Can MOOCs really, really right-size the classroom?

Class size is an incessant policy issue—something like a leaky faucet. The din of the class-size debate drips in the background while the thunderclaps roar (Common Core! Charters!). Many parents and teachers drone on about class-size reductions; fiscal hawks want class-size increases. Meanwhile, wonks have observed America’s shrinking teacher to pupil ratio, with trivial achievement gains to boot.

Education reformers—including Fordham (see our excellent, brand-new Right-sizing the Classroom study)—have urged commonsense policies that put a school’s best teachers in front of more students. Doing this may boost student achievement—perhaps, as we found in our study, more so in upper-grade levels than elementary. But oftentimes this means the scrapping maximum class size mandates etched into teacher contracts or state law, a difficult task. Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact, articulates this position well, saying, “Ideally, schools would focus on increasing the number of students their best teachers have responsibility for.”

But it is MOOCs (“Massive Open Online Courses”) that have the potential to stretch the class-size debate the furthest. MOOCs could put the nation’s best teachers—not just a school’s best teachers—in front of more students. Presently, these online courses run the gamut, from an advanced high-school/freshman college course to advanced college-level courses. Professors from the nation’s top rated colleges and universities teach the courses. One can select from a smorgasbord of topics: Coursera and edX—the major players in the MOOC market—publicize, for instance, courses in Data Analysis (Johns Hopkins), Jazz Appreciation (University of Texas), and Inspiring Leadership (Case Western). The kicker: Enrollment is free.

The upside? A single, great instructor—one with superior content knowledge and pedagogical skill—can teach literally tens of thousands of students. MOOCs could be a game-changer for high-aptitude, rural high-school students who have slim access to advanced coursework. In 2011-12, for example, a staggering 149 out of 231 rural school districts in Ohio reported that less than ten of their high-school graduates had taken an Advanced Placement exam. It could even shake up secondary education in America’s leafy suburbs. What “white suburban mom” would balk at their child taking a course from a Harvard prof, on school time?

True, MOOCs, as presently constituted, are obviously more applicable to higher education. But there is no reason to think they cannot be applied in a niche sort-of-way in K-12 also—more likely in middle- and high-schools. (I am not aware if MOOC are being used at all in K-12 education; indeed, if you are using a MOOC, I’d be interested to learn how it is working.)

The MOOC bandwagon is running full steam ahead, but like most innovations, there are also limits. Without a doubt, not every grade level or subject will be conducive to a MOOC. Teaching English language arts via MOOC may not be feasible (except perhaps, grammar). Moreover, MOOCs may not work well in elementary grades. I also have strong reservations about full-online educational experiences—and I wouldn’t suggest a 100 percent MOOC education for any child. For one, there’s a ton of learning that occurs through teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions. For two, the completely online schools in Ohio evidently struggle, which hardly engenders confidence in wholesale digital education. Finally, it is unclear how student work is graded or how credit can be earned when students demonstrate mastery.

That being said, for the topics and courses where content knowledge reigns supreme (e.g., trigonometry or introductory economics) and where the “sage on the stage” lecture remains the dominant instructional method, MOOCs can place one of the best instructors in the nation in front of literally thousands of pupils. And, for free! That is revolutionary—and breaks through dripping disputes over class size—at least, potentially, for some grades and subjects.

More By Author

Related Articles