Saving Schools—Launching My MOOC on HarvardX

By 08/04/2014

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“Put your money where your mouth is.”

The shibboleth has haunted me since 2010 when I concluded my book Saving Schools with an endorsement of online learning. Using new technologies, students could choose among dozens of options, I said. One great lecturer could teach thousands, even millions, I imagined. Outside experts could view the content, identify weaknesses, propose solutions, I argued.  Continuous improvement would replace the stagnation of the past 50 years of American education, I hoped.

But did I really mean it? If I meant it, why was I still standing in front of a classroom of 50 students, using the same old standard lecture format I employed as an assistant professor over 40 years ago?

That issue could no longer be dodged when Harvard announced it would help faculty members produce a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), if they offered a viable proposal.  Did I dare submit one?  Or was I unwilling to practice what I preached?

So I have taken the plunge.  On September 8, “Saving Schools” launches.  Four (free!) mini- courses on “History, Politics and Policy in U. S. Education” will be offered sequentially, with all mini-courses available by the spring of 2015. The courses are offered by HarvardX, on the edX platform. If you want to pay and get credit, the course is also being offered online through the Harvard Extension School, which will provide full services with discussion groups led by those with whom I am working closely.

The first mini-course reviews the history and politics of American education, asking the question: “Why did a nation that had the finest education system in the world slip to the industrial world average?”  Exploring that question, we identify the personalities and historical forces—the progressives, racial desegregation, legalization and collective bargaining—that shaped and re-shaped U.S. school politics and policy.  We also take a careful look at some of their unanticipated consequences.

The next three mini-courses explore contemporary proposals to save our schools–via new teacher policies, accountability measures and school choice.  While we don’t find silver bullets, we offer a dispassionate look at the pluses and minuses of many proposed reforms—including, in the final lecture, digital learning.

With extra resources provided by a foundation, we have been able to enhance the MOOC in a number of ways.  We visit the places where new ideas and practices were spawned. We discuss the issues with experts and practitioners.  Students pose questions which I try to answer.  I shall also respond to your questions through this column as the mini-courses unfold.

It’s been a fun project. I hope that you will join in embarking on this experiment in teaching and learning. For further information, view our trailer  and register to participate.

-Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Scott Petri says:

    As a MOOC instructor and ed tech enthusiast I have become infatuated with online learning. The potential of reaching a huge audience and realizing significant cost savings seem to good to be true, because they are. The Public Policy Institute of California published Online Learning and Student Outcomes in California’s Community Colleges. Johnson & Mejia (2014) examined longitudinal data from 750,000 enrollments from all 112 CACCs and found that online course success rates are lower than traditional courses. While 70.6 percent of traditional students passed their courses, only 60.4 percent of online students passed. This 10-point gap has remained unchanged over the past ten years. Further online learning increased racial achievement gaps. In every college and in every subject area, students are less likely to succeed in online courses than in traditional courses. Early data from MOOCs show that the students most likely to complete course requirements already have college degrees and full time employment (Hill, 2014). If the online educational market proves to be a new version of supply-side economics, where only the educational rich get richer, is it morally acceptable to invest additional public education monies into this sector?

  • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

    (Scott Petri): “As a MOOC instructor and ed tech enthusiast I have become infatuated with online learning.
    Since criticism of MOOCs follows the above sentence, Scott Petri has an unusual understanding of “infatuated”. Furthermore, that criticism hardly presents a decisive case. Consider:…
    1. “ (O)nline course success rates are lower than traditional courses. ” So are per unit costs lower. Until the analysis includes the total of all per-student costs, it ignores a large consideration.
    2. “(O)nline learning increased racial achievement gaps.” Why should this matter any more than a racial difference in per capita pork consumption, adjusted for income? If the difference is a matter of free choice (to take the course online or not), how does the addition of another path to learning or certification harm anyone?
    3. “If the online educational market proves to be a new version of supply-side economics, where only the educational rich get richer, is it morally acceptable to invest additional public education monies into this sector?” “Supply-side” as opposed to what? Across the board, market-oriented political regimes outperform command economies. There is a lesson here for the education industry. In abstract, the education industry is a highly unlikely candidate for State (government, generally) operation. Furthermore, abundant evidence supports the following generalization: political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents. The “achievement gap” is an artifact of compulsory attendance laws, minimum wage laws, and child labor laws, which compel all children to play a game devised by upper-class academics who imagine that the university professor is the highest form of life on Earth.

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