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The K-12 MOOC: It's a Matter of Time

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Sometimes in my life I am privileged to hang out with really smart kids. Lest you jump to conclusions, the contexts in which I encounter these clever young people are what you might call school-type agnostic: they come from public schools, independent schools, faith-based schools, and home schools. They're intellectually curious to a level of ferocity, and they know that they're always in danger, should the pressures of competition or achievement overwhelm them, of letting school interfere with their education. These kids are intellectuals first, students second. Sometimes their teachers in school may not be convinced of the "intellectual" part, but the kids would say that the teachers aren't asking them the right questions.

In another corner of my life I have been fascinated, as many of us have, by the phenomenon of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. I've dabbled in the field a bit, and I've been quite taken by the possibilities of the more exploratory sort of MOOC, the "Connectivist" or cMOOC, which draws together a large group of people not so much to learn a specific skill or master a body of content but rather to dig into a topic, a question, or an idea. The best of these--and I was fortunate to be a part of the mildly famous MOOC MOOC this past summer--can be rather like an enlarged, digitally moderated version of the very best kinds of speculative but tightly reasoned conversations one can have with really smart, thoughtful, and creative peers--or with kids who match that description.

I've also been working hard in my mind to come to terms with the other kind of MOOC, the sort that has people at the university level all excited or terrified, where legions of students sign up with Udacity or Coursera or EdX to take a course of the sort that might be labeled "101" if you were sitting in a lecture hall. The process, early research suggests, decimates the legions, but those who are left can perhaps seek some sort of badge or credit and thus disrupt education as we have known it. The liberal arts guy within me at first tended to sniff at the "vocational" nature of these courses, but I can see their value even if I cling to the hope that a college experience ought in the end to be more than a student, a laptop, and a wi-fi connection.

Lately I've been on the edge of some conversations about the applicability of the MOOC model to K-12 education. I'm not ready to suggest that we ought to replace high school with a succession of MOOCs, but I can see a place for them, thanks to my smart kid friends.

By and large these are kids for whom school curricula are a baseline, hoops to be jumped through and milestones to be checked off on a transcript. Even so-called "college level" programs like AP and IB are more about putting sweat equity into transcripts than feeding their hungry intellects; more work doesn't always mean more thinking.

Here is a vast audience for the well tempered MOOC. Even the tiny percentages of kids who qualify for things like National Merit recognition (as distasteful as some may find its one-dimensional selection method) or who make up programs like the Stanford Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) or the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) would comprise a pretty huge legion. Legions more, I suspect, could be found among kids who have been turned off by school but remain turned on by learning and ideas.

These kids are as likely to be fascinated by aspects of popular literature, television, or film or by issues like social justice, personal identity, or even the speculative worlds of games and alternative history. Here is the audience for exploratory MOOCs, where kids can explore in a structured but not limited way the things that fascinate them but never much come up in many school situations. And they can do it with a big bunch of like-minded peers. The folks organizing these MOOCs had better be up to the task, and they had better lean hard on the students for guidance in shaping each MOOC as it rambles forward. A great MOOC of this sort will demand clear thought and excellent communication skills. It's a matter of winding up a roomful of really engaged intellects and seeing where they go.

By the same token, I'd see an audience here for highly demanding and highly academic Coursera-like MOOCs: advanced topics in sciences and mathematics, highly focused studies in the humanities, deep cultural dives in language, or even high-level work in the arts. We know that dual-enrollment programs offer opportunities for advanced work and that EPGY and CTY have online programs, but the K-12 MOOC model could bring together a broad diversity of kids with shared passions on a much larger scale. Best of all, such programs would be specifically geared to the developmental needs of pre-college students.

The challenge will be to design such courses and then to create mechanisms by which they can be offered and their audiences identified and informed. The secondary issues of branding and accreditation are important, but strong, smart players can deal with the branding and marketing piece and the zeitgeist, I think, will make accreditation a part of the MOOC landscape fairly quickly.

There are good people thinking about this, and I suspect that soon enough models of both sorts of MOOCs--the exploratory and the content-specific--will be rolled out. I don't think it will take long for kids to find them.


Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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