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Monday, November 11, 2013

Using MOOCs to Revitalize University Engagement with K-12


A few months back, I posted a piece about the possible role of MOOCs—Massively Open Online Courses—in the public university’s commitment to community engagement.   The piece offered several examples of how the MOOC concept could be used to revitalize community engagement—aka, continuing education, outreach, extension—by creating new kinds of university-community collaborations.  Today, I want to explore one of those ideas in more detail:  the use of the MOOC concept to enhance the K-12 curriculum.
            The idea that I’ll be exploring is not really new.  From the 1960s through the 1980s, public televisions broadcast television programs during daytime hours that were designed for use in K-12 classrooms.  State public television networks collaborated with their state departments of education to coordinate program funding and selection.  Stations then worked through regional networks to acquire programs for in-school use.  With the advent of satellite in the late 1970s, a national marketplace of instructional television emerged, both at the K-12 and higher education level.  From early on, university-based public television stations (and, in Canada, Provincial networks like TV Ontario) were the major producers of in-school television programs.   
            Let me use an old ITV series as an example.  In the 1970s, Penn State Public Broadcasting and the Department of Science Education in the College of Education received funds from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to produce Investigative Science in Elementary Education, a series targeted to students in grades 1-3.  Each week, we broadcast a 15-minute program that teachers would use in their local classrooms.  Each program demonstrated a specific scientific phenomenon for elementary school students.  One looked at how water drops form; another examined wave patterns, etc.  The series was accompanied by a Teacher Guide that suggested classroom activities for each program.
            This was a major part of the first half of my career.   I started as a production assistant at Penn State Public Broadcasting, helping to produce instructional and general audience programs.  Later, as Director of Instructional Media, I was responsible all levels of instructional production and for our relationship with schools in our 29 county broadcast area, including program selection and professional development of teachers.
            This system remained vital through the 1980s, as schools struggled to move the Baby Boomer generation through the K-12 system in the post-Sputnik era.  By the 1990s, though, it was faltering, as the school population declined and as other technologies—videocassette and computer-based instruction—made broadcast obsolete.  Today, that system no longer exists.
            However, the need for higher education to help K-12 has never been greater.  Today, schools are struggling to meet the needs of an information society.  Funding is low and teachers are being laid off or not replaced, with the result that class sizes are again growing at a time when we greatly need to be producing students who can go on to college or to postsecondary training for information-related careers in a globalized economy.  The question is:  How do we do it?
            Engagement MOOCs offer a unique opportunity to revitalize—in fact, revolutionize—this old relationship between public universities and the K-12 sector, without the hugely expensive infrastructure that public television required.  Today, the issues are different than the 1960s, but just as profound.  A generation into the Information Revolution, we find ourselves as a nation, struggling to compete with workers from around the world.  Increasingly, our school graduates need knowledge and skill in science, technology, engineering, math—the STEM arena—in order to find jobs and keep businesses in our communities.  At the same time, we need to prepare our students to live in a more complex, globalized society.  The challenge is to ensure that all teachers, in every school at every level, have the resources they need to keep their students moving toward the goal.
The Model
The identification of the discipline and level to be the focus of the effort should be made in consultation with the K-12 community.  Once a curriculum area and grade level is identified, then a survey of teachers should be conducted to identify the specific topics to be covered.  The question is:  what topics are the most difficult to teach in the school classroom?
            For each topic, the institution would develop a multi-media module.  This could be a video demonstration, a computer simulation, a problem, etc.  Each would be supported by a text-based guide showing teaches how to use the material effectively in the classroom.  The modules become a collection of learning objects/open educational resources that can be used by teachers in a variety of ways and shared with other institutions.
            The modules would be the core of the MOOC.  Teachers wishing to use them in their classrooms would enroll in the MOOC in order to learn how best to integrate them into the curriculum.  The resulting course could be taken as a noncredit experience, resulting in a badge that would go on the teacher’s record.  It might also be taken as part of a credit course.
            Teachers who participate in the MOOC would also be eligible to join other teachers in an ongoing learning community, using the MOOC environment to share ideas about how to use the modules in different settings, expanded teacher guides and curriculum materials, student feedback, etc.  This ongoing engaged teacher community will ensure the continued refinement and improvement of the modules and the teacher-education component of the Engagement MOOC.
            In the end, the MOOC will (1) provide teachers with tested instructional materials to use with their students, (2) ensure that teachers receive professional development so that they can use the materials to best advantage in different teaching situations, and (3) create an ongoing learning community among teachers and university faculty that will sustain the effective use of the materials over time.
            Universities that offer such Engagement MOOCs will need to develop relationships with school districts and, ideally, with their state’s Department of Education coordinate use of the MOOCs.  To be effective in the log run, this model also requires multiple programs that hit key parts of the curriculum.  Ideally, universities would form a consortium to share responsibility for producing these Engagement MOOCs in disciplines and to share the finished products, so that each MOOC reaches well beyond its home state. 
            This is one example of how we can use online learning to engage both teachers and students for educational improvement.  In a future posting, I will explore another engagement model: Using the MOOC model to empower community development in small communities.