Keeping Up With... MOOCs


This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Carmen Kazakoff-Lane.

Carmen Kazakoff-Lane is Extension and ILL Librarian at Brandon University, email:

What are MOOCs?

MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses that enroll anyone wishing to attend for free. Early MOOCs, which emerged out of the OER movement, are known as Connectivist MOOCs [aka cMOOCs] and emphasize both active student learning and knowledge creation using a wide range of tools that are (1) shared with fellow students and (2) openly licensed for use and adaption [i.e. community-generated OERs]. The more widely known MOOCs, xMOOCs, rely on video lectures by professors, some student interaction, and online educational tools. These register students in the tens of thousands and some have numbered as many as 160,000 in a class – making it impossible to provide professorial support.  None provide access to institutional library collections. They are very expensive to produce and funded by investors or major institutions. Despite their name, xMOOCs are not open educational resources.

There are many reasons why librarians need to fully understand MOOCs:

  • Academic libraries are committed to serving students enrolled in distance education courses and MOOCs are raising questions around  how services and collections could be provided to students in this transformational medium – as well as how to use MOOCs to assess online services.
  • xMOOCs pose important intellectual property issues for higher education.
  • xMOOCs may serve as a disruptive innovation - leading to questions about their impact not only on teaching, but also on research.   
  • As we come to fully understand MOOCs – including where they intersect with, or are contrary to, established library values – they pose important questions about the role libraries can and should play in the area of Open Education: particularly as it refers to their role as facilitators of their effectiveness and sustainability. [1]

Key Issues 

Intellectual Property Issues around Openness and Ownership of Property

Despite their moniker xMOOCs are not Open Educational Resources.  Most are free, but do not allow for reuse, revision, remixing or redistribution. Moreover, the licensing of content hosted on xMOOCs is raising alarm bells around the loss of ownership of content: just as happened to periodical articles in scholarly journals. For these reasons, it behooves librarians to raise the issues of openness and ownership of content – and in particular work to (1) broaden institutional Open Access Policies to include OERs and (2) increase awareness of OERs as an Open Education avenue that does not require the surrender of property, offers many of the benefits of MOOCs [e.g. branding, free access to content], and even enables users to use and adapt these creations for different linguistic, cultural, technological, access, pedagogical, textbook or course development reasons: making them both useful and time-saving [i.e. efficient].

xMOOCs’ Potential to be a Disruptive Innovation Impacting Education and Scholarly Communication

Governments and higher education officials see xMOOCs as an opportunity to provide affordable education to many people with existing institutional infrastructures.  Should they become a medium for many students to gain credentials there could be several outcomes that would radically transform higher education.  The first is the creation of a system wherein poorer students receive an inexpensive online education and richer students attend campus classes where they gain access to professors and services/resources - such as library resources. The second is a potential for large [i.e. MOOC] institutions generate significant revenue from MOOC students while smaller institutions suffer from reduced enrollment/ tuition - resulting in less money to hire the best teachers / researchers and creating a situation where smaller institutions lose students, tuition and research funding. Both scenarios present a have and have-not system of higher education. The latter would result in less research being produced with implications for scholarly communication and local public intellectuals. As academic librarians have a commitment to serve the educational, research, access to information and public service needs of their community, it is important to both understand this and ensure that it is part of the debate around MOOCs.

xMOOCs and Library Services

The vast number of people taking xMOOC courses as a new form of “students” [i.e. those not obtaining an officially recognized grade towards degree completion, nor recorded in an institution’s enrollment numbers] raises a multitude of issues.  Are – or will they be – our students? Do libraries in institution’s offering MOOC courses need new licensing for electronic products so MOOC users can access digital collections? How do you go about clearing content for use in open courses?  Must libraries ramp up support for open access/OERs?  How might they support information literacy or instructional design for MOOCs?   Should their service areas include technologies used to create educational tools that facilitate learning in MOOC courses? What role does the library have in preserving these courses?  Who will fund this?  The nature of MOOC courses poses problematic questions for library services to students and faculty.

Effectiveness and Sustainability

xMOOCs success or failure largely revolves around the issues of Effectiveness and Sustainability. Currently, data seems to indicate that few initial registrants complete a course and that those who do already possess a university degree.  Some wonder whether the absence of support services – including library ones – might aid those without a degree. Whether or not institutions, or corporate investors, are willing to continue funding xMOOC courses, will partially depend on student success [i.e. effectiveness]. They may also be kept going if funders seek different outcomes such as institutional prestige, student recruitment or revenues from institutions / corporations who purchase courses.

Big Data and Libraries

The massive number of students in MOOCs is making it possible to assess effective teaching methods for instruction / user behavior in an online world.  This has important ramifications for libraries seeking to assess effective methods of conducting information literacy or provide online services.  For this reason, libraries need to be testing and reporting on effective online service provision using big data as online services are part of library operations today and will continue to be so regardless of MOOCs.


No one is sure about the impact that MOOCs will have on higher education and we will not know for some time to come. Issues around effectiveness and usefulness will determine whether funding continues to flow to them.  What is not uncertain is the emergence of Open Education -  and the need for libraries to address how they fit into this world based upon their support for openness, access to quality information for all, lifelong learning and support for teaching and learning.


1. Kazakoff-Lane, Carmen. Environmental Scan and Assessment of OERs, MOOCs and Libraries: What Effectiveness and Sustainability Means for Libraries Impact on Open Education. (Chicago, IL. Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014).

Recommended Readings

Belliston, C. Jeffrey. “Open Educational Resources.” College and Research Library News, 70, no. 5 (2009): 283-303.

Butler, Brandon. Issue Brief: Massive Open Online Courses: Legal and Policy Issues for Research Libraries. (Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries, 2012).

Educause Executive Briefing. “What Campus Leaders need to know about MOOCs,” Educause, December 12, 2012,

Kazakoff-Lane, Carmen. Environmental Scan and Assessment of OERs, MOOCs and Libraries: What Effectiveness and Sustainability Means for Libraries Impact on Open Education. (Chicago, IL. Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014).

OCLC.  “MOOCs and Libraries: Massive Opportunity or Overwhelming Challenge”? Symposium held at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 18-19, 2013.

Robertson, R. John. “What do Academic Libraries have to do with Open Educational Resources?” In Open Ed 2010 Conference Proceedings, (Barcelona, Spain, 2010).

Wright, Forrest.“What do Librarians need to know about MOOCs?” D-Lib Magazine, 19 no. 3 / 4 (2013).

Yuan, Li, Sheila MacNeill, and Wilbert Kraan. Open Educational Resources - Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education. (United Kingdom: JISC CETIS, 2008).