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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Deeper Learning and MOOCs: The Final Frontier 

January 23, 2014 — By Marc Chun

A new project (the Deeper Learning MOOC) gets underway today that all logic would suggest should not work. It is attempting to accomplish its apparent polar opposite, and to spread a set of practices through what appears to be their very antithesis.

Now, when you work at a foundation, you grow accustomed to coming face to face with the seemingly impossible, which often times seems drawn from science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s the big, hairy, audacious goal that depicts a utopian vision of the future. Sometimes it’s when grantees manage to succeed along their quest even when battling insurmountable odds. Sometimes it’s what happens when you’re introduced as a grantmaker, and you suddenly discover your jokes are funnier, your comments more insightful, and that you are just so much better looking.

Today, I invite you to join me in witnessing what should be an utter impossibility of the “Star Trek” variety. And not just in the “boldly go where no one has gone before” way.

The Hewlett Foundation’s Education Program is focused on an initiative called Deeper Learning, which aims to ensure the education system graduates students prepared for success in college, career, civic, and everyday life. To do so, students will need to take everything they’ve learned, and then apply it to solve complex problems they’ve never seen before. And research suggests that students must therefore master core academic content, as well as have skills in critical thinking, communication, collaboration and learning how to learn, and while doing so, maintain an adaptive (and academic) mindset about their abilities.

We searched for examples of school models that are focused on doing just this, and established the Deeper Learning Network, comprised by more than 500 public schools committed to helping students – especially those from communities of poverty and students of color – to develop these Deeper Learning competencies. Many are small schools, where educators personalize learning. They form connections to the real world through internships or community projects. And these schools find ways for teachers to have ample opportunities to work together to plan and collaborate.

Given their success, our big question is, how we can get these ideas to spread so all students benefit?

One answer to that question came from a most unexpected place: a Massive, Open, Online Course, or MOOC. MOOCs have piqued our collective curiosity as one potential big play to use technology to get education to scale. But on the surface, a MOOC seems to represent everything these Deeper Learning Network schools are not. Rather than small classes, it’s intentionally huge. Instead of collaboration amongst a small school’s faculty, the doors have been thrown wide open for anyone in the world to participate. Rather than face-to-face interaction in real time, it’s on-line and asynchronous. And all of this is happening in the context of the very public and promising (but somewhat anxiety-producing) launch of the new Common Core State Standards.


Putting my thoughts about what this means into “Star Trek” parlance, what seems impossible is how the matter of Deeper Learning can be mixed with the anti-matter of a MOOC without leading to a containment failure, and then catastrophically to a warp “Core” breach.

But High Tech High, one of the networks in our Deeper Learning Network, has a very clever way of avoiding these otherwise likely inevitabilities. They designed a nine-week Deeper Learning MOOC (co-sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation and the Raikes Foundation), that brings the best features of Deeper Learning schools to this technological platform. They are encouraging participants from around the world (and indeed, educators will be signing in on their computers from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe) to form smaller communities so the course becomes interactive not despite the technology, but because of it. They are going to send course participants out into their local communities to do projects, and then to share with each other. And they are using social media such as Twitter (#dlmooc, #DeeperLearning), Facebook and Google+ to link together members of this new community. And, perhaps most creatively, the MOOC culminates in a face-to-face conference from March 26-28, 2014 called Deeper Learning 2014; a conference for practitioners held at the High Tech High campus in San Diego that is also a celebration of how educators have made the seemingly impossible possible all in the name of helping prepare young people to take on life’s challenges.

With this MOOC, High Tech High is showing there are ways to take this work seriously, but not take themselves too seriously. They know we should never let our students settle for second best; but they also know you get that point across with a pig, a hen and a cow. And the team has gathered a world-class set of experts to share their wisdom for free. As a result, educators can get started now using their existing resources to provide deeper learning opportunities for their students. And educators can also imagine what bigger or more systemic, longer-term steps might come next, either by borrowing ideas from school models in the Deeper Learning Network that will be featured throughout the MOOC, or pushing past those to something amazing none of us has even thought of yet.

The MOOC gets underway today (January 23, 2014), and you can still sign up now or anytime during its run through the end of March 2014. It’s a major experiment, as some of these hybrid pedagogical approaches are being tested out for the first time. The planning team has been drawing upon everything they and their colleagues in the Deeper Learning Network know about how to educate, and are taking calculated risks, not knowing how approaches might or might not apply to this platform. But no matter what happens over the next two and half months as this MOOC runs its course, these grantees are truly embracing deeper learning: taking everything they’ve learned before and transferring it to solve this complex problem none of us has ever seen before. And take it from someone who’s really funny, totally insightful, and super attractive: because of their work, I’m betting it just might help students to live long and prosper.