by Leigh Bunton
Libraries and information professionals have been adapting to the impact of online resources for some time now. In my own academic library, we have a Mobile Technology Group to monitor developing trends and ensure that staff are equipped to create, access and advise upon anything from Blogs and Instant Messaging; QR codes, Wikis and RFID, to Smart phones and the mobile version of the library website. There is still a physical connection with our users, however, with a campus full of students attending lectures, accessing online resources provided by the library, receiving research advice, making enquiries at service desks, borrowing books and filling every library space when exams and deadlines loom.
What happens, though, when that tangible connection to the student faculty no longer exists? How do information professionals and services fit into an entirely virtual and hugely dispersed learning environment? These are questions that have arisen with the growth of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses. Developed in the USA since 2008 by companies such as Couresera and Udacity by establishing links with major Universities such as Princeton and Stanford, they are now starting to make an impact in the UK. The Open University launched its Futurelearn platform in conjunction with 17 UK universities at the start of 2013, and Karan Khemka of the Financial Times reported in March that Edinburgh University attracted 300,000 students to their 6 MOOCs courses in the first week.
Distance learning is certainly not a new concept and has successfully exploited new technologies to offer students the kinds of user forums, multimedia and connectivity associated with MOOCs. Distance learning, however, shares the same entry requirements, methods of assessment and support facilities, including library services, as taught higher education courses. They are fee-paying, offered to a limited group at any one time and lead to a recognised qualification. By contrast, MOOCs do not have entry requirements, fees or recognised qualifications. They are offered to a massive and dispersed user-base, rely on peer-led learning and assessment, and do not include traditional support facilities. The focus on social media and online technology as resources appears to have substituted for library services. So is there a place for librarians in the MOOC landscape? I believe it’s not only possible, but essential.
MOOCs at Edinburgh provides a clear contrast between the resources offered to MOOC students vs. those offered to online Postgraduate students. Although the quality of the courses are comparable to that of any standard Edinburgh University course, no University services, including library resources, are available as part of the MOOC courses. This presents a significant danger to the developing worth of open access courses. The absence of skills taught by librarians in a standard academic setting e.g. information literacy, digital literacy, orientation, citation of sources, issues of plagiarism, effective resource searching, study skills etc. could fundamentally undermine the self-directed study required of MOOCs by students whose work is only scrutinised by the peer group of other MOOC students. I’m a big supporter of open access and the implications for expanding education, particularly when a conventional university education is becoming a financial pipedream for many, but librarians must have a part to play in this landscape if students are to develop research, information and digital literacy skills comparable to their undergraduate counterparts. This will be just as crucial if MOOCs ultimately serve to function as tester courses, as part of the admissions assessment process, or as a means for students to prepare themselves for university level study.
Ironically, part of the problem is the absence of fees. Academic librarians are paid by the University to provide services for fee-paying students. Although it is imperative that academic librarians are at the core of developments in open access education such as MOOCs, how can this involvement be subsidised? Similarly, students registered on traditional university courses meet defined criteria that allow them access to e-resources subscribed to by the institution – these resources are not open access. If MOOCs are available to all, what, if any, library resources from the home institution will be available to them? These issues have to be resolved, whether through volunteer library services, a greater involvement of public libraries, licensing negotiations, or the provision of access to the increasing number of quality open access journals and resources. Librarians are best placed to help navigate these complex issues, but they must be a part of the online course development process and professional development must prepare librarians accordingly.
MOOCs may ultimately be a fad, but what is certain is that higher education is increasingly moving towards online learning, even within traditional universities. The issues that MOOCs have raised will remain and hopefully present librarians, not with a threat, but with a valuable opportunity to evolve their skills accordingly, demonstrate their worth and engage with an expanding user community in an entirely new way.