D-Lib Magazine
The Magazine of Digital Library Research
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D-Lib Magazine

March/April 2013
Volume 19, Number 3/4
Table of Contents


What do Librarians Need to Know About MOOCs?

Forrest Wright
Thomson Reuters



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Over the past several months, the proliferation of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has been hailed as a potent defense against the rising cost and insular culture of attending a traditional college. The courses, which are generally taught by experts with affiliations to elite universities, are characterized by their unique pedagogy and unlimited enrollment. To date, no course has been accepted for transfer credit at a major on-campus institution; however some administrators and higher-education experts predict their gradual integration into university curriculum. This article examines the MOOC phenomenon, identifying aspects that academic librarians should consider in the coming years, including how these courses interact with scholarly resources and library services. Methods for integrating library services in these courses are evaluated, with recommendations for the best course of action.



While technology has facilitated access to distance education for over a decade, 2012 witnessed a seismic shift in attention to this platform for learning, typified by the November 2nd New York Times article, "The Year of the MOOC," as well as the October 29th issue of Time Magazine devoted to this topic. The four letter acronym, MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), has been hailed as a potent defense against the rising cost and insular culture of attending a traditional college. Recent interviews indicate that teachers praise MOOCs for their ability to distribute lectures to very large audiences, while students enjoy the flexibility, free tuition, and access to elite university faculty (Ripley, 2012). Companies hosting MOOCs are also responding to this sudden demand by expanding their course offerings. For example, Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller recently stated that within five years, Coursera will expand from around 200 courses to 3,000. This is roughly the same number of courses offered in the academic catalogs of large research universities (Koller, 2012). Given their apparent early success, MOOCs are likely to be part of the higher-education landscape for years to come. Therefore, academic librarians need to be aware of how these developments may impact their responsibilities and role within a university.

This article aims to inform librarians and information professionals about developments related to MOOCs that are of unique interest to them. This includes how universities are involved in creating or sanctioning MOOCs, descriptions of the major MOOC providers, and how scholarly resources are used in their curriculum. I will then offer an evaluation of current models for library services in distance learning that may apply to the support of MOOCs. I believe it is important for librarians to consider these issues in the early stages of this phenomenon, because not only are MOOCs here to stay, but they represent a new challenge in the shifting relationship between library services and online learning that will continue to play out in the future of higher education.


MOOC Description

The soaring costs of on-campus university tuition, coupled with improved models for online learning interfaces are two obvious reasons for the emergence of open online education. Yet we can attribute the involvement of prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford and their renowned faculty to the sudden attention paid to the MOOC format. Harvard and MIT collaborated and invested $60 million to create EdX, which now includes input from additional universities. Former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun founded Udacity in collaboration with other Stanford professors and staff. Other MOOC providers draw from a larger pool of scholars; Coursera hosts courses from professors representing over thirty universities, and currently offers the largest number of courses of the major MOOC providers. The following section offers more detailed descriptions of these providers, including how they use (or don't use) scholarly resources.

EdX: This non-profit company created by Harvard and MIT hosts nine online courses mirroring on-campus courses taught by these universities. So far, all of the nine courses concentrate in the "hard" sciences of computer programming, artificial intelligence, and quantitative methods. However, their new partner Wellesley College will add social science and humanities courses to the platform in the coming months. While courses differ in their exact approach, generally students view prerecorded lectures, complete embedded exercises, and submit assignments for grades within a designated timeframe for course completion. Certificates of completion from EdX are awarded to students, but they do not receive transcript credit from the university offering the course. Some of the professors recommend but do not require textbooks, while some provide supporting literature in the form of free e-books to students who enroll.

Udacity: Founded by former Stanford Professor Sebastien Thurn, this for-profit company made headlines for offering an "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence" course that enrolled over 150,000 students in the fall of 2011. Since then, nineteen courses have been developed by a team of four scholars, focusing on the hard sciences of computer science, physics, and statistics among others. Students watch video lectures with embedded quizzes and submit homework assignments, taking as long as necessary to complete a course. Once completed, students receive a certificate of completion from Udacity, as well as designations of "Accomplishment," "Accomplishment with Distinction," and "Accomplishment with Highest Distinction" based on their performance and involvement in the course. One of the most unique elements of completing a MOOC from Udacity is that students can elect to have their resume distributed to Silicon Valley companies looking for candidates with programming and quantitative skills. All courses are self-contained, in that they teach entirely from lectures and assignments, and have a distinct "no textbook" policy.

Coursera: This for-profit company currently offers over 200 courses covering a range of subjects including Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Business, and Computer Science. These courses are created by faculty representing over thirty universities, including Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, and the University of Virginia, to name a few. The structure of each course varies, but generally students watch lectures with embedded quizzes, and complete homework assignments within a designated timeframe for course completion. Other features include student collaboration via online forums, as well as peer reviews for evaluating assignments. Certificates of completion are awarded, but transcript credit is not recognized by any university to date. Scholarly resources for students vary greatly from course to course. Some of the courses are self-contained, and do not require any additional literature, while others, such as "Greek and Roman Mythology" require students to read assigned classical literature. Many of the professors recommend certain readings for additional content, with links to free online resources.

The major question for MOOC providers and universities alike in the coming years will be whether or not these courses will be eventually recognized for transfer credit at major institutions. To date, there has only been discussion on this topic, and no on-campus university has publicly indicated that they will begin accepting these courses in the near future. However, some academic administrators have proposed a role for MOOCs within traditional higher education. John Mitchell, the newly appointed Stanford University Vice Provost for Online Learning, envisions substituting traditional lectures with MOOCs so that on-campus time is spent collaborating and discussing rather than lecturing (Ashbrook, 2012). This is commonly referred to as the "flipped classroom" approach to learning. UMass-Lowell Professor Fred Martin endorsed a similar view in his article, "Will Massive Online Open Access Courses Change How We Teach?" (Martin, 2012). Other academic policy watchers such as Jeff Salingo, editor-at-large at the Chronicle of Higher Education, predict that universities will evaluate the performance of high school students in MOOCs to identify strong candidates for admission (Ashbrook, 2012). Academic librarians will have to pay careful attention to these developments. As MOOCs gradually integrate into university curriculum, librarians may find whole new responsibilities.


Resources and Methods

Acknowledging the rapid expansion of online university courses over the past decade, several regional higher education associations have published policies indicating their commitment to library support in distance learning. For example, the Northwest Commission on Colleges states that institutions must provide "access to library and scholarly resources with an appropriate level of currency, depth, and breadth to support the institution's mission, core themes, programs, and services, wherever offered and however delivered" (as cited in Francis, 2012). Additionally, the Association of College and Research Libraries' (ACRL) Distance Learning Section established the policy that every higher education student is "entitled to the library services and resources of that institution, including direct communication with the appropriate library personnel, regardless of where enrolled" (as cited in Nickel & Mulvihill, 2010). Several other higher education associations offer similar explicit commitments to library support of distance classes. Clearly, these policies were created before the advent of MOOCs, which exist outside the conventional online course environment. But that does not mean that academic librarians are powerless to help MOOC students if these courses eventually integrate into standard university curriculum. The following section will explore some current methods used by librarians to serve online students, evaluating which methods would best serve the MOOC platform.

Two characteristics defining MOOCs make them particularly difficult for the integration of library services. First, their enrollment far exceeds that of conventional online courses offered by degree-granting institutions. This reality prevents librarians from applying some of the recent approaches for integrating library services in online learning. For example, in contained online courses with enrollment limits, the "embedded librarian" approach has some documented success. At SUNY-Oswego, librarians have negotiated with faculty members to include research assignments and tutorials in the course management systems of their online learning platform (Held, 2012). Similarly, Dominguez-Flores and Wang successfully taught literacy skills to a group of undergraduates through librarian interaction with online learning communities at Nova Southeastern University (Dominguez-Flores & Wang, 2012). However, even in these contained online environments, librarians expressed frustration over the time-intensive nature of creating research exercises, as well as difficulty persuading faculty to share time in their course. Therefore, given the challenges of huge student enrollment, it is unlikely these approaches would translate to MOOCs.

The second characteristic of MOOCs that will prove challenging to librarians is that they are hosted by third-party companies. This presents numerous technical and proprietary issues. Most online courses offered by degree-granting institutions use course management systems such as Blackboard to post assignments, lectures, and other educational content. Therefore, in instances where librarians are integrated in these online courses, they have to tailor their support to the technical and structural requirements of their university's system. Unfortunately, because MOOCs use their own platform to host course content, the work done by librarians within their university's course management system, such as embedding lesson plans or offering an "Ask a Librarian" feature, would not easily transfer to outside MOOC platforms. This means librarians would have to create research assignments for multiple online environments if they want to be involved with MOOCs to the same extent that they are involved with their university's online courses.

To date, it appears that the most practical option for librarian involvement in MOOCs is to start small with a solution that is scalable. First and foremost, this means reaching out to the faculty member teaching the MOOC. Just like in any university setting, librarians must convince faculty that learning from scholarly resources is a critical element of higher education, and the first step towards that end is making the student aware of their available resources. The next step should be to provide the faculty member with links to the "tutorials" and "research guides" sections of their affiliated library's website. At this juncture it is important for librarians to review the scope and content of their tutorials and research guides, because most will include paths to proprietary databases which will not be accessible to many MOOC students. This does not necessarily mean that librarians will have to immediately create new, open-access only tutorials. Luckily, peer-reviewed research tutorials are freely available from the American Library Association, as well as the Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching initiative, which can supplement current tutorial offerings.

By providing links to open access research guides and tutorials, librarians are at the very least offering services that can be repeated by large numbers of students with varying affiliation to the hosting university and faculty. This approach addresses two major challenges of integrating library services in MOOCs, specifically by providing services to a range of students far outnumbering traditional university course enrollment, as well as bypassing some of the technical requirements of embedding library resources in a third-party platform.



The emergence of MOOCs represents a rising trend of removing the learning process from the physical campus, but to an exaggerated degree. This is not necessarily a negative trend; however it does have huge implications for university libraries. The reality of expanded online education in addition to library cutbacks means that librarians have to serve more for less. Additionally, distance learning, particularly MOOCs, rely on professors to select and provide access to scholarly resources by posting links, rather than consulting the library for access to relevant resources. The continued expansion of distance learning will only exacerbate this problem, which is why academic librarians at certain universities have introduced novel approaches to involving library services in online classes, such as integrating tutorials and resource guides. It is my hope that librarians will at least be aware of these challenges and be ready to provide service, or else risk being left out of a huge new development in online higher-education.


Works Cited

[1] Ashbrook, T. (Interviewer); Salingo, J. (Interviewee); Mitchell, J. (Interviewee). (2012, September 10). Big changes in higher ed. On Point Radio Podcast.

[2] Dominguez-Flores, N., & Wang. L. (2011). Online learning communities: enhancing undergraduate students' acquisition of information literacy skills. Journal of Library Administration, 37 (6), 495-503. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2011.07.006

[3] Francis, M. (2012). Making embedded librarians a part of an online community of learners. Journal of Library and Information Science in Distance Learning, 6, 19-27. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1533290X.2012.660879

[4] Held, T. (2010). Blending in: Collaborating with an Instructor in an Online Course. Journal of Library and Information Science in Distance Learning, 4, 153-165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1533290X.2010.528272

[5] Koller, D. (Interviewee) (2012, November 7). MOOCs on the move: How coursera is disrupting the traditional classroom. Knowledge @ Wharton Podcast.

[6] Martin, F.G. (2012). Will massive open online courses change how we teach? Communications of the ACM, 55, 26-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2240236.2240246

[7] Nickel, L.T. & Mulvihill, R.G. (2012) Serving unaffiliated distance learners: strategies that work. Journal of Library and Information Science in Distance Learning, 4, 87-95. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1533290X.2010.503495

[8] Ripley, A. (2012). College is dead. Long live college! Time Magazine, 180 (18), 33-41.


About the Author

Photo of Forrest Wright

Forrest Wright is a Project Specialist for custom research performance projects at Thomson Reuters. In 2010, he graduated with a Master in Library and Information Science from Drexel University, and received his Bachelor of Arts from Clark University. Outside of work, his research interests include business applications of information science and the changing landscape of scholarly communications and content.

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