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Helping teens navigate MOOCs

One of the well-known phenomenons of homeschooling is that kids tend to become accelerated in their areas of passion. No longer being held back by the offerings of school—and the low expectations of many educators—even if they aren’t academically advanced in general they often soar ahead in their favorite subjects.

At the end of the day, a MOOC is still just a talking head on a screen. It takes human interaction to facilitate the deepest and most important learning.

For my son, that subject is computer science. His big motivation for homeschooling is having more free time, and what he does with that free time is program, read about programming, and see what other programmers are doing. When he was younger, he read through any computer manual that someone would hand down to him. He blew through every programming class aimed at kids even before we found them, so that every time we found a new option, it no longer suited him. Finally, we enrolled him in some online courses through our local community college, which were bland but got him used to the way classes worked.

This year, we decided to try out MOOCs. In case you don’t know (in which case, I’m concerned about that cave you’re living in!), MOOCs are the latest thing that will change the future of education. Yes, iPads are SO 2012. Now, everyone who can get a pulpit to preach from says that MOOCs are changing the educational landscape, and will eventually make going to a physical university obsolete. (I plan to address the question of whether that particular sky is falling in a future post.)

However, it occurred to me that we have learned a lot about MOOCs this year, and I might be able to give a few pointers to others who are thinking of using them with their homeschoolers.

1) MOOCs are not educational manna from heaven

Not all MOOCs are created the same. We’ve seen a pretty high quality on Coursera, where they are quite rigid about quality control. But they’re not all going to be life-changing for your child, or even at all of interest to them. The first one we signed our son up for stated very clear requirements that our son met, and within the first video blew past those requirements and started to ask for Calculus-level math mastery. Oops. Other pitfalls may be that the professor may present in a dry manner that doesn’t draw teens in, or that the level of work just simply may be too demanding.

2) MOOCs are not a big investment, for better and for worse

So obviously, my son dropped the first class he signed up for. This easy-come, easy-go nature of MOOCs is a blessing, but also a pitfall. Immediately, I realized that if a teenager knows that you can just drop out of anything anytime, with no consequences, that might lead to less than optimal commitment on his part. So we dropped the class, but made sure to talk about why it was the right decision (“clearly, they misstated the math requirements”) and where to go next. Later in the year when our son hit a particularly tough patch in a class he was doing, he pointed out that he could simply drop out of it with no consequences. We had to have another talk about making commitments and sticking with things.

3) There’s a MOOC for every interest, for better and for worse

I was drooling over all the history, philosophy, and art, but I had to remind myself that those are not his areas of passion. Because of reasons #1 and #2, it’s really important to guide kids to choosing classes that they really can stick with and get something from. The educational smorgasbord has its drawbacks just as the cloistered academy has its drawbacks. So we took quite a lot of time thinking carefully, not only about whether he was able to handle the level of a course, but also about whether he was personally committed to the subject matter and would stick with it.

4) Forums are not replacements for in-person interaction

This is a significant difference between a MOOC and an in-person class, or even an online class with a live instructor. When you have tens of thousands of people taking a class, the advantage is that if you have a question, it’s pretty much guaranteed that someone already had that question and someone else already answered it. But while forums are a great way to disseminate information, they aren’t a great way for teens to develop their critical thinking skills. Really, there is no replacement for being in a room (or an online room) with other people who share a passion (or are at least committed to getting through a class) and can talk and argue. Also, access to a good professor, someone who really does know more than you and really can get you to stretch your intellectual boundaries, is a very valuable thing that the MOOC cannot provide. The talking heads are very interesting and erudite, but they can’t chat after class and they can’t recommend a book to read or an idea to pursue. And your fellow students on the forum are spread around the world and have no connection with you. Unlike students in a real-world class, you aren’t going to be able to get the back-and-forth that is so important to academic growth.

5) Be prepared to be a Teaching Assistant

It’s the unusual teen that can bounce into a college-level class and be able to take care of the small but important details: Your teen will likely need you to be there to help pace the work, schedule the assignments, find ways to answer questions not answered in the videos, and navigate the online systems. One of the hardest parts of the courses for my son turned out to be the mechanical aspects: Remembering to get assignments on the calendar so he didn’t find himself in a crunch the day before; remembering to read the fine details of how to submit the assignments in order to get full credit; understanding grading (since he’s homeschooled) and figuring out how the grading reflected how much work he needed to do on the next assignment. His father and I were there to guide him: his father focused on details having to do with the subject matter, and I focused on making sure he got his assignments in on time and paced the lectures so he’d be able to make the next deadline. No matter how good the MOOC, your teen will need you to be there to act as TA.

6) Consider trying to connect with others

I think that the MOOC experience would be greatly enhanced for teens if they had someone else to learn with, not necessarily to watch videos with but to talk to and get feedback from. This summer my son and a friend are going to take a MOOC together, which I’m very excited about. Although my son really learned from the classes he took, I saw that he wasn’t nearly as engaged as he would have been had he someone to talk about it with. I think it will be great for him and his friend to be able to get that social back-and-forth that you get in a real life class. I think the truly optimal experience would be for a local adult to lead teens in “sectionals” along with the classes. I can imagine a future in which MOOCs are used not as the end product, but as the starting point for local teachers. Imagine how great it would be not only to get MIT-level computer science and Harvard-level political science, but also a real-live person to guide you and give you feedback.

Though I’ve heard plenty of talk about how MOOCs are going to kill college as we know it, the way I see them, they’re just a new, useful tool. I think homeschoolers should evaluate how they can use this tool in their homeschools, but don’t expect that you’ll be able to hand off your kid to a computer system to get the job done. Teens still need guidance, especially in the new wild world of the MOOC.

At the end of the day, a MOOC is still just a talking head on a screen. It takes human interaction to facilitate the deepest and most important learning.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

9 Responses

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  1. Patty Freedman says

    I am actually not a fan of MOOC because although it offers content that isn’t accessible to many of us, the teaching methods (lecturer standing in front of a whiteboard for hours) doesn’t work for most people and is exactly what we are trying to move away from. Why would we homeschool our kids only to drop them right back into a “classroom” that is not teaching in an innovative or brain based method? I think that people are jumping onto this fad because it’s because what they know and they accept that this is what “school” should be. I think we can do so much better.

    • Suki says

      Patty, that’s a really good point. That’s one of the things that made the courses my son took this year challenging – he just didn’t want to spend the time watching videos. I wished that they’d had transcripts of the videos for students who learn better by reading, and more interactive features (though they had a few). The problem with trying to make interactive classes is that MOOCs are by their nature not interactive. They are a way to promote the professor’s ideas, but not necessarily the best way to teach skills and offer deep learning opportunities.

  2. Sonny says

    Well, it might be helpful for you to tell us what “MOOC” actually means, because I always thought of mook as a derogatory term. Sorry about the cave I seem to be living in, but there’s really no need to condescend. Have a beautiful day!

    • Suki says

      Sorry it wasn’t clear, Sonny. The word MOOC is hyperlinked to an article about what MOOCs are. Also, there has been tons of press about them, so a web search on “MOOC news” will turn up more information than you’d ever want to read!

  3. Columba Lisa Smith says

    Great insights. My son is approaching 18, and I’m wanting him to develop more independence and motivation with his schoolwork. I was pleased to learn he had signed up for a biology MOOC, and is progressing through it at his own pace. I could step in and give him deadlines, etc., but in our case I’m happier seeing him do it himself. Just another perspective.

    • Suki says

      It’s interesting that your son found one that is self-paced – all the MOOCs I’ve looked into have a schedule of video releases that correspond to quizzes and assignment due dates. Self-paced works great for some kids, but many/most(?) need some parental guidance to get through. Sounds like your son is doing great!

  4. Stephanie in canada says

    Thanks for this, Suki! I found it encouraging that you were helping him with pacing, as that was one thing i’ve been a little impatient with my son about… . But lots to ponder 🙂

    • Suki says

      I think parents have a tendency to forget how much help we got in the good ole days…! High school is set up with a certain amount of scaffolding that kids depend on – it’s definitely too much to ask a 13-year-old to understand how not to cram things in at the last minute. It is nice, however, that as your child matures, you can choose to let him sink or swim in a MOOC, given that you don’t have to admit that he took it on his high school transcript! Great practice for the real thing.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. 10 Uses of MOOCs for High School Students - Etale - Digital Age Learning linked to this post on February 26, 2016

    […] it is not offered by their local high school. At the same time, there is growing use of MOOCs among homeschoolers and unschoolers. Some high school students have also discovered that they can take a MOOC version […]

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