At this point, you're probably familiar with MOOCs – those massive open online courses offered by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT. MOOCs are often geared toward college kids or curious adults. But that’s changing.
MOOCs are going to high school.
One of the people tasked with making the jump is Dr. Jeneen Graham at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California. She currently teaches psychology to 18 students; next year she’ll be teaching thousands. “I think it’s incredible,” says Graham, “and also a little bit scary.”
Graham is creating an intro to psychology MOOC for the online learning nonprofit EdX, one of the biggest MOOC providers. Her class will be one of about two-dozen free high-school classes EdX is launching.
Graham says for St. Margaret's, it’s a chance to extend the school's mission of service and education. And personally, she says, her high school self would have jumped at the chance to take a class like this. “I grew up in a small, rural town and I didn’t have access to this kind of course work,” says Graham. “I think I would have loved it.”
Those are the kids the new EdX offerings are after. Kids who are motivated. Kids without access.
Many of the courses are AP level in subjects like physics, environmental science and chemistry. They are taught by high school instructors and professor from Berkeley, Rice and MIT.
“A lot of high schools do not have a rich set of AP courses, it’s just too expensive,” says Anant Agarwal, the CEO of EdX.
MOOCs, on the other hand, are free (though students can pay for a “certificate of achievement”).
Agarwal thinks the number of middle and high schoolers taking EdX’s MOOCs could one day grow to about a third of their students. That’s a pretty compelling market, considering EdX has about 3 million users now.
“I think high schools will embrace this, because learners can directly take some of these high school courses,” says Agarwal.
The big question is whether they’ll finish them. Currently, the MOOC completion rate is only about 10 percent.
It's a number that has slowed the adoption by high schools – but not stopped it. Some allow students to take college-geared MOOCs for credit as part of an independent study. In Florida, there’s a state law that allows students to earn credit for certain MOOCs.
And while there has been hand wringing at the university level about MOOCs replacing professors, the high school educators I talked to weren't worried.
“I see MOOCs as a supplement,” said Craig Wilson, head of the University of Miami Global Academy. “ An addition to, not a take away from, the education experience.”
His school is an online program, that has experimented with creating its own MOOCs.
He says there are parts of the MOOC model that can work with high-schoolers—but it’s not perfect.
Most teenagers, he says, need teachers or mentors. They need help getting across the finish line.
“What I think is that high-schoolers still need that sense of community,” says Wilson
The ed-tech industry is also trying to figure out how to work that sense of community and adult supervision into MOOCs.
The digital education company Amplify is experimenting with a mentor based model. It’s offering an AP Computer Science MOOC— with in-school coaches.
Of course, some super motivated, hyper-focused high schoolers aren’t waiting on adults to figure MOOCs out.
They’re doing it for themselves.
Take, for instance, James Lintner. He’s a 17 year old student in Georgia who takes MOOCS in his free time. So far, he says, he’s completed five, including classes in behavioral economics, energy, and medicinal chemistry.
“I feel like if I’m learning something, that’s better than rotting my mind playing video games,” he said.
Lintner says the classes have helped him figure out what he might want study in college. He’s also hopeful they might help him get in. He’s including the MOOCs in the extracurricular section on his applications.
Now you basically have to go to college before you can get into college.