New ‘MOOC’ Teacher PD Project Enlists Prominent Museums

By Sean Cavanagh — May 20, 2013 2 min read
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When Coursera begins providing “massively open online courses” focused on teacher professional development this year, the Web-based offerings on the menu will be supplied not only by schools of education, but also by a number of the country’s best-known museums.

Museums have been involved in professional development for years, and so in one sense their connection to the Coursera “MOOC” project is not surprising. If anything, it’s a reminder of the breadth of sources of PD out there for teachers, options that can be offered by districts, commercial providers, nonprofit organizations, and other sources—and a reminder that schools of education are hardly the only players.

In addition to seven schools of education partnering with Coursera, the company listed three museums as joining in that effort: the American Museum of Natural History, and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York City, and the Exploratorium, in San Francisco.

I wrote about the Coursera project recently but wasn’t able to include information from an interview with Lisa Gugenheim, the senior vice-president for institutional advancement, strategic planning, and education at the American Museum of Natural History, who spoke about why the institution signed on to the program, and what she expects ahead.

The museum sees its partnership with Coursera as a continuation of the science content it offers K-12 educators, Gugenheim explained. The museum currently provides a mix of online for-credit courses and non-credit professional development, as well as courses offered on site at the museum’s facilities. (The credit is granted by higher education institutions that partner with the museum.) It also recently created a master’s of arts in teaching program, which is being piloted and supported with money from the National Science Foundation and the New York State Department of Education.

“We’ve been looking to broaden our work in PD,” Gugenheim said. “We see ourselves as a content-provider. ...What we’ve heard from the field is that there’s an enormous need for science content.”

About 4,000 educators enrolled in either online or on-site profesional development programs at the museum during the most recent year. The average course costs $495, museum officials said.

Through Coursera, the museum plans to initially offer three online classes, each of which is four weeks in duration. Their titles: Genetics and Society, the Dynamic Earth—focused on the planet’s geologic history and related topics—and Evolution.

Coursera’s intention is to charge online users of its courses a fee in order to receive a certificate stating that they have completed the course, the co-founder of the company, Andrew Ng, told Education Week in a recent interview. An official from one school of education told me that his school does not plan on accepting revenues through certificates, but museum officials say they plan to receive revenue through that model.

As with many higher education institutions that have jumped into the MOOC game, it remains unclear whether Coursera’s venture into K-12 teacher education will provide a steady flow of revenue to the participating colleges and museums any time soon. Gugenheim said her institution recognizes that uncertainty.

But ultimately, museum officials hope the partnership with Coursera will help resolve an important financial question, she said: “What is the market for the content we have?”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.