential of MOOCs to radically reduce costs, raise a university’s profile and improve education, a number of issues and questions remain. The first and foremost is: can they possibly live up to the expectations placed on them—affordable education for everyone with few if any learning problems? Do they really represent a turning point in online education? Or are they simply a popular and headline-friendly trend in a more general move to online education?

As Bryan notes, it is important to know that in 2014, MOOCs are coming off of a giant hype wave, and criticism and opposition to MOOCs, some well-informed some not, is mounting.

“When it comes to MOOCs, we’ve seen over-hyped, over-promised statements. The technology press in particular is prone to these hyperbolic statements about the death of the university—in 50 years time there will only be 10 universities left in the world. If we look at the demand for education globally, it’s hard for me to imagine that we won’t actually have many more providers of education in the future. Certainly I have a hard time imagining how we would get down to 10.”
Audrey Watters

MOOCs—the opiate to technologists?

Proponents—the entrepreneurs and technology leaders who stand to benefit most—say that MOOCs and online courses will disrupt and even end education as we know it. And it’s about time, they say, because students today cannot be educated like their parents or grandparents were—the world is vastly different. They argue that today’s world is digital, interactive, online, and the education system needs to reflect that in order to connect with students and bring new excitement to learning.

Others see it quite differently. Opponents say the push for MOOCs is driven by Silicon Valley corporations whose primary interest is beefing up revenues and boosting stock prices, not education. Lacking is any robust analysis and honest critique of the value of the technology or its potential downside—job losses, colleges merging or closing, and the loss of spontaneous, spirited classroom interaction, a key element in today’s learning and one of the most valuable aspects of a face-to-face approach. A much more rigorous examination of the ethical and pedagogical benefits of MOOCs is gravely needed, they say.

Waiting for the results

Proponents also declare that MOOCs are a planetary learning platform—open to anyone who wants to look—that not only provides unrestricted access but also boosts student performance due to their self-paced and repeatable nature. MOOCs have an enormous global reach that can educate and improve the lives of anyone, they say.

“There’s a lot of money in educational technology in general and an arrogance about its ability to solve the world’s problems.”
Anya Kamenetz

Many faculty are skeptical of the pedagogy of MOOCs, however, and there is little data on how well massive online courses work. They worry that MOOCs will not match the quality and standards of on-campus programs. The majority of faculty are not using or creating MOOCs and are not incorporating them into their classes. Also, the vast majority of students aren’t taking MOOCs; they aren’t widely accepted since most offer no credit and do not lead to a degree. MOOCs also have not been integrated or mixed into the curriculum—they have a very light presence on most campuses.

Some early casualties

Among the specific criticisms is poor attendance, low completion rates, lack of credentialing and copyright violation. And, despite the claim to cut education costs, no successful business model has emerged. A number of MOOC startups, most notably Fathom and AllLearn, have shut down, unable to sustain themselves and losing more than $30 million from university endowments in the process. Others are still operating but at financial deficits that cannot be sustained indefinitely by venture capital investments. The reason venture capitalists are interested in MOOCs is that with 200,000 people signing up for a course, that type of traffic and that type of audience is eventually going to produce an online media business. But early results don’t bear out that kind of thinking.

Gains in student achievement and performance also have yet to be consistently proven. A Udacity program with San Jose State University to offer three basic math courses was paused because of underwhelming student performance.

“Credentialing and course credit is something we have to continue to address. We have to assure that every element of the class was completed 100%. There must be an emphasis on quality assessment.”
Ray Schroeder

A new role for libraries

The wave of excitement and offerings around MOOCs is causing libraries to think about the place of open, online learning in their overall mission. Traditionally, libraries have provided access to library services and scholarly resources with an appropriate level of currency, depth and breadth to support the institution’s mission, core themes, programs and services. Distance learning students were entitled to the same library services and resources, including direct communication with librarians, as on-campus students.

Should libraries support MOOCs, even though many of the class participants won’t even be attending their university? MOOC enrollments can far outnumber traditional university course enrollment, and many of the participants are not traditional college-age students.

Ray, who has directed two MOOCs with students in 70 countries, believes the role of the library is essential for a successful MOOC experience. “The library can serve as the anchor, that physical anchor with people to help students identify the resources that they need to complete classes.”

Audrey agrees that the library presence is not only essential but worthwhile. “Access to knowledge is the mission of the library,” she says. “If we are talking about a global knowledge project, if we’re talking about opening up research to everyone, then to me, the library feels like a pretty natural place for that to rest.”

“Since we don’t have good gateways into MOOCs, I think public libraries can help people, especially adult learners, identify what MOOCs would be good for them to explore.”
Bryan Alexander

Should libraries produce content, curate content or gather content to support MOOC development on their campus? As courses are being offered online to diverse and geographically distributed audiences, what are the challenges for licensing and clearing copyright for materials used in courses? Are there opportunities for libraries to advance the conversation on open access? And what about grades/course credit? And how do you serve learners of all different age ranges?

According to our panelists, there is potentially a powerful support role for libraries to play depending on which sector they belong to. Some of the roles are new, some traditional.

  • Libraries can be more and more involved in media production and in selecting content to support MOOCs.
  • Managing the issues of copyright vs. license vs. accessible material—that’s another key role libraries can play.
  • Special collections librarians have the opportunity to connect their collections to MOOCs.
  • Public libraries can be an access point to MOOCs and extend their broad public education mission. They have this great underappreciated role for furthering access to the Internet for so many people, especially rural and poor people.
  • For academic libraries, there is a wonderful support role to be played in helping curate the content for MOOCs.

The emergence of MOOCs clearly presents challenges to libraries in how these courses interact with scholarly resources and library services. But they also offer some potential new pathways for libraries that could change their responsibilities and extend their influence into new communities in order to help shape this new development in education.

A promising yet unclear future

As we weigh the benefits with the concerns, what will the future be for MOOCs? Are they sustainable, or just another stop on the long stream of online or individualized learning, which some say started in the 1930s with correspondence courses? One thing for sure is that MOOCs have galvanized a conversation within the university about technology in teaching. If the mission of the university is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, how can the academy not be involved?

“I actually have a lot of hope about people’s ability to connect and learn together and keep alive areas that are not economically viable, such as digital humanities, perhaps.”
Anya Kamenetz

Libraries must be involved as well. They may have to reimagine curriculum support and information delivery, and they may need to become involved in supporting faculty in the production of MOOCs and becoming the technical intermediaries between content creators and MOOC platform providers. But libraries can play a defining role in the digital management strategy for MOOCs.

Odds are good that online learning will continue to spread. But whether MOOCs are the right approach to bring real change is not clear. It may be that we just have to wait until, like so many other  technology-based media, the tools simply become part of our daily lives. As Bryan says, “We will eventually stop saying blended learning and just say learning.”

OCLC market research indicates that we may have reached a tipping point in online education. “MOOCs may provide libraries with a new opportunity to enable people not only to learn, but to construct and share their knowledge and stories in new ways and to new audiences,” Cathy says. “Libraries can really help catapult their communities forward in terms of how we think about content creation and teaching.”