College & Workforce Readiness

Harvard-MIT Partnership Opens MOOCs for High Schoolers

By Sam Atkeson — September 23, 2014 7 min read

High school students looking to prepare for Advanced Placement exams, or simply expand their academic knowledge, now have free access to an array of classes through an online platform created by two of the nation’s top universities, in one of the most ambitious and direct efforts to date to bring MOOCs into K-12 education.

EdX, the online learning platform created two years ago by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced this month the release of 26 free “massive, open, online courses” covering AP, high school and college-level material.

It’s the first venture into the K-12 arena for a nonprofit that has targeted college students and postgraduates. But the organization says that high schoolers already account for nearly 150,000 of the 3 million students enrolled in its courses, even though edX had not, before now, explicitly marketed its classes to that audience.

The new curriculum is an attempt to deliver “high-quality, engaging, and interactive courses to specifically meet the needs of this student population,” edX CEO Anant Agarwal said in a statement announcing the launch.

The venture is also an attempt to alleviate what Mr. Agarwal sees as an alarming gap between high school students’ college eligibility and their college preparedness. He pointed to a recent study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board, which found that 60 percent of first-year college students were underprepared for postsecondary studies.

In an interview with Education Week, Mr. Agarwal said he hopes the new curriculum will give more high school students exposure to higher-level coursework, allowing them to enter college having already completed many of their first-year classes.

He also believes high school teachers will utilize the MOOC content to supplement their existing curricula—a common practice among college professors.

Overcoming Obstacles

In the two years since The New York Times dubbed 2012 the “year of the MOOC,” a number of providers of those courses have tested the precollegiate waters, but the movement has been slow to catch on.

In the spring of 2013, the Silicon Valley-based MOOC provider Coursera began offering what is now a growing selection of online courses aimed at providing professional development to K-12 teachers. And last month, the Salt Lake City-based company Instructure—known for its popular learning management system, Canvas LMS—unveiled 14 new MOOCs geared to precollegiate teachers and students, including classes meant to help educators integrate the hugely popular video game Minecraft into their classes.

But company officials at edX say the new initiative marks the first time a MOOC provider will offer a free curriculum of this scope and quality specifically targeted at high school students.

The 26 courses were created by 14 institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley; Rice University; MIT; and Georgetown University, with material spanning the subjects of science, mathematics, English, and history. Not all of the course topics have a strictly academic focus. One class, created by high school guidance counselors, seeks to help “demystify” the college-admissions process.

Whether edX’s High School Initiative proves more successful than its predecessors will depend on how it manages to confront some of the hurdles that have impeded the spread of MOOCs into the precollegiate world over the past two years. Those include low rates of student course completion—estimated at less than 10 percent—as well as apprehension on the part of schools and colleges regarding course quality, and questions about how to award course credit.

Michael B. Horn, the co-founder and executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a nonprofit think tank based in San Mateo, Calif., said that by making its courses free, and thus widely available, edX has distinguished its business model from those of many of its competitors in K-12 online learning.

But Mr. Horn said he had questions about the quality of courses created at the university level and how well they would be tailored to the needs of precollegiate students.

“Is the edX platform so built around the idea that a lecture is the best way of delivering content?” he said, “that they won’t be able to build in different instructional designs?”

Mr. Horn argues that many e-learning companies tend to put more thought into shaping pedagogy and instructional design to make it suitable for K-12 settings than do college professors who lecture on MOOC platforms.

Another issue is the question of how to award credit for MOOCs. Many enrollees in those courses at the college level do not take those courses for credit, but rather to supplement the classes they are already taking, or simply to boost their knowledge of a topic or academic subject, Mr. Agarwal said. With the new edX MOOCs, it will be up to individual high schools to decide whether to grant credit for the courses. Students who take edX’s AP-level MOOCs may simply enroll in those courses in the hope of getting a high enough score on an AP test to secure college credit, he said.

But Mr. Horn noted that the question of whether students will be able to receive high school credit for taking an edX MOOC depends not only on districts or schools, but also state policy. He said he’s heard complaints from superintendents about their inability to offer credit for MOOCs, because state education regulations require credit to be granted based on students’ “seat time” in actual classes, rather than their mastery of an academic subject.

“If competency-based-learning policies gather steam,” Mr. Horn said, “then it will create a lot more opportunities for high school students to take MOOCs on their own and gain credit for them. But in the absence of a movement toward that, I think it’s going to be difficult.”

Guidance Needed

In the meantime, some schools have offered non-academic credit to students who complete MOOCs.

Last school year, 13 juniors and seniors in the 6000-student Andover, Mass., school system enrolled in edX courses and received extracurricular credit—but no grades—upon completion of a pass-fail class.

The district’s goal was to provide its students with a more rigorous and extensive list of course offerings, Assistant Superintendent Nancy Duclos said.

Nikhil Chopra, now a freshman at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, took three edX courses focused on public policy during his time at Andover High School. The courses—titled “Justice,” “Health and Society,” and “Innovating in Health Care"—were all through HarvardX.

Mr. Chopra said that the edX courses he took in high school exposed him to more challenging and enriching academic content, and required that he take part in self-guided types of learning that helped steel him for college.

Solid Preparation

“It prepares you to teach yourself how to learn,” Mr. Chopra explained. “It prepares you to understand material on your own time, and to really follow your passion, rather than just getting through materials for a grade.”

According to Ms. Duclos, all but two students at Andover High completed and passed their edX courses, an accomplishment she attributed in part to the school’s guidance counselors’ making sure students were prepared for the higher-level coursework before they enrolled.

Creating a structure for supporting students academically as they use online learning is critical for student success in MOOCs, said Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has done research on the online courses.

High schools can make sure they have staff members who can track students’ progress in MOOCs, give them tips on how to succeed in them, and provide support when needed, she said.

For high schools considering encouraging students to take MOOCs, “it really is a question of goals,” she said. “What are we trying to achieve? ... What outcomes are we trying to get?”

“When resources are scarce” in K-12 systems, she said, “we should be thinking very carefully about the types of changes we’re trying to make.”

Mr. Horn agrees that MOOCs are more likely to succeed in high schools where there is strong support. This poses a problem, he said, for under-resourced schools that could benefit from the free MOOCs.

The question is whether “there is a plausible business model in place to allow [MOOCs] to improve and tackle those harder-to-solve problems over time,” Mr. Horn said. “That continues to seem like a huge question with MOOCs in general.”

But Mr. Agarwal argues that efforts such as edX have helped establish a firmer place for MOOCs in the K-12 arena.

“As we offer more courses, as more students take them, as more high schools and universities adopt them,” he said, “we will only see that movement continuing to grow.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2014 edition of Education Week as Harvard-MIT Partnership Unveils New MOOCs for K-12

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