21st Century Curriculum | August 2013 Digital Edition

Get Ready: MOOCs Are Coming to K-12

Open online courses offer the promise of education for everyone, but in K-12, their best application is helping high-achieving students get ahead.

At ISTE 2013, Scott Garrigan, Lehigh University professor and former district tech coordinator, shares his thoughts on how to use MOOCs in K-12 education.

This article, with an exclusive video, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's August 2013 digital edition.

Innovation usually inspires some measure of misunderstanding, and the growing phenomenon of massively open online courses is no different. One misconception is that MOOC creators are out to replace teachers and schools. "MOOCs are not intended to do that," confirms Howard Lurie, vice president for external affairs at edX in Cambridge, MA. "We are looking to enhance teaching and learning."

In his role with edX, a not-for-profit initiative created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lurie works with partners around the world in what he calls an ongoing grand experiment. Part of that experiment may ultimately include offering portions of MOOCs to augment the high school advanced placement (AP) curriculum.

"With edX, we could perhaps help to bring about a new breed of AP courses," says Lurie, a former AP Humanities teacher. "That new breed would be in the form of a very significant and enhanced platform…and it all leads to ways in which we can use blended models to teach AP courses." Other companies are jumping on the idea of MOOC-enhanced AP classes too: Tablet-maker Amplify recently announced that it will offer a free, two-semester AP Computer Science MOOC with in-school support.

Lurie believes the hybrid approach is one way to enhance knowledge and branch out from the lecture-based instruction that can grow stale, even when it comes from the best teachers. EdX-blended AP courses "could also provide a level playing field for all schools and all teachers, where in effect our courses become sort of a talking textbook," he says. "MOOCs can be a new set of resources for use by teachers locally in their own classrooms."

Special guests in the classroom have long caught the attention of high school students, and well-produced digital lectures and supplemental materials from elite professors could serve the same purpose. "Who wouldn't want to teach AP biology with resources from Eric Steven Lander, Ph.D., professor of biology at MIT, one of the greatest minds looking at genetics and evolution in the field today?" enthuses Lurie. "Who wouldn't want to teach AP physics with help from Walter Lewin, Ph.D., professor of physics at MIT, and resources from his courses? Students have a hunger for learning from the best scholars on the planet, and this would be a way to help them do that." In the context of a MOOC-aided AP class, Lurie thinks the AP exam could still serve as the ultimate assessment to determine college credit.

Getting Ready for College
Tom Murray, director of technology and cyber education at Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, PA, points out that many universities are requiring high school students to take at least one college-level online course, and MOOCs could fill that purpose. "I believe we'll also start to see K-12 making those same requirements," he says.

Murray agrees with Lurie that MOOCs can create opportunities for AP teachers to reap the benefits of top-level college content. "AP teachers continually update their curriculum to be state of the art, and I think they are going to start to bring in this online MOOC content, because they would almost be silly not to," says Murray. "People are creating incredible open and free online education, and I think more educators will start to embed this content into AP courses."

Highly motivated students could take stand-alone MOOCs to supplement their course load, perhaps serving as electives for what Murray calls the "passion-driven" students. A sample course load could include three traditional face-to-face courses, two regular AP courses, and one or two MOOCs.

Such a packed schedule, though, might magnify a common problem with MOOCs as they exist right now: Most students who start them decide not to finish them. Murray believes that "under 10 percent of people actually complete a full MOOC." He adds, however, "If credits start to consistently become available for it, I think those completion rates will really start to go up."

Open to Discussion?
Ultimately, Murray and Lurie agree that MOOCs at the high school AP level should largely be viewed as one of many weapons in an educator's arsenal. It's an opinion shared by Rodrick S. Lucero, an associate professor at the Colorado State University School of Education and the associate director of the School of Teacher Education and Principal Preparation at CSU. Lucero cautions that MOOCs are particularly weak when it comes to the realm of vigorous classroom discussion.

"An online chat is stagnant," he says. "There is no dynamic piece to that discourse. With some technology such as Skype and FaceTime, there can be some interaction, but not to the level of 25 people in a classroom interacting with one another. And are we modeling effective pedagogy, teaching, and leadership when discourse is not part of the course process?"

"In the final analysis, the goal in K-12 really needs to be opening up the global environment to students so they have choices," Murray asserts. "My prediction is that MOOCs will become part of the menu that students can take to complete their education. I think AP courses will probably start to embed and include some content from high-level MOOCs that are out there. MOOCs can ultimately work side-by-side with AP courses to help personalize and diversify a student's high school digital portfolio."


Fear of the Unknown
A Q&A with Tom Murray, director of technology and cyber education, Quakertown Community School District, Bucks County, PA.

T.H.E. Journal: What is the biggest misconception about MOOCs and online education in general?

Tom Murray: The biggest misconception is that it can't work. That frame of mind comes from the fear of the unknown. People think it can't work because we've had one dominant model of formal learning for centuries.

Fifteen years ago, who would have predicted that cyber and online learning would be available to almost all students and grow at such an incredible rate and completely disrupt the educational paradigm--not just K-12, but higher education as well? Many schools throughout the country offer full-time online degrees now, when not too long ago that would have been near impossible.

T.H.E. Journal: Why are MOOCs continuing to catch on?

Murray: At the college level, MOOCs have received significant venture capital, and they are often associated with elite universities. Some people make them out to be the next silver bullet--the next single model of learning where everything must go. However, I really think it's going to be a mixture of traditional learning and MOOCs.

Part of the hysteria about MOOCs is grounded in the thinking that we're either going to have a traditional classroom, or everything is going to go MOOC-based, and I really don't think that is the case. I think we'll start to see a hybrid as we already do with some of the cyber learning that's out there. I think MOOCs will be a great supplement to the traditional curriculum.

T.H.E. Journal: What do you say to those who have quality concerns about MOOCs and online learning?

Murray: The lack of quality is another misconception. It stems from the notion that learning depends on a passive reception or a regurgitation of one's knowledge. But when we look at the way kids are learning through bring-your-own-device or social media, the idea that the only way we can learn is between the school bells or during a particular semester is completely obsolete. Things such as MOOCs or cyber/blended learning allow learning to occur at all points and times--and have completely disrupted the traditional educational paradigm.

As far as the specific quality of the MOOC, that depends on the quality of the designer. There are poor MOOCs out there, and also high-quality ones. Lack of quality can exist in any classroom in America. It comes down to the quality of the instructor, the quality of the designer, and the content. When you start to see Stanford [via Coursera], Harvard, and MIT opening up complete curriculums--they're doing so at extremely high levels of quality.

About the Author

Greg Thompson is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, CO.