One of the FAQs on the course description page for my Coursera Metadata MOOC says:

Will there be a required textbook?
No. Readings will be selected from freely available articles, web content and open access scholarly literature.

When I teach a classroom-based course, I can easily assign subscription content to my students: articles in journals or chapters from ebooks that the UNC libraries subscribe to. As I understand it, all of our subscriptions are IP-authenticated. So if a student is on campus, they can just access subscription content; from the user’s point of view, it’s as if the content is on the open web. If a student is off campus, they have to go through the library’s proxy server. So when I assign subscription content as a reading I always provide a URL that pushes the student through the proxy (like this): if they’re off campus it will prompt them for a login, if they’re on campus that part of the URL just gets ignored.

But I can’t assign subscription content as readings in my MOOC. For 3 reasons:

One: I can’t provide access to content that the UNC libraries subscribes to, to thousands of students who are unaffiliated with UNC. First of all, they don’t have UNC logins to get passed through the proxy server. But even if I could give them all a guest login, I’m pretty sure I’d still be violating the UNC libraries’ contracts with our vendors.

Now, I think this is an interesting issue all by itself: I’m teaching my MOOC under the banner of UNC, so in what way are my MOOC students not affiliated with UNC? (There are actually perfectly good reasons why not, but they deserve their own post. So let’s just proceed with this question, for the sake of argument.) Why should my MOOC students not be able to get access to UNC’s subscription content? Because they’re not paying tuition? Alumni have access. Because they never paid tuition? Researchers, visiting scholars, etc. can get guest access. Because there will be thousands of them? Honestly I think that’s the reason. I think most libraries would happily provide access to the world if they could; I think this is a case where the publishers are restricting access because they fear for their business model. Which they should; their business model is unsustainable. But the threat to publishers’ business model doesn’t come from students in MOOCs.

Two: Students may not have access locally to the material I have access to. This of course follows from point #1. I don’t know where my students are, so I don’t know what subscription content they have access to through their local libraries. But by the same token I also don’t know what physical materials they have access to, so I also have to be careful assigning content from books. Actually in the Suggested Readings section of the course description page, I do have a few links to books: one freely available and two where I provide links to the publisher’s and Amazon’s sites. But I was very careful to also write (in 2 places) that those books are not required. Neither of the books are very expensive (both are around $60), but what’s not expensive for me may be prohibitive for others.

Three: I can’t assume that students will do the reading. Of course, I know perfectly well that probably not every one of my students in the classroom has done the reading, on any given day. But in my classroom-based courses, I have no qualms about proceeding with a class session on the assumption that all students have done the reading. Why is this different in a MOOC? For one thing, there’s an incentive for a student in a classroom-based course to do the reading… or at least a disincentive to not do the reading, as it becomes obvious pretty quickly in a classroom discussion when someone is clueless. But there’s none of that in a MOOC. Didn’t do the reading? Don’t post anything on the discussion forum that week. No one will notice that you’re not participating when there are thousands of other students who are. And students in MOOCs don’t get graded on participation anyway. So it’s different because the incentive structure is different for students in a classroom-based course versus a MOOC.

It also seems somehow unfair to me, to require MOOC students to do a reading. Why unfair? Well, let me ask you: Why do people participate in a MOOC? As best as I can determine, it’s for their own edification. Yes, there are efforts to allow students to take MOOCs for credit, and yes, MOOCs can be useful for professional development. But by and large, people are in it for the intellectual fun. I think Wikipedia is a reasonable analogy here: Why do people edit Wikipedia? Some of the major reasons that crop up repeatedly are: For the fun of learning something about a topic, and for the personal satisfaction of sharing knowledge. Would it be reasonable to require 18 million editors to do an assigned reading, in order to be allowed to edit? No, it wouldn’t, because doing so would increase the friction involved in participating in Wikipedia. Ditto for MOOCs, I think: anything that’s required will reduce the number of participants. This is why I was so wary about having any prerequisites at all — and in the end, the prereqs are as low a bar as I could make them. Given the size of the student registration for a MOOC, and the fact that most of those students are just doing it for fun, it seems unfair to me to require them to do anything. Of course, if a student wants to get a certificate at the end of the course, there’s a performance bar that has to be set. But short of that, students aren’t even required to participate in the course: there’s no penalty for registering and then never even starting. Given that, how can I require anything?