Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

April 3, 2013

Signing on to higher education

By Dustin Luca
Staff Writer

---- — A group of students at the high school are taking a crash course in college life — and getting high school course credit for it.

Thirteen Andover High students are enrolled in courses at "edX," an online, non-profit education venture that brings students, professors and ideas together in a framework of free courses for which anyone can register.

The organization developed a partnership with Andover High School to study how high school students engage college-level content through David Birnbach, a School Committee member with connections both at edX and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the schools in edX.

With the world becoming more digital and web-based, "the best learning will be learning online in concert with more project-based learning going on in a classroom, where the role of the teacher will change but be as important as ever," Birnbach said.

The current method of teaching — students focused on the teacher at the front of the classroom during the day, and sitting at home leafing through textbooks at night — is only "one method of the learning experience," according to Birnbach.

Web-based learning "will grow to be a bigger component of learning at Andover High, and learning in general," he said.

The students are all enrolled in at least one of three edX courses: Justice and The Ancient Greek Hero, both offered by Harvard, and Introduction to Biology, offered by MIT, according to AHS Assistant Principal Luz Valverde.

Completing a course nets the enrolled student a certificate, which earns him or her one course credit at the high school, Valverde said.

But if you ask the students what they're getting out of the program, they give a different response.

"It's more for enrichment of your mind and understanding rather than an academic boost," said 16-year-old Nikhil Chopra, a junior. "A program like this is really important for delving into what you're going to be learning in college."

Completing an edX course doesn't offer a GPA boost. The courses offer certificates for completion instead of weighted letter grades, making grade translation impossible, according to Duclos.

Nikhil, chewing through content for the Ancient Greek Hero and Justice courses, said he thinks it is better that way.

"If you're letting it just be something you can learn from and enrich yourself with, it's more effective than an academic goal," he said.

Mimi Olney, 17, and also enrolled in the Justice course, agreed.

"It's nice to take a class when you don't have to worry about what you're getting as a grade," she said. "You want to pass the course, but it's nice just to take the class to learn."

While the entire college experience isn't transferred through the online content, certain aspects of university life are conveyed virtually. Course lectures are streamed as video footage, and students can pause, rewind, even slow down content to complete it at their own pace, the students said.

Self tests are assigned to ensure the students are understanding and completing the content. Reading assignments are set up to align with video lectures, and resource boxes provides other content like programs designed to help reinforce lessons, according to the students.

"It's like going to class every single day," said 16-year-old Jordan Janeiro, who is taking the biology course at MIT.

For 16-year-old Grace Anne Castro, edX is providing an opportunity to prepare for college two years in advance.

"You really have to be self-motivated to do the work, and that's a big thing you need to do in college," she said.

For school administrators, there's an even bigger picture to what the online courses provide.

"When you talk about exposure to different ideas and points of view... I just think about the different depths to enter into that college environment," Duclos said.

The online nature of the program also contributes to a global awareness, as the students collaborate with others around the world, according to Duclos.

"It helps to develop tolerance, understanding, perspective – that cross-cultural piece," she said.

Only a few colleges were part of edX when the students started their work, they said. Today, the website boasts collaboration with Georgetown University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Toronto and McGill University in Canada.

Courses listed for the fall, 2013 semester include "Ideas of the 20th Century" and "Age of Globalization" from the University of Texas at Austin, and "Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science" from Harvard.

While there are 13 Andover High students enrolled today, "if the pilot continues to be successful, I envision the number of students at Andover High taking edX courses increasing, and I imagine more of our students being able to get exposure to the online experience moving forward," Birnbach said.