A recent Atlantic Magazine article about “The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs” offers a new perspective in the wide debate about MOOCs’ disruptive role in education. Recent research indicates that teachers make up one of the largest groups of learners in MOOCs. If teachers increasingly rely on this new source of educational content, MOOCs could still “live up to the education-reform hype after all – but with an ironic twist” by helping teachers teach students. With many MOOC projects focusing only on the student, how can we also provide content and support for teachers?
This twin focus on students and teachers is central to Davidson Next. On July 22, we launched online materials addressing the most challenging concepts in Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus, Macroeconomics, and Physics – for free. Our content gives students everywhere access to high quality material and helps them master difficult concepts, while also helping teachers supplement or blend their instruction. These materials implement significant innovations to assist individual teachers, reaching beyond the student-only focus of many open online models. Most notably, a new tool delivers private, custom versions of our content to individual classrooms. In addition, a data-driven pilot program in local high schools last year helped refine the content during development and provided crucial insights into the needs of teachers. Building on the recent and rapid growth of online AP materials, particularly in the edX High School Initiative, we are reporting our findings, insights and experiences to the higher ed community.
Scaling AP Instruction Nationally: Why teachers and MOOCs?
The origins of Davidson Next lie in the more than 80 combined years of dedicated service to the College Board by four Davidson College professors. In our three topics, Professors Larry Cain, Stephen Davis, Ben Klein, and Clark Ross have each helped develop the AP curriculum, write AP exams, and guide others on how to grade those exams. Each professor has helped lead AP summer institutes at Davidson College that provide professional development for high school teachers. From the beginning, these professors viewed edX as a way of scaling AP instruction not solely for students in an open online environment, but also for teachers serving students in classrooms across the country and world.
Why teachers? As suggested above, they already make up a substantial number of MOOC enrollees. In spring 2014, a review of MITx MOOCs showed that on average 28% of enrollees had a teaching background. Those numbers have led to a shift in perspective on how content and platform should serve this community.
The Davidson Next model is unique in that from the beginning it was designed with both student and teacher in mind. Students can challenge themselves to master material in an open online format, while teachers can use the content to supplement their instructional efforts. This dual focus has already yielded impressive use of Davidson Next materials. In the two months since rollout, more than 13,000 people have enrolled in the three courses (combined). Since the courses are self-paced, we expect these enrollments to increase through the academic year, particularly as AP students review for the exams next spring and seek help with challenging concepts in their subjects.
An ongoing question for the edX community is how the edX platform can best help teachers in their classrooms. Our approach offers promise for addressing this question. We have received more than 500 requests from AP instructors – primarily in the U.S. – to utilize our content in their classes. These requests have spanned the country, as the map below illustrates (larger dots represent more requests).
Providing Private Instances for AP teachers: Custom Courses on edX (CCX)
Teachers’ use of Davidson Next content goes far beyond having their students take our courses as part of a massive national or international cohort. Instead, we are enabling teachers to use their own private instances of Davidson Next AP content. Thanks to a new tool developed by MITx and supported by edX, each teacher can create a copy of one of our courses for private use with their own students. With a Custom Course on edX, or “CCX” for short, teachers can set their own course schedule (including release and due dates), as well as follow student enrollment, progress, and achievement. Students in an individual class enjoy their own discussion forum, monitored by their teacher. The CCX tool offers an important new way for teachers to use edX content, which may expand the use of that content significantly in individual classrooms across the world.
As Davidson Next moves forward, we plan to build on this innovation and offer even stronger support for teachers using our materials in their classes. We are fostering a richer community of practice, by encouraging blended learning and the sharing of ideas and best practices. We have created a MOOC (Teaching with Davidson Next) and have organized forums to support troubleshooting and shared dialogue.
Pilot Program Teaches Us about Teachers
Many of our insights about the need and ways to support teachers come from a pilot project launched last year while we created Davidson Next content. During the 2014-2015 academic year, our team enlisted teachers in 26 high schools, mostly from Charlotte, but also including individual schools in Durham, Greensboro, Asheville, and Charleston. Across our 3 topics, 31 AP teachers and 1,100 AP students vetted the Davidson Next materials and offered critical feedback.
A primary objective of the pilot was to collect feedback to improve our content and its delivery. Alongside student data collected through the edX platform, we gathered direct feedback from teachers via focus groups, surveys, and direct mark-up of content using a tool called BugHerd. Teachers logged over 800 comments via BugHerd, ranging from typos to suggestions on enhancing pedagogical effectiveness. Surveys of teachers yielded ways to improve content alignment with the AP curriculum, instructor tools, and general of tracking student progress. Student surveys showed that they found the edX interface and content organization easy to follow, but desired more tools for tracking their own progress. Most importantly, 74% of participating teachers said that they would use the Davidson Next materials with their students the following year.
The comments overall provide an important message for anyone starting a pilot rollout: teachers and students largely expect polished products. Our students and teachers strongly disliked bugs and technical issues associated with piloting content. It is crucial to set accurate expectations and build strong relationships to weather the inevitable problems that occur. While our product was not always polished, we built strong relationships with the teachers and encouraged accurate expectations from the start. These efforts were a significant factor behind the teachers’ wish to use our materials again.
The teachers provided several other useful lessons. They reported having much more success with Davidson Next when they were more highly involved. Teachers told us that Davidson Next did not work well as a substitute instructor, and that they themselves had to be involved for students to achieve understanding.
In addition, AP teachers are looking for strong professional development opportunities in the effective use of educational technology and blended learning using AP content. In our pilot, teachers received training on blended learning, but we did not direct them to use specific methods in their classes. Instead, we hoped to learn about all the different ways that our content could prove helpful. Few of our teachers used the content in the same way; the usage ranged from assigning our content as a preview of topics, to using our materials as inside or outside class supplements, to assigning our questions and assessments for tests or extra credit.
We are continuing to evaluate how Davidson Next influenced teacher and student performance in AP courses and exams. As the project and its use expand during the coming year, we expect to learn even more about how different technologies and support strategies can help teachers teach even more effectively.
Daniel Seaton is Educational Technologist for Davidson Next (and is transitioning to a role as a Research Scientist in the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) Research Group at Harvard University; Julie Goff is Project Manager for Davidson Next; Aaron Houck is Assessment Coordinator for Davidson Next; and Patrick Sellers is Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at Davidson College and project supervisor for Davidson Next.
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