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MOOCs go to K12: Higher ed trend expands to high schools

Among the most obvious ways that MOOCs can benefit high school students is by offering courses that would not normally be available
Andover (Mass.) Public Schools student can take MOOCs on biology, social justice, and Greek mythology.
Andover (Mass.) Public Schools student can take MOOCs on biology, social justice, and Greek mythology.

K12 educators and administrators are beginning to experiment with the “massive open online courses”—better known as MOOCs—that have taken the higher education world by storm. In the name of academic experimentation and democratization, hundreds of colleges and universities are offering these courses free to anyone with an internet connection. Many of the courses attract thousands of participants.

“K12 educators are currently exploring the use of open content, learning analytics, competency-based education and personalized instruction, which all point to the role that MOOCs can and will play for learners,” says Leslie Conery, interim chief education officer at ISTE. “These trends will continue to grow and become more prevalent as the cost of technology continues to decline, and access to both devices and connectivity continues to increase. MOOCs present schools with a great way to supplement and enhance their current curriculum.”

MOOC options

Among the most obvious ways that MOOCs can benefit high school students is by offering courses that would not normally be available. For instance, in Andover (Mass.) Public Schools, a pilot program includes 13 juniors and seniors who are enrolled in three MOOCs offered by edX, a nonprofit MOOC partnership between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to advanced biology, the students are also taking justice and Greek mythology courses not typically offered in high schools because of limited resources and interest.

Upon completing the courses, Andover students get high school credit for the course but no grade. With potentially thousands of students in each MOOC, edX professors can only award certificates to those who complete all coursework. “The high school credit becomes part of the transcript and because there is no grade associated with the course, participation doesn’t affect the student’s GPA,” says Nancy Duclos, Andover’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

Brown University recently began offering Exploring Engineering, which is a pre-college engineering course provided through Canvas Network, the MOOC platform on the Canvas Learning Management System. A similar option is Moodlerooms, available through a partnership with Moodle Learning Management System. As Brown’s only MOOC designed specifically for K12 students, Exploring Engineering teaches pre-college students about the requirements of majoring in engineering at Brown.

“About 50 percent of engineering majors eventually change their major because they don’t know what they’re getting into,” says Wendy Drexler, director of online development at Brown University Continuing Education. “We wanted to offer this general information for free and to provide something that is typically not available for high schools.”

More than simply recorded lectures, the Brown course requires students to complete interactive assignments, such as interviewing an engineer and designing their own projects. Brown first offered the two-week course in April, with a limit of 500 students. It filled up in two weeks. And more than 2,000 participants had registered for the June course.

While many self-motivated students are taking the course, some high school teachers are also incorporating it into their classrooms. Math, biology, and physical science teachers from both middle and high schools have told Drexler they plan to use the MOOC as a mini-unit in their classes, or as an after-school project. “Teachers tell me this is manageable because it’s only for two weeks, and it fits into everything else they are required to do,” Drexler says.

The University of Miami’s Global Academy, which is a virtual high school, developed its first MOOC specifically for high school students last year. The three-week course focused on preparing students, mostly juniors, to take the SAT test in biology.

After initially planning to cap the MOOC at 200 participants, the high school ended up with almost 1,000, says Craig Wilson, associate dean of the division of continuing and international education. Some of those participating were classrooms of advanced biology students and their teachers. Those who completed the course stated it was helpful, so the Global Academy plans to offer it again.

Since offering that first course, the high school has provided a second MOOC to prepare students to take the Advanced Placement calculus exam. “There are plenty of tests to help prepare for, and this seems to be an area where MOOCs can really be beneficial for high school students,” Wilson says.

Enterasys also recently launched a MOOC initiative to provide students who are interested in learning more about IT. The free technical education classes provide technical skills achievement in fundamental areas around IP data networking, wireless technologies and security concepts—all key areas of recognized growth within the IT space. Unlike traditional MOOCs, the Enterasys MOOC is self-paced and students can attend the weekly scheduled module when it is best for them.

Blending learning

Many administrators may already be using MOOCs and not even know it. “The Khan Academy might be considered a MOOC and, in that case, tens of thousands of high schools are already using this form of free, massively available instruction,” Conery says.

Every time a teacher flips the classroom and has students engage in open content mini-courses, such as using lectures or content from YouTube or TED talks, they are participating in a MOOC, Conery says.

For instance, Reynoldsburg (Ohio) City Schools’ eSTEM Academy, which adds the “environment” to its STEM curriculum for grades 9 through 12, is combining MOOCs with live classroom instruction. Teachers can use the online content along with the problem-based learning work that is part of the academy’s goal, says Principal Marcy Raymond.

For example, Madeline Schultz, eSTEM Academy physics teacher, used the MOOC Udacity Physics as part of her blended classroom this year. On Mondays and Wednesdays, students participated in the MOOC. Tuesdays and Thursdays, they studied material from the MOOC in the problem-based learning labs. Schultz also worked individually with students who struggled with certain concepts.

“Students in this physics class are performing at or above their peers in a mirrored class delivered traditionally,” Raymond says. “They scored, on average, higher on the end-of-course assessment.”

MOOCs, many of which combine lectures and periodic quizzes, also present some challenges. Most MOOC platforms don’t give teachers access to see students’ performance on test, so teachers must create their own assessments to measure students’ progress, Raymond says.

In response to the feedback from Reynoldsburg administrators, Udacity representatives are working on allowing high school teachers to monitor students’ performance during the course.

“This will improve the efficiency of the formative instructional practices for our teachers,” Raymond says. “[Soon] our teachers will be able to spend more time on the act of instruction while reducing the amount of time needed to formatively assess students.”

Individualized learning

MOOCs also can help students accomplish their personal goals, such as learning a new language, or studying a specific historical period or a scientific discipline. “In this type of learning environment, MOOCs would be similar to after-school activities, field trips, camps at museums, private time researching topics of interest, and other non-traditional ways of mastering formal curriculum and standards,” Conery says.

MOOCs can also be a solution for students who need extra time to succeed. “MOOCs offer chances to go back and revisit courses if necessary,” Duclos says.

Accessing teacher training

Many teachers are now expected to instruct online courses and in turn are the newest audience for MOOC developers. Coursera, a leading MOOC provider, recently announced it will begin offering free professional development courses for K12 teachers to answer the need.

Many of the courses will focus on the skills that teachers need to effectively design and teach online courses. The courses will be provided by seven leading schools of education, including the University of California at Irvine (UC Irvine) and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, along with several other partners such as leading museums and other educational institutions.

“MOOCs will definitely become an important piece in a teacher’s professional development,” says Melissa Loble, associate dean of distance learning at UC Irvine. That’s because MOOCs are easier to fit into a busy schedule than an on-site course and they offer a broad range of topics to study, she adds.

For instance, courses involve integrating engineering into science, engaging students through cooperative learning, and putting the new Common Core standards into action.

Before using a MOOC in class, teachers should participate in one, says Dan O’Connell, associate director of communications for edX. “We encourage teachers to think creatively about how a MOOC might enrich their own teaching,” he adds.

Teachers and administrators can experiment with MOOCs by signing up for a free account at, or, the three leading MOOC providers.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Ala.