MOOCS and how to MOOC them

I love me some librarianship. I also love me some writing. I can’t seem to make up my mind which topic this blog will cover. It’s like choosing between two of my hypothetical kids. However, luckily for my profoundly torn heart, this is a topic that will appeal to librarians, writers, and pretty much anyone else, I think: free education. Or something like it.

The MOOC as we know it was invented around 2008, when George Siemens of Athabasca University ran a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. When exploded by anarchist pro-education lobbyists in Italian suits, the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Course. It is soundly a digital phenomenon, but it has its roots in radio and correspondence courses of yore. Plenty of colleges offer electronic distance courses nowadays, and superficially these can be a lot like MOOCs, but there’s a sticker difference. MOOCs are supposed to be free, although – ahem – we’ll get to that in a minute.

There are two types of MOOCs: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. cMOOCs, (AKA collectivist MOOCs,) rely primarily on social interaction as a learning tool. There might be a facilitator who organizes the class, and that person may even gently guide the discussion, but they don’t do the teaching. Instead, the students collaborate, discuss, and share resources, essentially educating themselves and eventually merging into a massive, Borg-like swarm intelligence. xMOOCs rely on presentations. They x-plain and x-hibit, x-cetera. Structured more like traditional classes, xMOOCs take advantage of the Internet’s squishy social media goodness and ability to link to other online resources, but don’t chuck the structure of a traditional classroom. Usually, they’ll be centered on a professor and have a syllabus. Both cMOOCs and xMOOCs have a completion rate of about 10%, which makes sense to me. Because they don’t have to pay, students literally aren’t invested in the class. It’s a weakness that I propose may be overcome with rousing speeches, allowing librarians the rare opportunity to don our suits of golden armor and brandish our shining swords.

Beta-stage development issues aside, MOOCs have a ton of potential and I’m prepared to be very excited about them.

For the purposes of this post, I’m defining MOOCs in two ways:

  1. There’s at least an option to take it for free;
  2. The platform at least attempts to involve the students in a dynamic, educational social discussion.

Item 1 eliminates several MOOCy providers, including The University of the People and Udacity. Item 2 eliminates (sadly) many institutions of higher learning and of great repute and merit, including UC Berkeley and its many excellent but interaction-less lectures, Khan Academy and its incredible freaking incredibleness, and Codecademy, which everyone should check out anyway but which, unfortunately, is neither a cMOOC nor an xMOOC. (It might be an embryonic vMOOC, the “v” standing for “vocational,” but those aren’t really developed enough to exist in the parlance yet, and anyway, there’s too little social connectivity involved in Codecademy right now to qualify it for MOOC status.) Don’t get me wrong: all of the above MOOC-type online educational structures are awesome. The taped college courses are particularly useful for students and prospective students of the professors featured in the recordings. In fact, they’re probably invaluable for enrolled students who want to see whether they like a certain professor’s style. I know I would have done things differently if I’d known that my ultimate creative writing professor back at Binghamton University was going to be a mightily self-intoxicated asshole who’d pass all three people in his class just to retain his tenure. But frankly, when we talk about MOOC-takers, we’re talking about a different demographic than the one of which most lecture-attending college students are a member. Most people who go after MOOCs have at least one college degree already.

Obviously, that’s disappointing on a few levels. The potential of MOOCs is that they might be able to democratize education, at least, for anyone with access to the Internet. Unfortunately, the population with home wifi is not likely to be the population that needs cheap, high-quality education the most right now. If MOOCs don’t become more available to low-income students and people without home Internet access, I think we risk seeing MOOCs turn into brain toys for bored Internet denizens rather than the subversive education bombs they really could be.

And, because I said the words “subversive information bombs”, it’s time to throw open those library doors!

MOOCs might be the best library idea that almost nobody is having. (NYPL is doing it. Of course. So are Wisconsin libraries. Otherwise, nada.) MOOCs can teach skills (Java! Grant-writing!) that translate to real-world job tools on your real-world resume. If you can build an app, who cares if you have a degree? If the darn thing isn’t a hit in iTunes, you can tack it onto your resume or freelancer profile.

To make a long snail short, that’s why I want more libraries to host MOOCs. While I am sure you’re already formulating ideas for hosting MOOCs at your institution, thus exploding the digital divide and destroying the widening education gulf that exists between the lines of who can and can’t afford the Internet, I have decided to take some legwork out of it for you and give you a huge list of MOOC providers and platforms.

My commentary is complimentary.


These platforms host and sometimes provide MOOCs themselves. They can be considered sources of MOOCs, though multiple different instructors/agencies/institutions will contribute to MOOC creation there.


Fees: Free to audit, Verified Certificate min. $50

Credit: Honor Code Certificate is free, Verified Certificate is $50


Thoughts of the Librarian: This one is sleek. The interface supports the entire structure of the MOOC, regardless of the institution where it originates from. That structure includes discussion boards – critical to the MOOC concept – and sometimes progress reports. However, many classes will link to additional materials outside of the platform, from Facebook to subreddits to LinkedIn accounts for the class to readings. It’s really a pretty nice system – “Verified Certificate” and all. In this case, $50 is the minimum “donation” for getting a sheet of paper saying that you took a MOOC. While the courses here do tend to come from verified, high-quality institutions, this strikes me as a little passive-aggressive. (What’s that sheet of paper going to do for you if it’s not really from a college?) However, there’s nothing preventing you from auditing every course for free…or having yourself a merry little mass audit with five hundred of your friends and your one shared projector. The variety of the types of courses is also quite good, including softer fare (The Science of Happiness) and firmer stuff (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming Using Python). Only professors get to make MOOCs on EdX, which kind of sucks, but does guarantee fairly high-quality output.

Name: Canvas

Fees: Usually none, but the option is there for ambitious instructors

Credit: Badge


Thoughts of the Librarian: Canvas is that it’s a true platform. Various institutions will offer MOOCs, but here you’ll get a relatively even experience, though of course that still depends on how much effort the organizing institution puts into it. There are discussion options, video options, linkage options, the works. I like the courses offered, which range from Minecraft for educators to the history of Boston. I like the badge system because I think it’s a viable alternative to the “certificates” that so many places charge money for. A badge is born digital, never meant to be printed, but could be purty on a LinkedIn profile. I forsee an online portfolio system something like the one maintained by this ambitious student. Badges are not a problem-free system, obviously – for one thing, if the badge’s course disappears from Canvas, as they often do, then prospective employers won’t be able to verify any of your coursework, and as far as they know or care, you could have awarded yourself that badge. However, if you really want to impress someone, you could try offering a course yourself and then keeping it active. If I were out of work, out of options, and possessed of any kind of expertise, this is probably something I’d use to fill my time and resume.

Name: Future Learn

Fees: Free to audit, Statement of Participation £24 plus shipping, Statement of Attainment £119 plus shipping

Credit: Statement of Participation, Statement of Attainment


Thoughts of the Librarian: These are MOOCs in the barest sense of the term. There are discussions, but they generally seem to be just comment boards attached to videos. There is, however, an assignment submission function, and one class that I’m auditing, Start Writing Fiction, allows your classmates to review your work, just like a real cMOOC. However, I hate the interface; searching is pretty much impossible (I used the “inurl” function in Google) and it’s sparse to the point where I wonder if it doesn’t like me.

Name: P2PU (Peer 2 Peer University)

Fees: None

Credit: Badges


Thoughts of the Librarian: I like P2PU in principle. It’s highly social, collaborative, and very much like I imagine cMOOCs ought to be. Unfortunately, it has a few issues. For one thing, it surrounds itself with itself – many of the available classes are things like Hacking Open Source Participation and Crowdsourced Art. At first blush, it looks like that’s the bulk of what’s there, mostly because P2PU highlights classes that might appeal to the extant Open movement. However, once you dig there are also a lot of niche tech skills – reprogramming MaKey MaKey and the like – that will appeal to fan groups and people who want to learn OS for educational mobile programs. Potentially useful stuff like that, as well as softer skills like college-level Spanish.

You do get a certain number of empty courses, failed book groups, and other detritus of a peer-operated, distributed crowd education effort. Because the students are the professors here, there tends to be a bit of bias in ideology-heavy topics, and of course you’re getting information from the unfiltered Internet, which is – ahem – not always a great idea. However, if you want to teach something and haven’t done it before, this is probably a good place to experiment.

Name: iversity

Fees: Free to audit, 99€ for certificate

Credit: Certificate of Accomplishment

Content: Videos, text-based course materials, graded project (certificate only)


Thoughts of the Librarian: This one is very middle-of-the-road. There are a lot of videos, some assessments, some discussion. And some videos. Did I mention videos? Compared to other platforms, there’s not a ton of interesting, interactive, MOOCy stuff here – it’s basically educational videos in a stylized interface that becomes a bit of a drag. Nevertheless, it’s not bad as middle-of-the-road MOOC platforms go. Apparently, only professors make courses here. Meh.

Name: Open Learning

Fees: None

Credit: None


Thoughts of the Librarian: Weirdly, I’ve found a few ads here. Yes, advertisements. One, claiming that it would teach me about graphic design, actually hit me with a video about Canva, which is apparently some kind of no-brainer image editing tool. The course hasn’t started yet, but I’m not holding my breath. Then again, at least this indicates that anyone – and anyone means anyone, including a for-profit company – could start a MOOC on Open Learning. It’s very heavy on peer interaction – so much so that discussion can sometimes drown out coursework. I’m all for cMOOC structure, but I found this…confusing. Hard to use. For the right person, it might be a good platform. Judging by the active content (and lack of courses named “test”,) I think they might have some kind of active weeding process, too, but whatever their standards are, they don’t exclude advertisers.

Name: Coursera

Fees: Free to audit, $50 for a certificate

Credit: Verified certificate, specializations


Thoughts of the Librarian:  The price isn’t as outrageous as certain other platforms, the content ranges, and for the most part, it’s all high in quality. While some classes are basically recorded lectures, others feature final exams, Google hangouts, and quizzes, which is great. Assessment is 9/10ths of the potential viability of MOOCs, as we all hopefully know, and there’s not enough of that in MOOC World. Here, as before, we see highlighted the fact that a MOOC is only as good as the person organizing it. I’ve seen some fantastic MOOCs on crappy platforms and vice versa, but the thing that makes Coursera stick out is the fact that it’s versatile. If you really want to, you can make a pretty excellent course with this platform. If you’re connected to a university, that is. Only member institutions make classes here.

Name: Udemy

Fees: Minority are free, the rest range from $10 to $500 and up

Credit:Certificate of Completion


Thoughts of the Librarian: I include this because it barely qualifies for my definition of a MOOC. However, the majority of these classes not only aren’t free, but aren’t as interactive as many that are available on other platforms. However, Udemy does also allow you, the user, to become a professor. The courses appear to be reviewed before publication, but indubitably, anyone can teach one. You, the user and instructor, can also charge money for your course. You, the user…wait a minute. Why am I not doing this? What am I good enough at that I could teach an entire course on the subject? Forget everything I said before and keep an eye out for my History of Comics class on Udemy, just $100 per student!


These guys just tell you where to get MOOCs, sometimes allowing you to search over several different platforms.

Name: Open Courseware Consortium

Fees: None

Credit: None


Thoughts of the Librarian: Not so much a platform as an aggregate, this one is a humungously mixed bag. You might run into a freaking gold standard-level course hosted on MIT Open Courseware and it will change your life in ways that I can’t even begin to imagine for you. Or, you could get this. Or this, since it appears that some of the constorial members are no longer alive. Granted, all the active members of the consortium are theoretically viable, academically accredited institutions, though many do not present courses in English. It’s a finding aid worth knowing about, though I usually bypass it in favor of other aggregators.

Name: Open Education Database

Fees: None

Credit: Varies


Thoughts of the Librarian: The OEDB aggregates a number of different MOOC providers. As with previous aggregators, the quality and format of each course can vary wildly. It links to MIT Open Courseware, but also to iTunes, where the full extent of the available course is a downloadable video series. I consider this lame. Yet, the range of courses findable here is great. Of all the aggregators of MOOCs I’ve seen, this one is probably most worth a look, just because the quantity is so large.

Name: NovoED

Fees: Most free, some between $29 and $1000

Credit: Free certificate of accomplishment, individual courses offer records of completion for a fee


Thoughts of the Librarian: This isn’t a provider of MOOCs so much as another aggregator – many of the MOOCs are sourced from Stanford Online, which often uses Coursera as a platform, but a lot of the content isn’t as broad-based as what you’ll find if you just go to that site. NovoED seems to have cherry-picked topics that might be of interest to businesspeople, possibly because that’s who it’s supposed to cater to. This actually explains a LOT about their modus operandi. These guys have an unusually high course completion rate, (35%, according to them,) and they claim to have 600,000 users worldwide. My guess is that they’re the middlemen between companies desirous of training and MOOC providers. I think this is potentially a smart move for MOOC providers: let the corporations bear the burden for everyone else, for a change.

Unfortunately, the subject matter here is overwhelmingly focused on boring stuff like retirement and venture capital. Because their actual source are a handful of external hosting institutions, NovoED seems to be unaware that some of the MOOCs featured here have already ended and therefore are not available any longer. Yuo find this out when you pursue them to sign up, only to hit a 404 wall. This is frustrating and implies (to me) that the interface may actually function more as an ad or demo than as a MOOC finder. Though the idea of a corporate MOOC model is intriguing, there are probably better options out there then NovoED if you’re just an average human being.


Rural Bus Route 15

It always seemed like a minor miracle that I’d made it onto the bus, even though I typically showed up twenty minutes before ETA and it normally arrived half an hour late. Squished into a window seat with my backpack and whatever gear I’d decided to haul along that day, I’d watch the empty glass hut right where I’d just been standing outside, half expecting to see myself still waiting there, oblivious to the presence of the bus. Eventually, the noise of the giant metal engine would rise with shuddering effort, straining against inertia like a bull against a yoke. The view outside the window would slowly begin to scroll away. It would accelerate until it was just a rhythm of telephone poles zipping past, each embedded in a humanless rural landscape. The effect was almost abstract. The poles framed stretches of flat green – cornfields – and high, dark, shadowed green – stands of trees. Every once in a while, when we passed a house, a riot of color broke the pattern like crayon on a wall.

The rumble of the bus’s engine was dangerously gentle and quieting. Over an hour and a half of rolling, hilly country roads and the maternal back-and-forth swaying of the bus in motion, I fought sleep and frequently lost. I’d find myself jarred back to wakefulness by infrequent, apparently random stops to pick up people who waited outside of abandoned garages and veterinarians’ offices. These interruptions in our journey always occurred in a location so surrounded by forest and devoid of habitation that I wondered if the new passengers were just living in the woods. How did they know that a bus would stop outside of the old weigh station at the corner of Route 5 and Stanton Road? How did the bus know that someone would be there, eager dollars clutched in hand, waiting to be installed in a seat and transported away from the middle of this blank green nowhere and borne off to a place that might or might not prove more useful to their purposes?

I would leave the bus when it arrived in my home city, clumping heavily down the corrugated steps and squeezing my enormous backpack out through the narrow door. I never quite believed I’d pulled the miracle off until I was back in my tiny, bedbug-infested white rented room on Petit Street. With the door shut, I’d collapse on my specked bed among the hidden hordes of parasites. Only then did I allow myself to relax, to shake, to sob with the certainty that today I would miss my ride home.

Despite everything else that happened, I never did.

Do Not Ignore the Eric Garner Case

I just wrote a 1,000 word piece on the death of Eric Garner, and WordPress bugged out and I lost it. Here’s the jist:


Institutionalized discrimination will bring our country down.

Boston protested last night. I’m hoping it will happen again. Real change needs to occur, obviously, but more than that, we need to sustain change. Congresspeople must be made aware that nobody wants any more black men to die at the hands of white police officers. Police chiefs need to be made aware that there is a problem with their hiring processes.

And if you feel like you can sit by because it doesn’t affect you…consider the morbid history of what happens to people who ignore minorities’ rights violations, especially by people who are armed, organized, and  in a position of authority.