Massive and Open - MOOCs and the transformation of HE

Ian Clark explores how MOOCs could transform higher education and how the role of librarians might change.

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Earlier this year, 'deep concerns' were expressed about a California State Senate bill requiring the state’s schools to award credit for online courses.  Outlined by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the bill would have required college systems to award credits to students who pass online courses, such as those courses offered by Coursera amongst others. Whilst the bill has now been dropped following a public outcry, the controversy surrounding it has not gone away. Enabling the reward of credits for online courses that are developed by private providers will, clearly, result in a creeping privatisation of the HE sector. Indeed, allowing the award of credits will, from the point of view of the MOOC providers, solve the tricky problem of funding.  As the University of California has discovered, it’s not that easy to make a profit from MOOC courses, despite their supposed popularity.  As one history lecturer at the University argues, allowing credits for such courses will “solve the conundrum of how to make profits out of moocs by providing private providers with a revenue stream from public funds”. There’s no doubt that increasingly MOOC providers will lobby government to allow credits to be awarded for these online courses.

Aside from concerns about the 'Wal-Martification' (as one academic put it) of higher education, the growth of MOOCs raises a whole host of questions. Where, for example, will this leave the less fortunate in our society?  With a third of the poorest pupils without internet access at home, what options will they have open to them if Thurn’s vision of the future comes to pass?  And whilst it is to be acknowledged that perhaps everyone will have access to the internet in the future (although this is doubtful), what about the skills required to utilise the equipment and therefore complete the course?  What support will be available for those students who are disadvantaged? Will there be sufficient support for students across backgrounds and will they actually welcome a move (wholesale or partial) towards MOOCs as a form of credited education?

What will be the role of the librarian in an environment where a library is purely virtual (if it exists at all when publishers such as Sage are looking at delivering resources direct to students)?  Perhaps a greater role as teacher, providing online tutorials in support of academics? Whilst there might well be a role for librarians in this new world, will academic library buildings be seen as something of an anachronism in a world of online courses and resources?

With MOOC completion rates said to be as low as 7%, perhaps there is nothing to be overly concerned with.  Maybe, as Andrew Valls (associate professor of political science at Oregon State University) argues, “there is no threat to the professoriate, or to the quality of education at universities, public or otherwise.” Predicting what will emerge as a result of new innovations is notoriously difficult and ultimately unwise. Perhaps the only thing we can be certain of is that how higher education is delivered will change radically and that librarians, as much as anyone, need to be prepared, engaged and, above all, adaptable in the face of its continual evolution.

Ian Clark is co-founder of Voices for the Library and currently a Library Systems Officer at Canterbury Christ Church University, prior to that, he gained extensive experience in the commercial sector. Ian has been invited to present at a number of events on communicating beyond the library sector and writes on a range of information issues at  

Image courtesy of Eleni Zazani via Flickr.You can read her original blog post here.

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