“Put your money where your mouth is.”
The shibboleth has haunted me since 2010 when I concluded my book Saving Schools with an endorsement of online learning. Using new technologies, students could choose among dozens of options, I said. One great lecturer could teach thousands, even millions, I imagined. Outside experts could view the content, identify weaknesses, propose solutions, I argued. Continuous improvement would replace the stagnation of the past 50 years of American education, I hoped.
But did I really mean it? If I meant it, why was I still standing in front of a classroom of 50 students, using the same old standard lecture format I employed as an assistant professor over 40 years ago?
That issue could no longer be dodged when Harvard announced it would help faculty members produce a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), if they offered a viable proposal. Did I dare submit one? Or was I unwilling to practice what I preached?
So I have taken the plunge. On September 8, “Saving Schools” launches. Four (free!) mini- courses on “History, Politics and Policy in U. S. Education” will be offered sequentially, with all mini-courses available by the spring of 2015. The courses are offered by HarvardX, on the edX platform. If you want to pay and get credit, the course is also being offered online through the Harvard Extension School, which will provide full services with discussion groups led by those with whom I am working closely.
The first mini-course reviews the history and politics of American education, asking the question: “Why did a nation that had the finest education system in the world slip to the industrial world average?” Exploring that question, we identify the personalities and historical forces—the progressives, racial desegregation, legalization and collective bargaining—that shaped and re-shaped U.S. school politics and policy. We also take a careful look at some of their unanticipated consequences.
The next three mini-courses explore contemporary proposals to save our schools–via new teacher policies, accountability measures and school choice. While we don’t find silver bullets, we offer a dispassionate look at the pluses and minuses of many proposed reforms—including, in the final lecture, digital learning.
With extra resources provided by a foundation, we have been able to enhance the MOOC in a number of ways. We visit the places where new ideas and practices were spawned. We discuss the issues with experts and practitioners. Students pose questions which I try to answer. I shall also respond to your questions through this column as the mini-courses unfold.
-Paul E. Peterson