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MOOCs - need K-12 pay attention?

A conclusion is the place where you get tired of thinking.
                                                                             Arthur Bloch 

Like my friend Miguel over at Around the Corner, I have been reading a lot about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) lately and wondering if it is worth investing my time and energy in learning more about them from a K-12 perspective.  (Here is the Wikipedia's description.)

Some of my favorite thinkers published on the subject of MOOCs recently. (Emphasis mine.)

Scott McLeod in MOOCs are here. How should state universities respond? shares a paper by two Iowa State University statistics professors who warn:

Almost inevitably, the advent of large-enrollment, on-line college courses will put many colleges and universities out of business, and dramatically reduce the size of many others. In this new environment, there may also be opportunities for some educational institutions to offer new and valuable components to college education (even if much-reduced in scale relative to plans they have made in the past). But this will not happen without serious and realistic thought and planning – of a qualitatively different nature than has ever been needed before — by administrators and faculty.

Larry Cuban in his blog post "Irrational Exuberance": The Case of MOOCs observes:

Where the incoherence and mindlessness enter the picture is the current thinking among university officials and digital-minded faculty that delivering a degree or college-level courses to anyone with an Internet connection will revolutionize U.S. higher education institutions. While teaching is clearly an important activity of universities, doing research and publishing studies is the primary function. The structures (e.g., departmental organization, professional schools) and incentives (e.g., tenure, promotion) of top- and middle-tier institutions drive tenure, promotion, and time allocation for faculty. MOOCs will do nothing to alter those structures and incentives. If anything, MOOCs could accelerate and deepen the split between tenure-line faculty and adjuncts with the latter taking on these larger courses for a pittance. To think that such offerings by professors will transform higher education gives new meaning to the word “flaky.” 

NYT columnist Thomas Friedman, "Revolution Hits the Universities" pundits (is this a verb?):

Lord knows there’s a lot of bad news in the world today to get you down, but there is one big thing happening that leaves me incredibly hopeful about the future, and that is the budding revolution in global online higher education. Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.

Here is my conclusion (see opening quote): The impact of MOOCs will depend less about technology and more about whether formal educational institutions and the credentials they grant still have validity in our society. 

To me it seems we are coming up on a two-tiered educational system.

The traditionalists will continue to look for dentists, doctors, engineers, teachers, and others who have licenses and degrees from accredited insitutions of higher education. (I've always thought that certificate on my dentist's wall was comforting as the drill comes nearer.) Traditional parents will continue to save and borrow to send their children to these schools, despite growing evidence there is little economic payback for many so educated. Traditional students will continue to worry about grades, class rank, and school prestige. Traditional employers will ask for college degrees in job descriptions.

But I see the potential for a growing group on non-traditionalists who find other means, less expensive and perhaps more meaningful, of demonstrating their competency in a field - badges, certificates of completion, apprenticeship programs, competency testing, portfolios of work, and resumes of successful products with recommendations. Parents will support this alternative means of "gettin' educated" and employers will pay more attention to past performance than degrees. And students themselves will see education's purpose as meeting vocational and personal needs rather than simply a hoop through which society expects its members to jump if they are to be valued.

As society in developed nations stratfies into what seems like the wealthy and the poor, as formal education loses ground as a guarantee of upward mobility and financial success, and as developing countries see the need to find inexpensive means of educating masses of people, the non-traditional view of education will grow. (If I am in a poor country and I have the choice of no dentist or a dentist who has received some alternative form of training, hey, I know what I'd do.)

These may be famous last words, but as long as U.S. K-10 schools have not only educational but custodial responsibilites for kids, I don't see MOOCs as a real game changer. However we may see more students ages 16+ drop out of high school to pursue other non-traditional learning opportunities, especially if we don't figure out how to personalize education in ways that serve non-traditional learners. 

Blue Skunk readers, is it worth learning more about MOOCs?

See also How Important is Certification (for librarians)


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Reader Comments (6)

I think its a bigger deal for the "developing" world or perhaps in more rural school districts. Living in the suburban achievement-centric educational world, this is the last thing I think our parents want their kids getting thrown into. At the end of the day even the most fiscally conservative parent wants their child to have meaningful learning interactions with an adult. A parent who thinks online learning is the best for their child, still wants their child to have a mentor who is a living, breathing human being. I spend most of my research time in learning analytics and personalized learning. Adaptive learning technologies like Knewton paired with a facilitator/teacher who knows kids and content is where I see the curve heading - especially in math and science. MOOCs may work into personalized learning, but dropping 15 year old Johnny into a class with 1,000 students is kind of tricky I think.

Maybe I'm wrong and MOOCs are the way to go, but I think the key item for success at the K-12 level are positive adult interactions - no matter the model. Many models have great potential - flipped, flipped mastery, PBL, online learning... - but mentoring drives all those models when done well. Throwing someone into a course and allowing them to learn independently is a totally constructiveness model that has merit. I'm ready for that kind of learning, but your average kid or parent in this country isn't there yet. Yes, the future Bill Gates of the world will grab this stuff and take off with it just like he took off with the mainframe computers at UW. But your average kid isn't Bill Gates.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Mielke

'Massive', not 'Massively' (not just me - check how your references define the term). (As an aside, it has been interesting to watch how the (incorrect) use of 'massively' has propagated.

January 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Downes

Many years ago I followed a discussion by David Noble about "the Digital Divide". This raised many questions about the nature of education AND the higher education institutions that provided such. How would they respond to "distance education" and what would happen to the quality of instruction at higher education institutions. Much of this discussion centered around the idea that education is about people interacting as much as about content, and about the development of two very different models of higher "education". His conclusions were heavily debated and often debunked, but the advent of MOOCs challenges some of his premises because they SEEM to not be about profit motives. However, his thinking resonates when one looks at his discussions of the idea of "intellectual property" ownership!! When you shift the idea behind MOOCs to K-12 education, the "intellectual property" ownership question becomes different. What happens if an online K-12 course is created according to good Common Core principles, evaluated, judged excellent, and then provided free of charge to any school or institution (or private charter company)? What is the incentive to create such a thing? Who owns the outcome and who judges the quality and determines its distribution and use? In the higher ed world, the "course" can be commoditized and provided by....???. In K-12 this probably wouldn't work except in "charter" for-profit settings. I had the experience of a middle school math teacher creating a series of very good materials to support his classroom (not supplant, note). When he fell out of favor and was not retained, he moved to another school. WHO OWNED HIS CREATION? Was it him? His school district? The provider of the server wherein the digital content was housed? In higher education, even in MOOCs, this is a key question that does NOT consider the education process itself, but the STUFF, the course. So while looking at MOOCs and considering the idea of universally free courses, K-12 must clearly define the nature of a K-12 education first, the role of the teacher as s/he relates to students next, and, perhaps, the development, ownership, and delivery of content last. (The school district would not let the teacher have access to the materials/support site. The work was hidden and unused. The students were served by a less exciting teacher in a non-tech way, and the teacher himself left angrily to his new job where he did not engage students using technology.)

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan Lake

I believe it is imperitive that all teachers learn as much as they can - if for no other reason than job security. When the budget comes around and a school can offer a class online for 1/3 to 1/2 the cost, it will. That cost reduction (at least for me) is no benefits and a third of my current salary. I was offered a position as an online teacher covering the same material with the same number of students and same assignments - but since I would not be in a classroom the logic says I don't get paid the same.
My advise - be careful. I wish I could have stayed (both of my daughters will be at this school next year) but I will not be teaching the class that I created for both in class and online.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gotman

Hi Nathan,

I appreciate your perceptions and agree in the most part - especially about the need for human interaction. I'll always remember a pundit many years ago predicting that the future of education would be poor children having computers and rich kids having human teachers. Quite a radical thought at the time.

I suspect rather than suburban/rural as a divisor, it might be those for whom success has come from traditional paths and those for whom success has be non-traditional. Or for those so very poor than even substandard learning experiences are better than no learning experiences at all.

I also wonder with MOOCs if that "human touch" will come not from the teacher but from peers? Which is not all bad either.

All the best,


Hi Dan,

You raise some great points. At this time, I see MOOCs as something that public school students would engage in as an extra curricular activity related to areas of personal interest. We seem to keeping our online (Moodle) course work in-house for our own students only. But I'd agree that we may well see for-profit schools get involved in MOOCs soon.

Your comments about intellectual property are well taken. I've tried to raise this issue with my school admins but with little interest. My guess is that it will be up to the teachers' association to insist there be clarifying information. Personally, anything that I create on company time for the school I consider in the public domain since taxpayers have already paid for it via my salary. I doubt that holds much legal water, however.

Thanks much for the thoughtful repsonse,


Hi Kenn,

Of all the new skills teachers ought to be learning, I too would classify online instruction as being among the most important, especially for those teaching HS.

You know, I found teaching online being MORE time consuming than F2F instruction when I taught grad classes. It seemed online, every student felt I was a private tutor and it took a LONG time to respond personally to each question or concern.

Thanks as always for the great comment,


Thanks, Stephen. I changed Massively to Massive. Doug

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

oh god I really hate MOOH I like to study in classroom and this is how I conplete my studies. thanks to my teacher how i got degree.

March 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Raws

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