Massive Open Opportunity: Supporting MOOCs in Public and Academic Libraries

If you’re an academic librarian, you’re probably already awash, at least peripherally, in news about MOOCs—massive open online courses have been touted as the next big thing in higher ed since they burst on the scene about a year ago. If you’re a public librarian, on the other hand, you may not even have heard of them. Yet MOOCs are bringing unprecedented challenges and opportunities to both kinds of libraries already, and they’re only going to grow.

If you’re an academic librarian, you’re probably already awash, at least peripherally, in news about MOOCs—massive open online courses have been touted as the next big thing in higher ed since they burst on the scene about a year ago. If you’re a public librarian, on the other hand, you may not even have heard of them. Yet MOOCs are bringing unprecedented challenges and opportunities to both kinds of libraries already, and they’re only going to grow.

What is a MOOC?

“I’m sorry to be dumb, but what’s a MOOC?” one of the librarians interviewed for this story asked. There’s nothing dumb about that question. Beyond the acronym above, ‘What is a MOOC’ is still very much a matter of debate. The first MOOCs, which established the archetype, were free online classes, for no credit, offered by a few eminent experts in their own fields (mostly science, technology, engineering, math [STEM]) and taken—or at least started—by hundreds of thousands of students at a time, though the dropout rates are similarly massive. (Most MOOCs have completion rates of less than ten percent, according to Katy Jordan, a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University who is studying MOOCs. But that ten percent still represents more students than most professors would teach in person in a lifetime.)

The major MOOC providers, so far, are Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. Courses are taught by faculty from established colleges and universities—usually fairly high-ranking and select ones. Coursera, a for-profit entity, is by far the most prolific, with 341 classes. Udacity offers 22, mostly in STEM disciplines, while EdX, a not-for-profit, is currently accepting sign-ups for 32. In addition, individual colleges offer MOOCs of their own.

As the concept matures, expands, and is tinkered with, the issue of where “traditional” online education ends and the MOOC begins becomes murkier. Michael Stephens, an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science at San José State University (SJSU), CA, for example, is offering a MOOC pilot that is limited to 500 students—about the size of a large lecture hall. Does that count as massive?

Is a class truly “open” if it’s not free? The idea that education from formerly elite institutions would now be open to all—or at least all who speak English, the language in which most classes are offered, and have access to a computer and broadband—is part of what helped MOOCs capture the popular imagination. Yet the for-profit providers must find a way to monetize the concept, and even not-for-profit EdX and the participating colleges and universities must justify the resources they consume. Udacity is experimenting with charging $150 for courses that come with college credit from SJSU, while Coursera’s “Signature Track,” whose prices vary by course, does not provide credit but uses a combination of ID, webcam, and biometrics to provide a verified certificate of completion. (The American Council on Education, which advises college presidents on policy, recently endorsed five MOOCs from Coursera for credit.)

Why would they need the library?

There are multiple potential roles for libraries in the MOOC development, support, assessment, and preservation process, some of which have been more fully explored than others in the few months since Coursera and EdX began rolling out offerings.

CLEARING COPYRIGHTED CONTENT One major, and comparatively mature, role for libraries is in helping faculty ensure the materials they use to create their MOOC presentations and to assign as readings are not going to get them or their institutions into trouble. Faculty members are increasingly used to turning to the library for help with copyright, so in early discussions around making MOOCs work, the library should be front and center.

While professors are used to relying quite heavily on the fair use exemption for in-person teaching, that does not apply to MOOCs, according to a panel of copyright experts including Brandon Butler, director of public policy for the Association of Research Libraries; Kevin Smith, scholarly communications officer at Duke University, NC; Kenneth Crews, director of the Copyright Advisory Office at New York’s Columbia University; and Kyle K. Courtney, manager of faculty research and scholarship at Harvard Law School, MA, at an OCLC symposium, "MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge?", held this past March at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Furthermore, while the universities are not-for-profit institutions themselves, Coursera and Udacity are for-profit companies, which could conceivably weaken a fair use defense, as could the massive size of the audience and that some students access the content from jurisdictions where fair use and fair dealing protections are weaker than in the United States or absent entirely.

As a result, the panelists said, instructors should first strive to find open access materials that will serve the pedagogical purpose as well or better than the copyrighted options that were being considered. Failing that, they should request a free license. Only if both attempts fail should instructors turn either to paying for a license—particularly problematic when the number of potential viewers is so large and said viewers are unwilling or unable themselves to pay for texts—or using the absolute minimum amount necessary to make the pedagogical point—only the relevant 20 seconds of a video, for instance.

Faculty can also embed or link to content to make it available to students without raising copyright concerns. (Course reserves, electronic or physical, are obviously not an option, as MOOC students are not matriculated and hence have no access to the library of the providing institution or its proxy server.)

One advantage of MOOCs, according to the panel, is that they are helping with open access advocacy, as professors see the need to make their own writings accessible to their students and ask their colleagues to do likewise.

Supporting production Faculty members need audio­visual equipment to record their MOOCs. They need software and computers to edit the raw footage. They need training on how to do both, as well as how to adapt to a new format their teaching style, which must be strong, clear, and succinct enough to stand largely on its own without benefit of office hours, librarians, a question-and-answer period, or the ability to adjust on the fly when the professor sees puzzled expressions. These tools and training don’t have to be centralized in the academic library, but it makes sense for them to be there. Unlike with IT, the library is often already providing instructional support and access to the same technology for students and for faculty who are experimenting with “flipping” their in-person classrooms, using video presentations to take the lecture out of class time, which can then be devoted to discussion. This, also, is a role that has already been explored by librarians at a number of early adopting campuses, though how thoroughly the library has been involved in the process varies drastically from a seat at the task force table from the very beginning to ad hoc troubleshooting near the end.

Supporting students This is the biggest question mark so far: Can, and should, libraries attempt to support MOOC students the way they support traditional—e.g., paying—­students? Mitigating against this idea is not only the scale of the endeavor—a single MOOC often has ten times more participants than an entire university’s student body—but that MOOC students are not necessarily looking for a traditional academic experience. If these students won’t be writing papers, won’t be reading anything that isn’t provided by the professor for free via hyperlink, and won’t be going on to do independent research, do they really need the help of a librarian?

The answer, of course, is “it depends.” MOOCs are increasingly expanding beyond their computer science starting point into areas of the humanities, in which the ability to find supplemental library materials might indeed be useful, if not mandatory (and might pose more of a challenge than it would to students with a well-stocked academic library at their disposal: a MOOC student halfway across the country from the provider institution is arguably more in need, not less, of information about how to find and use materials via interlibrary loan, ­JSTOR Register and Read, and open access digital collections).

Even for students who never progress beyond assigned readings, especially those who are new to higher ed, librarians help to clarify things they don’t understand in assigned materials. Though the data is preliminary and far from representative, some EdX findings suggest that the early promise of MOOCs to democratize education may be overstated, because the people who do best in MOOCs (and other online courses) are those already familiar with how to succeed in college courses. A long-term study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that while all students performed better in in-person classes than in online environments, weaker students lost more ground. Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said of the study’s findings, “For the underprepared students that the study worries about most, student support services (advising, tutoring, library resource materials, study skills assistance, technical assistance) could be the differentiator.”

Whether on campus or around the corner, libraries seem like a likely candidate to provide such support. Still, questions of scale apply to them as well. Jeffrey Pomerantz of the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, who is offering a class via Coursera, told LJ, “Since these aren’t Carolina students, I would be hesitant to ask the librarians on campus to support them. I’m sure that most librarians would serve the world if they could, but there’s a limited number of hours in the day. I haven’t heard anything about any of these platforms integrating libraries or librarians into them. It might make sense, but if you’re talking about embedded librarians, you’d need thousands of them.”

Right now, the main source of instructional support for students taking MOOCs is other students taking MOOCs. Several speakers at the OCLC event commented with surprise on the speed, depth, and accuracy with which students answered one another’s queries, and a brand new entrant, Stanford’s Nova Ed, plans to focus even more on peer interaction. In the meantime, student forums would provide a potential entry point to leverage library assistance only when it’s needed; users who didn’t get a satisfactory answer could potentially escalate the query to a librarian.

At a minimum, Forrest Wright in D-Lib Magazine recommends reaching out to faculty members teaching the MOOCs and providing links to the tutorials and research guides sections of their affiliated library’s website, as well as peer-reviewed ­research tutorials.

DRAWING THEM IN This calculus MOOC taught by the University of Pennsylvania’s Robert Ghrist features hand-drawn illustrations

Measuring a MOOC One major unanswered question that arose at the OCLC seminar was how to decide whether a MOOC has succeeded: What are the right metrics? What does success mean for a MOOC student? People who are taking MOOCs for enrichment may feel their own criteria have been met even if they never bother to complete the homework or take the final, akin to auditing in the traditional campus environment. People who are taking MOOCs to test-drive a particular institution or subject before applying may get everything they need by the midpoint of the course and drop out altogether. Those who want to learn to execute a particular skill—coding in Java, for example—may stop when they reach the desired level of proficiency. As such, the relatively low completion rate of MOOCs may not be an indication of failure that it would be for the same course at the offering university.

But the lack of consensus about the right metric doesn’t mean one isn’t needed. (Phil Hill, on e-Literate, outlined four archetypes of MOOC students whose patterns should be considered when designing an assessment.) It is still necessary to capture granular data about how MOOCs work and who they’re working for if the offering institutions are to improve them, segment their strategies for different audiences, or decide whether to continue the experiment at all. There is an emerging role for libraries as “big data” repositories and analysts in many fields; with MOOCs, where in many cases no one except Coursera and EdX is yet keeping this data, much less slicing and dicing it, academic libraries have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor and present a compelling case study.

Preservation As is often the case when something new and potentially faddish takes off quickly, no one yet is really paying much attention to preserving MOOC content. The focus is much more on getting it up and out there. But a shakeout in MOOC platforms is likely once the category matures, leaving any content that is housed only on the shuttered servers suddenly stranded, if not lost. As MOOCs are tweaked by professors learning from experience, what happens to the earlier versions? Will future scholars be able to study the evolution of the form, or will the earlier, superseded versions be overwritten? With most institutions offering only a handful of courses so far, academic libraries at MOOC-providing institutions have a great opportunity to design a preservation structure for MOOC content before there is a huge backlog to handle.

This is also a way to make sure that academics don’t wake up one day to find that they are in the same boat with MOOC providers that they once were with journals—their own work siloed off from them by third parties that profit from its distribution. If MOOC institutions are keeping their own content in institutional repositories and make sure to write that into their contracts, they can avoid the need for a reprise of the open access movement. OCLC’s panel of copyright experts strongly recommended writing or editing the contracts with course providers to guarantee that long-term preservation is permitted even if you can’t get reuse.

Yet another potential role is for libraries to curate and preserve the user-generated content—student work—that is created during a MOOC.

The Library as Content Creator

FUTURELEARN, a UK-based MOOC provider that is still in the process of launching, has already signed up the British Library as a creator of MOOC content in its own right. In the United States, institutions from the Library of Congress to the HathiTrust to the Digital Public Library of America might offer similar scope. There was also considerable discussion at the OCLC symposium about the possibility of libraries offering MOOCs on research skills, such as how to navigate databases and recognize seminal articles.

MOOCs and the public library

One major question is whether it is the academic library of the host institution or the public library of which the patron is a member that will end up supporting these students’ efforts—or whether MOOCs will require a deeper level of cooperation between public and academic librarians.

Unless the MOOCs provide very clear links on how to reach out to the academic library directly through the course provider software (and maybe even if they do), the public library and librarian whom they already know and feel entitled to use are likely to be the go-to entry point for many. As such, public reference librarians might suddenly find themselves dealing with a raft of specialized academic questions on top of their usual workload, without access to the collection resources or subject specialists that academic librarians rely on to answer them.

In addition, public libraries will find themselves providing a far more basic service: access to equipment to take the courses at all. Public libraries remain a key player in redressing the digital divide [PDF] in America. For would-be MOOC students who don’t have broadband and the fairly new computers necessary to use the courseware at home, the public library is where they’ll go to take the class—and that means they’ll need headphones or speakers in privacy, as the classes are presented as videos with sound, as well as the ability to reserve the computers for longer at a stretch than some libraries currently allow. Of course, they’ll need help operating that technology as well. “A MOOC student will probably go to the library that serves them,” SJSU’s Stephens told LJ. “I would hope they could go into a library and say, ‘I’m taking a course online, and I need to make a video, can you help me?’ It will probably be some technology support. I know some people bristle at that, but I think it is an absolutely viable question to be asked inside the library.”

Also, a few groundbreaking public libraries are experimenting with using MOOCs provided by others as the basis of programming. For example, Margaret Donellan Todd, county librarian, County of Los Angeles Public Library, said the library is incorporating MOOCs into the Center for Learning initiative of its new strategic plan, which also includes homework and literacy support, online tutoring, GED prep, and courses from Gale Cengage’s Ed2Go platform.

“When we about eight years ago, the response was amazing. It was clear that the public wanted to be able to be tutored online. We also saw strong response to the addition of résumé builders and other products. The idea of MOOCs seemed like the logical next step,” Todd told LJ. “We are also looking at collaborating with other organizations to share MOOC content, such as literacy classes or GED.”

“In the future, we see the library as becoming a local meeting place for people enrolled in specific MOOCs,” Todd added. “We also believe we may offer group MOOC viewing—perhaps for literacy-based classes.”

Such wraparound programming has the potential to beef up the library’s adult lifelong learning offerings at little expense and without limiting them to the pool of qualified local volunteers. From the MOOC perspective, it exposes the courses to a whole new audience, potentially drawing in students who wouldn’t have signed up to do a MOOC in isolation, as well as providing support to those who might otherwise have dropped out of one. Todd even said the library is considering collaborating with a local college to produce MOOCs in future. “Public libraries know how people learn and where they get stuck,” she explained.

MOOCs for librarianship

Another major opportunity for MOOCs in the library involves staff, rather than patrons, as students. MOOCs directly in the field of librarianship are just beginning, in a trickle: UNC’s Pomerantz is offering a metadata course through Coursera, but he told LJ, “I’m not going for library focused. I suspect there will be librarians and library students in there, but I’m sort of hoping that isn’t the bulk of the students.”

SJSU’s Stephens, however, is offering a course focused on librarianship, called the Hyperlinked Library, and planning to do more if this one is a success. While it won’t count toward an MLS, his course could help working librarians up their game and help potential librarians, particularly paraprofessionals already working in libraries, decide whether they want to pursue library school further. Stephens told LJ that he hopes the MOOC experiment will help produce “a professional development model for librarians that is open and free and becomes a community of learners coming from library schools and jobs. That ongoing professional development that we want librarians to be doing? This formalizes it and gives it a place.”

Stephens also predicts that aspects of MOOCs are likely to feed back into more traditional library education. “I think what we’ll see is maybe some of the affordances of the MOOC finding their way into some of the offerings of library schools. I think it’s entirely acceptable to have an incoming class in a much larger class to start, that is kind of a sampler and in a choose-your-own-adventure style. A lot of people come to library school not really sure where they want to end up.”

Since Stephens’s employer, SJSU, already has a large online library school, its fledgling MOOC credit partnership with Udacity, if expanded to include library coursework, has the potential to be disruptive to library education—potentially reducing the diversity of online offerings in a rush to the lowest price but also making library school affordable without student debt for many who might previously have considered it out of reach.

In the meantime, there is a rich vein of resources already on offer that, while not library-specific, would be useful to librarians looking to brush up on their skills to get hired, promoted, or just do their jobs better. Technology is an increasing part of librarianship, and the rapidly changing state of the art means that updated training is needed every few years. MOOCs have the potential to make that convenient and cost effective for even the tightest budgets. Beyond technology, there is information on offer for aspects of library life ranging from public speaking to pedagogy: for example, the American College of Education is offering a free MOOC on digital tools for the K–12 classroom. (For more on MOOCs for librarians, see the Google Group MOOCs and Librarianship.)

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


I'm looking forward to the for-profit providers of MOOCs also providing public libraries with all of the equipment, staff, and training needed for their students. Otherwise, we've got the taxpayers subsidizing for-profit, private companies. That will go over REAL big. Michael Stephens appears to have forgotten his public library experience.

Posted : Jun 18, 2013 04:29

Shannon Bohle, MLIS, CDS (Cantab), FRAS, AHIP

If you are interested in learning more about MOOCs in terms of STEM education and scientific and medical librarians, my related article called, "Librarians and the Era of the MOOC" was recently published on my blog in association with and the German version of Scientific American: Shannon Bohle, MLIS, CDS (Cantab), FRAS, AHIP b: t:

Posted : May 24, 2013 01:44

Michael Stephens

Thank you for mentioning the San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science’s Hyperlinked Library MOOC in your article. We are excited to adapt one of our popular MLIS courses into a professional development opportunity for information professionals, who are interested in exploring how libraries are using emerging technologies to serve their diverse communities. Through this pilot, we hope to develop and evaluate a model of online professional development that can be replicated and shared. This reflects my work researching the impact and effect of Learning 2.0, the self-directed, online learning program replicated hundreds of times worldwide, a definite precursor to #hyperlibMOOC. Please note that the Hyperlinked Library MOOC is offered by the SJSU School of Library and Information Science. It is a professional development opportunity. MOOC students do not earn college credit. The Hyperlinked Library MOOC is separate from the MOOCs offered in partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity. While I am very interested in a larger scale introductory “choose your path” course in LIS education, I am not advocating for our school or any LIS program to adopt MOOCs over vibrant and engaging instruction. For more information about the Hyperlinked Library MOOC, please visit:

Posted : May 22, 2013 05:19

Brandon Butler

I just wanted to respond briefly to the story's characterization of our OCLC panel as concluding that fair use does "not apply to MOOCs." The phrasing is a little unclear, but I want to be sure to clarify that I, personally, think that fair use will quite often apply to use of materials in MOOC lectures and the like; indeed, I think it's absolutely essential. The specific exceptions that educators ordinarily rely upon to cover the unlicensed display and performance of copyrighted material in the classroom—Sections 110(1) and 110(2) of the Copyright Act—are expressly limited to "nonprofit" educational activities. It is these exceptions that likely "do not apply" to MOOCs, given the for-profit model embraced by Coursera and many of its peers. Unless they can rely on fair use, a professor who displays an image or performs a song or a film clip in the course of a MOOC video lecture will have to obtain express permission for every piece of third party content that they use in their teaching. Another fact that surfaced during our OCLC panel was that such permission can be difficult or impossible to obtain. Educational uses such as these are generally at the heart of fair use, and the broad exception under 110 for traditional teaching is further evidence of the value that Congress places on teaching. This is a decisive moment for MOOCs and the institutions that are participating in them: practices established now can become the default rules for years to come, and too much timidity about fair use could make the provision a dead letter. That would be a shame. Fortunately, the experts on the OCLC panel suggested that all of their institutions are working diligently to take maximum advantage of fair use, though of course every institution makes its own judgments. I hope that trend will continue and spread. For more information on the legal and policy issues that MOOCs raise for libraries, you may be interested in a relatively short Issue Brief that I prepared for ARL, available here as a PDF:

Posted : May 20, 2013 07:31

Sean Connor

First, let me thank academic libraries at two different institutions for having provided me with delightful work-study opportunities in reference, reserve, circulation, and technical services. I wasn't far from deciding on pursuing library science...still might happen. Second, I want to throw the Saylor Foundation's hat in the ring. Saylor offers free, online, asynchronous courses across a college liberal arts curriculum (with professional and K-12 courses now appearing, too). As such, we share as much with Khan Academy as with Udemy or edX. We have not yet done any official outreach, but we would LOVE to discuss the possibility of working with public libraries -- and potentially academic ones -- to share our course content. As a nonprofit, we default toward open and free, we're VERY well-versed in copyright and licensing issues, and while we haven't had the press of Coursera and Udacity, we are agile and eager to help innovate. We've been busy, too: 289 complete courses available all the time, at the student's own pace. Our plan has been to start local with library partnerships outreach (Washington, D.C.), but we're open to conversation with anyone, and our student body is truly worldwide. I welcome inquiries and ideas! Sean Connor | Community Engagement Mgr The Saylor Foundation

Posted : May 14, 2013 09:30



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing