I did some research into MOOCs and their potential applicability to a high school environment. Here’s what I came up with.


The Viability of MOOCs for Wayland High School


MOOC consumers seem to fall into two categories: curious learners, who tend to take MOOCs to pursue interests of theirs in a cheap / free environment with quality instruction and resources; and, a smaller but growing body, educators who realize that MOOCs can provide resources for themselves personally and/or for their students. This latter group should be encouraged at Wayland High School to investigate the resources that MOOCs offer as flipped classrooms become more possible and prevalent. Our students will fall into the former category.

A MOOC liaison should be appointed. The liaison will work with the guidance department (if the liaison is not a guidance counselor). The liaison’s job is the following:

  • to discuss with students their interests and goals for taking a MOOC;
  • to help them or facilitate the finding of a course of interest to them that fits their abilities and preparation;
  • to oversee their progress through the course to ensure that they are keeping up with the work and that they are taking advantage of the resources built into the MOOC if they’re having difficulty;
  • to maintain an awareness of the MOOC community, especially new MOOC providers, changes to existing MOOC providers, and the workings of MOOC providers;
  • to facilitate teachers’ introduction to and potential use of MOOCs in their own classes.

MOOC providers should be vetted and known but not restricted. With the plurality of existing resources and the growth, only sure to increase, of additional resources, it seems counterproductive to restrict students interested in MOOCs to one or two providers only that we as a school have vetted and agreed to be appropriate for our students. Rather, vetting should occur on a course-by-course basis and a student-by-student basis.

The awarding of credit by Wayland High School for MOOCs should be further examined by guidance and administration. If students begin taking MOOCs, their connection to our own credit system should be enumerated. Most pressing is the number of credits that a MOOC will count for at WHS and whether or not a MOOC can replace a face-to-face elective in students’ schedules.

Student progress in MOOCs should be tracked. As more students take MOOCs, their progress, and to the extent possible learning, should be tracked (the latter especially in terms of courses that might prepare them for or help them with courses here). The efficacy of MOOCs is one of the more hotly debated topics, with critics citing the largely passive nature of MOOCs as an impediment to learning but proponents citing the greater availability of knowledge to more / all students as a counterpoint. The extent to which this debate encompasses Wayland High School should tracked.

MOOC Offerings: What’s Out There and How It Is Accessed

The primary means of delivery for MOOCs are the companies / initiatives Coursera, Udacity, and edX.

Coursera: http://www.coursera.org

“Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” (https://www.coursera.org/about) The Coursera website as of May 28, 2013 lists 3,670,209 ‘Courserians’, 374 courses, and 70 partners. Coursera does not (appear to) make distinctions among its students, i.e. there are no explicitly-for-college or explicitly-for-high-school students courses. I explored one course, entitled “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets”, that seemed appropriate for high school level students, focusing as much on the conceptual as on the technical. It is an eight week course and it describes its work load as 4-6 hours / week. A Calculus course, on the other hand, runs 13 weeks and describes its workload as 8-10 hours / week. The Calculus course also offers a Signature Track option, which costs money ($89 or $49, the latter appearing to be an introductory rate) and appears to officialize one’s participation in a course in a way that non-Signature Track courses do not. Signature Track courses offer a verified certificate of completion, a connection between one’s course work and one’s verifiable identity, and a secure URL on which course records are stored and can be shared with employers, other schools, etc.

Udacity: http://www.udacity.com

Udacity has a more limited course catalog both in terms of number of total courses and range of subject matter. Its five categories are Business, Computer Science, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. But Udacity’s courses are a leveled as Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Udacity also specifically targets high school students on their About page:If you’re a high school student looking to get ahead before going to college, you will have the chance to take college- level courses and become truly college ready. We have options to earn college credit and you will also have a chance to take subjects not offered at your school.” (https://www.udacity.com/how-it-works)

Udacity courses are free but there is a for-credit option for which students pay money: “The primary difference between for-credit and free classes are the support services and proctored exams that are part of the credit pathway.” (https://www.udacity.com/faq) For-credit courses cost $150 and credit is awarded by San Jose State University.

edX: http://www.edx.org

While Coursera and Udacity are for-profit companies, edX is a partnership between Harvard and MIT. As of May 29, 2013 edX is offering 57 courses that span both the sciences and the humanities, all of which on the home page at least are starting in the fall of 2013. Completion of a course yields a certificate of mastery but there seems to be no credit option. A Wall Street Journal article from January 1, 2013 reports that both Mass Bay and Bunker Hill Community Colleges have partnered with edX to offer credit to their students (the implication being only their students and the potential for credit existing only with such a partnership; would such a partnership be viable for a high school?).

MOOCs Specifically for High Schools

The availability of MOOCs for pre-college students varies. Coursera courses seems to have a range that would allow high school students to access them even without specific or advanced preparation. In fact, Coursera contacted Wayland’s principal promoting its courses for high school students with credit from San Jose State offered. Udacity and edX seem less geared toward high school students without special or advanced preparation.

Brown’s Exploring Engineeering

Brown University in the spring of 2013 offered what seems to be the first MOOC designed specifically for high school students. Its Exploring Engineering program offers four two week courses to high school students as an introduction to not only engineering as a discipline but also the idea of what being an engineer entails, its hope being to “offer a free online engineering class with the aim of teaching high school students about the merits and challenges of the field” and “to get students interested in engineering to better understand engineering, so that they can make good decisions about what they do in the next step.” (NYTimes, The Choice Blog, 4/17/13) It seems that the free Exploring Engineering course then leads to three subsequent two week courses on different branches of engineering, each of which costs on average $500. The spring Exploring Engineering course was capped at 50 students but no such cap was visible on the Brown website for the summer course (though of course such a cap might be specified during the registration process). No credit is offered for any of the courses but a certificate of completion is awarded. (http://onlinecourselearning.com/brown/engineering/overview/#)

Miami’s Biology SAT II Prep Course

The New York Times blog cited above identifies the Brown course as “the first major effort by a university to tailor a massive open online course, or MOOC, specifically to high school students,” but in November 2012 the University of Miami’s Global Academy, an online high school attached to Miami’s Division of Continuing and International Education, launched a three week, six session MOOC to prepare students to take the SAT II in Biology. The course is synchronous, lectures delivered in real time via Skype to students as far away as China. The synchronous format, a rarity for MOOCs, will allow real time questions from students.

The course itself was not to new to UMGA; it had run test prep programs for its own distance students as part of its curriculum. What was new was opening it to non-UMGA students under the MOOC aegis. And in fact that opening up continued. Originally capped at 200 students, the school eventually opened it to 1,000 students because of requests from participants (many of whom were teachers who wanted their students to be able to enroll). UMGA followed up its Bio MOOC with an AP Calculus MOOC.

University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse’s College Readiness Math MOOC

The Wisconsin, LaCrosse MOOC also seems to predate the Brown MOOC and focuses primarily on preparing incoming students for college math. The genesis of the MOOC came from seeing students arriving on campus with holes in their math preparation. Begun as discreet units that the department posted online for student practice, the course piloted a six week format for incoming freshmen that saw their placement in college math rise by almost 100% (37 of 38 students who had been placed in developmental math were instead placed into algebra or pre-calculus after taking the MOOC and the standard math placement test).


How MOOCs Work: Potential and Pitfalls

The MOOC approach is an egalitarian one; its purpose is to open up education, often at its highest levels, to everyone that wants it. Gone are applications, admissions standards, and financial constraints. Gone too, though, are credits, degrees, and the relationships that (more) traditional educational models (even online courses) can foster. (One of the most pressing questions of MOOCs, addressed below, is how or if they should be offered for credit.)

The primary factor in the viability of a MOOC is its technological infrastructure. Often accommodating thousands of students, a MOOC must have the raw technological power to service all of those students, a lesson was illustrated the hard way through a Coursera course. Its Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application course was shut down after three days because it relied on a Google framework (using GoogleDocs to manage group work) that could not handle the traffic from the course. There were also other design flaws in the course, which are laid out in the February 1, 2013 blog post of Online Learning Insights (http://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com).

But the Fundamentals of Online Ed debacle raises important points not only about the viability of MOOCs but also about the relationship among teacher, student, and course (structure): “Does the responsibility not fall upon the student for the success of a course? ….yes…however, there is an onus on the course facilitators and designers to prepare students for learning by providing some sort of orientation. The instructors need to support conditions for learning, which prepares students to learn on their own, create their own experiences, knowledge, and potentially a personalized learning community. Preparing students includes orienting the student to the technical tools that will be used in the course, guiding them to the applications (a blog platform for instance), and providing instruction for the tools to be used as needed.”  (ibid Feb. 5 2013)

Aside from the technical requirements of a MOOC, the completion rates of MOOCs suggests the inefficiency of the essentially passive MOOC model. Initial statistics focused on the dichotomy of completed the course by completing assignments and assessments vs. not-completing the course by not completing assignments and assessments. Researchers and interested parties found this dichotomy limiting and have developed four categories to describe engagement in a MOOC: completing, in which students fulfill all requirements of the course; auditing, in which students access course information like lectures but do not complete assignments or assessments; disengaging, in which their participation decreases as the course goes on; sampling, in which a limited amount of participation occurs, e.g. a video is watched at the beginning of the course but no more. (“Deconstructing Disengagement: Analyzing Learner Subpopulations in Massive Open Online Courses”; http://www.stanford.edu/~cpiech/bio/papers/deconstructingDisengagement.pdf). This study concludes: “Through our research we were able to extract, across all three classes studied, four prototypical learner trajectories; [sic] three of which would have been considered ‘noncompleting’ under a monolithic view of course completion.” (ibid) The study seems to suggest too that high school completion rates tend to be higher than undergraduate or graduate completion rates.


History, Background, Context

“Will the classroom be abolished, and the child of the future be stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable [device] in his pocket?” – Journalist Bruce Bliven

The device in the above quote is neither an iPhone nor an iPad nor even a laptop. The quote dates to 1924 and references the radio, when university courses broadcast by radio were sweeping the nation. (Matt & Fernandez) The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is not a new invention but rather a reconceptualization or adaptation of an old idea: the correspondence course. An advertisement in the Boston Gazette in 1728 promotes the learning of shorthand through lessons mailed weekly to the student. (Holmberg via Wikipedia) The University of London offered degrees via correspondence as early as 1858 and the University of Chicago pioneered correspondence courses in the United States in the late 19th century. (Wikipedia ‘Distance Education’ and ff.) The International Correspondence Schools, for profit schools based in Scranton, PA, saw explosive growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, enrolling as many as 900,000 students and spending $2 million a year on magazine advertisements. Students, however, struggled with the passive nature of the correspondence course: 1 in 6 students continued past the first third of the course and only 2.6% of students completed the correspondence course.

The shift from an agrarian to and industrialized nation and the focus on education that it entailed as well as the invention and rapid popularization of radio in the 1930s saw it become the next medium for distance education. In 1921 Latter Day Saint’s University received the first educational radio license (USDLA.org Timeline) and “By 1938, 200 school systems, 25 state boards of education, and many colleges and universities broadcast educational programs for the public schools.” (Wikipedia ‘Distance Education’) In 1948 the University of Louisville, a public university, offered low tuition rates, course materials mailed to students, and lectures delivered via NBC’s radio. (ibid ff.) Indirectly inspired by this initiative as well as by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-1960s, the Open University launched in 1970 in the UK. Similar open universities or universities-without-walls followed across Europe and North America and beyond, using the term Open University in the native language to denote an institution dedicated to distance learning.

The advent of computers and the rise of the Internet ultimately led to the creation of MOOCs. The University of Illinois-Urbana was the first to use computers to facilitate learning in the 1960s with its PLATO project that pioneered online forums and message boards, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer games, leading to the emergence of what was perhaps the world’s first online community.” (thinkofit.com/plato/dwplato.thm) A single classroom was linked by computer terminals that facilitated communication and the sharing of resources. The UK’s Open University and Canada’s University of British Columbia pioneered the use of the Internet to deliver course content. Concurrently the University of Phoenix opened in 1980 to focus on adult and non-traditional learners who it felt were undervalued at traditional universities and launched its online program in 1989. (Wikipedia ‘University of Phoenix’) It led the way for for-profit universities to harness the availability of the Internet to reach a maximum number of students, its enrollment topping 600,000 students in 2010. (ibid) Such availability, however, also saw the rise of diploma factories, unaccredited schools that used the reach of the internet to award diplomas with little to no work.

1994 saw the advent of CompuHigh, the first online high school, as well as CALCampus “where concepts of online-based school first originated.” (Wikipedia ‘Virtual Education’) From there, online education exploded, developing concurrently with the technology that fuels it. The advent especially of webcams, course management systems, and increased bandwidth to support more video has facilitated the rapid expansion of online offerings at all levels of education.

iTunes U was announced on May 30, 2007 and provided a glimpse of the potential of MOOCs. Stanford and Apple initially partnered in the spring of 2004 “to deliver supplemental course content to registered students using iTunes.” (http://itunes.stanford.edu/content/faq.html) But iTunes U initially included six universities: Brown, Duke, Stanford, Michigan (School of Dentistry), Missouri (School of Journalism), and Wisconsin-Madison. The launch of Stanford’s iOS Programming course quickly became iTunes U’s most popular course, downloaded by hundreds of thousands of students. While iTunes U is ultimately passive (there are no assignments, grading or formal assessment), Stanford’s iOS course illustrated the reach that such course offerings could have.

“The term MOOC was coined in 2008 during a course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” that was presented to 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba in addition to 2,300 other students from the general public who took the online class free of charge.” (Wikipedia, MOOC) 2012 saw the rapid expansion of the MOOC, especially through public pairings of MOOC initiatives with top universities. Harvard and MIT launched edX in the fall of 2012 as a platform for their MOOCs and in response to the commercialization or for-profit trend of early MOOCs (ibid). The most visible for-profit MOOC factories are Coursera and Udacity, both launched by Stanford faculty who had taught MOOCs at Stanford with enrollments in the six figures. Both companies pair with top universities to offer MOOCs.