This is not part 1 of a post about MOOCs

Nope, not at all. Not even a little bit.  Maybe. Maybe a little bit.

But here’s what I’ve found – when you bring up the term, even if it is just to say, “I think this one specific thing is interesting about MOOCs,” what you’ll get is, “let me share My Opinion About MOOCs and not engage with that one thing or anything else you said at all.”

Anyway, obligatory caveats — I don’t think MOOC’s are probably radical (in pedagogy or platform) — and if there was a radical aspect, how they are in practice or how most people talk about them has entirely diluted that. I don’t think most of the discourse about them is very sensible. I do think there are important critiques. I do think that the immediate “how can they be monetized” narrative points to some broader problems with how we think about education, and I think that the idea that they could “replace college” reflects some broader structural inequalities in our culture and is based on a pretty impoverished understanding of what “college” is and how it functions in our society.

So why do I want to talk about them? Well, it comes down to an issue that has been a part of library instruction discourse since long before I became a librarian – the sharing issue.  As in, we share so well in libraries, but it’s all about stuff, how can we share beyond our stuff?  Also known as the reinventing the wheel issue in library instruction — we spend a lot of time reinventing wheels that have already been invented.

The thoughts I’m trying to make coherent on this one are these:

  • Teaching librarians have never gotten to where we want to be with sharing – instructional talent, resources or materials.
  • We’re not satisfied with one-shots, most of the time.
  • We all spend a lot of time teaching skills-level stuff (how to navigate tools, understand academic information workflows, how to work around bad interfaces) and there are students who need (or want) those skills.
  • Much of our assessment is basic and skills-based too, in our asynchronous tutorials and in our one-shot sessions.
  • Most academic libraries are trying to do more with less, whether less means human resources or other types of resources.
  • There is new cool stuff we teaching librarians want to do, and it’s usually resource-intensive and won’t reach all of our students.
  • Knowing how to go out and get trained on new things when you see you have gaps is an important skill, and one that we’re increasingly expected to do independently.

I’m going to start with the first four.

My big question is this – does the MOOC format which (as I’ve said) is not particularly radical or disruptive, offer an opportunity to librarians to think about teaching collaboratively, or sharing our teaching strength, in a new way?

I’m taking a MOOC right now – a refresher on statistics — and I’m definitely struck by how non-transformative the delivery is. We’re talking about talking head videos, broken up by multiple choice quizzes. There are labs which have you doing hands-on work with a particular piece of software. This is followed by a weekly assignment that’s just a more robust quiz that allows for freely written answers. The videos are short, high-quality and watchable, but if the professor is a “super-professor” I’m pretty sure it’s because of all of the other things he does to connect with and help students on the face-to-face campus than it is because he’s a superstar lecturer.

(Competent but not a superstar at the lecturing, is what I’m saying)

20131006-215258.jpgI suspect the difference between this class and a million and one other canned online courses that have existed in the world is found in the discussion forums. For me, though, the class hasn’t progressed to the point yet where I feel like I need to visit the forums. Everything so far is pretty straightforward and clear. Given the reasons people gave for starting it, I would guess that I am far from alone in that. The class does take the openness aspect of MOOC fairly seriously. The resources provided are all open, and while the professor did point us to a paywalled article from Science, the article is where it is. Most notably, the software being taught is open and widely available – a decision that I am certain was deliberate.

Anyway, the point is that nothing I’ve read about MOOCs suggests that this is an unusual experience – from the reasons I have for taking the course, to the structure and delivery of it, to the uneven participation on the forums — this all sounds about right.

I’ve never heard of a multi-institution MOOC, and I will admit to not going beyond cursory Googling to find one. I have seen evidence of non-college-related MOOC content, but I haven’t seen any examples of higher education institutions. collaborating to deliver a course. I don’t see any reason, however, why that wouldn’t work — and indeed — why it might not be better. Obviously, if you’re interested in replacing or replicating credit courses then that becomes more complicated, but that’s part of the beauty of library instruction. Most of us don’t do for-credit instruction, and even if we do, it’s only a fraction of what we do. Most of our teaching falls outside of university credit or tuition structures. We can be creative when we think about delivery, credentialing and cooperation. I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t share in this way (besides the ways it would be challenging).

So what if there were a topic per week, clearly marked so someone could do them all or pick and choose, with high- quality video lectures and related resources and assessments? The ability to take quizzes for assessment, or for self-regulation, would be built in. A resource page listing participating schools and pointing towards tutorials or handouts that outline local processes could be provided. Libraries could monitor local cohort discussion boards, host meet-ups of people taking the course, or just point faculty to the lectures, resources and quizzes for specific topics — their level of involvement could be whatever they could support.

Is this a crazy idea? It doesn’t need to be called a MOOC – it was just the discussion forum/ local cohort, shared resources aspects of the MOOC that made me think about it.

The plot does come from somewhere, though, and it starts with years of people asking me instruction librarians don’t, or can’t, share their stuff better.

Teaching librarians have never gotten to where we want to be with sharing – instructional talent, resources or materials.

I’ve written about this before.  A lot. Most of our efforts about sharing to this point have focused on building and sharing asynchronous online teaching tools like tutorials — repositories like ANTS, databases like PRIMO or sharable tutorials like TILT.

While all of these efforts have been successful in different ways, none of them have taken the question of “why don’t we share more” question off the table. We have a long history of consortial involvement here in the Pacific Northwest, and since my first days as an instruction coordinator, the Alliance has been asking (in general, not asking me specifically) how we can extend that spirit of sharing to our public services, especially instruction.

Real sharing, where we don’t adapt, customize and tweak to make it look like we made it at home, will take a cultural shift — but there are a couple of reasons why I think that it might be a good time to think about it in a new way. First, there are some real reasons why the tutorial/ learning module repository is problematic. We’re not the only ones to find it so – and we’re not the only ones who have tried it. Hannah and I outlined a lot of the reasons why in our paper, but tl;dr – cultural, technological and individual workflow issues all work against the idea of a robust, user-populated repository.

Secondly, I think the conversation right now about what our students’ gaps are and what they really need is more robust — which makes sense because we’ve got decades of embedding IL, thinking about IL, and teaching IL to draw upon now. From Barbara Fister’s case against the undergraduate research paper, to Amy Mark’s deconstruction of the “use peer reviewed articles” requirement, to Threshold Concepts, the common thread in a lot of this critique is — our students may not know the mechanics of research, but their true gaps are deeper and more complicated than that.

Does this make sense? I’m not saying our students don’t need to now how to find the full text, or search for a known item, or even how to do more complicated things like identify keywords — I’m saying that for a lot of them (not all of them, but a lot of them) knowing those things won’t help because they have deeper gaps in understanding — gaps that will take more teaching to fill, not less. So we need to figure out what we’re okay shifting to a more collaborative platform to free up time for this work. I’m going to pick this idea up a little further in part 2.

Most of us are dissatisfied with one-shots, a lot of the time

We all spend a lot of time teaching skills-level stuff (how to navigate tools, understand academic information workflows, how to work around bad interfaces) and there are students who need those skills.

Many of my thoughts about one-shots come from some research Kate and I did a few years ago. We asked teaching librarians to share practice stories, coded and analyzed those stories and then did much more in-depth interviews with about 20 of librarians who shared them.  I want to emphasize that pretty universally, these were not cynical, jaded or otherwise negatively-focused teaching librarians. They were passionate, committed, capable of drawing great joy from their work teaching librarians. We presented on this research at different steps along the way, and between those conversations and the data we gathered I am pretty sure that the conclusions we drew are likely and they both point to these issues.

Anyway, the overwhelming conclusion from both rounds of data was that the pieces of teaching librarianship that gave most people the most satisfaction were those things that happened outside of the boundaries of the one-shot.  And because they were situations where librarians got to follow up, assess, give feedback — I don’t think the anonymous tutorial would fit the bill either. These were all situations where librarians got to engage with students about the process of research on a process level, even if it was just to see and share in the celebration of the final product of that research.  Some of these situations started with a one-shot or two, but they extended beyond it.

some rights reserved by fouro (flickr)

On the other hand, situations where librarians felt powerless or frustrated, where they questioned their own impact, or felt otherwise Sisyphean usually focused on the one-shot.  And it’s that wheels-spinning aspect of the stories that I wanted to focus on here.  The one-shot conversations and stories were largely about the frustration inherent in teaching the same basic skills repeatedly, without the ability to find out see a broader impact on broader goals like critical thinking or lifelong learning.

I think we’ve all experienced classes where we planned for something broad and conceptual, but got bogged down in the details of finding full text or figuring out why the discovery layer keeps serving up broken links. Or workshops where we planed to wow a graduate class with Zotero and instead fell into a “what are databases” rabbit hole. Or, on the other side of things, we’ve had the classes where students got really interested in a meatier question, we had a great discussion but at the end of our 45 minutes, we knew that they still didn’t know how to find the full text (even if they didn’t know that yet).

We know that learning to navigate local systems is important, that many students need instruction in the skills, that some of our workflows are not intuitive and strange, and that some of our interfaces are super terrible and our users need workarounds. Some of our students have missed out on basic research instruction coming in, and that we also need to provide resources for the others who are just the opposite – the students who already “get” libraries and know they need to learn this one. I’m reminded of this every fall when I get the emails and go to the outreach events and talk to the students who just want to learn everything about their new environment.

So how to strike that balance – to provide the resources for students who want to get ahead, and for those who need to catch up before they’re left behind, while still saving ourselves the time, energy, and resources we need to do the other things we want to do?

Much of our assessment is basic and skills-based too, especially in our online tutorials and in our one-shot sessions.

So Hannah and I actually did some surveys about tutorial creation in academic libraries. While we were focusing on the sharing issue, one thing we asked was about assessment and interactivity. Our data reinforced a concept found elsewhere – that academic library tutorials aren’t very interactive, and such interactivity that exists pretty much takes the form of simple quizzes.

I don’t have data on one-shot assessment at my fingertips, but I know that we all know there are significant, structural issues that come up when we try to assess those meaningfully. The most important of these issues is the fact that the only time that most of us can control our assessment is immediately after the session and that’s not a great time to do it. At best, we find out what they feel about their skills immediately after practicing them in the relatively safe and controlled atmosphere of the library classroom. What happens when they go out to do the actual research they need to do, is another ball game altogether.

Not a Conclusion, but the End of the Middle
So the issue here is that a lot of the things we do in library instruction wouldn’t tax the relatively limited scope of teaching that a MOOC is equipped to support. And that while a lot of the things we do are important, and necessary, they’re not all we think we should be doing.

Tomorrow, I’m going to broaden out a little bit and talk about context — why this is a time when we need to think about shifting what we do now to be able to do more.

One thought on “This is not part 1 of a post about MOOCs

  1. Pingback: This is not part 2 of a post about MOOCs | info-fetishist

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