MOOCs Help Prepare K-12 Students for College

Massive Open Online Courses have made a lot of noise in postsecondary education circles in the past few years, but they’ve entered the K-12 arena much more quietly.

The likes of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are making MOOCs that allow anybody with Internet access to sign up for virtual classes from professors at the world’s leading universities. These top-tier schools have invested millions in creating courses that go way beyond just recorded lectures to push the boundaries of what remote learning can mean.

Advanced learning options for high school students

Anissa Lokey Vega
Anissa Lokey Vega

K-12 students enrolled in MOOCs are often interested in a subject that their school doesn’t offer or are looking for an extra edge in preparing for an AP exam or to otherwise demonstrate college readiness, says Anissa Lokey Vega, Ph.D., assistant professor of instructional technology, and the first MOOC faculty developer/instructor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

For example, EdX, one of the leading MOOC providers, has a high school initiative with AP classes. Options include AP Physics from Georgetown, AP Biology from Rice, and AP Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

“While enrolled, students are interacting with digital tools and environments that mirror their current world and the academic and vocational environments they will enter,” writes Richard Ferdig, a professor of instructional technology at Kent State University, in his 2013 report “What Massive Open Online Courses Have to Offer K-12 Teachers & Students.” “Such an opportunity seems magnified for those in developing countries or in schools or districts that may not have access to the expertise to teach certain subject areas.”

MOOCs integrate well into flipped classrooms, where students watch lectures online at home and do problem sets in class. Students can rewatch content as necessary. “Students work through MOOC content as homework or in the evenings, then come face to face with a K-12 teacher, who would guide them through performing some of the new skills,” Vega says.

MOOCS made with high school students in mind

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse created its “College Readiness Math MOOC” specifically for high school students who seemed to have enough aptitude for college-level math, but whose algebra and geometry skills weren’t strong enough to place into credit-bearing classes. The pilot version of the class was launched in 2012 for seniors who had been accepted to study at the university but whose math skills placed them at a developmental, or non-credit-bearing, class level.

Robert Hoar
Robert Hoar

“The course hit upon skills measured in our admissions process,” says Robert H. Hoar, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor of mathematics at La Crosse. Students completed the MOOC at home, and then came to campus in the summer a week before other freshmen, and studied math a bit more as a group. All but one of the 38 students got into the college-credit bearing class.

When the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation requested proposals for similar courses — focusing on those with overall ability but not the relevant skill set necessary for gateway exams — Hoar’s team decided to scale up. “This time, we built it with the world in mind rather than just our students,” Hoar says. The syllabus aligns with Common Core State Standards.

Entire high school classes have signed up en masse — not just from Wisconsin, but also from Arizona, Texas, and Minnesota. A remedial class on the La Crosse campus flipped it, and other University of Wisconsin campuses, such as Milwaukee and Osh Kosh, use it as well.

“Many view MOOCs as having no human behind it, but we have a good team,” Hoar says.

One of Wisconsin’s unique MOOC approaches is using pre-service teachers as tutors within the MOOC during online office hours, which gives the student teachers practical teaching experience in an online environment. “It gives us a lot of feedback,” Hoar says. “We have improved our materials, and tweaked the class based on their observations.”

Some of the original tutors are now high school teachers using the class to ensure that their real-world students are college ready.

MOOC pedagogy for K-12 teachers

MOOC completion rates in general are very low, as the no-risk, no-obligation model means that many enrollees don’t even watch the first video module, let alone complete all the assignments. When classroom teachers require students to participate, and are on hand for real-time questions, it’s logical that student outcomes will improve, whether they’re star students or remedial ones who need extra help to succeed in college-level work.

At this early, experimental stage, most K-12 MOOC successes are anecdotal. Little research has been done yet on the long-term efficacy of online blended and flipped teaching, or of MOOCs in K-12 classrooms.

A new wave of MOOCs caters to teacher education and professional development. Vega’s meta-MOOC, “K-12 Blended & Online Learning,” runs again in January 2015. Just like kids who sign up for a MOOC without much prior knowledge, this class takes teachers through the basics of course design.

“Whether they’ve played around or have no idea, my course is going to show them how to do something,” Vega says. “They can build something they can use in their class with their K-12 students.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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