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Why My Kids Finished Their MOOC—When Most Adults Don’t

My 9-year-old twins recently completed a five-week MOOC (massive open online course). I thought I’d be a proud, high-fiving dad, but MOOC completion rates hover around 6%, so when they completed the MOOC, I was mostly puzzled. Something went terribly… right.

Brain Chase is an online learning experience geared for 2nd to 8th graders designed to cure summer learning loss and provide afterschool enrichment. Each week, children work on a variety of online programs such as Khan Academy, myOn and Rosetta Stone, submit a piece of writing and read--a substantial investment of 5 hours a week during the summer.

Brain Chase’s founders, husband-and-wife team Heather and Allan Staker, shared that 2,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 participated this summer, and 50% of them completed the five week program. “While the completion rate skewed slightly towards boys, it held at roughly 50% across age and gender,” Allan reported.

So how is Brain Chase bucking the curse of low MOOC completion rates? And what are the implications for online learning?

Brain Chase—made with families in mind

Heather Staker, a Brain Chase cofounder, co-authored the book Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools, and is a leading thinker on new school models. But having her five children home for the summer quickly turned Heather into a practitioner. Brain Chase began in the summer of 2013 as a Google doc that tracked online learning for kids in the Stakers’ neighborhood.

Brain Chase now strives to be a global classroom that serves students from ages 6 through 14--no small feat in the emerging world of personalized learning.

Brain Chase lets families structure an experience that works for kids’ individual needs. For example, families choose between writing and studying a foreign language on Rosetta Stone. They can also choose between myOn, Google Books and “real” books for reading.

Flexibility can lead to welcome surprises. Take my twins. Twin #2 used Khan Academy to spark new interests in cryptography, coding and chemistry (while Twin #1 marched dutifully through the 5th grade math sequence). Choice and flexibility allows Brain Chase to engage a wide range of learners including an autistic child looking to reignite a passion for learning, a student with brain tumors that couldn’t physically attend school and a gifted-and-talented student looking for more academic challenge.

Turn learning into an adventure

Brain Chase takes a standard set of online learning programs like Khan Academy and Rosetta Stone and layers a Hollywood-like treasure hunt--reminiscent of the National Treasure or Indiana Jones movies--over the top.

Once kids meet their weekly goals, a video is unlocked which reveals clues to find a buried treasure. At the end of five weeks, kids place pins on a map to guess where the treasure is located. This year, 8-year-old winner Ashton Detwiler and his family flew to Mt. Fuji in Japan to dig up the fictional Sunstone of Cortes and a non-fictional $10,000.

The treasure hunt was highly motivating for my twins, even when they dreaded the volume of work in a given week. Twin #1 said, “I like that a kid can figure out where the treasure is…” and Twin #2 confirmed, “I’m not sure I would have done it without the adventure.”

At its best, the Brain Chase treasure hunt is a Disney-esque reminder that technology only grows our appetite for great stories and magical experiences. The cynic would say this is an overly-elaborate, Pavlovian ploy to get my children to factor prime numbers on Khan Academy. This imperfect dad and his imperfect children tend to vacillate between an intrinsic love of learning and crass incentives so I’m fine with both being true so long as the kids are learning.

Brain Chase builds on the strength of its adventure story by cleverly weaving together online and offline activities to enhance the overall experience.

Weaving together online and offline experiences

In the age of SnapChat, there is still something magical when a child receives a package in the mail. My children’s first encounter with Brain Chase wasn’t on a computer, but through two oversized envelopes addressed to them.

The boys tore open their envelopes and out spilled decoder rings and letters from the Grayson Academy of Antiquities.

“Your assistance is required in a matter of dire archaeological importance… I am herein enclosing a decoder medallion. I imagine that it will come in very handy on more than one occasion.”

“What is this?,” exclaimed Twin #1, jumping up and down. “What is going on?,” shrieked Twin #2 as he ran circles in the room.

The chase was on.

In essence, Brain Chase enhances the online experience in three important ways. First, kids receive a new physical letter and object from the Graystone Academy at the beginning of each week. Besides being filled with riddles and wonder, the letters are a great focusing tool, prompting my children to think about the week’s work ahead.

Second, there is an offline bonus challenge every week which uses the mailed object. One week, my kids went outside to use a sundial to navigate a maze. The twins agreed that “the bonus challenges were awesome” and a nice change of pace from other activities.

Finally, students received feedback each week on their writing. My wife commented, “The teacher feedback was really motivating [for the kids]. Brain Chase didn’t have to spend money on that but it made a huge difference.”

Bucking the MOOC curse

Brain Chase innovates on the uninspiring MOOC format through great storytelling--a mix of compelling online and offline experiences and the ability to customize the program for individual kids. But the program also has some things going for it based on the latest MOOC research: kids are encouraged to be active, not passive, learners and the program is structured to encourage regular, spaced activity. Both of these phenomenon are correlated with higher MOOC completion rates in the HarvardX and MITx study. Paying for the program may also increase commitment and completion.

The company can potentially boost completion with some modest improvements: the sign-up process was a little cumbersome, there was the obligatory server crash on the first day of the chase, and my children had problems syncing their progress early on. My family would have also appreciated better diagnostic support to make sure the kids were placed appropriately in the right content and programs.

But, all in all, Brain Chase shows that meaningful learning can take a lot of different forms and that the “future of school” is more blank canvas and less foregone conclusion. This grateful dad was just happy to see his kids start school on-a-roll.

Editor’s Note: Brain Chase provided complimentary subscriptions for the Hernandez twins. 

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation's best public charter schools. Alex is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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