The Role of the Research Library in the Age of the MOOC

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MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are having an undeniable impact on higher education. The advent of online learning has allowed some professors, colleges, etc. to make courses, previously only available to enrolled, tuition-paying students, available to the general public (hence the “massive”). However, higher education is about more than just the course syllabus and professor lectures. The information resources that support higher education courses, and the skills to navigate through them, are one of the essential components in receiving an education. This raises some challenging questions, with one of the biggest being: what is the role of the research library in the age of the MOOC?

Independent research and discovery are an implied and essential part of the MOOC process, but most individuals do not have access to the extensive databases offered by research libraries. As Forrest Wright states in What do Librarians Need to Know About MOOCs, “learning from scholarly resources is a critical element of higher education.” Enrolled college students have access to scholarly resources through their respective college libraries’ physical resources as well as the online databases, the price of which is incorporated in their tuition. JStor offers a free, limited individual subscriber plan and some other databases also have individual plans, but for the most part, an individual needs to be associated with an institution to gain access. Moreover, even if an individual gains access to an online database, they are still without the physical resources of the library and have no guide for the research methodology to effectively utilize the database.

Research librarians, then, play an essential role in helping students through the process of identifying and properly using relevant information. The article, “A Pedagogy of Abundance or a Pedagogy to Support Human Beings? Participant Support on Massive Open Online Courses” discusses that students in MOOCs need “the ability to seek out current information, and the ability to filter secondary and extraneous information.” In a recent white paper by Brandon Butler of the Association of Research Libraries, he identifies two roles for the research librarian when it comes to MOOCs. The first he identifies as what has always been a research librarian’s role, “First, as always, these libraries are serving faculty by supporting their need for material to use in their lectures and to assign for students’ independent reading.” He then goes onto describe the legal responsibilities, “Research libraries have been asked to work with faculty and campus counsel to navigate the copyright issues raised by teaching in the open, online environment.” What isn’t mentioned here is the role librarians play in students’ academic pursuits. Research librarians traditionally offer students the service of navigating the voluminous resources available to get to the scholarly resources they need. This is an essential link between the student and using scholarly information in their education. Therefore, in MOOCs, librarians will need to help faculty identify material for the course, navigate copyright concerns in the open online environment, and then help the students find scholarly resources to support the material. When one considers the “massive” component of the MOOC, this will become a significant challenge and one that libraries will need to develop a strategy to overcome.

MOOCs are also changing the way students interact with course material. Students are expected to be able to contribute to information they are using in a dialogue. This is made possible by the same technologies that make MOOCs possible – the opening up of information sharing through the internet. SUNY Distinguished Librarian Trudi Jacobson recently discussed the need for developing information literacy skills with Higher Ed Hero. She stated that online publishing has changed the paradigm, where “there are more opportunities for publication than just the standard ones meaning students can be producers of information across online platforms such as social media, blogs, etc.” In the MOOC on “Metaliteracy” which Trudi helped develop between the University of Albany and SUNY Empire State College, those metaliteracy skills will be developed. Students will create their own blogs, have to post, comment, share and will be connected to other experts around the globe. Students will “be creating real information products, with all the attendant responsibilities and possibilities.” This course is available for credit to students at both institutions, but open to non-enrolled students, who may earn credit by enrolling as a nonmatriculated student. This is one example of how universities can teach independent information literacy skills to begin handling the shifting culture of higher education.

The advent of the MOOC and the changes in higher education brought on by the internet require re-evaluating the traditional way of doing things. For the most part, the concept of the MOOC is a good one. Many of us consider education to be a human right and opening up education to those who don’t necessarily have the time, money, and access to take college courses in the traditional sense can still get access to information. But as MOOCs grow in the number of students enrolled, courses offered, participating universities, etc. the need for access to research libraries and databases, and the librarians to navigate them, will also grow. As more professors offer courses online, the copyright issues involved will need to be better understood and managed (perhaps changing the laws themselves). As more students contribute their voices to the ongoing dialogue of scholarship with the publication barriers breaking down, information literacy skills will need to be developed and expected. All of this indicates that the research library will play a tremendously important and prominent role in the age of the MOOC.

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