Yesterday was the fourth day of a long weekend for my students, but a professional development day for us teachers. It was surprisingly productive. As a department we constructed a list of every unit in every math course in grades 6–12 (except for AP courses, which have prescribed curricula) in order to get an overview of the big picture. We also examined our September pretests in small groups and looked at student work in each group. Both of those activities were useful to us as math teachers.
The surprise came in the day’s opening K–12 activity, a presentation by Anant Agarwal about edX. As a non-profit founded by Harvard and MIT — and now expanded to Berkeley, University of Texas, and other distinguished universities — edX provides online college-level courses in a very wide variety of subjects. Follow the link to take a look at what I mean by this: the range of course offerings is truly exciting. But…
We are now looking into its possibility use in high school. Like many (most?) of my colleagues, I started out with profound doubts. My skepticism was based on certain fears that have greatly diminished now as a result of Agarwal’s talk. I suppose that’s partly because he’s an amazing, dynamic speaker — but it’s mostly because of the ideas he stressed in his presentation. Our two biggest fears were that the edX model suggests that lectures are the best way to learn, and that teachers would be replaced by screens since an online lecture can be given to 100,000 students just as easily as it can be given to 20 students. Clearly Agarwal was prepared for these issues, as he stressed several important ideas, principally that of a blended classroom, not a flipped classroom. Students could watch an online lecture or demonstration, being able to pause it or rewind it as often as necessary — something that’s hard to do in a real-time lecture; do some exercises; then come into the regular classroom for further explanations, mini-lectures, question-answering, and help by the regular teacher. Students could do their “homework” in that classroom, where the teacher is present to provide any needed assistance, which is usually not the case for homework. Another virtue is that in many cases students can go at their pace, though that seems somewhat contradictory to the idea that the classroom teacher might give follow-up mini-lectures when they seem to be necessary.
One of the concerns raised by a teacher in the audience was that most of us believe in a certain amount of cooperative learning (some more than others), and how could that take place if each individual student is sitting at home watching a lecture on her screen? Agarwal reminded us that today’s students are very comfortable with online communications through social media (for better or for worse) and that an online course can build in electronic cooperative learning. I will reserve judgment until I see it happen, but I am keeping an open mind. Clearly it’s worth trying.
And in the “worth trying” department, the presentation ended with an important announcement. Here is the official version from the office of Dr. Cheryl Maloney, our Superintendent of Schools:
Superintendent Maloney is very pleased to announce an exciting collaboration between the Weston Public Schools and edX, an online platform governed by MIT and Harvard. Currently edX hosts over 127 interactive undergraduate and graduate courses, also known as MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).
A team of Weston High School teachers is developing curricula for “on ramp” courses, which will also be hosted on the edX platform. These are one to two week on line courses designed to prepare students for enrollment in a rigorous academic course, such as AP Calculus or Biology. They will be up and running for students to pilot in August prior to their enrollment in these classes.
During a professional development day held on Tuesday, January 21st, Dr. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, spoke to the entire faculty of the Weston Public Schools about edX, MOOCs, research and this collaboration, which he noted is the first of its kind.
I am optimistic — though cautiously so — about this collaboration. Dr. Maloney is right that this is exciting. There are still a great many unanswered questions, but there’s clearly a big upside and very little downside to trying it.