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Will Districts Determine Success of Coursera's Teacher-Training Venture?

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It's been a couple weeks since Coursera, one of the leading names in the world of "MOOCs," announced plans to work directly with teacher colleges and other institutions to offer ongoing professional development across subjects.

But for that company—and by implication, other providers of "massive open online courses"—to succeed in teacher professional development, they will have to form relationships with the powers who matter the most in that world: school districts, argues Joseph Doiron, a senior analyst at Eduventures, a research and data company in Boston, in a recent essay.

Coursera is planning to provide free online courses to educators, aspiring educators, and others. These are classes that are primarily meant to meet the requirements that teachers obtain continuing education units, or periodic professional training.

But Doiron says Coursera is ignoring the reality that teacher professional development "doesn't function like a free and open market," with educators choosing the kind of PD they want from the sources they want.

Professional development requirements for teachers are largely set by states and school districts, Doiron correctly notes, and educators are typically already taking part in those classes because they're required to do so. So as currently structured, teachers would be taking the online courses through Coursera, the content of which is being provided by teacher colleges, museums and others, simply on a voluntary basis.

"In essence, your current strategy is to hope that teachers will use Coursera as a professional development supplement—an add-on—the extra dessert at the end of the meal," he writes.

To cope with that barrier, Coursera should consider partnering with school districts so that those systems make the MOOC effort a part of their teachers' core PD programs. That strategy would move Coursera from "second dessert to main course," Doiron writes.

The most effective teacher PD is individualized, and has strong content focused on classroom practice, he says. Coursera offers "some of those components, but not all of them," Doiron argues. By partnering with districts the company could not only increase the confidence the K-12 community has in its offering, as well as the overall quality of its courses.

If Coursera is able to connect with individual school systems, the company could occupy an important and distinct place in the K-12 market, Doiron says, as a "connector between schools of education who want deeper connections with school districts, and school districts who want deeper connections with schools of education."

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