Education Opinion

The MOOC Moment and Its Impact on K-12 Education

By Justin Reich — March 08, 2014 4 min read
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Today, I was at the Online Learning Summit in Berkeley speaking on a panel about the intersection of the surge of online learning in higher education and the students who are coming into these worlds from K-12 education. It’s a topic that I’m deeply passionate about; how the MOOC moment might spark improvements in teaching and learning not just in higher education, but in K-12 as well.

I’m interested in educational technology primarily because of its destabilizing influences. Educational systems, for many reasons, are conservative institutions. New technologies have a funny effect on them, they can spark periods of disequilibrium, where communities re-evaluate their practices and the future of teaching and learning. Technology creates openings for change, even if historically we haven’t always taken advantage of these moments. We see this in K-12 around the adoption of iPads, where the introduction of a new form factor offers at least the possibility of creating space for conversations about what schools might do different, might do better, might do more imaginatively, if every student had access to an internet-connected, portable, multimedia creation device.

Never has there been more interest in teaching and learning at places like Harvard and MIT. To some extent, MOOCs like edX, Coursera, and Udacity represent modest technical innovations: we’ve made some improvements to auto-graders in certain fields, and added these as apps onto fairly conventional learning management systems. But a combination of factors--media attention, scale, investment, and a greater willingness to experiment with leveraging elite brands--has led to a moment where many institutions are not just thinking about how to use these technologies, but thinking about how to improve teaching and learning on campus and beyond. It is an incredibly fun time as an educator to be in these places.

The stakes for K-12 education are high. As I work with educators in K-12 schools, I constantly hear from educators “Hey, we’d love to incorporate more progressive practices that would allow students to develop deeper learning competencies, but you know what. They got to college and it’s all lecture, and we’ve got to prepare them for that reality.” And suddenly those fancy iPad tablets that cost so much are positioned as notebooks and textbook replacements for use in a lecture hall, rather than as gateways to the Web and portable production studios.

If what universities create as MOOCs are teacher-centered content delivery platforms, where we film lecturers as talking heads and students crank through worksheet problems, then this moment of technology adoption will lead to educators doubling-down on their perceptions of higher education as a place of lecture and note-taking. While these teaching methods certainly have their place, nearly every undergraduate at Harvard or MIT will tell you that their most meaningful learning experiences are productive and generative: where students engage in meaningful dialogue with faculty and peers, where students have the chance to inform the thinking of professors, and where student develop and demonstrate their understanding through complex performances of understanding that don’t fit the constraints of simple auto-grader.

There are all kinds of complaints in higher education that K-12 students are woefully underprepared because they are immersed in highly-structured learning environments and expect highly-scaffolded, didactic instruction and highly-cued forms of assessment. Well, some of that is because that’s what K-12 educators see happening in higher education, and rightly or wrongly they prepared their students for those lecture halls.

This is a moment to break those patterns, and elite universities like Harvard and MIT can play an influential role in saying that while direct instruction has it’s place, the best of what we can offer is oriented around true two-way discourse, student discovery, and student production and performance. We will need MOOC technologies and pedagogies to make substantial strides to support that vision (though I was part of a great panel at the Digital Media and Learning Conference with two HarvardX course teams that are doing just that). But more importantly, we’ll need to fuel this growing interest in celebrating, nurturing and inspiring the best possible teaching across our campuses.

MOOCs won’t do this. No technology will do this. As Evgeny Morosov wrote of the maker movement, ""The lure of the technological sublime has ruined more than one social movement.” What will improve teaching and learning in higher education will be cultural and political commitments to better teaching: reforms to hiring; reforms to tenure evaluation; new categories of teaching faculty afforded equal status to their researcher peers; and investments in those tribes within the university willing to show the humility and courage to examine their own instruction, find where it is wanting, and bring the full talents of these great communities to making teaching and learning better than ever.

That commitment would have ripple effects. If elite institutions can say with seriousness :"As the complexities of the world have increased, we’ve celebrated those faculty on the cutting edge of teaching in their disciplines, not those relying on the lecture notes from yesteryear” then K-12 educators will have greater cover to challenge the conservatism in their own institutions, and to dare to imagine new learning environments that prepare students for these complexicities.

I’m in the MOOC biz not for the technology, but for the moment technology affords us to rethinking our teaching. Let’s make the most of it.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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