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A New Polemic: Libraries, MOOCs, and the Pedagogical Landscape
Posted By Nora Almeida On August 21, 2013 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | 10 Comments
In Brief: The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has emerged in the past few years as the poster child of the online higher education revolution. Lauded and derided, MOOCs (depending on who you ask) represent the democratization of education on a global scale, an overblown trend, or the beginning of the end of the traditional academic institution. MOOCs have gained so much critical traction because they have succeeded in unmooring educational exchanges and setting them adrift in the sea of the internet. Although the MOOC is a new and evolving platform, it has already upended facets of education in which librarians are heavily invested including intellectual property, digital preservation, and information delivery and curricular support models. Consequently, to examine the MOOC as a microcosm is also to explore how the scope of academic librarianship is changing and will continue to change. Librarians and information professionals—who serve as bibliographers, purchasing managers, access advocates, copyright and preservation experts, and digital pioneers on many campuses—are uniquely situated to mediate this disruption and to use this opportunity to develop strategies for navigating an environment in flux.
I just signed up for my first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)1, a class on “Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the Knowledge Economy,” co-taught by two University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty. The whole registration process took less than a minute and resembled countless other internet transactions I’ve conducted—I filled out a form with my name and email address, chose a password, checked a box indicating I agreed to their standard terms of service, and then clicked “sign up.” I did not have to, as I did in graduate school, log on at 12:01am to ensure I could enroll in courses before they filled up, crossing my fingers as my browser refreshed. I did not have to worry about prerequisites, financial aid, or even when the course starts—they’ll send me an email reminder. MOOCs are the latest incarnation of the online higher education revolution yet it is still too soon to tell whether they represent a real step towards the democratization of education, a fleeting phenomenon, or the dissolution of the academy as we know it. What we do know is that the MOOC—conceived in a perfect storm of open education, digital pedagogy, crowdsourcing, globalization cross-currents—is suddenly the centerpiece of discussions about the changing landscape of higher education.
Part of the fascination with MOOCs, for skeptics and champions alike, has to do with timing. Although MOOCs have attracted millions of students and garnered unprecedented attention outside of higher education, Jesse Stommel (2012), digital humanist and founder of Hybrid Pedagogy, reminds us that the MOOCs phenomenon “didn’t appear last week, out of a void, vacuum-packed.” Broad critical interest in MOOCs is partly due to a ricochet effect; education costs have peaked, enrollment numbers continue to grow, student loan debts are staggering, and the job market has been slow to rebound from a long recession (Waldrop, 2013). While MOOCs are not a direct response or solution to these salient issues, they are part of the larger conversation that has emerged about the future of higher education; a future that almost certainly involves discussions about economics and changing relationships between technology, learning, and information.
MOOCs2 are not so different from other historical pedagogical innovations. In fact, “a MOOC isn’t a thing at all, just a methodological approach [and arguably, an emerging business model], with no inherent value except insofar as it’s being used” (Stommel, 2012). And MOOCs are being used as critical instruments by scholars, librarians, op-ed columnists, publishers, programmers, bloggers, teachers, and students. A MOOC polarizes precisely because it is nebulous, less ‘a thing’ than a massive open umbrella term. The ‘MOOC’ brand has become synonymous with such an exhausting variety of pedagogical modes—as long as they are delivered in a ‘massive’ ‘open’ ‘online’ format—that virtually all MOOCs arguments start as definitional arguments. Those of us with a vested interest in how MOOCs are effecting higher education have a real stake in ensuring that the definition that sticks is one that we can stand behind.
In practice, MOOCs can have vastly different pedagogical agendas, graphic design solutions, audiences, and objectives. MOOCs can be structured as traditional lectures, interactive discussions, or dynamic mixed-media environments. There are remedial MOOCs, professional development MOOCs, and recreational MOOCs. There are niche MOOCs on special topics and MOOCs on classical subjects ranging from poetics to physics. There are foundational MOOCs on the basics of academic writing and iterative MOOCs about pedagogical theory. There are even MOOCs about MOOCs. In spite of the spectrum of perspectives, variety of MOOC incarnations, and the fact that the legitimacy of a MOOC (essentially a scalable curricular support tool) as a true transformative technological phenomenon is debatable, MOOCs still deserve another look. Here’s why: the exploration of the MOOC as catalyst for critical inquiry—a kind of operant—may offer some perspective on why higher education is changing and how librarians can play an active role in shaping what higher education becomes.
In a spring 2013 OCLC Research conference, “MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge?,” Jim Michalko used the phrase “disruptive technology” to capture the systemic changes that MOOCs introduce into the way that universities, and by extension, university libraries, work. The phrase, “disruptive technology,” was coined by Clayton M. Christensen in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article to characterize the kind of game changing innovations that can throw markets into a tailspin. These technologies3 are disruptive in two senses: 1) they are likely to catch on and change the direction of an industry fundamentally 2) they are difficult to integrate into established business models and are not immediately profitable (p.44). MOOCs ‘disrupt’ existing practices in higher education in both of these senses and have the capacity to alter the way we think and talk about higher education. MOOCs up-end a lot of foundational assumptions about what constitutes a ‘course’, what it means to be a ‘student’, and what constitutes an educational interaction. When basic, definitional precepts no longer apply, many institutional stakeholders left in the wake of disruption are wondering: where do we go from here?
In the first place, we should recognize that the ‘MOOC’ may be disruptive, but it is not unprecedented or isolated. This particular innovation is conceivable as both a technological outgrowth and as a product of American capitalistic dogma that tows adages about necessity and invention. As librarians, we have an opportunity to use this ‘crisis’ to reimagine our roles in the institutions and communities that are adopting MOOCs. We can begin by engaging with other institutional and community stakeholders and by building flexible infrastructures for information delivery, rights management, instruction, and curricular support that can withstand and even improve in the face of change. Librarianship, which has undergone its fair share of ‘disruption’ in the past few decades, is a field that is (perhaps uniquely) primed for change. In the context of online instruction, librarians have new opportunities to expand the realm of their work. In practice, this may mean taking on more active roles as co-instructors and content creators, educating faculty about open access scholarship, authoring best practice guidelines for intellectual property management, facilitating intra and inter institutional networks, or developing a new controlled vocabularies and preservation protocols for archiving and repurposing MOOCs.
We must recognize that any true ‘disruption’ introduces obstacles alongside opportunities. The legal hurdles to “making educational content available to people unaffiliated with traditional educational institutions” (Vogl et al., 2012, p.5) in partnership with businesses—namely, EdX and Coursera, currently the two leading platform providers—pose challenges for both institutional stakeholders and publishers. MOOCs also raise complex ethical questions about how partnerships with commercial entities may impact, complicate, or erode instructors’ intellectual property rights. Logistically, providing an academic support infrastructure for students with different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds has proved to be a major hurdle if MOOC retention rates are any indicator. These and other challenges are only compounded by the scale of MOOCs, which boast enrollment numbers in the tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands.
Implementation approaches so far have ranged from cautious to ambitious: Penn State has been careful to differentiate between their five incubator MOOCs that “showcase faculty expertise and engage with prospective students from around the world” and their “online World Campus,” where the focus is “helping traditional campus-based students to complete degree programs” (Smutz, 2013); Brown University’s instructional design team has involved “the university counsel’s office, media services, and the university library” in MOOC implementation decisions (Howard, 2013); Stanford University’s Center for Legal Informatics has developed a scalable Intellectual Property Exchange (SIPX) “copyright registry, marketplace and clearing engine,” in part to support open online instruction and which they incorporated in Spring 2012 (Vogl et al., 2012, p.9). Most universities are approaching MOOCs with some trepidation and are not yet offering college credit or direct access to copyrighted resources. There are some fledgling efforts to monetize MOOCs and offer accreditation options4, a trend that is only likely to continue as MOOCs gain cultural and academic legitimacy.
The trajectory seems headed towards a freemium business model with some options for certification or college credit. There has been some push-back against these efforts from academics who warn that accrediting MOOCs will affect American scholarship in ways that haven’t yet been examined. Some open education advocates have also voiced concern over the monetization of a model that is largely defined by its ‘open-ness’. Although most MOOCs are not (yet) accredited, MOOCs have ignited debates about current accreditation processes and whether they stifle “new education paradigms” (Dennis, 2012, p.26) and should be reevaluated. For most universities, the focus is still on compiling data, analyzing the shifting software platforms and delivery protocols while simultaneously exploring possible implementation scenarios that weigh complex licensing, privacy, and cost facets.
Many universities, in recognition of the impact MOOCs have on different facets of education, are involving stakeholders from across campus and in some cases, are using cross-institutional partnerships to develop best practices beyond a specific implementation scenario: “librarians from all of the edX partner institutions have formed two working groups […] one group is looking into the issue of access to content; the other is talking about the research skills that MOOCs require and how librarians can help students develop those skills” (Howard, 2013). The Association of Research Libraries weighed in on the topic in October 2012 with the release of “MOOCs Legal and Policy Issues for Research Libraries” which outlines “strategic considerations for research libraries” (Butler, 13). Authored by Brandon Butler, Director of Public Policy Initiatives, this ARL Issue Brief falls short of a formal best practices guide and asserts that libraries, which already have established curricular support and copyright advisory roles on many campuses, can help shape “the way their parent and partner institutions approach the MOOC phenomenon” (Butler, 15).
Butler is conservative in his assessment of the potential impact that librarians may have on MOOCs and in turn, how innovations like MOOCs are affecting librarianship. Take for example, the recent announcement that Syracuse iSchool instructor, R. David Lankes, will run a “New Librarianship MOOC” that addresses, a “vision for a new librarianship [that goes] beyond finding library-related uses for information technology and the Internet” (Ross, 2013). If this course and the general move in librarianship towards a hybrid instruction model is any indicator, one of the ways that librarians can play a more active role in shaping how ‘institutions approach the MOOC phenomenon’ is through direct participation as students, instructors, and content creators. Librarians can also build upon existing professional association infrastructures and create networks devoted to exploring online instruction and developing solutions to the problems introduced. Librarians, who have more disciplinary autonomy that departmental faculty, can also reach out to institutional stakeholders to spearhead MOOCs planning initiatives on their own campuses.
MOOCs, because they are part of a larger cohort of open education initiatives, offer an opportunity for inter-institutional information exchange and implicitly make a case for open access publishing. Library Journal contributor Meredith Schwartz (2013) notes that MOOCs are “helping with open access advocacy, as professors [involved with MOOCs] see the need to make their own writings accessible” (p.3). The trend towards open access that MOOCs promote by virtue of their open-ness has fittingly accelerated the pace of the critical dialogue about the MOOC phenomenon itself; this recursive property demonstrates one of the ways MOOCs work to ‘disrupt’ publishing. Situating a conversation about open scholarship on platforms ranging from TED Videos, academic blogs, and newspaper editorials to autonomously released academic white papers, professional organization briefs, and peer reviewed open access journals allows for a consolidation of different levels of discourse. The MOOCs conversation has fostered collaborations in digital communications as scholars and bloggers are able to come together to collectively comment on developments in online instruction and on each other’s comments, ad infinitum.
Open Access (OA) is not a new concept in higher education but significant resistance from academic publishers, faculty, and institutions entrenched in inflexible publishing and resource delivery models has made the practical transition to OA difficult. In his book, Open Access (just released in an open access format after a one year embargo), Peter Suber (2012) credits “failure of imagination” (p.165) as the primary obstacle to OA adoption and notes that academics who “support OA in theory” often don’t “understand how to pay for it, how to support peer review, how to avoid copyright infringement, how to avoid violating academic freedom, or how to answer many other long-answered objections and misunderstandings” (p.164). Academic librarians have long been OA advocates—in part because they have a better understanding of how much toll-access resources and licenses cost than many other departmental faculty do and because they are generally more aware of new OA initiatives and delivery platforms through exposure. In the 2012 ARL Issue Brief, Butler indicates that the new pedagogical context of a MOOC may prompt institutions to develop “a new strategy of adopting carefully crafted open access policies” (14). Librarians can be (and often are) the primary drivers behind institutional OA initiatives by providing platforms for OA publishing, funding for faculty who publish in OA journals5, educating faculty about OA resources in their fields, and by negotiating flexible license terms with toll-access publishers.
Beyond OA publications, MOOCs have also begun to disrupt the academic publishing status quo. MOOC students (i.e. millions of consumers worldwide with vested interests in educational resources) have prompted academic publishers to rethink their own delivery strategies. In May 2013, Bookseller reported that several academic publishers—“Cengage Learning, Macmillian Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE, and Wiley”—have begun “experimenting with offering Coursera students versions of their e-textbooks” (Page, 2013, p. 10). As with the MOOCs accreditation option, the option to access copyrighted resources (beyond authorized excerpts or previews) will likely develop into a freemium business model. The decision by select publishers to work with MOOC platform providers and develop a delivery model that can work in a ‘massive’ ‘open’ context should not necessarily be viewed as a move towards OA, but rather an attempt by publishers to explore a (vast) new potential market. However, it is encouraging that publishers are anticipating academic innovations and willing to rethink policies and delivery models.
Many academic libraries still accommodate restrictive licenses and expensive scholarship but rising access fees and shrinking acquisition budgets have prompted many libraries to look for sustainable alternatives. Recent innovations in licensing models and OA peer review processes have already heralded major shifts on the information delivery horizon and this trend is only continuing. As more publishers and content creators see OA as a viable alternative and as more rights holders develop creative solutions to provide affordable resources to new audiences in new contexts, content providers that refuse to adapt or join the conversation will likely be shut out of emerging markets. It has taken time and a shift in cultural attitudes towards OA publishing for many academics to stop equating cost and exclusivity with quality. However, OA advocates are optimistic that OA resources can increasingly “coexist” with “toll-access” publications (Suber, 2012, p. 165). Librarians can play an active role in this shift by engaging in faculty outreach, advocating for institutional adoptions of OA publishing and delivery infrastructures, and in extreme cases, boycotting ‘toll-access’ providers who refuse to negotiate reasonable rates.
Aside from prompting a shift to OA resources and heralding developments in the commercial publishing sector, MOOCs may implicitly change information delivery processes in other subtle ways. In a blog post on “MOOCs, Distance Education, and Copyright,” Kenneth Crews (2012), Director of the Columbia Copyright Advisory Office, indicates that within current copyright statutes there are creative solutions to copyright problems if we learn to ask the right questions. When it comes to information delivery options for copyrighted material, instructors should embrace flexibility and examine how some lesser used exemptions (like the TEACH Act) might apply to MOOCs. If we keep in mind that each MOOC has a unique context and pedagogical methodology, it becomes clear that there is no blanket solution that can apply to every situation. The importance of maintaining an open dialog about digital rights involving all stakeholders becomes paramount.
Kevin Smith, the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, underscores the importance of collaboration between librarians, “faculty and others on the production team to make sure that embedded materials are only what’s needed for the specific pedagogical purpose” (Profitt, 2013). The advice Smith offers here is relevant in terms of copyright compliance but also in terms of pedagogical culpability; shouldn’t course materials always have ‘a specific pedagogical purpose’? If some of the obstacles presented by MOOC platforms force a close evaluation of course content and instructional approach, the impact may extend to other (analog) educational contexts as well; this argument echoes sentiments that digital pedagogues have been advocating for years.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, the medium of the internet has changed the way that we interact with information and the sheer volume of text most of us sift through daily has changed how we read and absorb knowledge: “unlike a book […] a digital document exists in an electronic flux which is constantly being dissolved and reassembled for our consumption” (Latham, 2004, p.416). We have more control over texts and over digitally delivered instructional content which can be manipulated to accommodate different kinds of learners. Scholar and Open Education advocate, Dave Cormier (2008), argues that “[n]ew communication technologies and the speeds at which they allow the dissemination of information” have changed how we codify knowledge and “has encouraged us to take a critical look at where [knowledge] can be found and how it can be validated.” Cormier (2008), who has co-facilitated several MOOCs and is a proponent of social constructivism, has also warned that some of the conversation we should be having about changes in pedagogy and knowledge construction has been overshadowed by “a flurry of discussion about intellectual property rights.” It’s not that intellectual property rights aren’t important but they are, in some respects, beside the point. To ignore the possibilities for critical scholarship introduced by digital publishing is to also ignore the pedagogical possibilities introduced by new kinds of textual interpretation, research processes, and “new techniques of reading no longer beholden to traditional interpretive authority” (Latham, 2004, p.417).
Many librarians find it difficult to reimagine information and its relationship to learning. However, such a reimagining will free us from reliance on outmoded information delivery processes that simply don’t work in online education environments. As an academic librarian whose primary responsibility is to facilitate resource delivery to faculty and students, I believe that it is possible to facilitate information delivery to MOOCs students. Librarians can do this through a combined effort to advocate for more flexible delivery models in our conversations with content providers, to educate faculty about fair use and its limitations, and most importantly, to revise our conception of what constitutes an academic resource. This argument takes on new relevance when you consider that MOOC students are not necessarily looking for a traditional education experience. These students are interested enough in digital scholarship to enroll in an online course and may be best served by instructors who harness the inherent possibilities offered by the medium of the web, who can serve as curators of publicly accessible information, who can advocate for affordable copyrighted resources, and who can quickly and expertly offer a combination of open access materials, links, citations and minimal embedded pieces of scholarship to students all over the world for free.
An exploration of the relationships between intellectual property (IP) and MOOCs is further complicated by the fact that MOOCs are not just resource delivery vehicles, but are themselves generative and substantive resources. A MOOC is a unique copyrighted object that can be repurposed, licensed, and sold. Aside from the intellectual content of the course supplied by an instructor, there is also a huge amount of peripheral material including discussion board posts, student contributed content, and data that exists as a byproduct of a MOOC. Taking this dimension of intellectual property into account, MOOCs have the potential to create a new pedagogical context that is part instructional forum, part web-publishing platform, part data-generator, part resource-aggregator, and part intellectual property object.
Instead of focusing exclusively on unilateral content ownership, Columbia’s Kenneth Crews (2012) suggests that we acknowledge the many stakeholders involved in the production of a MOOC and take a step back to “view the copyright in [and of] online courses not as a legal assertion, but as a set of rights to be shared and managed.” Librarians and digital archivists are in a unique position to advise faculty and administrators about the complex intellectual property issues that should be considered before jumping headlong into the fray. In his ARL Whitepaper, Brandon Butler (2012) touches upon the importance of evaluating usage rights before signing a license agreement with a MOOC platform provider. Institutional librarians and archivists, who are often responsible for the management of locally generated digital assets and for digital repository planning, can ensure that Universities take the long view when it comes to negotiating flexible licenses that anticipate the reuse and repurposing of MOOCs course content as platforms, audiences, and formats develop. Professional organizations (like the ARL) can serve as an ideal forum for the creation and dissemination of comprehensive best practices guides for MOOC IP management. Academic librarians currently working with IP issues at their home institutions can collaborate to develop working IP standards that can be applied in a variety of online education contexts. Such standards would be beneficial to librarians on the ground and more importantly, would prevent commercial platform providers from eroding rights that should belong to content creators.
Designating a MOOC as a holistic, reusable, intellectual object also means that technical production and preservation protocols must also be considered. Much of the current literature on MOOCs and libraries overlooks the role that information professionals might play in authoring protocols for creating, preserving and managing digital content to ensure that MOOCs courses are reusable from a technical standpoint as well as a legal one. Ideally, every MOOC should come with its own digital preservation protocol that addresses version control, metadata, hosting and archiving recommendations. This will ensure not only that intellectual objects are secure and reusable, but that the “evolution of the [MOOCs] form” (Schwartz, 2013, p.4) and history of this educational phenomenon are recorded for future education scholars.
As librarians, we should promote our bibliographic and preservation knowledge in terms of how we can help facilitate a multifaceted institutional digital management strategy for MOOCs. Additionally, we should devote more time and attention to another dimension of the intellectual property object conversation: technical support for the creation and maintenance of MOOCs. In an increasingly saturated market the lifespan of any given MOOC rests not only on its legality and digital stability, but also on its substantive and technical quality. One of the salient points introduced at the OCLC Research Conference was the necessity for universities to support faculty in the production of MOOCs in order to ensure that their courses are compelling and competitive. The library—“often already providing instructional support and access to the same technology for students and for faculty who are experimenting with ‘flipping’ their in-person classrooms”(Schwartz, 2013, p.3)—is the obvious locus for technical production support, which makes librarians the obvious candidates to serve as technical intermediaries between faculty (i.e. content creators) and MOOC platform providers.
In practice, this will mean that librarians will have to designate staff, equipment, and space to the technical production and support of MOOCs. For this reason, it is imperative that librarians involve themselves in MOOCs initiatives before institutional adoption so they can draft implementation and management workflows, advocate for new funding streams, and in some cases, redefine the mission and focus of library departments and redistribute staff to ensure that online educational initiatives are well supported. In terms of the importance of advocacy, Butler (2012) argues that librarians also “have a more general stake where MOOCs are concerned, which is the continuing relevance of librarians and library collections to university teaching” (p.15). Butler is correct in his assumption that contributions by librarians are often undervalued, however his defensive intimation that librarians need to advocate for their own relevance is short sighted. If librarians adopt active institutional roles and offer tangible solutions to problems that MOOCs introduce, they can demonstrate (rather than argue for) the importance of ‘librarians and library collections.’
In a Chronicle of Higher Education article from 2012, Media Scholar and MOOC skeptic Siva Viadhyanathan, (who likens the difference between a “real college course” and a MOOC to the “difference between playing golf and watching golf”) concedes that the emergence and unprecedented popularity of the MOOC is critically significant: “if we would all just take a breath and map out the distance between current MOOCs and real education, we might be able to chart a path towards some outstanding improvements in pedagogical techniques” (p.1). In an article on the rippling effect of online education in academic culture, Nature contributor, Marshall Waldrop (2013), cites Chris Dede, a Harvard educational technologist, who sees a similar opportunity for pedagogical culpability through technological innovation: “real gains in the productivity and effectiveness of learning will not come until universities radically reshape [existing educational] structures and practices to take full advantage of the technology” (p.8). Yes, the Digital Pedagogues say, because we’ve not only changed practices ‘to take advantage of the technology,’ the technology has already changed us and educational practices, irreparably, insidiously, and hopefully for the better. For Hybrid Pedagogy contributors Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel (2012) there is no going back: “we need to worry for the entire enterprise of education, to be unnerved in order to uncover what’s going on now,” to “stop thinking of education as requiring stringent modes and constructs, and embrace it as invention, metamorphosis, deformation, and reinvention.”
It is true that we have no choice to confront MOOCs, and we will, in the same way we’ve confronted and adapted to other ‘disruptive’ innovations that have transformed how we learn, interact, and access information. Librarians are uniquely well situated to play an active role in how MOOCs are applied at the institutional level and also how MOOCs are ultimately defined by and within the larger context of the emergent ‘future’ of higher education. As audiences and objectives of MOOCs are evolving, so too are the roles and positions of power that competing stakeholders occupy. Stakeholders—including universities, teachers, librarians as well as corporations, lawyers, and publishers—are grappling to define MOOCs in relation to their own priorities and visions of where higher education is headed. Librarians should play an active role in defining MOOCs and reshaping the facets of higher education that it disrupts. We can start by participating in this conversation and by reimagining our own profession in light of the future.
Librarians have the capacity to become involved in MOOC initiatives within their communities and institutions but the scope of the arena and the pace of developments can be overwhelming for individuals who want to contribute but don’t know where to begin. If you want to playing a role in defining MOOCs, the first thing you should do is sign up for a MOOC to see how it really works. You can also engage in (or start) conversations at your home institution, community library, or local professional network through a listserv or special interest group. While you may not be able to create a MOOCs production studio, reassign library staff, or redefine the parameters of your own position overnight, there are smaller and achievable measures you can take depending on your position and institutional goals. Whether you advocate or write a grant for OA publishing funds, create a lib guide to promote OA resources to faculty and students, work with institutional legal departments to draft a university IP policy, or collaborate with colleagues to create a digital preservation protocol, you can effectively impact your community and generate a progressive atmosphere.
I’m very much indebted to the knowledgeable editors at In the Library with the Lead Pipe and in particular to Emily Ford for her helpful insights and grammatical wizardry.
Much gratitude to Silvia Cho, my colleague at Baruch College’s Newman Library, for enduring many iterations of this article, for her pragmatism and her ability to provide clarity amid chaos.
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