A recent decision by 10 large public universities and postsecondary systems to partner with a for-profit company known for providing massive, open online courses, or “MOOCs,” is likely to have a trickle-down effect on the world of K-12 education in areas that could include professional development for educators and increased options for students who want to earn college credits while still in high school.
State higher education systems in New York, Tennessee, West Virginia, and other states announced recently that they would use the for-profit company Coursera—known for creating and offering MOOCs—to enhance their own educational offerings. Each institution is currently drafting a plan for how to mine Coursera’s platform to either develop MOOCs or their own online, for-credit courses.
To date, MOOCs have largely been developed by higher education institutions for use in postsecondary environments. But the new venture by Coursera could provide valuable insights for K-12 systems, particularly when it comes to gathering research and information about how online courses can be made effective and engaging, said Susan D. Patrick, the president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, an advocacy and research group based in Vienna, Va.
“This is going to teach us a lot,” Ms. Patrick said. “These MOOCs are going to give us in K-12 a rapid prototyping to [understand] learning in these online environments and what motivates students.”
The arrangement between Mountain View, Calif.-based Coursera and the postsecondary institutions and systems will create new options for using MOOCs to improve access to academic courses and promote college completion, the company contends.
MOOCs are typically free online courses that don’t provide credits for class completion and can be accessed by learners anywhere in the world. Individual courses can reach thousands of students.
However, this latest round of partnerships is likely to spawn new models of online learning, said Daphne Koller, the co-CEO of Coursera and a professor of computer science at Stanford University. The University of Kentucky, for example, is developing a chemistry MOOC geared to prepare high school students for its introductory chemistry courses. The University of Tennessee system will use the Coursera technology platform to develop online courses for credit and compare student success rates between these courses and traditional courses in the same subject.
The agreement between Coursera and the schools also could allow high school students to take university-level courses that could be used for college credit, depending on which states and institutions are involved, Ms. Koller predicted.
“This could help correct a significant inequity in our system,” she said, noting that wealthier schools can already offer dual-credit courses because they have teachers with advanced degrees who can teach such classes. “Because the content (in the MOOCs) is effectively self-contained, students can take it with relatively minimal supervision by a high school teacher.”
The 10 school systems and universities that Coursera is working with have very different plans for using the technology offered by the company.
» State University of New York: Plans to develop free, noncredit MOOCs and incorporate some of those online curricula into traditional courses for a blended learning approach.
» Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee system: Launching an 18-month pilot program using the Coursera platform to create four credit-generating general education courses. Has no current plans to develop MOOCs.
» University of Colorado system: Plans to develop MOOCs, and faculty may incorporate some of the curricula into existing courses.
» University of Houston system: Will start by developing free, not-for-credit MOOCs, but will phase in college credit-bearing courses for a fee.
» University of Kentucky: Will develop a MOOC for high school students preparing for college-level chemistry courses or for AP exams.
» University of Nebraska: Will develop MOOCs and use the Coursera platform to create opportunities for faculty to collaborate with colleagues at different institutions to share best practices.
» University of New Mexico: Faculty may create MOOCs for their own classroom or for a wider audience. Faculty will decide in the future whether to accept some Coursera MOOCs for credit. Faculty may be able to submit courses to Coursera to be taken at other universities for credit.
» University System of Georgia: Will adapt existing Coursera MOOC content to experiment with blended learning. Efforts will focus on Georgia learners and will not target students outside the state.
» West Virginia University: Plans to initially create free, noncredit MOOCs in high-profile disciplines. Might consider using that content for credit courses in the future.
Sources: Coursera; Education Week
The 10 systems and schools that Coursera will work with are: the State University of New York; the Tennessee board of regents; the University of Tennessee system; the University of Colorado system; the University of Houston system; the University of Kentucky; the University of Nebraska; the University of New Mexico; the University System of Georgia; and West Virginia University.
News of Coursera’s partnership with the postsecondary institutions followed another announcement the company made last month, signaling a separate foray into K-12. The company said it would partner with schools of education, museums, and other institutions to provide MOOCs focused on professional development for K-12 teachers, aspiring teachers, and others, which would not be offered for academic credit.
The new partnership could expand the company’s reach into precollege systems even further.
The University of Kentucky is gearing its efforts with Coursera directly at K-12 students. The university’s chemistry department will develop a MOOC to improve student readiness for freshman, college-level chemistry courses, said Mark Meier, the chairman of the chemistry department. High school students and teachers may also use the course to prepare for Advanced Placement chemistry tests, he said.
“We want to address some of the big challenges we and other universities have with large numbers of students who come into first-year stem [science, technology, engineering, and math] courses and really struggle,” Mr. Meier said. “Their backgrounds in this area aren’t strong, they’re intimidated, and they lack the confidence to really thrive.”
The University of Kentucky chemistry MOOC will be taught by the same teachers incoming freshmen will see in class and the content will prepare them to “walk into one of our general chemistry classes and be successful,” Mr. Meier said.
Tools for Teachers?
Tim Watkins, the principal of the 400-student McKenzie High School in McKenzie, Tenn., said he welcomes more options for students to earn high school and college credits.
His students already take dual-credit courses in a number of ways, including using videoconferencing to take part in a history course from the University of Tennessee at Martin. The students watch the teacher live and can participate in the class, Mr. Watkins said. However, an option to take an online version at any time would help with scheduling and allow students to absorb coursework when it is most convenient, he said.
“The more options we have, the better it is,” he said. “Statistics prove that these kids who have college hours prior to leaving high school are more likely to finish college.”
Mr. Watkins said he’s also interested in the possibility of using MOOCs for the professional-development needs of his teachers. Though his school offers teachers training, subject-specific professional development is hard to find, he said. Online training is especially attractive to educators at his school because they can access it at home, or after school hours, he added.
It remains to be seen how many of these institutions of higher education will use the Coursera platform and develop MOOCs, and how they will use that platform. Some institutions will focus on improving prep courses for students coming into the system, while others will serve matriculated students both online and on-campus. Still others will be developing their own MOOCs to teach students at other institutions in their states. At least one system, the University of Tennessee, plans a version of an experiment cropping up at schools around the country: having students take both in-person and customized MOOC-like versions of the same course and comparing the results.
Sue Day-Perroots, the dean of extended learning at West Virginia University, who will soon become the school’s associate vice president for academic innovation, said several faculty members are pitching ideas for MOOCs.
Some courses could focus on teacher professional development. The university’s special education department chair suggested a MOOC on teaching children who have disorders on the autism spectrum, Ms. Day-Perroots said. The course could cover “what teachers need to know about working with these students and what parents need to know,” she said.
At the 4,400-student Mason County Schools in West Virginia, Jack Cullen, the administrative assistant to the superintendent, said the district encourages students to seek out college-level courses, and he sees MOOCs as a viable option for student learning.
Students in the district currently can earn college credits—though not high school ones—by taking online courses at nearby Marshall University, in Huntington, W.Va. In addition, some teachers at the high school level are certified by Marshall and can teach dual-credit classes on high school campuses. In both instances, students must pay for those courses.
Mr. Cullen likes the idea of students being able to take a no-cost MOOC on a topic they’re passionate about.
“Free is better,” he said—as long as students are receiving academic credit for that work.
Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as ‘MOOC’ Plan Could Spawn Dual-Enrollment Courses