This is not part 2 of a post about MOOCs

So, we left off with the idea that a lot of energy in library instruction still goes to skills-based teaching focused on specific assignments and projects. 

Part 1 is here.

Today I want to develop out the idea a little further that the pressures (resource and otherwise) we’re feeling might make it difficult to continue spending this energy at the same levels.  And then I want to take it further and examine some of the reasons why the MOOC format intrigues me on its own terms.

Most academic libraries are trying to do more with less, whether less means human resources or other types of resources.

This has been true for a long time, but in many ways it’s more a more intense problem now.  Whether we’re dealing with layoffs and furloughs, or a student body that’s exploding in size without a similar explosion in resources, we’re all dealing with this situation, I think.

Here’s our situation here.  This:

Next year’s higher ed state funding levels in Oregon

Plus this:

(Especially note the growth rate during the period after the economy tanked)


To put it in specific library-instruction terms, WR 121 is our FYC class (plus also the only course required of all OSU students).  That’s where we try to meet every student with library instruction.  In the almost-10 years I’ve been here, the number of sections of WR 121 per term has grown from about 25 to about 40, give or take a few. At the same time, we have concentrated teaching (and engagement initiatives) in a department with 7 librarians, who also do other things that aren’t teaching classes. So that math is obvious, WR 121 hasn’t yet, but could easily go from one thing we do into the only thing we can do.

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.

And this the reason why that’s important.  There are things we want to do, and most of the time they’re not going to reach everyone and they’re going to take time, effort, people and sometimes money.  It could be pushing our teaching into new areas that reflect new areas of our expertise: courses or workshops focusing on things like data management, or graphic novels, or text mining.  Some librarians are teaching J-term or intersession courses, or . First-Year experience courses or seminars.  Or maybe you’re interested in pursuing new models for collaboration, or creative credentialing, or the latest pedagogical craze?

Meaningful assessment can be incredibly resource-intensive.  So many people I know are interested in pursuing complex projects like lesson study, or ethnography,or rubric development, but concerned about the resource investment they require.

And we’ve also had a number of wonderful contributions to our body of literature about pedagogy in the last few years — giving us new theoretical frameworks that push us to go deeper and more authentic in our teaching. All of this takes effort, resources, and time — time to do the teaching and also time to make it happen.

The people who are taking, and finishing, MOOCs are mostly not current students — they’re people looking for professional development.

I am pretty sure that this isn’t controversial. The fact that people who actually finish MOOCs mostly already have college degrees, and are taking courses for professional development or lifelong learning, is borne out by the numbers again and again. I did some quick searching for blogs and tumblrs including the phrase “Coursera Junkie” or “I took a MOOC” and (once you filter out all of the reporters and education professionals who took their courses for professional reasons) the anecdata also bears this out.

An instructor reporting on her students’ motivation for taking her class:

I am a college graduate, having finished my last undergraduate finals the previous week. I intend to continue learning, to avoid falling into the malaise that often grips people in the years after they “finish” their education – if we accept that education can really be finished.

This person takes a more results-oriented approach to the same kind lifelong learning message, thinking about how to fit this kind of learning in throughout her professional career: “If I can learn the theory from taking MOOCs and apply what I’ve learned through experience, I see no reason why I cannot continue this cycle with programs relevant at the various stages in my career.

Or there’s this take – which recognizes a lot of the pedagogical limitations in existing courses, but says we shouldn’t be so quick to judge – “Because as much as we need to be proponents of engagement and intentional educational practices, we also need to be proponents of lifelong learning and continued education.

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.

So here’s where I go beyond the idea that some of the things we’re doing are hard to sustain and into areas where I think the MOOC format (again, don’t care what we call it) has some features worth exploring for their own sake.

Let’s go back to the stories research I mentioned in part 1.  There were situations where our subjects were more optimistic about the one-shot, and those situations are also worth considering.  The most striking category here were classes (usually upper-division) in subjects where there was some research tool or information source that is absolutely essential for professionals in the field.  Librarians teaching one-shots in that context reported that students were interested, engaged and immediately able to understand the connection between the tool and their goals.

This is one reason why I frequently think the best one-shots (or drop-in workshops, for where that’s relevant) are more similar to professional training than they are to classroom teaching.  One thing that struck be about those stories were the extent to which students in those classes were doing the same type of learning they would likely need to do to stay informed in current when they left school, on the job.  When the software they were learning in this library session changed, or is replaced by something else, they’ll be in a workshop or seminar or webinar to learn it on the job. 

And I think we all feel that we’re all expected to be more independent with our professional development training.  With the increased availability of webinars, webcasts, even YouTube videos – we’re expected (and we expect ourselves) to learn how to get the information we need to be successful for ourselves.  

But here’s the thing – I think this is particularly important for our students today.  When I was in college, I went to a school with a large and successful undergraduate business curriculum so even though I wasn’t expecting to go into a traditional job right away, I knew lots of people who were and I know what normal expectations looked like then.  They would talk about getting internships and practica, so they could get an entry level, corporate job where they would 1. get trained on the tools and processes they needed in that specific environment and 2. get their eventual M.B.A. paid for.  The school would talk to students about understanding the theory and concepts of the workplace, more than individual software packages and tools because “they’ll train you on that when you get there.”

Now, I’m not saying that my friends on that track believed that they would work at the same place forever, but I can tell you that the level of investment a company was known for putting into its employees was definitely something they considered when they took a job.  Now, I’m not sure that would be a very sensible way to think about it, because I think investing in employees is getting rarer and rarer. That’s probably not even a controversial statement – that bastion of radicalism, The Wall Street Journal, agrees with me:

To get America’s job engine revving again, companies need to stop pinning so much of the blame on our nation’s education system. They need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice. 

Or at least, you know, one WSJ blogger agrees with me.

I’ll tell you when i see articles and presentations explaining how “these kids today don’t want the same job for 5 years, they’ll jump ship in a heartbeat” — my first reaction is to think that these kids today are willing to show exactly the same loyalty as they’re being shown, which seems like a pretty rational response to me.   

So, in a context where you can’t rely on your employer to train you, to orient you, to help you stay current and informed – then the person who is going to be successful and powerful is going to be the person who knows how to do those things for themselves.  If MOOCs are going to be part of the professional development landscape, and even if that specific format is not, I think that it makes sense to start thinking about how we can help students learn to find those courses, those workshops and those webinars that will help them get ahead.  

Other things about MOOCs that intrigue me when I think about them as an alternative to oneshots or tutorials

There’s also something specific about the MOOC format, at least as it exists now, that I think fits in here and provides another way to think about research instruction and the practice of research.

One dream I’ve always had is a dream of a college campus environment where peers helping peers, students helping students, is part of the culture.  This has always seemed like a pipe dream, though, because most students don’t seem to consider research something that they would ask for help on, at least from anyone but their instructor — when they’re good at it they don’t think much of it, and don’t think it’s worth sharing, and when they’re inexperienced at it they don’t want anyone to know.  

(Obligatory caveat – obviously not all students, etc. etc.)

But one thing I’ve noticed is that things like discussion forums, and other interactive online spaces are places where people go for help when they need it in the real world – and it’s frequently where they go with software or interface or tool-related questions.  They don’t do it with our tools, though, and I think that’s a gap.  Now MOOCs, as they exist now, aren’t great at the discussion forum part either, I think.  In a fairly pointed critique of the pedagogy of MOOC’s, Ann Kirschner focuses on the lack of peer-to-peer learning, 

If you believe the sage’s advice that we learn much from our teachers and colleagues but most of all from our students, MOOC’s will be far more effective when we are able to learn from one another.

Now, I suspect discussions in MOOCs are way too big for many people to feel comfortable in the forums, and that there are a lot of people like me who just haven’t felt the need to go there.  The idea that there’s a culture where you have some responsibility to participate in discussions is clearly not universal.  But still, the opportunity exists for students to help each other — and for the ones that do go to the forums, I would imagine help from peers happens more quickly and reliably than help from instructors.

This is why the idea of an institution creating and monitoring its own discussion spaces within the MOOC is so intriguing to me.  Think about it, if you had a combination of students taking it (or parts of it) — some from classes where the professors didn’t want to give up class time for a research unit, some from programs that decide to require it, some go-getter (or scared) new students who want to give themselves the best chance to succeed, and maybe even some prospective students who are just. so. excited. to start — and then you created a discussion forum for those students to get together and discuss an then a few of them even ventured out into the larger forums and found people working on similar research from across the country and a few of the faculty members got in and participated and saw the kinds of questions their students had?  Well, that seems like something worth trying for.  

(And even if you didn’t have the capacity or desire to do any of that, you’d still have something more flexible and useful than a full-on process tutorial, and more efficient than the same content in 52 one-shots)

See, Project Information Literacy tells us that other-people information literacy is something we are decidedly NOT teaching (or at least they’re not learning it): 

Employers we interviewed said college hires had more trouble with team communication strategies than with any other single aspect of the research process. Some employers explained that college hires simply overlooked the social capital team members, in particular, could bring to framing research questions and posing problems. Others said these new recruits thought of research as a task that was not conducive to collaboration. Instead, they simply wanted to “go to Point A and then march all alone to Point B.”

I think one-shots, at least the one-shots that are totally tied to a single assignments, create challenges when it comes to transfer — I think students have a hard time thinking about how to transfer the skills that help them meet the specific requirements of their COMM 100 class when they’re faced with different requirements, or even weirder, with non school expectations.  I think we could do a lot more to build a culture of peer support for research.  I’m intrigued by the possibility of a format that might, for some students at least, approach these same ideas in a different way.


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