HarvardX in High Schools: Competency-based Learning and Professional Education

by Yigal Rosen, Senior Research Scientist at VPAL-Research and Adjunct Lecturer on Education at Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Ten years ago, when I was teaching computer science and physics in a high school, quality digital content for students was hard to find. Highly motivated and self-directed students were looking for powerful insights beyond the classroom mainly in online forums and tutorials. Today, digital environments are providing a great deal of free content such as videos, lessons, simulations, discussion forums, and practice problems to solve (e.g., Physics via Khan Academy, Computer Science via Stanford Online High School, Hour of Code for high schools). However, deeper learning approaches with technology have been rarely practiced within the schools. Conventional pedagogical methods may engender passive learners who are simply absorbing content, rather than actively participating in their own learning with the support of interactive technologies resulting in low learning gains, discouragement, and high levels of attrition. States, districts, and schools struggle to provide all students with the learning experiences required for the 21st century high school, regardless of college and career aspirations. Both in rural communities and in more urban and suburban centers, many students are not provided with the tools and courses they need to develop and deepen their interests, skills, and knowledge.

Competency-based Learning for Students

Deeper learning approaches involve in-depth, differentiated content; authentic diagnostic assessment embedded in learning; active forms of learning, often collaborative; and learning about academic subjects linked to personal passions and infused throughout life. Schools need to prepare students for a world in which most people will need to collaborate with others of diverse cultural origins and appreciate different perspectives and values; and a world in which their lives will be affected by issues that transcend national boundaries. Learning today needs to be much more about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and decision-making; about ways of working, including communication and collaboration; about tools for working, including the capacity to recognize and exploit the potential of new technologies; and about social and emotional skills.

HarvardX for Schools

A 2014 study by the American Institutes of Research found that students engaged in deeper learning graduated from high school and attended selective colleges at higher rates than comparable students in non-deeper learning schools. Investments in quality education lead to more rapid and sustainable economic growth and development. Indeed, International assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show an increase of one standard deviation in student reading and math scores is associated with an increase of 2 percentage points in annual GDP per capita growth.

Rigorous core content linked to personal passions and infused throughout life is at the heart of HarvardX digital courses. HarvardX with its global outreach is uniquely positioned to prepare young people for an interconnected world where they will work with others from different disciplines and cultures, in a way that solves complex problems and creates economic and social value. HarvardX in high schools is one of the promising directions currently being explored by HarvardX and Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) Research Team in collaboration with strategic partners such as Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology, Innovation, and Education program and Professional Education.

In a previous blog post, Daniel Seaton discussed how Advanced Placement® (AP) high school courses create intriguing ecosystem for high school learning. There is a great opportunity in going far and beyond AP courses and offer deeper learning in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education for students and professional development for teachers on a global scale. True deeper learning is developing competencies that enable graduating high school students to be college and career ready and then make maximum use of their knowledge in life and work. The targeted learning outcomes may include: master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, achieve an academic mindset, and be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback. Learners are encouraged not just to master content academically but also to notice where content connects to daily life situations, yields insights, and prompts productive actions and interactions with others.

As students participate in HarvardX high school learning activities, they may earn digital badges that showcase their competencies and achievements. These digital badges signify mastery of a skill — for example, coding or design, — giving learning greater currency by documenting and archiving learning outcomes. Each time a student earns a badge, he or she is recommended additional learning experiences and invited to broaden or deepen skills to propel him or her along academic, civic, or career trajectories. Because digital badges contain in-depth information about each individual’s learning experiences, schools can gain a comprehensive view of each person’s interests and competencies.

Professional Education for Teachers

Technology is a powerful enabler of learning, but teachers must support their students’ engagement with technology resources for learning, highlighting the important subject matter content, pressing students for explanations and higher-order thinking, tracking their students’ progress, and encouraging their students to take more responsibility for learning. This requires deep transformations of teaching practices. Teachers can be engaged in professional learning not only when attending on-site and online workshops at Harvard, intensive summer programs, but also in the very act of teaching, which can offer a rich source of information to inform professional growth. Moreover, HarvardX in high schools can support professional learning by making the practices of exemplary teachers accessible to other teachers. For example, video-sharing tools can provide outstanding demonstrations of teaching practice and use cases to other teachers. Teachers can view and analyze their practice and then innovate and customize new ways to refine their craft in light of new insights. Teachers can use professional development online to learn independently through a self-paced format that helps them improve classroom practice, and earn academic or continuing education credit.

Technological advances are changing job demands and skills, while offering new possibilities for deeper learning and real-world skills development. As new approaches for digital learning are being implemented in school settings, it’s important to ask what works and what doesn’t and for whom. To seek answers to these questions, our research team supports the new initiatives with evidence on the effects of the student learning and mastery of knowledge, skill development, and engagement. Evidence-based instructional design for schools has a great potential to improve the quality of programs students receive and to fuel much interest and investment in development, research, and dissemination of effective approaches.

Disclaimer: Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author and are NOT endorsed in any way by organizations mentioned in the blog.