MOOCs—shorthand for "massive open online courses"—have quickly gained traction in the world of higher education, and high school administrators are starting to take notice, too.
Despite the ominous name, the idea is pretty simple: a MOOC is a free online course with unlimited participants. Anyone with an Internet connection can enroll in courses on everything from engineering to English lit. There are three main MOOC providers, all with ties to elite universities: Coursera.org, edX.org, and Udacity.com.
The buzz surrounding MOOCs started to take off in 2011, when Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University taught an intro-level course on artificial intelligence as a MOOC; 160,000 students from around the world enrolled online. Inspired, Thrun went on to found Udacity in 2012. Harvard and MIT were quick to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, forming edX in 2012. In a few short years, MOOCs have evolved to include sophisticated video clips, online forums ("social learning tools") and even gaming platforms.
So has MOOC mania trickled down to high school students? Coursera estimates that only 5 - 10 percent of its "learners" are high school age students—but educators predict rapid growth of MOOCs among today's digital-savvy teens that have grown up on a steady diet of YouTube and online gaming.
MOOCs are also appealing to cash-strapped high school administrators who can use them to supplement classroom teaching. How will online learning impact the 21st century classroom? It's too early to tell, but high school educators are already testing the waters and using MOOCs in innovative ways.
Top 5 Ways Students are Using MOOCs
1. Explore advanced courses
MOOCs offer teens a way to tackle unusual or advanced coursework that might not be offered in most high schools. In a pilot program in Andover, MA, students are taking edX MOOCs on topics like advanced biology, justice, and Greek mythology, according to a recent blog on the website District Administration.
2. SAT Prep
The University of Miami's Global Academy, a virtual high school, recently launched a 3-week MOOC to help students prepare for the SAT test in biology; 1,000 students ended up taking the online course. And in 2015, The College Board and Khan Academy will team up in an exclusive partnership to offer free SAT prep materials online including practice problems and instructional videos.
3. A.P. Enhancer
The College Board is also partnering with edX to roll out interactive units for high school teachers on select A.P. topics; the idea is to help students understand tricky concepts in topics like macroeconomics with engaging video clips and more.
4. To get a taste of a college major
MOOCs give students a safe way to explore a potential major—before they get to college and burn through their parents' cash. Brown University, for example, developed a MOOC specifically for pre-college students called Exploring Engineering so teens can learn more about the rigorous requirements of majoring in engineering at Brown.
5. Pursue their passions
Much like camp or an after school activity, MOOCs offer self-motivated students an outlet to explore emerging interests and talents like computer programming or learning a new language, for example.