Can high school students learn in MOOCs?
By Wayne D’Orio
In less than four years, massive open online courses have been hailed as the next big thing to hit education—and disparaged as an empty promise where very few of the students complete the courses they sign up for.
You’re probably aware of the basics about MOOCs: After more than 150,000 students signed up for Stanford University’s first course in 2011, companies such as Coursera and Udacity, which pair with universities or other companies to offer content, seemed to sprout up overnight. MIT and Harvard, later joined by other universities, then created the nonprofit edX to offer classes for free. Today, more than nine million people take MOOCS, choosing from more than 1,200 courses.
Most K-12 administrators have been able to ponder the merit of MOOCs from the sidelines, as these classes have mostly involved college or post-secondary students. But with edX’s recent announcement that it will offer 27 courses next fall specifically for high school students, the question has landed right on administrators’ doorsteps. They have to wonder, will this work for my students, and if it does, how will it change how we educate our kids?
Students are ready for it, says Anant Agarwal, edX’s CEO. The group surveyed high schoolers and found that 95 percent of them asked for advanced courses. Indeed, 150,000 of edX’s current 3 million students are in high school, he explains.
But that isn’t the only reason edX is expanding. Agarwal knows that many high school graduates aren’t ready for college, having to wade through remedial classes at university prices before they start earning credit. “We want to fix that,” and the courses offered should help, he says. edX will start by offering 15 AP classes among its 27 courses for high schoolers. It hopes to add 100 more high school courses in the next few years.
Another reason for the expansion is that a disproportionate number of edX students are teachers themselves. “It turns out that teachers want to know other ways of teaching a course,” Agarwal says. If a high school chemistry teacher can watch a Georgetown University professor teach chemistry, why wouldn’t they, he asks.
The courses are all free, but for a varying fee, students can earn a certificate, Agarwal says. Of course, students in AP classes can sign up to take the AP test in the spring.
The certificate is also an answer of sorts to the conundrum posed at the start of this story. If course completion rates hover around 4 percent, as a study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education showed, are MOOCs worth it? Yes, Agarwal argues, because when students are asked to pay between $25 and $100 for a verified certificate, the completion rate jumps to 60 percent. (edX’s general completion rates are 7 percent, Agarwal says.)
Students are using certificates to help them get accepted to college, while teachers use them to get continuing ed credits, he adds.
In the end, though, “you can’t judge a MOOC by the same metrics” as a regular college class, says Agarwal. “If you pay $50,000 to attend college, you’d better pass. MOOCs are free. A lot of people take classes just to learn something new.”