For more than 25 years, Brown University has been offering a variety of pre-college programs to middle and high school students aspiring to achieve an Ivy League-level education. Rising or graduated seniors have been able to study side-by-side with Brown undergraduates in Summer Session Credit Courses, yet the price—ringing in residentially at more than $10,000—is steep and still unattainable to hundreds worldwide.
That was, until 2013.
Brown is launching one of the first massive open online courses (MOOC) designed specifically for pre-college students. The course, called “Exploring Engineering,” will provide an overview of careers in select science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, enabling prospective students to be proactive in achieving their dreams.
“Across the board, 40 to 50 percent of students who start an engineering degree drop out,” says Wendy Drexler, director of online development at Brown. “We wanted to be able to provide that content and make it more accessible.”
The course will be available on Instructure’s Canvas Network, a platform that’s taken a unique approach to online education. Through Canvas, colleges and universities are able to retain their institutional identities by opting to either pursue a MOOC format or a smaller scale format that allows for more interaction between the professor and his or her students.
The first Exploring Engineering course will run at the beginning of April, and has already reached the cap Instructure set at 500 students. After seeing how popular the free course quickly became, however, Brown decided to open a second course, which will run in June.
“Not everyone has access to an elite Ivy education,” Drexler says, “yet this isn’t just about an elite Ivy education, this is about education in general.”
Drexler does acknowledge the summer programs are “relatively expensive,” and although Brown offers several scholarships, those scholarships still don’t help everyone. So, not only will this MOOC be an affordable option, it will also become a prerequisite to the University’s summer program which will, in turn, help better prepare students for those scholarships.
Exploring Engineering is laid out on a bi-day basis, according to the course’s Instructional Designer Jesse Shier. “We think students will be more likely to complete the course if we have them do something every day,” he says. “We think, we hope, that if they do things, they will be engaged and keep going back. That’s where the learning happens.”
Students will be tasked with brainstorming a problem, building a prototype to solve that problem and, at the very end, be thrown an unforeseen problem that is part of a larger project they then need to contend with. The course is hands-on with little-to-minimum lectures involved.
“I can say our number one goal is to focus on the pedagogy,” Drexler says. “If the students participate, we want them to have an engaging experience.”
The sentiment rings true for high school teachers, as well. The introductory course has attracted the attention of engineering teachers who tend to be busy focusing on their school’s lengthy list of requirements, yet would like to free up time by incorporating this online component into their classroom.
Outside of the pre-college course, however, Brown has been no stranger to open access. The University is currently offering three massive open online courses through Coursera, all of which launch in June. Depending on how they go, Brown could start offering more material.
“Online learning and blended learning is one of the strategic areas Brown is looking at,” Drexler says, later acknowledging, “Our plan is to make [the programs] better every time [they] run.”
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