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Five Takeaways from Class Central SXSWedu panel on MOOCs and Teacher PD

Five top takeaways from our lively and thought-provoking panel at SXSWedu on whether MOOCs play a role in teacher professional development.

Class Central moderated a panel at the 2016 SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas. The topic for our March 10 panel was “MOOCs & Teacher PD: Mindless Snack or Hearty Fare? Of course we picked a provocative title, but the focus was on how MOOCs can be used for teachers’ professional development. We assembled panelists from organizations that provide MOOCs which are used for teacher professional development. The panelists were:

  • Glenn Kleiman, Executive Director of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, which offers MOOC-Eds for teachers;
  • Julia Stiglitz, Director of Business Development and International at Coursera;
  • Nina Huntemann, Director of Academics and Research at edX; and
  • Charlie Chung, Editor at Class Central (moderator).

It was a unique opportunity to bring representatives from these organizations together, and the discussion was very informative. Each panelist described their efforts to help train teachers and discussed their understanding of the needs and challenges in this area. Let’s look at Class Central’s five key takeaways from the discussion.

Clip from Class Central’s SXSWedu Panel

 1. We don’t know to what extent MOOCs are being used for PD by teachers

There are a wide variety of MOOCs available that can be useful for teachers. There are some MOOCs with topics that are very specifically for teachers, such as MOOCs on classroom management. However, there are many teachers who are looking to brush up on a subject, or who want to see alternative ways of teaching a subject, so a large number of MOOCs could be used for that purpose.

Though this is difficult to measure, there is some data that is suggestive. According to a MITx survey of 33,000 learners across eleven MOOCs, they found that 8.7% of respondents were current teachers, and that 5.9% were teachers who taught the topic of the MOOC that they were taking! We can’t extrapolate the results of this small sample too widely, but it does appear to indicate significant usage by teachers. The panelists also acknowledged the fact that we have little data in this area. In some sense, this is understandable for Coursera and edX, the largest MOOC providers, because their priority is to make MOOCs as easily accessible as possible — thus, very little information is asked of learners who sign up for their MOOCs. As a result, we are left with the situation that we know very little about how many teachers are taking MOOCs and for what purpose.

 2. MOOCs can provide high-quality PD experiences for teachers

We do have some indication that MOOCs are of value to teachers. Stiglitz indicated that on the Coursera platform, MOOCs focused on teacher education have a higher-than-average satisfaction rating. She specifically pointed to the popular teacher training courses from the Relay Graduate School of Management, and to Barbara Oakley’s Learning How to Learn (which has a large following among teachers), all of which receive high praise.

Prof. Kleiman talked about the community-building among teachers that the MOOC-Eds facilitated. Although he and the other MOOC-Ed instructors have decades of teacher training experience and expertise, they found that the most significant learning occurred when teachers were working with each other, sharing their challenges and issues, and providing feedback to their peers. Huntemann described how several edX MOOCs cover how the subject matter should be taught, and pointed to the ambitious set of DavidsonX MOOCs, which tackle how to teach challenging concepts in various subjects.

 3. It is challenging to spread awareness about the availability of free resources to help teachers

Both Coursera and edX discussed their participation in the U.S. White House ConnectED initiative, which makes teacher training MOOC certificates available to teachers free of charge. Coursera offers 50 courses in this program (details here), which school district superintendents need to sign up for, and edX has more than a dozen AP and teacher PD courses in this program (details here). Both panelists, however, lamented the fact that very few teachers and school districts have taken advantage of these programs. This might be due to a lack of national promotion for these initiatives, bureaucratic districts, or simply a noisy online environment filled with free and distracting tools (of various quality) for teachers. Most in the room seemed to agree that it was unfortunate that awareness of these free offerings is not higher, especially given takeaway #2 above.

 4. The credit issue can be a stumbling block to greater utilization of MOOCs

When discussing barriers to even greater utilization of MOOCs, Coursera’s Stiglitz described conversations that Coursera has had with districts and individual teachers: the process of obtaining continuing education credits for MOOCs is often very difficult to navigate or establish, and is thus a main stumbling block. Teachers do have limited time, as we know, and must prioritize accordingly. EdX’s Huntemann concurred: “Credits are the currency of the land,” she said, and went on to say that they are a major driver of behavior. Neither organization is large enough to engage with administrators at the district level to help drive initiatives — this will need to be done by champions within schools and districts themselves (like Todd Groves, of California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District, who was in the audience).

Prof. Kleiman took a long view and asked his fellow panelists whether teacher PD might best be measured by micro-credentials through a system of badges. This is definitely an interesting area, because new forms of credentialing are being heavily discussed in the MOOC space at present. Stiglitz and Huntemann both felt that this type of change would not take place in the short term, and thus would not provide a way past the immediate credit puzzle. Districts move slowly, so who knows — perhaps next year, after five years of the modern MOOC, schools and districts may start to spread more recognition of what MOOCs can provide for their teachers.

 5. MOOCs can be leveraged in diverse and unique ways by teachers

The most exciting takeaway from this session was the variety of ways that MOOCs are being utilized by teachers. Edx’s Huntemann described how edX has a large range of AP-course level MOOCs, and that teachers use them to blend into their classrooms. EdX was also surprised to learn that many teachers need to teach AP courses that are not in their primary subject specialty, and in those cases such courses provide a solid level of understanding for teachers. Many of Coursera’s MOOCs that are designed by educators based in the U.S. are also utilized around the world, where they are adapted to local needs; as Coursera continues its international expansion, more MOOCs will be created for localized markets.

Prof. Kleimann discussed how, in one of his MOOCs on the digital transformation of schools and districts, they recommend that teachers and administrators from the same school or district go through the MOOC-Ed together and work as a group. The benefit of this is that within the course they can move from learning concepts to actual implementation planning for their districts, and it enables changes to be implemented naturally in the real world after the course.

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