MOOCs – Coming to a High School Near You?

The latest trend in education, MOOCs or Massive Open Online Classes, which exploded in higher education a few years ago, generating plenty of buzz—but not so much actual success with students—is spreading to the nation’s high schools.

The enthusiasm for these online classes, which are typically free college-level courses, sometimes enrolling tens of thousands of students in one course at a time, could rightly be called “MOOC Mania,” wrote California State University, San Bernardino professor Susan Meisenhelder in a recent NEA Thought & Action article. “MOOC Mania is like a tsunami, rolling over critiques and questions.”

Now the wave is hitting high school. Last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law calling for MOOCs to be in place for high school students in 2015, and that those MOOCs provide credits that could be transferred to Florida colleges. (“No matter how many times they use the word ‘quality’ this is a cheapening of what college is all about,” warned United Faculty of Florida president Tom Auxter.) Meanwhile, a handful of high schools across the country also are experimenting with their use in Advanced Placement courses and others.

The way MOOCs usually work is students watch video lectures, then participate in online discussion boards with other students, take multiple-choice exams or submit work to their peers for feedback, and sometimes earn a certificate of completion at the end—if they actually complete the course.

But the failure rate is huge: More than 90 percent of MOOC students never do complete their courses, and research shows the lack of one-on-one instructional approach works best for high-performing students, especially those who have already graduated from college. The least experienced students do worst.

Last year, a partnership between San José State University and the for-profit ed tech giant, Udacity, ended abruptly when results didn’t pan out. Only 25 percent of SJSU students enrolled in a for-credit, online-only course in algebra actually passed the class. Four out of five students said wanted more help with the class content. And while some colleges and universities have rushed to ink big-money deals with for-profit providers, others have urged caution. “It is nonsense for any public or private university to pretend that online courses for undergraduate students provide quality education,” Eckerd College president Donald Eastman told the Hechinger Report.

There seems to be growing recognition that MOOCs actually are not a substitute for college, even among their providers. “Part of the problem of the public dialogue is that some people have very quickly moved forward to tout what we do as a kind of replacement for college,” said Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, in a recent podcast interview. “MOOCs are not intended to (replace teachers and schools),” agreed an EdX vice president in a the journal interview. “We are looking to enhance teaching and learning.”

NEA encourages educators to embrace a “hybrid” approach, which combines the best of online learning with face-to-face instruction. In its policy statement on digital learning, approved by the NEA Representative Assembly in 2013, NEA acknowledges the need for 21st century students to “master digital tools” and “develop the initiative to become self-directed learners.” But the policy also makes clear that decisions about how to best serve students shouldn’t be made by for-profit privateers, they should be made by educators guided by what’s best for students.

The policy also says: “Optimal learning environments should neither be totally technology free, nor should they be totally online and devoid of educator and peer interaction. The Association believes that an environment that maximizes student learning will use a ‘blended’ and/or ‘hybrid’ model situated somewhere along a continuum between these two extremes.”

That might look like the eSTEM Academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where teachers in physics, statistics, and computer science, have integrated Udacity’s science MOOCs into their classrooms, combining them with live, face-to-face instruction. “Students in this physics class are performing at or above their peers in a mirrored class delivered traditionally,” said principal Marcy Raymond to District Administration magazine. “They scored, on average, higher on the end-of-course assessment.”

Recently, Brown University began offering a pre-college engineering course through Canvas Network, a MOOC platform, which requires high school students to listen to online, recorded lectures, but also complete some interactive assignments, like interviewing an engineer. Thousands of students have taken it, and some schools have indicated interest in using it as a mini-unit in their own classes.