Academic libraries are continually evolving to adapt to changing methods of research, teaching and learning. This evolution includes creating or acquiring tools and resources (primarily digital ones) to serve students and faculty. While this responsibility is not new, the pace of change has accelerated, while resources have been constrained by the current economic situation.
The challenge to the status quo often comes to us (or at us), not from us. The university establishes new programs, expands online and distance-education courses, or forms strategic alliances. A recent example at the University of Florida is its decision to join Coursera, one of the major providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs).
MOOC participants do not need to be a registered student at the university offering the course, and they do not pay tuition or other fees. The requirement for open-source digital textbooks and other supporting materials creates new opportunities for academic libraries to work with faculty. Although these resources and services may be free to the students who are taking MOOCs, they are not without cost to our universities or our libraries.
The University of Florida has already seen substantial enrollment in its first five MOOCs, and is developing additional courses. The libraries are partnering with faculty to assist them with embedded or linked information resources in their MOOC course material. This is such a significant paradigm shift that the faculty have not yet fully understood how their rights and responsibilities differ when they offer these materials to students who are not enrolled at our universities and therefore may not be eligible to access our licensed content.
How often have we sighed (or groaned) at the statement that everything is free on the Internet? Our efficiency at delivering information has made the differences between using paid licensed content or accessing open source or other free content nearly imperceptible to our students and faculty. The analogy to managing this content through electronic course reserves or embedding it in our course management systems where access is limited to enrolled students is certainly clear, but the number of users obtaining access is radically different. Clearly these resources cannot be searched and retrieved through the open Web, so they will not be available for broad public access. It is hard to imagine people signing up for dozens of MOOCs to obtain access to an undetermined (until they are enrolled) set of licensed content, but it is certainly something that will generate discussion and perhaps require adjustment in our licenses.
We recently passed the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the 1862 law signed by Abraham Lincoln that created the land‐grant university system and made higher education accessible to more people. I think Lincoln would be amazed by MOOCs, and embrace them enthusiastically because of how they provide educational opportunities to people throughout the United States and the world. Let's hope that a sustainable funding model emerges to deal with the significant costs of developing and delivering "free" MOOCs.
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