I have long been of the opinion that MOOCs are pretty useless for college students but are good for home-schooled students and high school students who don’t have access to higher-level courses in their local schools. It seems that edX has finally realized that this is an important market with their High School Initiative:
Colleges and universities find that many students could benefit from taking a few extra courses to help close the readiness gap between high school and college. To address this need, edX has launched a high school initiative–an initial collection of 26 new online courses, including Advanced Placement* (AP*) courses and high school level courses in a wide variety of subject areas.
Completion rates will still be low, as a lot of people will sign up on a whim and then not follow through, or will sign up for more than they can handle and be forced to drop some.
AP courses will probably be the most attractive courses, as students can validate their learning with the AP exam, which is widely accepted by colleges as proof of higher-level course work (unlike the “Verified Certificate of Achievement” that edX sells).
The hardest courses to do well on line will be the lab science courses. Simulated labs are no substitute for real-world labs, as no simulation captures all the phenomena of the real world and few come close to developing lab skills.
There are on-line science courses with real lab components. For example, my son took AP chem through ChemAdvantage.com, which had some rather cleverly designed labs that could be done at home with minimal equipment. Despite the cleverness of the lab design, the lab skills practiced were not exactly the same as would have been practiced in a more traditional lab setting. And the lab kit was not cheap, costing as much as a community college chem lab course would have (if my son had been able to get into the over-subscribed chem lab course).
I don’t know whether edX has gotten their AP science courses audited by College Board (if not, they’ll probably be forced to remove the AP designation), but the AP audit requires lab time for the AP science courses, and I don’t know which of many mechanism edX is using to provide the required lab content. Other online AP courses either devise home labs (requiring the purchase of a lab kit) or do weekend or week-long lab intensives in various parts of the country. These lab intensives can be quite good (if done in college labs with real equipment) or ludicrously overpriced time wasters (if done in hotel ballrooms with crummier equipment and less time than the home lab kits).
The edX AP Physics course, created by Boston University, says “The course covers all of the material for the test, supported by videos, simulations, and online labs.” So it seems that they have no real labs in AP Physics, but only simulations. While simulation is a wonderful thing, it does not develop much in the way of real-world lab skills. I note that in the freshman design course I taught last year, often the only experience that students had had in building anything had been in their high school’s AP Physics courses. That hands-on experience is very important for developing engineers.
So the edX courses will be valuable for students who have no other access to AP-level material (which is a lot—fewer than 5% of US high schools offer AP Computer Science, for example), but students will still usually be better off finding a community college course or other way to real lab experience for the AP science lab courses.
I wish edX great success on this endeavor, since I have seen first-hand the need for reasonable quality, affordable courses for advanced high school students, which many local high schools cannot provide, because they do not have enough students ready for the course in one place to justify creating and offering the courses. It is a much more worthy market than trying to compete with brick-and-mortar colleges, which was the initial goal of Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Udacity has already abandoned that goal in favor of corporate training (again, a reasonable market). It is good to see the edX is moving in a reasonable direction also. When will Coursera realize that their original “disruptive” dream was a pipe dream (probably as soon as they’ve burned all the venture capital)?