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MOOC: Will These Four Letters Change K-12?

Find out how higher learning’s latest infatuation might play with younger students.

Cheap, hip, and tailored for the YouTube generation, MOOCs—massive open online courses—are the hottest thing in higher ed right now. But do they have potential for K–12 instruction?

Absolutely, says Raymond Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield. There’s already talk of using the MOOC model to offer more advanced-placement high school courses, and it’s likely interest will continue to grow. Many trends, online learning among them, begin in higher education and then move to the K–12 level, says Schroeder. “I think there’s potential for MOOCs to penetrate deep into K–12.”

In the realm of higher ed, accredited online learning has been around for a while. MOOCs are a slightly different breed. They’re usually free and do not confer class credit, although some companies are teaming with universities to provide proctored exams so students can gain credits from them. Stylistically, MOOCs borrow from the youth-centric worlds of online gaming and social media. Information is delivered in chunks—snappy, 15-minute presentations, with pauses for students to take quizzes (and receive instant feedback). And—this is the massive part—enrollment is essentially open to anyone who can get online, which means class size can grow into the tens of thousands.

Online classes that size require a high degree of student motivation, and they vary greatly in approach. Some are freewheeling exercises in personal enrichment, others come with structured study groups and proctored exams, and a few offer credit in partnership with a brick-and-mortar university. Generally, MOOCs have high dropout rates, not a workable option for K–12, and weeding out cheaters is a challenge. (Schroeder points out that the low completion rate—which has been estimated at 10 percent—is misleading, since signing up for a MOOC now is basically commitment-­free, something that wouldn’t be true for high school students.)

The advantages of a MOOC for K–12 education are clear enough, though. Schools could use them to bridge the teacher shortage, particularly in math and science. A high school struggling to find a teacher qualified to lead 20 students in AP calculus could tap into the expertise of a top-flight university professor. And schools with just a handful of students ready for calculus could plug them into a MOOC as well.

Robin Worley, who is working on a distance-­learning project for Kamehameha Schools, a private college-prep school in Hawaii, thinks MOOCs’ potential for K–12 education outweighs the drawbacks. She has started the website k12mooc.org to build a community of like-minded educators. Response so far has come from parents, administrators, and teachers, including one interested in creating a Spanish MOOC.

Imagining K–12 MOOCs
There would need to be changes for MOOCs to work in secondary and primary schools, says Worley. She envisions subject experts creating a K–12 course with top-of-the-line content that thousands of students—across the country and beyond—can access. “Being able to utilize teachers who are experts in their area would be a huge benefit,” she says.

Students would watch content ­together (sharing a computer if resources are scant). A facilitator would lead classroom discussions and supervise group work. And with age-appropriate content, the blended-learning approach could work at all grade levels, says Worley.

Schroeder thinks MOOCs are going to start catching on as more high school students start taking them on their own (as they no doubt already are—“adult” and higher-ed MOOCs have no age restrictions). He, too, thinks that they’ll ultimately be used in conjunction with a teacher in the discipline on hand to “occasionally hover over the student and, at the very least, be there.”

Just One More Potential Tool
Others have reservations about using MOOCs as part of K–12 schooling.

NEA senior policy analyst Mike Kaspar says MOOCs have merit as an enrichment tool, but he remains wary. “Just because it’s great technology and higher ed has been doing it doesn’t necessarily mean it would transition well” to high school or below, says Kaspar.

The problem with MOOCs, he says, is that they can’t provide teacher-student interaction. “It looks like it’s the silver bullet; it looks like it will take care of the teacher shortage issue, but it doesn’t,” he says. “It doesn’t provide for the education that the student needs.”

Jennifer Whiting, of the all-online Florida Virtual School (FLVS), also sees MOOCs as a supplement rather than a major instructional component at the K–12 level. As a leading provider of online education—free to Florida residents and available for a fee in other states—FLVS has learned that it takes a “caring, interactive teacher” to make a successful student, Whiting says. “That teacher forms a relationship with the student that I don’t think we’re going to get in MOOCs.” Even an excellent instructor can’t provide that in a class with hundreds of students. Meanwhile, FLVS has discovered that “it takes a team” to deter cheating. “When you’ve got a massive student load, it’s hard to know when cheating is happening. Nobody’s going to be able to really tell if your five hundredth student is copying from the thousandth student.”

However, Whiting does expect the K–12 community to start using MOOCs as supplements—for instance, having students take part in an SAT prep MOOC.

Where Will It Lead?
Coursera, a major MOOC provider, has no current plans to create classes for K–12 students, according to cofounder Andrew Ng. “We are aware that many students at the high school level have been taking courses on Coursera to prepare for college or to gain extra knowledge in topics of interest,” he says. “We do not view MOOCs as a full replacement for traditional education; how­ever, we believe that traditional learning approaches can be improved by implementing education technologies such as online learning to promote better learning outcomes and meet the needs of students at various levels.”

Even though there’s a lot of excitement in higher ed about MOOCs, universities are still figuring out how to use them and there are concerns over the impact they could have on the value of a degree. Schools are well aware that MOOCs have the potential to generate real money—imagine 50,000 students signing up at $10 a head. And schools can use MOOCs to broaden course offerings at no cost and free up staff. Coursera, launched in April 2012 by Ng and fellow Stanford professor Daphne Koller, has partnerships with more than 60 universities, and the American Council on Education recently recommended credit for five of Coursera’s courses.

With funding for education shrinking, Schroeder expects to see more attention paid to MOOCs and more experimentation with different models. The Center for Online Learning, Research and Service is studying the effectiveness of MOOC teaching methods, part of the wide-ranging American Council on Education research study on ­whether MOOCs are worthy of college credit. Eventually, the study will track university students to see how those who used MOOCs did compared with those who took conventional courses.

“We see all these possibilities, and there are people who are already finding success,” says Schroeder, “but we’re very early in the process of identifying what’s the best model and how we can optimize this for the student.”

Whatever its future in the K–12 classroom may be, says Whiting, “people are starting to wake up and take notice.” 

—Summer 2013—

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