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.
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.