A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The New Online Education

by on March 7, 2013

I was recently reading one of my alumnae newsletters that invited me to take online courses free of charge. Always curious, I went to check it out and was shocked to see some heavy duty courses taught by faculty from  big name universities (Harvard, MIT, etc.), so  I enrolled.

As a former university professor, I was one of the first to teach distance education. At first I was surprised at how little has changed. As the first few weeks of my course progressed I was impressed with several factors. First, the quality of the education, which I had presumed would be superficial and the academics light, were not. Second, I realized that unlike a more conventional class with twenty to forty students, this class had easily a hundred of us. That was the vocal ones! The meet and greet sharing indicated career changers, curious souls, and persons nearing or beyond retirement age.

While this raises lots of issues for me regarding education, it also raised questions about this new format and the public library. I found no online library affiliated with the site of my course or others. Thus, it stands to reason that the people taking these courses will use the public library.  What does this mean for us?

First, there is the obvious; people may wish to access their class through the public library computer system. Aside from perhaps affecting our statistics, I suspected this would have little impact.

But what about more ‘traditional’ librarian functions. Will this educational opportunity place a renewed demand on the public librarian for reference assistance? Might it change the nature of the public library question? Could it bring the public library closer to the academic library?

The librarian in me is intrigued by these questions. It might assist the public library in presenting a positive image in the eyes of the public. I hope it might bring new users to the library.  All positive things.

The academic in me, however, bristled. Are these faculty getting paid for their services, I wondered. And how accessible is the faculty, really? How much can they possible support student questions, provide further explanation or read discussion? much can they possibly be with hundreds of students?  [k1] This then begged the question; would the student’s local librarian become the de facto go to for help person?  Not only did the academic in me scowl at this, but the librarian thought this demand to be highly unfair to librarians.

The public librarian may not be trained in the academic resources and skills needed. The collection not suited to the information needed. Certainly in the case of small and rural libraries, the subset that I would suspect might have a population inclined to seek out this form of educational opportunity, they don’t have the time to support this student.

I am still curious… are librarians being sought out for assistance with such classes? Will this be a welcome addition or a problem for the public library?

Curious about this free, high-level,  online education? Check out these courses:  https://www.coursera.org/Edx  https://www.edx.org/, or  Udacity  https://www.udacity.com/ .