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EdX Enters K-12 Arena with High School Level MOOCs

By guest blogger Sam Atkeson

Students looking to better prepare for AP exams, or simply eager to expand their knowledge in a specific subject area, will be given access to a set of massive, open, online courses—or "MOOCs"—geared toward a high school audience.

EdX, the online-learning platform created by Harvard University and MIT, announced this week the release of 26 free online courses covering AP and high school level material.

It's the first venture into the K-12 arena for a company that has traditionally targeted college students and postgraduates. But the organization says that high schoolers already account for nearly 150,000 of the 3 million students currently enrolled in its courses.  

The new curriculum is an attempt to deliver "high quality, engaging, and interactive courses to specifically meet the needs of this student population," edX CEO Anant Agarwal wrote in a blog post this week announcing the launch.

The new venture is also an attempt to alleviate what Agarwal sees as an alarming gap between college eligibility and college preparedness. He pointed to a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board, which found that 60 percent of first-year college students are underprepared for postsecondary studies.

In an interview with Education Week, Agarwal said he hopes the new curriculum will give more high school students exposure to higher level coursework—allowing them to enter college having already completed many of their first year classes. 

He also believes high school teachers will utilize the courses as a supplement to their existing curriculum—a common practice among college professors. 

"For college-level MOOCs, a disproportionate number of learners taking these courses are teachers and professors," Agarwal said, explaining that many professors use the free courses to see how a certain subject is taught elsewhere, and oftentimes to use the MOOC content to augment their own teaching.

EdX is not the first MOOC provider to expand into the K-12 arena. Ben Herold wrote last month about Instructure's recent efforts to cater content to K-12 students, and another MOOC provider, Coursera, offers a set of online courses providing professional development to K-12 teachers.

But company officials at edX said it is the first time a MOOC provider is offering a free high school curriculum of this scope and quality.

The 26 courses were created by 14 institutions, including Berkeley, Rice, MIT, and Georgetown, with material spanning the subjects of science, math, English and history.

One course, created by high school guidance counselors, seeks to help "demystify" the college admission process. 

But whether or not edX's High School Initiative proves more successful than its predecessors will depend on how it manages to confront some of the hurdles that have impeded the spread of MOOCs into the K-12 arena over the past two years. These include low rates of student completion—estimated at under 10 percent—as well as uncertainty on the part of schools regarding how to award credit for online courses.

Agarwal told Education Week that it is ultimately up to the high schools to determine whether students will earn credit for the online courses they take through edX. Last year, for example, 13 juniors and seniors in Andover public schools in Andover, Mass., took part in a pilot program, enrolling in edX MOOCs and receiving high school credit—but no grades—upon completion. 

And despite claims that the hype surrounding MOOCs is subsiding, Agarwal argued that over the past two years the momentum behind the MOOC model has, "by all measures," only continued to expand. 

"As we offer more courses, as more students take them, as more high schools and universities adopt them," he said, "we will only see that movement continuing to grow." 

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