MOOCs for K-12: Maybe Not-So-Massive


As a former high school science teacher, I can appreciate some of the potential benefits of transplanting massive open online courses (MOOCs) from the University world into the K-12 environment. May (2013) cautioned that MOOCs are still relatively new innovations that need to have many kinks worked out, but the popularity of massive online courses indicates that, in one form or another, they probably are here to stay at the college level.

A common frustration in many traditional public high schools is that some advanced and/or elective courses can attract a passionate following among a frustratingly small number of students. Throughout my career, for example, I have always been ready, willing, and able to teach my terrific AP Chemistry course, which I regularly advertise to anyone who will listen. Despite my best efforts, however, AP Chemistry is really, really hard. In many years, I’ve only managed to recruit five or ten passionate chemistry-loving students to sign up. I know advanced elective teachers in other subject areas who share similar enrollment challenges. I suspect that many, if not most, college-prep juniors and seniors miss out on the opportunity to take at least one AP course each year due to a lack of demand among their peers. A carefully designed system of MOOCs might help alleviate this problem. Given the right resources and enough time, for example, I might move my AP Chemistry curriculum into an MOOC format and teach it simultaneously to a mixture of live students in my classroom and remote students who log on from other places. Just five years ago, such a solution might have proved impractical or impossibly expensive, but now that many schools are implementing 1:1 wireless internet programs, such a system could probably be launched with just a modest investment of time and equipment.

Of course, MOOCs are far from perfect at the University level, so one must wonder whether they would work out in high schools. Locke (2013) wrote, for example, that MOOCs are plagued with both high dropout rates and rampant cheating (para. 4). In case you haven’t noticed, high schools also have significant problems in these areas. Also, as Stark and Lewin (2013) pointed out, MOOCs are typically free and not-for-credit, which I fear contributes to a mentality of high innovation and loosened expectations. Public schools must have the highest curriculum and instruction standards because what we do is so important. Most of all, any online learning program designed for children must demonstrate that it can mitigate the loss of face-to-face social interactions between students and teachers that is essential to learning. So in spite of their potential, I’m afraid MOOCs won’t pass muster for our children unless a laser-sharp focus on learning can be maintained.

One of my biggest concerns with MOOCs is in the area of assessment. I’m not only concerned about student cheating, but also with a concern described by Locke (2013): the difficulty online students have being able to ask their teachers questions. Most importantly, I’m not sure a MOOC teacher would be able to use formative assessment results to modify and improve instruction. Suppose I enrolled a few hundred students in my MOOC-ized AP Chemistry course, for example. Would I be able to meet the goal of employing a quick check for understanding every five minutes or so? Would I be able to adjust my lesson delivery in real-time? Those hundreds of students would most likely be viewing online video recordings of my lessons at different times, so even if I did embed frequent interactive checks for understanding, I would be unlikely to review the results of such checks until days or weeks had passed–if at all.

In spite of the many concerns I have with MOOCs, I don’t think problems like these are insurmountable. Especially as technology and accessibility continue to improve, MOOCs might soon find a niche in K-12 education. I keep thinking about those little groups of five to ten disappointed chemistry students that haven’t been able to take my AP Chemistry class over many of the past 20 years. I’ll bet that thousands of high schools across America have similar small groups of students who might have taken an online advanced elective course. While far from perfect, MOOC versions of these courses would certainly be better than nothing!


Locke, M. (2013). MOOC: Will these four letters change K-12? Retrieved from

May, G. S. (2013, September 10). The great MOOC experiment. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Stark, S., & Lewin, T. (2013, January 8). Welcome to the brave new world of MOOCs (massive open online courses) [Video file]. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Note: I created the animated GIF on this post using Google Drawing and Screen To Gif for Windows. Original image source:


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