Coursera makes first foray into K-12 education with online courses for teachers

Coursera, one of the driving forces behind the MOOC (massive open online course) movement reshaping higher education, is bringing its disruption to K-12 schools. But its target audience isn’t the students; it’s the teachers.

On Wednesday, the startup said it had partnered with several schools of education and other institutions and museums, including schools of education at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art, to bring free professional development courses to teachers via the web.

“We looked at our technology and realized that for 7-year-old kids, streaming university content for them wasn’t going [to be effective]. But the lever for that 7-year-old kid may be to help them get a better teacher,” said Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng.

Most school districts don’t have the resources to offer quality professional development programs that match the interests and needs of individual teachers, he said.  Typically, teachers are pulled out of their classrooms for a few days a year (disrupting instruction for their students) and are required to follow the same program, regardless of the subjects they teach or their strengths and weaknesses.

With its new courses, Coursera said teachers can focus on the topics, areas of expertise and pedagogies that are most relevant for them.  For example, early courses will cover topics including content development, the common core curriculum, character education and implementing flipped classroom and blended learning strategies.

The courses will follow the same format as other MOOCs on Coursera and will adopt the startup’s peer-grading approach. For example, teachers could write a lesson plan or videotape themselves teaching and then receive feedback from other members of the course.

Teachers, educators and even parents can take the new courses for free but, as with other Coursera classes, they can pay $30 to $100 for the “Signature Track” option, in which their identity is verified and they receive a certificate at the end of the course. Coursera’s hope is that, in time, school superintendents will award teachers continuing education credit for the courses. But Ng said that, so far, they’ve only had informal conversations with superintendents about the possibility.

Given the attention MOOCs have received in the last year, it’s not so surprising that the phenomenon is spreading to K-12 education. Conversations are underway about adapting the MOOC format for K-12 students and other educational organizations are offering one-off MOOCs for teachers and administrators. But Coursera is the first of the major MOOC providers to make a foray into K-12 education and given the debate it and its rivals Udacity and edX have stirred among colleges and universities, it will be interesting to see how it is received by K-12 educators.