MOOCs and place: Partnering with public libraries to explore change in the Great Lakes

Web-based courses are a practical way to engage in meaningful discussions with learners from a diverse set of communities and cultures. By gathering online to learn about a common topic, students can form communities that transcend geographic, political, and socioeconomic boundaries. Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region, a massive open online course (MOOC) the University of Wisconsin–Madison launched in 2015, paired a regional focus with face-to-face discussions at 21 public libraries to deepen learners’ personal connections to the subject matter. Participants discovered the magnitude and importance of regional climate change while considering how their communities might mitigate and address the effects of changing weather patterns. Additionally, they learned how to interpret scientific findings about climate and share these findings with others.

Twenty-one public libraries throughout Wisconsin sponsored discussions of Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region.
Twenty-one public libraries throughout Wisconsin sponsored discussions of Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region.

The Great Lakes course was one of six MOOCs that investigated Wisconsin’s role as a pioneer in conservation and environmental studies and was developed to raise awareness about climate change and increase climate science literacy in Wisconsin, at a time when politicians control much of the public discourse about climate change. By increasing climate science literacy, individuals and communities can better equip themselves to make decisions about the ways they address climate change. This knowledge can influence proactive responses to climate change, resulting in sustainable and resilient communities.

According to Steve Ackerman, a UW–Madison Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences professor who led the Great Lakes MOOC and directs the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), the data on the matter speaks clearly, but the voices of knowledgeable nonpoliticians aren’t being heard properly. This is just one reason he sought to create a course that elevates the quality of public discourse on climate change. He says exploring community responses to climate change is an important but often overlooked part of climate discussions.

“It is very clear, if you look at the data, that climate is changing both globally and regionally. I was interested at looking at this, but also how people are thinking about—and dealing with it. It was important to go to different Wisconsin communities to see what people had to say. One clear way of doing that was through public libraries, since they already have relationships and infrastructure in their communities.”

Margaret Mooney, CIMSS education director and the Great Lakes MOOC’s other primary instructor, says partnering with public libraries was invaluable because it helped her and Ackerman efficiently funnel high-quality, research-driven content directly into Wisconsin communities. While increasing participants’ climate literacy was part of the goal, translating newfound literacy into action was even more important.

photo_library discussion deforest
The face-to-face discussions at libraries deepened learners’ personal connections to the subject matter.

“Each week we shared ways to lower a personal carbon footprint, like by making rain gardens and eating less beef, and then asked students to change one habit per week,” Mooney says. “Watching them [make these changes] is incredibly rewarding, especially when you see how people connect those actions to people and places that really matter to them. It’s clear that our participants really care about the Great Lakes and want to preserve resources for their children and grandchildren to enjoy…. Several thousand people signed up for the course; if even half of them changed a habit each week, that’s making a difference.”

Ackerman echoes Mooney’s sentiments about the libraries’ role, noting that the course’s library-based discussions led to more opportunities for meaningful interaction with learners, especially during conversations about behavior change. Even though the course focused on recorded data from weather events that already happened, he and Mooney made sure to present a forward-looking perspective on weather and climate, since climate change has such serious ramifications for the future. Adding a regional focus to this discussion helped create concrete opportunities to solve problems at the local level. By meeting face to face for discussion sessions at public libraries, neighbors concerned about climate change could get to know one another and begin planning community-specific responses that ranged from educational initiatives to city-planning proposals. Ackerman notes that the library-based discussions were also a chance to talk about hyperlocal traditions that depend upon weather, such as the ice-fishing tradition that shapes many northern Wisconsin towns.

“There’s a lot of talk about rising sea levels [nationally], but there are also impacts on the Great Lakes, huge freshwater bodies…. We want to bring awareness of that. If we’re aware of these changes in community and family traditions, how will we be dealing with that? How will our children be dealing with that 70 years from now? For example, one of the things we point out as tradition in Wisconsin is we go ice fishing in the winter. The amount of time [there is enough] ice is decreasing two weeks [per year]. What does that mean for family traditions? If the ice continues to shift, how many days will that be leaving you? Those are the conversations we [had in the course.”

Ackerman stresses that learners’ sense of place can be a powerful learning tool in course discussions and beyond. Discussing local traditions like ice fishing can help students develop personal ties to course material. In turn, discussing these traditions with friends, family, and colleagues can serve as a jumping-off point for conversations about climate change.

Simply talking about this MOOC with others helped learners deepen and express their feelings of connection to UW–Madison. Even learners who completed just a few MOOC assignments can experience significant changes in how they view the institution offering the course, and this institution’s relationship with their communities, according to UW–Madison MOOC evaluator Joshua Morrill. MOOCs may be a powerful—and largely untapped—opportunity for university outreach, especially to communities where higher education access is scarce or the value of the academy is poorly understood.

Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region was led by Steve Ackerman, UW–Madison Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences professor and director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies.
Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region was led by Steve Ackerman, UW–Madison Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences professor and director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies.

The course at a glance

Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region was a four-week course about regional weather phenomena and evidence of climate change that scientists have observed near the Great Lakes, including findings from the National Climate Assessment and the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. This MOOC also explored the numerous effects weather and climate change have on society and highlighted actions communities can take to slow the rate of climate change in the future, including recommendations from the National Weather Service’s Weather-Ready Nation initiative. In 2015 Changing Weather was offered as a free, noncredit MOOC through Coursera, an online learning platform many MOOCs employ.

Topics of exploration in the Great Lakes MOOC included storm tracks, air quality, and the water cycle, as well as scientific data illustrating an increase in the region’s average temperatures, a decrease in the length of winters, and more frequent occurrence of extreme heat and heavy precipitation. Each week of the course looked at a different season. Participants explored wintertime phenomena like lake-effect snow in the first week and summertime heat waves in the third week. Instructors presented the course material in online lectures, short videos featuring expert interviews, and other online activities developed at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) and accessed through Coursera. In-person discussion groups at public libraries and web-based discussion forums provide opportunities for learners to ask questions and share personal experiences related to the course material.

Staff from participating libraries spent time promoting the course and its discussion sessions, setting up discussion rooms, procuring snacks, and cleaning up after discussions. For the most part, library staff felt that one librarian and one moderator were sufficient for organizing, publicizing, and leading four in-person discussion sessions (one for each week of the course). Many libraries developed supplemental resources for the course as well. For instance, some librarians pulled pertinent books and DVDs on weather, climate change, and conservation and brought them to the group discussions.

The MOOC featured lectures, short videos, and other online activities.
The MOOC featured lectures, short videos, and other online activities.

Kari Jordahl, an instructional designer who has helped UW–Madison develop several MOOCs, says she and her collaborators made certain that Changing Weather’s digital elements and face-to-face discussions were complementary.

“We designed the course so people would have a well-rounded learning experience even if they weren’t able to attend the discussions at the libraries. We made sure that people knew where the discussions were taking place by posting a map. We also encouraged people who lived too far from the discussion locations to form their own discussion groups, and we posted materials in the course’s online forums that would help people discuss the MOOC’s topics on their own.”

Jordahl adds that the course’s instructional design and video teams tried to make digital course materials appeal to an audience of adult learners with widely varying goals, educational backgrounds, and levels of computer literacy.

Meaningful learning

In addition to fostering a cross-cultural dialogue in online forums with participants from other countries, the course helped participants forge and strengthen relationships through conversations about Great Lakes weather and customs. In course evaluations, many students expressed how personal and meaningful this MOOC became over the course of a few weeks. A student living in San Francisco mentioned how the course brought her closer to her boyfriend, who grew up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula:

“I’ve taken great pleasure in learning the ins and outs of weather in the Great Lakes region. One of my favorite activities is telling him at any time what the weather is in the Upper Peninsula (usually snowing!). I think he’s happy to live in San Francisco now, but this course has been a bonding exercise for us, and really fun for me.”

The discussion groups at public libraries provided opportunities for learners to ask questions and share personal experiences related to the course material.
The discussion groups at public libraries provided opportunities for learners to ask questions and share personal experiences related to the course material.

Several students described Changing Weather as a way to try MOOC-based learning while deepening their knowledge about regional climate change. An archaeologist found the course illuminating even though he’s spent much of his 40-year career studying the relationship between climate change in Wisconsin and human settlement following the Ice Age: “The data sets were very interesting and easy to understand, as presented through videos, charts and maps…. This was my first MOOC experience, and I enjoyed it immensely.”

Location and motivation

With the Great Lakes MOOC, UW–Madison has found an effective way of recruiting learners from its home state, according to Joshua Morrill, one of the university’s MOOC evaluators. Presenting content with a strong regional focus may help MOOC learners feel more connected to both the course material and the institution presenting the course. Adding an in-person learning event in this student’s community, such as the library-based discussion sessions, seems to foster an even greater sense of connection to the course material and, by extension, the university. Morrill says the Great Lakes MOOC’s discussion groups were especially effective because they gave learners opportunities to discuss the course material’s applications to their own lives while forming relationships with neighbors who are also concerned about climate change.

“We found that the library groups included discussion questions with a very local focus, like ‘Is the lake freezing differently than it used to in our community?’ These questions seemed to help the attendees make some really personal connections to the course material.”

Morrill notes that these deep personal connections were also reflected in students’ replies to open-ended questions in the course evaluation.

By meeting for discussion sessions at public libraries, neighbors concerned about climate change could get to know one another and begin planning community-specific responses.
By meeting for discussion sessions at public libraries, neighbors concerned about climate change could get to know one another and begin planning community-specific responses.

“Many participants commented on specific behavior changes they were planning to make to shrink their carbon footprint. Students indicated that they were willing to make some changes they hadn’t seriously considered before taking the course, finding ways to drive less. I don’t know if people would have been quite as invested in those personal changes without the discussions at the libraries.”

Working with public libraries

Closely attuned to the needs of their communities, public libraries provide valuable opportunities for universities to interact with learners from a wide range of educational, geographical, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In addition to sharing core values of the academy, such as a dedication to lifelong learning, many public libraries adopt new technologies relatively early while offering workshops in computer literacy, web design, and other technology topics for absolute beginners. This interest in online tools, coupled with a commitment to making these tools accessible to all, makes public libraries ideal partners for university-designed MOOCs.

To collaborate with public libraries across Wisconsin, Great Lakes MOOC staff teamed up with Wisconsin Library Service (WiLS), an organization that helps libraries share resources, manage projects, and streamline communications. In addition to promoting efficiency within library systems, WiLS aims to conserve time and money for library partners such as UW–Madison. According to WiLS director Stefanie Morrill, “WiLS wants to participate in projects that help libraries not have to reinvent the wheel. It turns out we can also help universities save time and money by sharing our knowledge and tapping into the contacts and relationships our libraries have built. So universities don’t have to reinvent the wheel either, especially when it comes to community outreach. Plus, libraries receive excellent, reliable content [from universities] that makes for exciting programming.”

The 21 libraries that took part in the Great Lakes MOOC were chosen from a pool of more than 40 that applied through a semiformal process. Morrill says libraries were selected based on attendance numbers for their adult-focused programming, as well as their relationships with community partners such as businesses, historical societies, and environmental groups. Achieving geographic diversity was important, as was striking balance of urban and rural communities.

In addition to recruiting and selecting public libraries to participate in the MOOC, WiLS brought community members and local organizations into the fold through existing relationships and infrastructure. This gave participating libraries a chance to deepen connections they’d already forged with patrons and partner organizations. WiLS filled a consultant role as well, enhancing the university’s understanding of public libraries’ needs and goals, especially with regard to programming and staffing.

Libraries as community centers

Joining forces with UW–Madison for the Great Lakes MOOC was beneficial for public libraries as well, in part because it helped them cement their status as community learning hubs. WiLS’ Stefanie Morrill says many public libraries are in a period of rapid transformation that involves rethinking their roles in the community. “There’s a new focus on learning and lots of talk about libraries as a place to learn with others who live and work nearby….The emphasis is moving away from collection and moving toward education and community involvement,” she explains.

Librarians from several cities that hosted weekly MOOC discussion groups echoed Morrill’s sentiments about public libraries’ increasing focus on community cultivation. Milwaukee Public Library’s Kristina Gomez says her institution builds community through public gathering spaces and events. “We want our library to be a place that’s relevant to what our community needs, whether it’s a study space, an events space or a safe environment for dialogues to happen, the kind of place where lifelong learning occurs.”

In Gomez’s view, public libraries are ideal spaces for educational opportunities that ask learners to consider ways they can respond to an important social issue. To this end, Milwaukee Public Library’s downtown branch recently added two physical features that encourage visitors to reflect on their impact on the environment: a green roof that absorbs rainwater and helps reduce the building’s heating and cooling costs, and a Green Ideas room filled with resources on sustainability, ecology, and other environmental topics. Offering programming on climate change seemed like a logical next step for getting more visitors interested in these spaces and engaged in the library’s ongoing discussion about the environment, Gomez notes.

About 250 miles north of Milwaukee, in the tiny town of Minocqua, the public library is also putting a stronger-than-ever emphasis on community engagement and education. Library director Mary Taylor says helping community members connect with one another is a key piece of the equation.

“Over the past 30 years, what people expect from the public library has changed, not just in terms of books but technology and space. A lot of people don’t just want a place to pop in to grab a book; they want the experience to be more like what you find at a coffee shop, where you can hang out and read the paper, chat with others, and go to events. This can be really important in a small community where there aren’t a million coffee shops or tons of different events each week.”

Appealing to libraries

MOOCs aren’t attractive to public libraries simply because enrollment is open and participation tends to cost very little. Many public librarians see online courses as a natural extension of their dedication to lifelong learning. MOOCs also lend themselves to programming such as lecture series, discussion groups, and film screenings, all of which give public libraries opportunities to host events and promote learning materials housed in their collections.

The Dodgeville Public Library in rural southwest Wisconsin has attracted an enthusiastic following for Great Decisions, a series of community discussions about foreign affairs and cultures from different parts of the world. Librarian Vickie Stangel realized that this program’s tradition of lively but respectful debate could set the stage for fruitful conversations about climate change. “We’ve been doing Great Decisions for years, and we recently started a climate change series where we show environmental movies with local sustainability groups, so an online course about climate change fit in nicely,” she says.

Stangel also eyed an opportunity to solidify the library’s status as a go-to curator and presenter of quality video content. “Especially through Great Decisions, people have started looking to the library for good videos on topics that interest them, and we thought the MOOC would be another way to bring educational videos to people who want them,” she explains.

Minocqua Public Library’s Taylor says hosting Great Lakes MOOC discussion sessions was a chance to show off a new community events room, part of a new library facility opened in 2011, and reconnect with organizations that provided meeting space for library events back when the library’s building was too small to support programming. Plus, the topics explored in the MOOC meshed well with the topics explored at Science on Tap, a monthly lecture series the library holds at a local brewery, in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association. Knowing the needs and habits of the Science on Tap audience was invaluable when it came time to schedule the Great Lakes MOOC discussions, Taylor says.

“The [Great Lakes] MOOC seemed like a natural complement for our science programming, and we heard that some people coming to Science on Tap were already doing online classes. Knowing who our audience was ahead of time helped us make the course discussions as appealing as possible. For example, we knew that a lot of people who come to Science on Tap work until 5 p.m. or so, so we did our best to schedule the discussions after that on weekdays. I think that’s one reason we had good attendance.”

Of course, not all participating libraries had new facilities or existing environmental programming to tout. Some libraries participated in the Great Lakes MOOC precisely because they hadn’t done environmental programming and saw the course as a way to add variety to their event schedules. Others applied because their staff, patrons, or both had not experienced MOOCs and wanted to learn more about them. For instance, Stangel sensed that residents of the Dodgeville area would benefit from more exposure to online learning resources.

“One reason we wanted to do this course was just to increase what people know about online courses,” she says. “If you’re spending time at a university or a tech college or even a corporate library, you might be used to online courses, but so many people in smaller communities like Dodgeville, they just have no idea what’s available to them. We had numerous people who took part in the MOOC who had never participated in a blog or even read a book online, so it was delightful to see them discovering new resources and new ways of learning.”

The Great Lakes course was also the first MOOC experience for Milwaukee Public Library, the largest library system that participated in the course. This system serves many disadvantaged patrons who have minimal access to computers and the Internet, but has made a commitment to providing these resources—and instruction on how to use them—at as many branches as possible. Librarian Kristina Gomez also saw an opportunity to bring a bit of higher education to people with limited access to college.

“A couple years ago, we created a new strategic plan where we set a goal of providing more connected learning opportunities,” she says. “MOOCs were identified as one way of pursuing this goal for adults and teenagers, so when the call for applications came out on a public library listserv, we jumped at the opportunity. The topic of the course interested us, but first and foremost, we were interested in having patrons try a MOOC and offering programming tied to the MOOC.”

Gomez adds that the MOOC’s focus on the Great Lakes made her confident local residents would attend class discussions at area libraries. “There are so many MOOCs to choose from, so being part of one that citizens of our city could really relate to because they live next to Lake Michigan, and one where they could come to our library and discuss how weather and climate change affect their lives, that seemed valuable,” she explains.

The Great Lakes MOOC’s UW–Madison branding alone was enough to get some libraries to apply for the opportunity to host discussions. Several applicants said this affiliation assured them that the course would feature accurate information, quality instruction, and strong production values. By providing ready-to-use promotional materials and discussion group moderators, including professors, graduate students, and National Weather Service meteorologists, UW–Madison enhanced the course’s appeal among librarians and underscored its commitment to community-centered lifelong learning.

Before UW–Madison sent publicity materials to librarians, WiLS provided feedback on drafts of posters, bookmarks, and more—especially language describing MOOCs to new online learners. This helped make the course appealing to librarians and library patrons alike. WiLS’ Morrill says she wanted publicity to be simple and low-stress for public libraries: “WiLS suggested that libraries try approaches like writing newsletter articles, and we created a press release to help libraries [attract media attention for the course]. Some libraries even text messaged patrons who were visiting when a class discussion was happening so they could join the conversation.”

Community-wide cooperation

In addition to helping participants develop personal connections to the course material, Great Lakes MOOC discussion sessions served as springboards for additional library programming about science and the environment. A number of libraries partnered with sustainability-focused community groups to organize resource fairs and events featuring guest speakers from UW–Madison. Several also used the course to highlight novel features of their facilities, special materials in their collections, and events about related subjects such as wildlife ecology and water pollution.

Minocqua Public Library’s Mary Taylor saw Changing Weather as a unique opportunity to connect with community organizations that could help learners turn a general interest in environmental protection into concrete ways of addressing climate change in their own lives. She notes how this shift from interest to action also helped the students bond with one another.

“Participants met other residents interested in environmental issues. Many residents of the area are pretty environmentally aware already, but being able to take that knowledge to the next level, share their own experiences, and even decide how to take action, I think all of these things helped them feel a greater connection to the material studied in the course and to each other.”

Likewise, WiLS’ Morrill sees opportunities for developing more community programming in association with online learning opportunities. In addition to sparking many ideas for interdisciplinary programming with nonprofits, educational institutions, businesses, government entities, and the scientific community, some librarians now see online learning coordination and university collaboration as important parts of their jobs.

Getting to know the audience

The Great Lakes MOOC elicited valuable feedback from a variety of participants, including students, university faculty, instructional designers, and public librarians. Feedback was gathered through a formal evaluation process that included a survey of students who completed the MOOC, written course evaluations, and personal interviews. A number of lessons learned emerged as a result of the collaboration between the university and the libraries.

Though MOOCs tend to draw a large and diverse group of adult learners, the professionals who develop, teach, and market these courses seldom receive many details about the students who enroll, at least not until the course is over and participant surveys have been submitted. Information about trends in MOOC-based learning—for instance, that participants enrolled in Coursera MOOCs are slightly more likely to be male and employed full time—can be helpful for planning purposes, but sometimes do not reflect important features of the learner cohort a particular course attracts, as in the case of the Great Lakes MOOC. Therefore, instructors and instructional designers must make many judgment calls about participants’ knowledge levels, educational goals, and technological skills when crafting course materials.

When they are not working on MOOCs, UW–Madison faculty and instructional designers typically create course materials for “traditional” college students: recent high school graduates pursuing undergraduate degrees, and graduate students in their 20s and early 30s. MOOC students are likely to be older than traditional students, and they usually possess somewhat different goals. Though many MOOC participants have college degrees, years may have passed since they enrolled in a college course; moreover, some MOOC participants have never attended a four-year university and are unfamiliar with its conventions.

In interviews, several Great Lakes MOOC staff members noted that it would be wise to pay closer attention to the needs of less traditional learners, especially those with less formal education, to help future MOOCs resonate with a diverse group of learners. Discovering more about course participants and their goals at sign-up could help course developers make fewer guesses about learners’ needs. It could also help them create learning materials that are better tailored to the individuals who intend to complete the course.

Public libraries also expressed an interest in knowing more about MOOC participants before hosting discussion sessions. This information can be helpful not only for developing supplementary learning resources, but for marketing the MOOC itself. Libraries that knew more about their Great Lakes MOOC participants before the course began—for instance, those that promoted discussions in the context of existing programming with strong attendance, such as the Dodgeville library’s Great Decisions discussions and the Minocqua library’s Science on Tap lectures—tended to have better turnout, in part because they knew when and where to schedule the discussions. Several libraries with weaker attendance said they struggled to choose dates and times for MOOC discussions because they didn’t know the scheduling preferences of local residents enrolled in the course.

A few librarians mentioned that knowing a few pieces of key information about learners enrolled in their MOOC programming can go a long way. When Kenosha Public Library’s Jill Miatech discovered that several Great Lakes MOOC discussion attendees were parents of young children, she wondered if she could increase discussion-group turnout by scheduling library events for kids on the same night.

Strengthening collaboration and event turnout

In addition to having less information about the audience for their MOOC-related events, some public libraries with weaker attendance noted that the promotional materials UW–Madison provided arrived too late to be utilized most effectively. Many public libraries place a heavy emphasis on printed marketing materials such as calendars and newsletters, typically so they can reach patrons with lower levels of computer literacy. Unlike online calendars and newsletters, printed ones can’t be changed once they have been distributed. For instance, Kenosha Public Library’s Jill Miatech suspects that Great Lakes MOOC discussion sessions would have had better attendance if she’d been able to put more specific information in a printed calendar that comes out every few months:

“We didn’t have the university’s information about the MOOC early enough to say much about it in our four-month event calendar, which has a pretty early deadline. It’s also tricky to publicize opportunities like this one, where people have to sign up by a certain date. Having more time to deal with those issues would be helpful if we do a course like this again.”

Tapping into library expertise

While universities are a source of content experts for MOOCs, the people who best understand the needs of community-based organizations are often found outside the academy. Morrill says organizations like WiLS are extremely valuable because they can help identify this second set of experts and facilitate collaboration with them.

“Universities offering MOOCs need to think about how to adapt activities that work in an academic setting for settings that are more community based…. More sleuthing up front would be helpful for MOOCs with a strong community engagement component. For a course like the Great Lakes MOOC, that means figuring out what systems partners like libraries already have in place, and learning which organizations they’re already partnering with successfully for activities like discussion groups.”

Urban vs. rural considerations

Being mindful of external partners’ marketing practices, communication systems, deadlines, and overall expectations is just one way to improve collaboration. The Great Lakes MOOC also demonstrates how important it is to consider the technological and promotional challenges facing different types of communities, especially those that are especially urban or rural.

Public libraries in several of Wisconsin’s largest, most urban communities—namely Milwaukee and Madison—struggled the most with attendance. Morrill says these communities’ low attendance numbers were the most surprising finding that emerged during the evaluation process. He suspects that several factors contributed to the low turnout, a few of which have to do with the sheer number of events in the state’s most populous areas.

“It’s a double-edged sword for larger libraries: There’s more library programming overall, so more people may be coming to the library for events,” she says. “Those events compete with each other to some degree, though. Then there are tons of other events throughout the city that draw people’s attention away from what’s going on at the library.”

Larger library systems are more likely to have many branches, all of which host their own events. This can create confusion for people interested in attending library programs, especially if a recurring event like a MOOC discussion moves to a different library branch each week, as it did in one of the larger Wisconsin communities.

The evaluation data also revealed a surprise concerning libraries in small, rural communities: These libraries had some of the best attendance numbers for their Great Lakes MOOC discussion groups. They also tended to draw attendees from a much wider geographical area, reaching into multiple counties and communities to engage people interested in learning about climate change. Great Lakes MOOC participants in rural communities had their own challenges, too. Those in Wisconsin’s sparsely populated Northwoods and hilly southwestern region had the most trouble accessing online course materials such as streaming video content.

Streaming video access is an ongoing challenge in rural areas. Many rural residents still have dial-up internet, which is too slow to support streaming. In some rural areas, large hills and other topographical barriers hinder high-speed broadband access; in others, broadband is difficult to obtain because communities are spread so far apart. Services like satellite internet, which are affordable to many residents in densely populated areas, can be cost prohibitive in small communities where a single company provides internet service. Therefore, because of slow internet speeds in their homes, some rural participants weren’t prepared to talk about course videos at the first discussion session. Thanks to attentive librarians, many of these learners realized they could view videos and other online components of the course at the libraries, which tend to have faster internet connections than rural residences. The videos were also available to download, and libraries were encouraged to mention that in their sessions.

Rural libraries proposed several ways of making video content more accessible to their visitors. A few librarians said that in the future, they might organize events that encourage MOOC participants to access online course materials at the library, as a group, and then discuss what they discover. At least one librarian suggested hosting a MOOC video viewing party that could be billed as a miniature film festival; another came up with a similar idea and implemented it. Librarians and discussion-group moderators noted that key pieces of video content could be screened during the discussions; they also suggested holding some discussion sessions over a live-streaming service like Skype, to reduce car travel and give MOOC students a glimpse of the UW–Madison campus.

Sharing materials and discoveries

Some libraries that participated in the Changing Weather MOOC developed items that other libraries discovered and wanted to replicate. These items ranged from eye-catching promotional bookmark designs to innovative programming ideas. Finding ways to share good ideas efficiently could help libraries and other external partners better meet their goals while MOOCs are in session, and again when planning for future partnership projects. Organizations like WiLS could be enlisted to facilitate this sharing, making sure that all participating libraries hear about a good idea, rather than just a select few. Other avenues for sharing might include webinars, workshops, wikis, newsletters, and conference calls. Plus, with more sharing of lessons learned and success stories, other educational institutions could better replicate what has worked in UW–Madison MOOCs.

Looking to the future

The Great Lakes MOOC was particularly successful at cultivating a positive image for UW–Madison, especially in communities where ties to the university are weak or waning. MOOC evaluator Joshua Morrill says Great Lakes MOOC participants expressed these positive perceptions in a variety of ways.

“We asked students questions about their perceptions of UW–Madison and whether they felt more connected to the university when the MOOC ended versus when it started. Even among people with no previous ties to UW–Madison, feelings of connection increased dramatically. Many people indicated that the MOOC helped them feel that the university is a high-quality educational institution.”

Morrill says MOOCs’ most valuable contribution to academia may be their ability to increase a university’s visibility and perceived value. Moreover, tailoring future online learning opportunities to residents of a specific geographic area, as the Great Lakes MOOC did, can help enhance the meaning of the learning experience for participants. There are many ways in which universities and libraries can employ digital learning experiences as outreach tools for the new millennium.

This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear at news.continuingstudies.wisc.edu. Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited. The article appears at “Libraries, massive open online courses and the importance of place: Partnering with libraries to explore change in the Great Lakes” in New Library World, Vol. 117 Iss: 11/12, pp. 688-701, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/NLW-08-2016-0054.