Over the past few months, our Parkgate branch library has introduced the concept of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and a ‘pilot MOOC’, using MIT’s massive open online adaptation of its Introduction to Philosophy. So far, it’s been a fabulous first experiment in hosting a MOOC for our community. And for me, the coolest part is that the idea to launch a pilot MOOC came from our patrons. (See Libraries Build Communities for the back story.)
Paul Taylor, the librarian who facilitates this program, says “I see our role as an organization, and mine as a librarian, as an extension of what we’ve been doing as libraries in facilitating lifelong learning. What’s new is that we’re creating an atmosphere for that, for bringing people together to do that. It makes the library more of a place of connection. In that regard, it’s a professional departure – by facilitating these activities and using the technology as activities unto themselves, we’re extending what we’ve been good at traditionally in new and interesting ways with our programs, and particularly with the MOOC.”
Paul has put a lot of thought into designing an approach that would best support the group in learning together. For those who are curious about the logistics of facilitating a group learning approach to MOOCs, here is Paul’s initial description of how it would work:
The group has decided on a pace of twice-monthly sessions, one 60 minute lecture per session. As there are 18 lectures, this program would run for 9 months. We are deciding by Doodle as to what day and time would work best. Of course, an advantage of the MOOC is that people can miss sessions, and catch up on their own. For this pilot program, the only commitment we’re asking of people is that they attend as many lectures as possible, and ideally participate in discussion.
The extent to which participants take advantage of the other components of the MOOC (assignments and online discussions, for example) is up to them; I’ll be encouraging people to complete all the required readings associated with this course, which are a series of cleverly selected short passages, and brief articles all freely available through the course web site. I’ll be reading through discussions associated with each lecture prior to the class, with an eye to introducing relevant extracts during discussion. Because this MOOC is already underway, I have made it clear to the group what we will not have access to ‘live discussions’; however, we should have access to the archive of past discussions.
Here is what we are experiencing:
- While over 20 people signed up, on any given day 12-14 people show up. All 20 are committed to participating, but not everyone is able to make all of the sessions. This attendance pattern has turned out to be ideal: the discussion is better with fewer people, but not too few; and the participants appreciate the flexibility of not feeling obliged to attend every session. Eighteen two-hour sessions is a big commitment so being able to catch up on their own is a bonus.
- While many of the participants also participate in library book clubs and discussion groups, the MOOC has also attracted new people; not all were known as “regulars”.
- Most of the participants are of retirement age. The librarian does regular check ins throughout the two-hour sessions to ensure the pace is okay, adapting as necessary.
- Two hours is the ideal amount of time to allow for the variety of activities that support learning and engagement: the group watches a 2-6 minute video, then the group discusses the lecture and advance readings and works through the associated “problem” assignment. Answers are checked and discussed and then it’s on to the next video. This activity cycle repeats 3-4 times in the session.
- The two hours go by quickly; most of the participants have expressed that they’d like to attend weekly sessions.
- The resources and group format allow for a myriad of individual participation options. All of the advance readings are on the website. Keen participants can do the full course, submit assignments and receive a certificate. Others simply do the readings and show up for the lectures. One participant dislikes the technical aspects of the experience so the librarian prints out the readings for that individual. All voices are welcome and encouraged. The level of engagement is high.
Paul’s view is that this experiment represents an exciting professional departure. “With the MOOC, we’re providing recreation – people are having fun, getting to know each other – and it provides interest in more reading materials. We’re providing an opportunity to learn and absorb materials together and talk them over and people are lapping it up. Traditionally, people used libraries for education as a solitary activity. Now we’re providing the same educational role, but with an opportunity to share and enhance their learning by learning together. We are extending what we’ve been good at traditionally in interesting new ways.”
MOOCs provide a lot of potential for distance education and this library model of supporting community education is an exciting development. Its significance is two-fold as it supports the success of individuals and strengthens the community’s relational web. Ross, one of our regular patrons, says “We learn more by doing it with other people. We’re more alert, the information is more concrete, and it comes to life more when do it together.”
Learning coupled with meaningful human connections makes for a more engaged and vibrant community. As Ross points out: “With the library, it’s your neighbourhood – they’re not just anybody, they’re your neighbours. If I have a heart attack, it’s the neighbours who will help me. So the neighbours are really important to connect with. We tend to think it’s family, but it’s the neighbours who are part of the everyday.”
By thoughtfully and responsively creating the environment that connects and delights, the library is fulfilling its mission to connect community, foster knowledge, and inspire stories.