Further thoughts on MOOCs and libraries

On the 18th and 19th of March, 2013, OCLC Research and University of Pennsylvania hosted a conference titled MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge? The conference served as something of an introduction to MOOCs, with a strong Coursera bias, although there was a representative from EdX among the speakers. One of the initial speakers, from the University of Pennsylvania, continually referred to their offerings as “Coursera courses” rather than Penn courses. This set a tone for the conference. He did say that Penn’s “mission is the creation and dissemination of knowledge.” Coursera’s licensing policies put limits on the dissemination, which would seem to be at odds with that mission.

The primary theme of the conference was: What can libraries do to support MOOCs? OCLC Research has begun looking into this, and found that some public libraries are thinking about it, most academic libraries are not, and the big MOOC providers (Coursera, Udacity, EdX) are not thinking about it at all.

Much of the discussion focused on copyright, fair use and open access, and it was said early on that there needs to be more discussion in this area. Under US law, there are fair use exemptions to copyright restrictions, for the purpose of teaching and learning. These exemptions do not apply in open environments like MOOCs. They also do not apply outside of the US, although some countries have the related concept of fair dealing. In some cases copyright issues can be avoided by linking to online resources, rather than copying and hosting them. In cases where content is not openly available online, librarians sometimes seek licensing permission. These queries are generally ignored. In one case cited by a panelist, a publisher made a partial version of a textbook available for a MOOC, which created enough demand for it so that Amazon sold out all their copies of it.

Another way of avoiding copyright issues is to use Open Access (OA) course materials. This creates potential librarian roles on two fronts. One is to identify OA materials and locate OA or public domain substitutes for restricted materials. The other is for general OA evangelism, encouraging researchers and academic authors to license their work in a way to facilitate widespread use.

Another panelist brought up the issue of user-generated content. Participants in some MOOCs create a wide variety of content, including blogs, videos, images, audio material, discussion forum posts, collaborative projects. Organizing, archiving and providing access to all this material was brought up as a potential role for librarians. Comments on Twitter revealed resistance to this idea, as it could be an enormous amount of work. It may not be necessary, however, for a librarian to do all the work. An alternate role for librarians would be to provide guidance to help participants organize and archive their own work, facilitating a crowd-sourced solution.

The issue of information literacy as it applies to MOOCs was largely ignored. The EdX representative said that they had two library groups: one for content accessibility and one for research skills. He had little to say about the latter. A few comments in the Twitter stream mentioned information literacy, and one brought up the idea of an infolit MOOC. I’m interested in exploring the idea of information literacy as it relates to MOOCs further.

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