MOOCs in K-12 education (Part 2)

Last week we provided some background into our review of MOOCs in K-12 education. Today we look at some policy issues and implications. The Florida legislature in 2013 recognized that MOOCs are deserving of study, and required that the “Department of Education shall…review and provide recommendations for online courses, including massive open online courses, and competency-based online courses for K-12 and postsecondary education.” The legislation requires that the department consider processes for “approving, funding, holding providers accountable, and awarding credit for such courses” including “measures of quality based upon student outcomes, such as completion and achievement rates correlated appropriately to each delivery model; measures for students to demonstrate competency, such as prior learning assessments, end-of-course exams, assessments established by regionally accredited public institutions which may be applied as one whole assessment or as two or more discrete subassessments such that when combined, the subassessments are equivalent to a whole assessment…”

We don’t envy the task that the Florida Department of Education has been given by the legislature, because these are challenging questions that get at the very core of where the innovation and promise that MOOCs hold intersects with legitimate concerns about whether such courses could be abused and be a way in which students are granted credit without having earned it.

The promise is apparent: MOOCs could be a vehicle by which students who don’t currently have access to certain courses gain such opportunities. These students might have to be highly motivated, given the lack of teacher-led support in most MOOCs, or the student’s local school would have to provide that support. But for AP courses or any others for which an independent final exam exists, the potential is that students would have a way to learn online and therefore be able to take courses that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

The peril is apparent as well. Teacher-less online courses have been tried by many schools, and while they have sometimes been successful for students, all too often they have yielded poor outcomes. Most students need the attention and support of a teacher or, at a minimum, a responsible adult who is involved in some way. The teacher may be online or onsite, but courses without teachers do not have high success rates. Exacerbating the situation is that many of these courses, which have often been used in credit recovery, have no independent assessments, so that there is no externally validated way that the student can demonstrate mastery. These types of courses have led numerous organizations to question the validity of online courses and, in the case of the NCAA, to require an approval process for online courses demonstrating that a teacher is leading the course.

From a policy perspective, the key question may be: what is a MOOC, and how is it different than a non-MOOC online course? MOOCs aren’t based on any new technologies, in fact many of them are largely based on old-school talking head videos (likely because of their roots in post-secondary institutions). The common definition of a MOOC is merely that it is designed to attract large numbers of students, in large part by being free, and also by focusing on topics that are of interest to students. But a policy that puts one online course into a different category than others because of the number of students taking the course makes no sense—that approach would mean that when 10 students take the course a set of policies applies, and when 10,000 students take it another set of policies applies.

We expect that the Florida Department of Education’s study will find that the same policy issues that would make sense for MOOCs in fact apply to all online courses, all blended courses, and perhaps eventually, all courses. These include allowing students to advance based on demonstrated competency; creating common assessments external to providers so that results are validated (as Florida is doing by developing end-of-course exams); and allowing schools to be funded based on student success. These are the policies that would make sense for MOOCs. They would also make sense for all other courses.