Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have forced universities to reconsider their value in light of free high-quality education available online. Coursera, a private company founded by two Stanford professors has been at the forefront of that movement, actively courting new institutions of higher education to their portfolio and trying to monetize the effort by certifying courses for college credit. Now they’re expanding that model to K-12 teacher professional development.
The courses will be free to teachers, and for those who want a verified certificate, there will be a $50 fee. Coursera will verify that the teacher actually completed the course and participated fully along the way.
“In speaking to school administration leaders, I was hearing over and over that many districts today don’t have the resources to deliver good professional development,” said Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera. For teachers, Ng said offering professional development online gives them more choices and could save districts money.
Coursera is partnering with schools of education at the University of Washington, University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt University. In addition, the company is expanding its network of trainers beyond universities to include cultural institutions like the Exploratorium and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
“It was the most natural thing in the world,” said Deb Howes, director of digital learning at MOMA. “It’s impossible to reach all the teachers who need and want our information, so when Coursera said they had this idea, we said absolutely, great, because we have so much to share with teachers.”
The MOMA course is called the “Art of Inquiry” and uses art as a lens to help teachers learn how to instruct students to describe the world around them, infer information from primary sources, and foster conversations based on inquiry. “How do you train your students to look more deeply and make connections between what they’re seeing and experiencing” — that’s the question the course will try to answer. It’s a four-week course aimed at teachers of grades four to 12.
[RELATED READING: Five Big Changes to the Future of Teacher Education]
Howes said the museum has been offering professional development for teachers on a more limited scale for many years and working with Coursera will give them a much bigger platform to share what museum trainers have learned along the way.
“It’s an experiment with new ways to provide equally compelling experiences for teachers,” said Bronwyn Bevan, the associate director of programs at the Exploratorium, another institution offering courses. The Exploratorium has a long history of training teachers in hands-on science learning. The museum will offer courses on how to bring tinkering to elementary and middle school learning, as well as a course on integrating engineering into middle school. The Exploratorium’s in-person teacher training courses reach about 500 teachers a year and are very hands on. Bevan says the museum is excited to find ways to offer the unique Exploratorium experience virtually.
Coursera has been offering advice to the participating partners on how to organize and shape a class meant for tens of thousands of students. “Teaching a MOOC you have to be far more organized than you do in a regular class because students can’t interact with you, the faculty, directly,” Ng said. “That demands a greater level of clarity in anything you say as compared to an on-campus class.” He also emphasized short, dynamic video clips and frequent interactive quizzes to keep learners engaged.
But can a MOOC-like professional development course offer the same benefits as in-person training? Norton Grubb, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley said the most common and cheapest form of professional development districts currently offer is a one-size-fits-all lecture provided by an outside consultant on a topic that teachers can’t control.
“What works best are groups of teachers within a school working with one another on a particular problem,” said Grubb. “The important part is the interaction among the teachers which is something that’s very hard to replicate on a MOOC or any kind of online program.” Many of the issues teachers face in the classroom are site specific and can best be solved over a longer period of time with a dedicated effort by a group of peers, he said. Grubb doesn’t think the one-size-fits-all approach is good, and he’s wary of the MOOC approach until it has been proven to work.
[RELATED READING: Is Peer Input as Important as Content for Online Learning?]
But teachers say they are already learning a lot from peers online through social media; they’re connecting to one another and forming learning communities that spread around the globe. “I think there are some things we can do to spread expertise with this thing called the Internet and well-designed virtual learning communities that could actually break down these barriers that exist between teachers,” said Barnett Berry, founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a non-profit that has been incubating teacher ideas around online professional development for several years.
Berry supports the idea of MOOCs for professional development in theory because he’d like to see teachers be able to choose and direct their own learning. But he thinks success hinges on skilled virtual facilitators who both know the subject matter and how to foster high quality discussion and communication online in order to make it work well. And he doesn’t stop there — he’d like to see a lot of things change including more time for teachers to collaborate within schools, share practices and observe one another.
A lingering question around Coursera’s new efforts will be whether districts accept the new courses as Continuing Education Units, which are used to determine where teachers fall on the pay scale and help them to maintain teaching credentials. Those decisions will be made locally, but will raise questions about how to ensure teachers complete the courses themselves and how they should be counted within existing systems.