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For Libraries, MOOCs Bring Uncertainty and Opportunity

Philadelphia — A lot of the discussion about massive open online courses has revolved around students and professors. What role can academic librarians play in the phenomenon, and what extra responsibilities do MOOCs create for them?

At a conference held here at the University of Pennsylvania last week, librarians talked about the chances and challenges that open online courses throw their way. The conference, “MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge?,” was organized by OCLC, a library cooperative that runs the WorldCat online catalog and provides other services and library-related research.

Lynne O’Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services at Duke University, said the “rapid uptake” of MOOCs had taken many people by surprise. As she put it, “These courses don’t seem to fit anything of the model that we have for how to do online education well.” She’s been hearing from instructors that “the process of preparing courses for this environment made them rethink” how they teach their on-campus courses. “Faculty have said it’s a huge amount of work but that it’s also a wonderful opportunity,” she said.

Librarians who get involved in MOOCs should be prepared to deal with “lots of interesting questions for an international audience” of students, Ms. O’Brien said. MOOCs attract students with very different skill sets, languages, technological setups, and knowledge.

Ms. O’Brien shared some statistics about the global distribution of students who have enrolled in Duke’s online courses: 37 percent come from North America, 31 percent from Europe, 16 percent from Asia, 10 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, 3 percent from Oceania, and only 2 percent from Africa. Many don’t have reliable Internet connections or can’t view course materials that require Adobe Flash Reader.

Ms. O’Brien had one piece of basic advice for librarians wondering what to make of MOOC mania: Take a MOOC or two to see what they’re really like. “You can’t be a valued adviser if you don’t understand what it takes to do one of these courses,” she told the audience.

Brown University will start three MOOCs this June on a platform provided by Coursera. Sarah Bordac, the university’s head of instructional design, advised libraries to think carefully about the specific pedagogical requirements of each MOOC before they rushed to get involved. “There is a lot of new time being put into these new projects,” she said.

Ms. Bordac described some of the many jobs librarians could be called on to do in support of MOOCs. Library personnel might need to negotiate with publishers over course materials, help make fair-use decisions, track down public-domain images, provide digital production services, set up teaching spaces and equipment, and/or provide TAs with extra support, especially when the lead professor is also very busy with on-campus courses. At Brown, Ms. Bordac said, she serves as “a connector” among many several different offices and groups, including the university counsel’s office, media services, and the university library.

Several panelists said that working on MOOCs can be a great way to heighten instructors’ awareness about open access and the licensing of course materials. Jennifer Dorner is the head of instruction and user services at the University of California at Berkeley. “This is a real opportunity to educate faculty about the need for owning the rights to their content and making it accessible to other people,” Ms. Dorner said in one session. “This is a really good place for us to educate them about open source and push them in that direction.”

In the summer of 2012, Berkeley joined the nonprofit edX venture, founded by Harvard University and MIT. Ms. Dorner said the university had a wide assortment of online-education offerings beyond edX. That gives students a lot of options. It can also be a headache for librarians asked to provide support for many different kinds of courses. “The lack of coordination and lack of centralization really do pose challenges for the library,” Ms. Dorner said.

To help figure out strategies for dealing with those challenges, librarians from all of the edX partner institutions have formed two working groups, Ms. Dorner said. One group is looking into the issue of access to content; the other is talking about the research skills that MOOCs require and how librarians can help students develop those skills.

Merrilee Proffitt, a senior program officer for OCLC, helped organize the conference. In a phone conversation afterward, she said it’s very early days for MOOCs, too early for libraries to rush to build MOOC support into their core services. Not every online course “is going to require library support,” she said.

But librarians also can’t afford to sit back and let the phenomenon develop without their input. “It’s important for libraries to be engaged in the conversation and present and watching,” Ms. Proffitt said. “This is a great time for experimentation.”

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