Massive Online Classes Expand into K-12

Published September 26, 2014

In 2013, ten million students of all ages participated in more than 1,200 massive, open, online courses offered by more than 200 universities. Known as MOOCs, these online classes once took the TED Talk crowd by storm. Now they’re moving into K-12, with Florida in the lead.

“Florida certainly is a harbinger of innovation in education throughout the country,” said Michael Horn, cofounder of the Clayton Christianson Institute. “[The state] is part of a new movement that may become big a few years later.… People would be foolish to overlook it.” 

For a MOOC, students watch video lectures and participate in online discussion boards. Many lawmakers have started to show interest in MOOCs as a way to reduce the cost of higher education, which taxpayers heavily subsidize. Florida legislators are going even farther by supporting MOOCs for K-12 students, Horn said.

“We are trying to figure out how they fit into the K-12 landscape in the long run—not when, but how,” said Florida Rep. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah). “MOOCs are not for every student, but this is customized education, without taking up additional time and [resources.]”

Next Step: Quality Control

A Stanford professor first popularized the MOOC idea, followed by courses from MIT and Harvard University-based companies. With such free online classes now widely available from brand-name universities, the next step is quality control, Horn said.

Tying MOOCs to K-12 assessments and designing quality structures will ensure quality, Diaz said.

“MOOCs now are increasingly about workforce skills and big data and coding, so you could have employer-validated assessments to see if taking [a specific MOOC] actually increases your skills,” Horn said.

Florida recently gave Broward College a grant to develop a MOOC to help prepare students for a state college entrance exam that gauges whether incoming college students can bypass introductory courses or need remediation.

Supplementing or Supplanting?

Broward College has been running a college-readiness MOOC since June 2013. The current session has about 3,200 participants, mostly from the United States, but it’s accessible worldwide, said David Shulman, the campus president of Broward College Online. Currently the program helps prep for college and does not grant college credit.

The MOOC, which Shulman describes as “self-propelled,” incorporates reading, writing, and mathematics. Broward is also considering using MOOCs for faculty professional development.

A main criticism of MOOCs, and the central reason progenitor Sebastian Thrun now says they’re not an education game-changer, is many students lose motivation when they don’t have strong relationships with the people teaching them.

“I don’t think it’s a concern,” Diaz said. “[MOOCs] require a teacher to create these courses. Also, this is a very narrow group of students—self-directed, self-motivated. Most students still need that one-on-one … [but] this would be in addition to [classes] or could be summer remediation.”

“It’s another tool in the virtual world,” he said. “It’s not going to replace the teacher.”

Game-Based Learning

Broward is also considering offering a composition course as a MOOC so students can complete it before entering college. Another endeavor would include game-based learning, a concept many tech-minded entrepreneurs are exploring. New software released by New York-based Amplify Corp. has students investigate Edgar Allen Poe mysteries, for example.

Shulman decribes them as “interactive things the students can do that are a little more appealing than the standard text.”

Game-based learning can motivate students by tapping into their competitive and playful sides, he said.

Move Over, SAT

As MOOCs expand, they might displace education brand names such as Advanced Placement and SAT by accomplishing similar things at lower costs.

The University of Miami’s Global Academy is developing MOOCs for AP Calculus and the SAT Biology subject test.

MOOCS add another tool students can use to get college credits in high school, which saves them, their parents, and taxpayers money, Diaz said.

“It will have an economic impact, especially on working-class families,” he said. Homeschooling parents and others who are a good fit for online education have shown “quite a bit of response,” he said, citing “parents who would benefit from customized education, catering to a specific group of folks who have children who are able to multitask and be self-directed.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Photo by University of Salford Press Office.