Exploring MOOCs for K-12 teachers and learners

Assorted Electronics on table

Today’s post features one of MVLRI’s past Fellows, Dr. Rick Ferdig of Kent State, and his colleague, Dr. Kristy Pytash, also of Kent State. They share their work on MOOCs for K-12 Learners.


Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have become such a buzzword that it almost seems cliché to write yet more prose about them. That notwithstanding, the goal of this post is three-fold. The first is to raise awareness of the concept in the K-12 domain. MOOC headlines have flooded newspapers, blogs, journals and opinion columns throughout the world. These headlines have ranged from describing MOOCs as the greatest educational innovation in the 21st century to critiquing them for being over-promoted and over-hyped tools that will fail in the long-run. However, most of these headlines have focused on higher education. Proponents have theorized about the impact on lowering college tuition; opponents have critiqued administrators for not involving faculty.

Although some work has been published on MOOCs and K-12 (e.g., Canessa & Pisani, 2013; Ferdig, 2013), many K-12 educators and administrators at worst have not heard of the term; at best, they might be able to globally describe it but have not seen one or participated in the experience. This is problematic for many reasons; least of which is because innovative K-12 educators are already benefitting from the practical and theoretical benefits of MOOCs.

If the first goal is to raise awareness in the K-12 domain, the second goal is to briefly highlight the work being done in this area. This includes MOOCs that are directed at K-12 teachers and students as well as the research available. The final goal is to describe some of the learnings from a MOOC we led on “K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century.”

MOOCs and K-12

Previous posts in this blog have introduced massive open online courses; for a full introduction to MOOCs, Dave Cormier has created an excellent video.

We have also written on this extensively in a report titled: “What massive open online courses have to offer K-12 teachers and students.”

As such, we will not go into great detail describing MOOCs. There is one important detail of background information that sets the stage for this conversation and also shows our bias as MOOC creators. Anyone delving into this area will see a number of terms that seem to all describe massive open online courses. They include MOOC, xMOOC, cMOOC, DOCC (Distributed Open Online Courses), HOOC (High School Open Online Course), MIIC (Massively Intensive Innovative Courses), etc. These varying naming conventions do have some significance — they point to various options in the course. It is worth examining two of the most popular terms: xMOOC and cMOOC.

Siemens (2012) and others originally conceived of MOOCs as drawing on connectivist learning principles (Ito et al., 2013). Someone coming into a learning experience would draw on 21st-century digital tools (e.g., social media) to have a shared learning journey. Siemens describes this cMOOC as one built upon: “creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning” (n.p.). Conversely, an xMOOC (like those courses offered by Coursera) focuses on knowledge dissemination. “Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication” (n.p.).

It is important that K-12 educators understand that all MOOCs are not created the same. There will be vastly different experiences if one is examining research in the area, attempting to enroll in a MOOC, or trying to draw on the practical and conceptual benefits of MOOCs. There are definitely benefits and constraints to every type of MOOC; this is not to attempt to promote one over the other. However, a teacher, student or administrator needs to understand that one course might expect them to participate in a shared learning experience; a second might be more traditional with lectures, tests and quizzes. The terms created for these different types of MOOCs are helpful, but learners should also be warned not to take them at face-value and to further explore the processes and beliefs they espouse.

What’s available?

Although many of the MOOCs have been aimed at the post-secondary level, they have been utilized at the K-12 level. We cannot list every such MOOC, but there are sites that collect such information. We would like to focus on three examples. The first comes from our friend and colleague Wendy Drexler (formerly at Brown University, now at ISTE). Wendy and her colleagues created a course for K-12 students called “Exploring Engineering” (no longer available online). The course provides a way for pre-collegiate students to learn both about engineering and about studying engineering with faculty at Brown.

A second course that has received a lot of attention is a computer science course called AmplifyMOOC (no longer available online). It is self-billed as the first AP computer science MOOC for K-12 students with in-person support. The two-semester course includes ifs, loops, strings, methods, user-defined classes, and searching and sorting. It highlights some of the potential of having an online course supported by local personnel.

The final example is a course we led that was supported by Michigan Virtual and Kent State University. The course was titled “K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century” (no longer available online). What made the course unique was the intended audience. The goal of the course was to explore teaching in a digital age, but it had attempted to enroll in-service teachers, preservice teachers and high school students interested in teaching as a profession.

Again, this list is not meant to be exhaustive. In addition to these courses, there are a number of anecdotal stories of K-12 teachers using post-secondary MOOC content in their K-12 courses or in their K-12 professional development (because it’s open and freely accessible). However, the point here is to demonstrate that K-12 educators and administrators should not ignore MOOCs just because most of the rhetoric has been at the post-secondary level.

What do we know?

There are a number of direct practical benefits for K-12 educators interested in using MOOCs. For instance, MOOC content can be used as supplemental learning opportunities for students, it can provide access to diverse audiences, they can act as professional development for teachers (particularly in districts that are low on funds or access to content) and they can increase teacher community. There are also a number of conceptual gains. This refers to how teaching and learning might be changed from understanding the concept of MOOCs even if they’re not directly implemented. Those conceptual gains include applying connected learning to K-12, considering digital badges for assessment, asking teachers to think more deeply about open content and having students re-conceptualize themselves as contributors to a networked learning society. (For a full description of all these potential gains, see Ferdig, 2013.)

Unfortunately, the research is very limited to support actual claims about MOOC outcomes. Most of the research that does exist focuses on post-secondary education. Qualtrics and Instructure found many participants in MOOCs were highly educated and often sought credit for participation in MOOCs (Qualtrics, 2013). A study at San Jose State provided evidence that students who completed MOOCs were those who were highly motivated; many of the students talked about a lack of interactivity (SJSU, 2013). A study at MIT did provide hopeful news that peer interaction can often counter this lack of interactivity (Breslow et al., 2013). Finally, a recent review of the literature demonstrated that there was a high dropout in MOOCs; they also noted that most of the studies focused on the learner and not the instructor or facilitator (Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams, 2013).

One of the few published studies on MOOCs in high schools actually referred to them as HOOCs (high school open online courses). Canessa and Pisani (2013) studied a video-based learning environment and found that students, teachers and parents were all engaged through this medium. What was interesting about their particular study is that it provided support for the notion of MOOCs in a blended or supportive environment rather than as simply a stand-alone tool.

More work obviously needs to be done in this area. As researchers move toward this goal, we return to the fact that not all MOOCs are created or implemented the same. As such, future research should ask the right kinds of questions about MOOCs by exploring under what conditions these MOOCs were created, facilitated and assessed.

What have we learned?

Our first learning in creating and implementing the course revolved around data collection and analyses in order to be able to say something useful about MOOCs. We believe that as researchers and educators continue to explore MOOCs for K-12 learning, a critical conversation needs to occur around the ideas of data collection and analysis. Researchers must ask questions such as, what data should be collected, how will data collection be managed, and how will data be analyzed to provide a deeper understanding of the course and implications for the field. For instance, a cMOOC promotes the concept that learning can and should occur everywhere. While the facilitators’ initial content being presented might be contained in one platform, the participants’ learning and content they produce spread to a variety of outlets, including blogs, social media accounts (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) and other community forums and websites. How does one truly capture everything that represents participants’ learning? Are certain data points more important than others? These are complex answers that ultimately determine how researchers are able to analyze the effectiveness of MOOCs and why people might participant in MOOCs.

A second learning is more of a confirmation that this MOOC offered opportunities that either did not exist elsewhere or were very difficult to achieve through other means. In-service teachers, preservice teachers and high school students might not normally discuss ways to improve teaching. In this MOOC, our participants had opportunities to discuss principles of teaching, instructional approaches and learning in classrooms. An example of the potential for this collaboration came from week one of the course. A high school student created a blog and then posted a lengthy post about why teachers ought to use blogs in learning. She received feedback from both in-service and preservice teachers. In this way, MOOCs provide a way to give people feedback beyond just “you did the assignment correctly.” Conversations can move to exploring how ideas get put into practice. It also reinforces the idea of each participant as both learner and expert.

A final learning relates to the fact that many K-12 teachers, administrators and students still do not understand connected learning or social networking. We created multiple opportunities to tell participants that there was nothing mandatory in the MOOC. We envisioned our MOOC as a connected experience where people could come to the table and discuss or they could learn by lurking. They could log in 1000 times or one time. Participants did have the opportunity to earn professional development credit if they wished, but it was merely an option. Although we explained this multiple times, we received daily emails from participants either apologizing for not engaging more or asking to withdraw because they didn’t have the time to finish the work. Our previous ways of being educated are so deeply ingrained that it can be a struggle for some to participate in this open forum, even when given permission to do so in alternative ways — or when the expectations for what it means to be part of a learning community have changed. This provided us with another teachable moment to tell them we liked to keep them connected even if they didn’t complete the course as others would.


It is OK to read about MOOCs, but it is very important to actually have multiple MOOC experiences. If you are new to MOOCs, we encourage you to try out a MOOC offered by Coursera, edX, Udacity or some other group.

Author Bios

Richard E. Ferdig is the Summit Professor of Learning Technologies and Professor of Instructional Technology at Kent State University. He works within the Research Center for Educational Technology and also the School of Lifespan Development and Educational Sciences. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Michigan State University. He has served as researcher and instructor at Michigan State University, the University of Florida, the Wyzsza Szkola Pedagogiczna (Krakow, Poland), and the Università Degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia (Italy). At Kent State University, his research, teaching and service focus on combining cutting-edge technologies with a current pedagogic theory to create innovative learning environments. His research interests include online education, educational games and simulations, the role of faith in technology and what he labels a deeper psychology of technology. In addition to publishing and presenting nationally and internationally, Ferdig has also been funded to study the impact of emerging technologies such as K-12 Virtual Schools. Rick is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, the Associate Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, and currently, serves as a Consulting Editor for the Development Editorial Board of Educational Technology Research and Development and on the Review Panel of the British Journal of Educational Technology.

Kristine E. Pytash is an assistant professor in Teaching, Learning and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University’s College of Education, Health and Human Services, where she co-directs the secondary Integrated Language Arts teacher preparation program. She was a former high school English teacher. Her research focuses on disciplinary writing, writing instruction in juvenile detention facilities and the literacy practices of youth in alternative schools and juvenile detention facilities. Her recent work has appeared in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, English Journal, Voices from the Middle, and Middle School Journal.


Breslow, L. B., Pritchard, D. E., DeBoer, J., Stump, G. S., Ho, A. D., & Seaton, D. T. (2013). Studying learning in the worldwide classroom: Research into edX’s first MOOC. Research & Practice in Assessment, 8, 13–25.

Canessa, E. & Pisani, A. (2013). High school open on-line courses (HOOC): A case study from Italy. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 16(1), 131-140.

Ferdig, R. E. (2013). What massive open online courses have to offer K–12 teachers and students. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute. Retrieved from: https://michiganvirtual.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/mooc_report.pdf.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., &Watkins, C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Digital Media and Learning

Research Hub. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from https://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf.

Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A., & Williams, S. A. (2013). MOOCs: A systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 14(3), 202–227.

Qualtrics (2013). Qualtrics and Instructure partner reveal top motivations for MOOC students.

Siemens, G. (2012). MOOCs are really a platform. Retrieved October 11, 2013, from http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2012/07/25/moocs-are-really-a-platform/.

SJSU (2013). Collins research page.

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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