Home » 2013 - 14 Academic Year » Creating High School Students’ Dispositions for Lifelong Learning Through Open Online Courses

Creating High School Students’ Dispositions for Lifelong Learning Through Open Online Courses

By Lauren Riva, Director of the St. Mark’s Mathematics Institute

People are members of an ever-changing world, a world in which change occurs more and more rapidly. These swift changes give rise to major problems for the workforce because workers (especially those involved in design, production, maintenance, sales, and planning) are constantly faced with the need to learn how new systems work (Dubinsky, 2000; Van Dam, 2012). Becoming and remaining a productive member of the workforce requires more than simply being well versed in present day systems; an individual must also be able to adapt their knowledge and skills to new situations.

Schools exist to meet the specific needs of a given society at a particular time. So, as society changes, schools must also change. Unfortunately, schools are not able to keep up with the expeditious changes in society and therefore, cannot possibly teach students all of the knowledge and skills they will need for full participation in the workforce. Therefore, schools must find ways to foster students’ dispositions to lifelong learning, and one way that schools can do this is by offering and engaging students in open online courses (or OOCs). In this article, I will explore the demands of a 21st century education as it pertains to preparing students for entry into the workforce; discuss 21st century skills and lifelong learning; and propose that offering and engaging students in open online courses can help to foster lifelong learning, and in turn, will help students to become and remain a productive member of the workforce.

The Purpose of Education

It is my contention that the primary goal of education is to prepare all individuals for full participation in society. This view is consistent with Dewey’s (1936) belief that, “We must take the child as a member of society in the broadest sense, and demand for and from the schools whatever is necessary to enable the child intelligently to recognize all his social relations and take his part in sustaining them” (p.8-9), where the term “social relations” includes the roles individuals play in their families, occupations, communities, and society. Implicit in this aim of education is the belief that schools should provide an egalitarian education, such that all individuals have an equal opportunity to improve their abilities to contribute to and participate in society.

If each educational system exists to meet the specific needs of a given society at a particular time, then as the society changes over time, the educational system must reevaluate its role and adapt to these changes in order to still remain relevant and true to its aim. However, present-day educational systems have not changed enough to meet the new demands of radically changing (and changed) society (Fletcher 2007; Lewis 2005; Longworth, 2013; Maclean & Ordonez 2007; Tucker 2007).

Demands for the 21st Century Workforce

 Advances in technology have had major implications for businesses; in particular, they have allowed employers to begin to think globally. With the connections now possible by high-speed communications and information technologies, for example, many jobs can be done any place in the world. This means that employees are often able to live in towns, or even countries, that are different from their company’s headquarters (Tucker 2007; Whittset 2007). Although technological progress has eliminated limitations resulting from the location of a company or individual, it also makes the competition stiffer. When competing for a position in a company, being the best candidate in your city, or even country, is no longer enough; you must be the best in the worldwide employment market.

To make it even worse for the United States workforce, globalization has allowed employers to easily find more proficient and less expensive workers than American workers (Lewis, 2007; Cooper, Hersh, & O’Leary, 2012). In fact, according to Marc Tucker (2007), president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and co-chair of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce,

Fifteen years ago, we realized that poorly educated people in this country were for the first time in direct competition with minimally skilled people in poor countries, who were willing to work for much less. Today, we are finding that highly skilled people in this country are in direct competition with highly skilled people in other countries, who are willing to work for much less. (p.729-730)

Thus, workers at all skill levels must compete with individuals willing to do the same job for a lot less money. In order to compete in the global workforce, while maintaining our standard of living, American workers must become the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people in the world; only then, will employers be willing to pay top dollar for their services.

What are the Demands of a 21st Century Education?

Economists and educational scholars agree, “education holds the key to personal and national economic well-being, more now than in any other time in our history” (Tucker, 2007, p.729). In other words, learning and earning are linked (Carnevale, 2007). But what role should schools play in “educating” the 21st century workforce?

Upon completion of school, students should be capable of becoming productive members of society; in particular, they should be prepared to enter the workforce.

However, in 2011, a survey of 2,000 U.S. companies revealed that two-thirds of the companies reported that they had trouble finding people qualified to fill their open positions, and in almost one-third of the companies, some positions had remained open for over 6 months (Manyika et al., 2011). In addition, a 2006 survey of 431 employers across the United States found that, in terms of their perceived level of readiness for entry-level jobs, 40% rated high school graduates as deficient, 30% rated 2-year college graduates as deficient, and 36% rated 4-year college graduates as deficient (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006). Consistent with these findings, as of October 2013, although over 11.2 million people were unemployed in the United States, 3.9 million jobs remained open, suggesting that a substantial share of the unemployment rate could be accounted for by a skills mismatch (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013).

Part of the problem is that it is impossible for schools to keep up with the massive and drastic changes in knowledge and skills required for the workforce. This is evident in the fact that many of the positions today’s students will hold do not even exist yet. Students rarely learn in school anything that they will actually be required to use in their chosen profession, and the knowledge and skills needed for professions are rarely taught in schools (Amit & Fried 2002; Barnett & Ceci 2002; Dubinsky 2000). And even if schools could teach the knowledge and skills for professions today, much of what students learned would become obsolete before they even complete school, and many of the problems and situations they will confront will not be like anything faced before. Maclean and Ordonez (2007) explain, “The worker of tomorrow will be obligated to re-train and re-cycle for as many as four or five different occupations. Moreover, while working in each of these occupations, technological and project changes will necessitate continuous learning” (p.126). Similarly, Bill Gates, former Microsoft CEO, stated, “Our high schools – even when they’re working as designed – cannot teach all our students what they need to know today”. (Associated Press, 2005, para. 8).

In addition, even if the knowledge and skills for a given position were clearly laid out, and students were taught that knowledge and skills, it would still not be enough. Workers of the 21st century must also be comfortable with logical and abstract thought; researching, analyzing, synthesizing, and applying new knowledge; being creative and innovative; having self-discipline; developing organizational skills; knowing how to work well with a diverse team; flexibly and quickly adapting to change; and using technology efficiently (Flick & Lederman, 2004; Lewis 2007; Maclean & Ordonez 2007; Stewart & Kagan 2005; Whitsett 2007). J. Willard Marriott, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Marriott International, Inc., articulates this sentiment in the following statement,

To succeed in today’s workplace, young people need more than basic reading and math skills. They need substantial content knowledge and information technology skills; advanced thinking skills, flexibility to adapt to change; and interpersonal skills to succeed in multi-cultural, cross-functional teams (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006, p.24).

In other words, in addition to the traditional content knowledge and skills, students must develop their “21st century skills”. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2011), there are eight categories of 21st century skills: (i) creativity and innovation; (ii) critical thinking and problem solving; (iii) communication and collaboration; (iii) information, media, and information, communications, and technology literacy; (iv) flexibility and adaptability; (v) initiative and self-direction; (vi) social and cross-cultural skills; (vii) productivity and accountability; and (viii) leadership and responsibility. It is important to note that 21st century skills are not a replacement for content knowledge and skills; instead, they must be developed concurrently.

Today, the prevalent belief is that the goal of K-12 education is to provide students with a broad knowledge base; then, upon completion of their K-12 education, students will know a little about a lot of things. In a time when the majority of individuals worked in low-skilled positions, this type of education was sufficient. And, the rest of the population, i.e., the minority of people who chose a profession requiring higher skills, could go on to a technical school or university to obtain a more focused, career-oriented education. The rapid pace of technological change necessitates an adjustment in focus for education. Although it is still important for students to have foundational content knowledge, they must also develop their 21st century skills (Dumont & Istance, 2010; Marx, 2002).

Fostering Lifelong Learning

At the heart of 21st century skills is the need for individuals to develop their lifelong learning habits because knowing how to learn provides both flexibility and security in an era characterized by constant change. Thus, one central goal of schools should be to develop students’ propensity for lifelong learning. Dumont and Istance (2010) explain,

The extent and quality of initial schooling during the formative years are crucial for learning later in life. The knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes acquired during this early life-stage provide the foundation for the lifelong learning habit. Therefore schools are pivotal organizations of the learning society yet their contribution in laying the foundation for lifelong learning has tended to be neglected (p.23).

There are four central aspects to lifelong learning. First, a lifelong learner has the ability to apply knowledge and skills to novel situations. Because both knowledge and skills are situated or context dependent, the lifelong learner is able to adapt his or her knowledge and skills to new situations. This means that the lifelong learner doesn’t simply focus on increasing their content knowledge and skills when learning, but also understands how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems, especially those questions and problems found in novel contexts.

Second, lifelong learners are able to learn new skills and increase their knowledge base. “The more emphasis there is on knowledge as both an asset and commodity the less likely it is that an individual will be able to carry all the relevant knowledge inside his or her own head” (Hinchliffe, 2006, p.95). This means that individuals will have to continue learning new knowledge and skills throughout their lifetimes.

Third, a lifelong learner must have the ability to generate new knowledge when necessary. Often the knowledge and skills applied to and learned in a position are not enough; the individual therefore must have the ability to create new knowledge, i.e., construct novel answers. This ability requires both discovering relationships between parts of reality previously thought to be unrelated and having a way of organizing knowledge in the mind that incorporates everything that one knows into a “a single, comprehensive, systematically integrated structure of knowledge” (Brady, 2008, p.29).

And finally, the lifelong learner must take ownership of his or her own learning. According to Norman Longworth (2013), this is a 180-degree shift of emphasis and power from provider to receiver. “It moves teaching from the concept of the ‘sage on the hill’ to the idea of ‘the guide at the side’.”

What Does All of This Have to Do with Open Online Courses

Online learning is defined to be education in which over 80% of the instruction and content are delivered via the Internet (Allen & Seaman, 2013; Watson, Winograd & Kalmon, 2004). Online learning is become more and more a part of students’ formal educational experience. During the fall 2011 term, over 6.7 million (or approximately 32%) of U.S. college students were taking at least one course online (Allen & Seaman, 2013), and in 2009, more than 3 million K-12 students took an online course (Horn & Staker, 2011). In addition to online learning as part of a student’s formal educational experience, open online educational resources are growing in popularity (Karsenti, 2013). In particular, there has been a rush by higher education institutions to offer open online courses, typically called Massive Open Online Courses (aka MOOCs). A MOOC is defined as “an online course with the option of free and open registration, a publicly shared curriculum, and open-ended outcomes” (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier, 2010, p.10). Some 20 million students in over 200 countries have enrolled in a MOOC, and the trend is rising sharply (Karsenti, 2013).  Developing and encouraging high school students to participate in open online courses, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), is an excellent way for students to develop their 21st century skills and predisposition for lifelong learning.

MOOCs generally have no prerequisites, fees, formal accreditation, or predefined level of participation. Therefore, no one who wishes to participate is excluded. In addition, participation in a MOOC is completely voluntary and individual students can decide the nature of their participation in the MOOC based on their individual circumstances and interests (Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams, 2013; McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier, 2010). For example, some students complete every assignment; while others, simply watch the videos and do not participate in any of the graded assignments. As a result, large numbers of people are able to participate, at their own level, who might otherwise be excluded for reasons ranging from time, to geographic location, to formal prerequisites, to financial hardship. Consequently, participation in a MOOC is “emergent, fragmented, diffuse, and diverse” (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier, 2010).

Because of the broad range of participation in a MOOC, “success” is less clearly defined than in a traditional course. Individual students must define their own measure of “success” in the process (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier, 2010). For some students, passive or partial participation may still be considered a success (Karsenti, 2013). Consequently, MOOC participants are free to decide what they want to get out of a given course and engage selectively and intentionally with the material (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens & Cormier, 2010). As a result, students develop the 21st century skill of dealing with the information overload of the digital world and of taking ownership of their own learning.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) have become critical enablers of learning new skills and knowledge, where ICT includes computers, networking and other technologies, plus audio, video and other media, and multimedia tools (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2011). Thus, ICT competence is becoming increasingly central to lifelong learning. Online courses require the use of ICT, and in so doing, students are becoming increasingly proficient in information and communication technologies.

In high school, students are beginning to develop interests in particular fields. However, most have had little opportunity to really experience what it means to work in that field or to develop the knowledge and skills that are actually used in the field. In addition, some students find specific subject matter interesting, but have no idea how that subject matter would connect to a particular occupation. Consequently, developing and offering MOOCs for high school students that are not tied to the traditional K-12 curriculum would allow students to begin thinking about what they would like to study in college or to begin to hone in on their future occupation. By allowing students to pursue an area of interest, MOOCs demonstrate to students one way to build knowledge outside of the traditional school setting.


The majority of existing MOOCs are not geared to the interested novice (or high school student); instead, they typically assume a fairly advanced background, and novice participants cannot keep up with the material. This does not mean that MOOCs are not a viable option for high school students; however, there need to be courses that are designed specifically for them. These courses cannot make assumptions about what students know, and they also need to be packaged in a way that is engaging and not overwhelming to high school students.

Consequently, as the Director of St. Mark’s Mathematics Institute, I have begun developing and offering open online courses to high school students. By participating in these courses, students get to see the importance of mathematics in other fields as well as connect the mathematics they learn in the classroom to what people are using mathematics for in the real world. Each course is designed around the application of mathematics to a particular field. In the courses, students explore mathematical ideas conceptually, which eliminates the need for a particular skill set while still allowing both novice and more advanced mathematics students to find the material intellectually stimulating. The first two courses are entitled, “An Introduction to the Mathematical Modeling of Epidemics” and “A Mathematical Exploration of Music and Sound.” The second offering of “An Introduction to the Mathematical Modeling of Epidemics” begins on January 21, 2014; there are currently over 60 students from across the country enrolled in the course.

Lauren Riva is the Director of the St. Mark’s Mathematics Institute and a member of the Mathematics Department. She is the Head of Thieriot House and resides there with her husband and two children.


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