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Are we missing opportunities to engage teachers with MOOCs?

Since the inception of MITx, discussion forums have provided subtle clues that teachers are enrolling in MOOCs. One of the first clues involved the inaugural run of 8.MReV: Mechanics ReView, whose course staff discovered a number of high school teachers eager to work through material while assisting motivated students in discussion forums. The 8.MReV staff went as far as to ask engaged teachers to help curate newly released material – which they did gladly.

Enrolling teachers suggest shifts to the current MOOC experience. Imagine partnering struggling participants with experienced teachers in small cohorts, or forming teacher exclusive groups aimed at providing feedback on course content and pedagogy. If teachers are enrolled broadly across edX courses, they represent untapped potential for MOOC providers.

Enrollment in MITx MOOCs: Are We Educating Educators?

Our recent paper published in EDUCAUSE Review, “Enrollment in MITx MOOCs: Are We Educating Educators?” shows that we are indeed missing opportunities to engage a substantial number of teachers in MITx courses.

Teacher Enrollment by the Numbers

Entrance surveys conducted across 11 spring 2014 MITx courses found on average 28 percent of survey respondents identified as past or present teachers. Additionally, nearly one in ten (8.7 percent) identified as current teachers, while 5.9 percent have taught or teach the topics within a given course. Survey-responding teachers are largely affiliated with Colleges and Universities, followed by a significant percentage of K-12 teachers – see Figure 1. If respondents represent a random sample, these percentages imply student-teacher ratios on par with traditional classrooms.

Teacher Forum Activity

Teachers are not only enrolling, they are actively engaged in discussion forums. More than 57 thousand comments were generated in discussion forums across all 11 MITx courses, and although identified teachers made up only 4.5% of the over 200 thousand total enrollees, teachers generated 22.4% of all comments – see Figure 2. More notably, 1 in 12 were by a current teacher, and 1 in 16 were by teachers who teach or have taught the subject.

What do engaged teachers want?

With teachers enrolled and engaged, should MOOC organizations take more care in addressing their needs? Exit surveys were administered with the goal of understanding whether teachers desired professional development opportunities and use of course resources. Of the just over 1000 teachers responding to exit surveys, 53.9 percent were interested in accreditation opportunities, while more than 70 percent desired greater access to MITx materials for use in their own courses.

Missed Opportunities: What’s next for teachers?

Teacher enrollment clearly represents an unrecognized, meaningful audience for MOOC providers. Below are potential directions that would benefit teachers and the MOOC movement overall.

Teacher Professional Development

Teacher Professional Development is perhaps the most natural service MOOC providers could immediately provide teachers. As an example, 8.MReV: Mechanics Review provides certified teachers the option to receive Continuing Education Units (CEUs) through a partnership with the American Association of Physics Teachers. On the horizon,Davidson Next is designing professional development courses specifically serving AP high school instructors and their students. The greatest challenge for MOOC providers will be arranging credit through national and state governance of professional development programs.

More Direct Use of MOOC Materials

Our survey results show that teachers desire to use MITx course materials in their own teaching. In order to achieve this, edX and other MOOC platforms would need to develop tools allowing teachers to tailor MOOC content into “personal online courses”, e.g., the ability to set course parameters for a teacher led cohort within a MOOC. This feature request is also supported by feedback from a Davidson Next pilot program with over 30 AP high school instructors.

Expert-Novice Pairings and User Profiles

Course design and MOOC platform capabilities should be more inclusive of expert participants. If you knew that a substantial number of professional engineers were in an introductory engineering course, would you want to promote dialogue between aspiring engineers and these professionals? Key to this issue is a voluntary profile system that mitigates discussion between expert-novice groups within a given MOOC.


MOOCs represent more than just college courses. Life-long learners with highly varying backgrounds are migrating to these courses and there is great potential in harnessing their collective expertise. We hope that recognition of large teacher enrollments shifts perspectives toward course design and MOOC platform capabilities more attuned to existent expertise.

Graph described by caption (Figure 1) that follows
Figure 1. Instructional context of self-identifying teachers in 11 spring 2014 MITx courses.
Graph described by caption (Figure 2) that follows
Figure 2. Average percentages of enrollees across 11 spring 2014 MITx courses by category (left) and average percentage of comments by group (right). Orange and Blue are survey respondents – teacher or non-teacher – and gray represents all other participants.16