Blog Post

Web-Scale Learning: Probably MOOCs, but Potentially So Much More

In a previous post, I lamented the fact that too many purveyors of MOOCs have done little more than port over the old model of “sage on the stage.” Perhaps inevitable, since the whole point of “mooching” star professors from elite universities to drive lofty enrollment numbers only reinforces the urge to showcase the virtual sage on a digital stage. A related regret now stems from the fact that all the media hype over those enrollment numbers seems to have sucked enough oxygen out of the air to inhibit what should be a broader conversation about the numerous other potential avenues for web-scale learning.

I am sensitive to this premature narrowing of the conversation, because I’ve seen it happen before. My first article about libraries and web-scale learning was published in 1998, in one of the first online library journals: the Journal of Library Services for Distance Education (now defunct). Beyond a few scattered citations, it elicited no real response, falling like the proverbial unwitnessed tree in the virtual forest. Determined to not make the same mistake twice, I aimed my next article on this topic for the flagship print journal in my field, College & Research Libraries (“Web-Based Learning Environments: Do Libraries Matter?” 2000; 61(4), pp. 367-79). In this article, I cast the net as broadly as possible, discussing not just course-management systems, but also VLE’s (virtual learning environments) and ALN’s (asynchronous learning networks). This time, citations and quotations began appearing far more rapidly, and I felt optimistic about the prospects for a wide-ranging and ongoing exploration.

But the next article to appear on the topic fell short of that hope. In 2002, David Cohen, Dean of Libraries at the College of Charleston, published a short piece in EDUCAUSE Review titled “Course-Management Software: Where's the Library?” Regrettably, Cohen failed to cite or acknowledge my preceding article on the same topic. Since my 12-page paper from 2000 was more broadly-framed and thoroughly-researched than his 2-page op ed brief two years later, the result, unfortunately, was a fork in the path of the subsequent literature. One path was diverted into following Cohen’s narrowly framed premise (e.g., Susan Gibbons in Library Technology Reports from 2005, for example), while another path pointed toward the more promising future horizon of wide-ranging web-scale learning, from online cultural heritage exhibits to web-based digital humanities projects and beyond. In one sense, Google Scholar validates my approach, as my paper shows more citations in total than Cohen’s, and an equal number since 2010. And, to be fair, a number of subsequent studies have properly cited both Cohen’s paper and my own.

The irony here is that for MOOCs (and MOOC-inspired progeny) to succeed in moving beyond all the controversial enrollment hype to the effective delivery of measurable learning outcomes,  they must motivate students to persist. To achieve this, they seemingly must do so in many of the broadly-engaging ways that the earliest discussions about VLE’s and ALN’s first proposed. Sure, there will always be a place for pragmatic Cohen-inspired advice about how to efficiently embed database links in the newest iteration of Blackboard on your campus. But it is also high time to broaden our view, and our discussion, to encompass the more important conceptual exploration of the vast potential of web-scale learning.


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