What Can K-12 Learn from MOOCs?

Much of the discussion about massive open online courses or MOOCs has focused on higher education and lifelong learning. But what lessons can K-12 learn from them? Calgary-based online educator Verena Roberts explores some of her experiences as a learner in MOOCs and talks about the ways in which she used these to design MOOCs for a K-12 setting. What can K-12 learn from MOOCs, not simply in terms of adopting MOOCs for K-12 online courses but in perhaps rethinking how the Web can shape our learning networks and learning experiences.

Where does learning happen today?

Chances are, one of the first places we turn if we want to learn something new is the Internet. We Google a question. We look for a how-to video on YouTube. We ask our friends on Facebook or on Twitter. For many of us — children and adults — we are developing new skills and new knowledge through our online practices. Yet we still aren’t fully integrating these practices or developing these skills in K-12.

The learning that is occurring outside of classrooms is as credible and important as the learning going on inside them. This “informal” learning — no matter the topic — can help develop digital literacy and promote higher level thinking. It can certainly open up future job opportunities. Increasingly, educators are recognizing the importance of this sort of “anyplace and anytime” learning, as the recently published Connected Learning: an Agenda for Research and Design describes:

To me, the most important aspect of this informal learning might be that we discover what we are passionate about and then we do something about it. But the question remains: how can we as educational leaders — in formal settings — promote these similar personal learning pathways for our teachers and our students?

Learning through MOOCs

I had to relearn how to learn.

My own passion for integrating formal and informal learning was ignited with the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. I was lucky enough to start my MOOC experiences in the connectivist #CHANGE11 course run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier. My first open learning experience promoted flexibility and change through online supportive communities, self-directed learning, web literacy, and open networks of learning. The course supported the curation of resources and the curation of learner created content.

The hardest part about joining the MOOC was that my previous learning experiences had been mostly lecture-based and content-focused. The traditional learning experience. As such, I did not know how to learn in this new online environment. I had to relearn how to learn.

On a practical level, in order to keep up-to-date with what was “happening” in the course, I had to join twitter and follow a hashtag; I had to create a blog and write my reflections there, tweeting out a link to these with the course hashtag. Essentially, I had to learn about learning online by doing. I could ask my facilitators for help, of course, but they might not answer because as volunteers, they might not have the time. I quickly learned that I had to connect with like-minded learners; I had to read their own posts and tweets, make my own connections in order to scaffold my own learning.

From my first MOOC experience, I recognized there were new ways to learn. I also realized there were new ways to design online learning environments. And the MOOC experience helped me notice the learning that was already happening in my own home.

But again, the question remained: I wondered if there was a way to integrate all this — the learning in our daily lives and this open learning online — into the ways in which we teach and learn at school?

What if I just create my own open course…?

What if there was an open online environment where students, teachers, educators, and parents could learn together?

What if there was an open online environment where students, teachers, educators, and parents could learn together?

#DigiFoot12 was my first attempt to create a K-12 open online course, one that was focused on digital citizenship. I took a risk to undertake this sort of course — open and online — in a K-12 environment, but it was made possible in no small part because of the other educators online who supported my learning and my ideas. The risks of being online were balanced by the community and networked I’d built there. Indeed, despite a lot of the uneasiness that K12 has about open education and about online education, I learned that it was also possible to build supportive networks online for K12 students and teachers.

After my first open online teaching experience, #Digifoot12, I participated in another MOOC for educators: #MOOCMOOC. This MOOC was a “meta MOOC” of sorts, asking what a MOOC was and could be. There I learned about the various shapes that online collaboration could take and about the importance of pedagogy over content. The timing (just one week in length) of #MOOCMOOC intrigued me as well, as I was used to semester-long online courses.

After spending some time examining what MOOCs had to offer from a learning design perspective, I created a list of factors that would describe the best possible open learning situations in K12.

Open Access
Open Platforms
Transparent Communication
Credit to Sources
Timely Feedback Loop
Synchronous – Collaborative
Timing – Short (2 weeks)
Emphasis on learning for All
Interdisciplinary- Intergenerational- International

A MOOC for high school students

With these factors in mind, I developed a MOOC for high school students called Beyond Facebook12. When I asked high school students what they wanted to learn about social media and technology, they answered that they wanted to create blogs and learn about any social media other than Facebook. Over three days, students met online, created blogs together, and tracked the blog interactions. (The students were offered course credit.)

Security, safety, and scaffolding is important for open learning, particularly with K12 students. As such, I promote an “open continuum,” which helps guide students from primary grades (see: Kathy Cassidy) through grade 12 (see: Don Wettrick) in authentic open learning experiences. This continuum promotes digital identity and what I think is so key in our current online world: the fact that we are never “anonymous” and always accountable for our online learning.

Throughout the year I also developed a MOOC for Educators called Creating an Open Classroom,  conspired with others in #ETMOOC and encouraged students to create their own MOOC called #StudentHackED where students taught each other about video creation, and then created videos about “what they would like to teach the world.”

These courses were based on the following model:

The possibilities for open online learning in K12…

A key lesson: MOOCs in K12 do not have to look any one way.

A key lesson: MOOCs in K12 do not have to look any one way. They don’t have to echo the sorts of practices of the classroom. They can be shorter in duration. They can be more flexible in content and structure. The “open” in MOOCs isn’t simply about openly-licensed content or about open enrollment. In many ways, “open” is simply an attitude that comes from blending informal and formal in an experimental online setting.

Some other pointers:

1. Encourage Open Educational Resources. Promote sharing resources or collaboratively creating resources. Consider using open digital resources in order to save money before turning to textbooks. Promote student content over teacher or publisher content.

2.  Support Flexible Learning Design. Rethink how to design online courses based on short, authentic collaborative learning projects. Consider how online modules could support all students within a district, not just traditional online learners before the design process begins. Learn about backwards learning design and project based learning.  Encourage teams of teachers — on- and offline teachers from various discplines — to work together to develop digital resources. Connected Learning and DMLHub offer some great suggestions.

3. Consider Networked Learning Opportunities. Create opportunities for face-to-face and online students to work together in courses synchronously.  #HSOLead13 is one example, a blended Leadership course offered to two Alberta school districts and two US high schools. Working together these groups were able to support a sustainable networked online learning model, ensuring there were enough people participating to support one another.

4. Create Intergenerational and Interdisciplinary Networked Opportunities. #Gamifi-ED involved a team of game-makers who are building an inquiry based project that combines university grad students, grade 9 students, Minecraft, and open learning. This project promoted collaboration in online environments by examining and evaluating “serious games.” Combining learners of different generations provided authentic audiences for all learners and led to increased student engagement, in part because it recognized the students’ passions and skills. There are many opportunities to open learning projects that welcome learners of all ages — from K-12, universities, local communities, and so on.

5. Explore Cultural Relevancy and Create Authentic Learning Opportunities. Working with indigenous communities focused on community and place based learning in online environments, has encouraged me to remember the concept of “cultural border crossings.” To support all learners, we must create authentic experiences that help students recognize different cultures, find commonality, and learn across diversity. Many online courses do not recognize differences in cultural beliefs and practices around learning. For an example of how to better do this, check out the Sister School Exchange in Alaska. The time spent communicating and developing relationships to understand where we are each coming from as learners is necessary, particularly if we are learning on the World Wide Web.

6.  Be Social. One of the major criticisms of massive online courses is the lack of interaction and socialization. But there are ways to design learning opportunities that promote collaboration and interaction. See for example TeachersTeachingTeachers and its notion of “Genius Hour”.

7. Open Up Your Assessments. When you learn in the open, you are encouraged to create your own learning journeys. That can make it extremely difficult to measure, as the experiences are deeply personalized and unique. As such, promoting competencies (over standardized assessment) as means of measuring knowledge, skills, behaviours, and attitudes could be considered. Open learning encourages the investigation of Learning Pathways, encouraging students to integrate their formal and informal learning with tools like Storify. Similarly, participating in the Open Badge Alliance and examining Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map can encourage alternative and authentic assessment opportunities.

8. Open Up Leadership. Don’t wait for others. Take the lead. Organize a Twitter chat. Create a Google Hangout. Some great examples of open leadership include EdGamer, Ben Wikoff’s Blendtastic Bombastic Hangouts, Ontario’s OOSE,and Ian O’Byrne’s WalkMyWorld project. As educational leaders, we must be transparent in how we learn and encourage others to experience open learning with us. Leaders must integrate social media into our daily learning.

9. Collaborate Outside of Formal Institutions. To return to my first point: learning does not just take place within the school walls. Community organizations and non-profit associations can offer key and influential opportunities for students — opportunities to do real, meaningful work.

10. You Decide…

Open learning is an attitude. Examples of open learning can be watching your child learn through YouTube or inviting a class to Skype with yours about what they see outside their window.  There is no one way to be “open.” Open learning is about being flexible about new opportunities and discovering what works best for you and your students. No one can tell you how to be open; you have to figure it out for yourself. What K12 can learn from MOOCs isn’t simply that a large number of people can move through courses simultaneously. Rather, the lessons involve building and supporting online learning networks.


Fasimpaur, Karen. (n.d.) Open Educational Resources: Share, Remix, Learn. Retrieved from http://www.livebinders.com/play/play/117659

Roberts, Verena. (2012) The Open Classroom Model. http://www.openclassroomonline.com/the-open-classroom-model/

Roberts, Verena (2013)  Moocifying K12: Relationships, Collaboration, Risk-Taking. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/moocifying-k-12-relationships-collaboration-risk-taking/

Barbour, Michael (Ed) Roberts, V.  (2013) Open Learning and MOOCs in Canadian K12 Online and Blended Learning Environments. State of the Nation, K12 Online Learning in Canada. http://www.openschool.bc.ca/pdfs/state_of_nation-2013.pdf

Wiley, David. (2009) Defining “Open.” Retrieved from: http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1123

Image credits: Tim Green, Connected Learning

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