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Leveraging MOOCs for Fun and Profit



Let’s Talk about MOOCs

If you are a current or recent graduate student or work in higher ed, you have heard of the disruptive tech du jour, Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). While MOOCs are in their infancy, they are being scrutinized pretty heavily because of their potential to drink academia’s milkshake. While the course structure of a MOOC and a university course are fairly similar (a domain expert organizes a field and puts together a linear curriculum of lectures, readings and quizzes), the primary differences lie in the method of interaction (synchronous and personal vs. asynchronous and impersonal) and their perception of credibility (though certain platforms are experimenting with offering credentials, they don’t carry as much weight as a traditional university degree).

While it will probably be a while before MOOCs start poaching would-be university students, we can still enjoy and make use of MOOCs as they are. Classes, in person or virtual, are never meant to make the student a domain expert immediately. Classes give the student a high level overview of a subject and it is up to the student to move forward with the parts they find interesting, whether that’s with further courses or personal research. When I was in library school we had a kind of “Libraries 101” class. Aside from gaining a general understanding of how a complete library system works, I learned that I find cataloging topics the most interesting. I took a cataloging class and learned that I like MODS/RDF metadata the most. I then did a lot of MODS/RDF research on my own which led to further interesting topics, ad infinitum. When viewed in terms of the progress and personal growth one can achieve, MOOCs and university courses aren’t so different.


For Profit

Professional development is a terrific reason to start taking MOOCs. No matter what your job is, there is a MOOC out there that will help you do it better. There are an incredible amount of MOOCs on technical topics like programming available from sites like edX and Coursera, so if you’d like to add a bit of programming chops to your professional skill set there has never been a better time. If you aren’t a tech person, there are still great classes (and even entire specializations!) to check out on topics like library advocacy, project management, marketing, business, and teaching. Growing your understanding in these areas could allow you to do your job better, net you better performance reviews, and possibly even a raise (hence the “For Profit” header).

While you can take these MOOCs by yourself, they work even better when you participate with a group. My first MOOC was “Copyright for Educators and Librarians” which I took as part of a copyright study group of librarians at FSU, and I gained a lot from our weekly get-togethers where we discussed how the course applies to our own work. I’m also currently taking an entire of run of data science courses with the Data Science Study Group, an open Google group for librarians to discuss the implications for data science in libraries. If you find a class that you think your coworkers might be interested in, I encourage you to set up a study group where you can discuss what you are learning in an open setting. You may be surprised how much more you get out of the experience.

MOOC study groups managed by libraries also have a lot of potential as programs for patrons or students. edX has lots of courses aimed at supporting high school students engaged in AP coursework. Public libraries might also be interested in offering study groups for those interested in health, nutrition, finance, or even happiness. Browse the course catalogs and see if you find anything you think your patrons would be interested in.


For Fun

Learning doesn’t always have to be about getting ahead in the workplace, though. There are plenty of MOOCs on topics one may take purely out of curiosity or as a hobby. For instance, I have enrolled in some upcoming classes on meditation, classical music and the poetry of Walt Whitman. If you are a sports nut maybe you’d like to learn about sabermetrics (the art of baseball analytics). Maybe you like Emily Dickenson more than Whitman. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a MOOC about it that will deepen your knowledge. Learning (for free!) from an expert on a topic you are passionate about is a rare treat, so take advantage of these learning opportunities and see what all the hype is about!

Do you have a recommendation for MOOCs of particular value to librarians? Do you have a strong opinion about MOOCs that needs to be heard? Let us know in the comments!


  1. Michael Rodriguez

    Great post, Bryan. I took the Copyright and the Data Scientist’s Toolbox MOOCs with you, and for kicks I just enrolled in a MOOC about the Rolling Stones. My main concern with MOOCs is that the market is currently dominated by for-profit corporations such as Coursera and Udacity (edX is nonprofit, at least on paper). I would love to see state universities start offering MOOCs, but as you say, they are concerned about undercutting their traditional high-cost programs. Even so, the benefits of MOOCs for professional development far outweigh my quibbles about profit models.

  2. Faye Leibowitz

    I just finished the Coursera MOOC Programming for Everybody (Python) I had always wanted to learn basic programming skills. This was a ten week course that involved homework assignments,quizzes and a final exam. So it did involve a pretty substantial investment of time. But since my mathematics knowledge is horrible, I was afraid that I might not make it through the course. I didn’t want to sign up for a more formal university class where there could be a permanent record of my failure ;( In other words, the stakes were low and the potential benefit was high. I actually learned a lot from this course. The instructor was great! I will probably never be a full-rime professional programmer based on what I learned, but I feel confident that I could do some simple coding relating to cataloging-related projects if the opportunity arose. The main problem with a MOOC is that you can’t communicate with the instructor if you have questions. There are thousands of students in the class, and it would be impossible for the instructor to accept questions from the students. This particular MOOC had a good discussion forum system, and I was able to get answers to most of my questions there. But I was unable to complete two assignments because I couldn’t figure out some of the concepts. But I completed the course “with distinction,” having scored 85.4% over all. I highly recommend MOOCs as a form of continuing education for librarians.

  3. Laura Birkenhauer

    Coursera’s “Copyright for Educators & Librarians” was also my first MOOC, and after that I was hooked! The next MOOC I’m enrolled in starts January 26: “Teaching Library Research Strategies” through

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  5. Alexandre Moradell

    Just beginning : Web sémantique et Web de données
    Have fun !

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