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Can Public Libraries MOOC?

by on July 1, 2013

The academic world is certainly abuzz about MOOCs, and while, from a public library perspective, I find the concept of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) both interesting and exciting in terms of the possibilities, on an a conceptual level, they seem simply an organic extension of services the library already provides.

If there is a level of “genius” to it, it’s a refreshingly humbled one – an idea graduated – and in many ways, when viewing a MOOC for what it is on a purely conceptual level, I don’t see what the big deal is. That said – and that’s not meant to sound reductive – I do find the massiveness (M) of enrollment to be quite staggering, the shear potential for mass level of participation and open-access to be inspiring (100k enrollment for some?!), and the invitation for life-long networked learning to be endearing. But these were also reasons I became a librarian and decided to champion an institution whose mission attempts to do the very same. If not just libraries, I also imagine groups like The Great Courses shouting – “Wait! We’ve been doing this for years!”

Giving credit where it is due, how the idea has graduated or the concept evolved, is in the coordination, organization, and production. For public libraries this type of programming is, conceptually, itself nothing new – indeed “the norm” as far as many of our programming missions go – as far as continuing and encouraging the further development of a community’s education. But where MOOCs take this to another level entirely in terms of their scale, and that IS new.

Again though, if this sounds dismissive I mean not to. I think, while I’m relatively young in the profession, I’ve just seen a lot of library ideals or services get repackaged or rebranded, and hyped as the next new thing solution to all our problems but really it’s just the soup of the day – more marketing spin than unique, sustainable substance. But I’ve also learned that to pass these “specials” off as flashes in the pan and without any redeemable qualities would itself be shortsighted, and besides, as any teacher or parent knows, any opportunity to engage community interest is a good one. So, just as one wouldn’t write-off a spice because a dish misfired, there are important components to be passed along (evidenced in the substantial chord that MOOCs have struck) and as a case in point, I do think there are a lot of aspects or ingredients of MOOCs that are both valuable and convertible to public libraries – quite directly for large public systems, but definitely on conceptual levels for smaller ones too. Libraries can naturally (and perhaps most obviously) be seen in a supportive role for university (or commercially) run program – especially as MOOCs expand upon their science and tech (or STEM) beginnings and expand into areas like the Humanities, which will require support/source material; or further, perhaps support lies in being, simply or not, a well-equipped, technically sound and competently staffed venue. The extent that they require physical production space literally showcases that MOOCs aren’t all virtual.

For smaller libraries or those designing-on-a-dime, the awareness of certain ideas that MOOCs celebrate and the creative action they embolden, can be just as valuable as the product itself. Even if public libraries shouldn’t duplicate or mirror such a program — aspects and concepts can be borrowed and gleaned. While the “M” for a smaller library attempting to undertake such a programming venture might stand for modest instead of Massive, the derivative principle to embrace is that online programming has become a “place” to meet the patron at their point of need, and further realizing the MOOC (by name or related form) as an organic extension, a projected enhancement, and dynamic representation of the Dewey fields – in the same manner that many libraries are conceiving and accomplishing with “maker” or creator spaces.

Further reading:

The New Yorker: Laptop U – http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/20/130520fa_fact_heller

Library Journal: Massive Open Opportunity: Supporting MOOCs in Public and Academic Libraries – http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/05/library-services/massive-open-opportunity-supporting-moocs/