Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are moving beyond the hype they generated in 2012. MOOCs are now reaching a point where they may soon find their niche in the educational ecosystem. One possibility being discussed is that MOOCs could be used as formal credit for high school.
It appears as though secondary students are already engaging in MOOCs. Free online courses from some of the world’s top universities are being taken by high school students to supplement their study at school. However, while MOOCs can provide some great content, the teaching and assessment methods probably aren’t appropriate for high school students.
MOOC benefits for secondary students
At first glance, MOOCS appear to create a number of benefits for school students. Students are able to access material designed and delivered by some of the best university professors in the world.
In addition to providing students with insight into the content of a range of university programs, free online courses also possess the ability to offer students a cross-cultural perspective on learning, connecting to other course participants from around the world.
MOOCs also offer an alternative to school-based and external learning interventions for both struggling and advanced students, offering a supportive mechanism to reinforce and promote access to content.
In Australia, where tracking or streaming students based on ability is not a formal policy, MOOCs offer advanced students an opportunity to undertake more rigorous work in a flexible learning environment.
Students affected by disabilities or disadvantage, as well as those attending rural, distance or home schools, may also benefit from free online courses as a way to participate in collaborative learning and access a wider range of content.
Caution is required
Although we see some potential for the development of MOOCs in the high school sector, the purpose of MOOCs needs to be taken into account. MOOCs were initially developed to enable learning via large-scale collaboration between students studying material developed for post-secondary education.
In order for this to work effectively at scale, students often need to be able to assess the quality of their peers; a process that has questionable validity in the context of a MOOC.
MOOCs have also diversified significantly since the first of them were developed. Topics that are of broad interest have been developed into courses that showcase talented teachers, researchers and the institutions they represent. Others are targeted at a particular cohort, demographic or for professional development purposes.
In short, MOOCs now come in many different varieties. Some MOOCs might be relevant to secondary students, others not so much. The diversity of MOOCs means that each would need to be considered for credit on a case-by-case basis. Estimates in 2014 put the number of MOOCs available at over 2400 and growing rapidly, making this a complicated task.
Another underlying problem with giving secondary students credit for MOOCs is that it still isn’t clear how these courses integrate within the existing curriculum. It is therefore unclear if MOOCs can realistically replace the opportunities offered in traditional classrooms.
Classroom teachers are well versed in the use of strategies that support student engagement and attainment. Professors from elite universities are generally not.
Despite possessing expertise in their field, not all professors are trained teachers. Academics rarely have expert knowledge in the use of appropriate teaching methods for secondary students. Without this knowledge, even the best MOOCs might provide mismatched learning experiences for secondary students.
Many MOOCs are based on time-based tasks, rather than competency-based learning, which assumes that all learners are motivated, independent and able to complete activities within a designated time frame.
But not all high school kids are autonomous; many require support from their school, teacher and peers. Motivation is an important factor to consider if credit is to be offered for MOOCs. This is particularly relevant given completion rates for MOOCs currently stand at less than 10%.
Giving students credit for MOOCs offered by institutes overseas will also require recognition of equivalency against prescribed content and common achievement standards. In secondary settings these are outlined by individual curricula and assessment authorities. There are no such controls in MOOCs.
Content but perhaps not credit
There is much potential for using content developed by the best universities in the world in a secondary school context. With more quality content available online every day, it would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of this content.
The benefits of providing access to advanced content for high-achieving students, as well as those affected by disadvantage, are also clear.
Whether or not MOOCs assist students to meet the learning outcomes of their secondary education is a separate issue. With much of the assessment regime in MOOCs relying on peer judgements and multiple choice quizzes, questions remain about whether these approaches are valid and reliable enough to ensure equivalency with established standards.
Until such time as the courses available through MOOCs provide more certainty that students have effectively learned what was intended for them to learn, MOOCs provide great content but have questionable value beyond that.
Teachers remain best placed to design and develop an effective curriculum for students and make qualitative judgements about whether students are meeting the required standards.