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OCW supports independent study for N.J. high school students

Wired New Jersey principal uses MIT OpenCourseWare to expand educational opportunities
Eric Sheninger is the principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J.
Eric Sheninger is the principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J.
Photo courtesy of Eric Sheninger

When your high school principal has 36,000 followers on Twitter and sent out more than 22,000 tweets in four years, you can bet that he’s open to new ideas for using technology to improve education. The most recent experiment for Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal), principal of New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J., has been the creation of an independent study program that allows seniors to follow OpenCourseWare classes for credit.

“When I learned about OpenCourseWare, I felt that it was the perfect fit for our goals,” Sheninger says. “The breadth, depth and quality of the OCW materials meant we could give our students a challenging, structured opportunity to really pursue whatever interested them most.”

The independent study program is meant to complement New Milford’s larger “Academy” initiative, which is a school-wide venture that gives students an edge in college admissions by exposing them to a broader choice of more specialized learning opportunities than those offered in a standard high school curriculum. Students can follow courses from one of three tracks — Arts and Letters, STEM or Global Leadership — and earn a special diploma through those credits.

After receiving a tweet from a colleague last year, Sheninger realized that OCW could be an excellent tool for expanding curriculum options at the high school. Working over the summer, Sheninger and his administrative intern, Juliana Meehan, a teacher at Tenafly Middle School in Tenafly, N.J., developed a program designed to give students a true taste of the college experience — both its intellectual challenges and the personal initiative that it demands. Students would be free to study at their own pace, but would be expected to demonstrate a strong conceptual mastery of the material at the end of the marking period by giving a detailed presentation showing, in their own words, exactly what they had learned from the course.

“Designing a truly successful independent study program isn’t easy,” Sheninger says. “But OCW provides the kind of structure and academic rigor that’s needed. It’s one of the major reasons we were so comfortable allowing the students that degree of creative freedom to choose their own course and follow it independently.”

Their IOCS (Independent Open CourseWare Study) program proved popular with students as soon as it was announced. About 50 high school seniors signed up for the pilot program, and their individual selections spanned a broad range of advanced topics, including Neuroscience, Social Psychology, Computer Science, Chemistry, Principles of Human Pathology, Animal Behavior, and Political Science.

The semester ended in February, and Sheninger speaks admiringly of the effort that his students put into their final presentations. “Our Academy students are the ones who are ready to push themselves a little harder, and so the outcomes were excellent. A certain number of students offered traditional presentations that basically summarized the material, which is fine — but our real goal was to encourage students to really integrate this learning into their academic lives. We want them to tangibly show us how this content has changed their perspective, and allowed them to really do things that they could not do before. On that level, we also saw some really excellent, extremely creative presentations. Two standouts were Tariq and Caleb.”

Tariq Khan and Caleb Gomez are 17-year-old seniors who both plan to major in computer Science in college next year. For their independent study course, Tariq took 6.00 (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming), and Caleb chose 6.189 (A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python).

Before selecting their OCW courses, neither had much exposure to computer programming beyond an appreciation for video games. “We had done some very simple stuff — just ‘hello world’ kind of programming — very basic commands,” Caleb says. By the end of the IOCS, however, each of them had designed and coded their own rudimentary game in Python. Tariq set up a Pac-Man-like game in which a snake moves around a screen swallowing up dots, and Caleb created a memory game in which players flip cards to find matching pairs.

Their presentations tangibly demonstrated just how much they had absorbed from the course, beginning with a guided tour through the raw code of their programs, highlighting how each line controlled a specific part of the game. Next, they ran the program several times to show how their games worked, changing certain variables each time to demonstrate how modifying them would affect the speed, color and timing of the game.

“The course really taught me a lot,” Tariq says. “It provided me with a foundation, and gave me a way to understand how code worked, so that with that knowledge, I could create something completely new. It felt great to be able to make a game from scratch.”

Caleb echoes his appreciation. “Honestly, I was pretty intimidated at first to be taking an MIT class,” he admits. “But by following the lectures and the notes, I slowly started to understand how everything fit together. I learned how looping works, and how variables work — I used to have no idea what those things meant. Now I really get it.”

Taking the OCW course was not just an opportunity to learn a skill that was otherwise unavailable at New Milford. Tariq notes how the whole experience improved his study skills and his self-confidence. “What’s good about OCW is that it teaches you how to approach a course responsibly,” he says. “You have to follow it yourself, and keep up with it. You can’t just wait until the end and try to pull it off overnight. You have to commit.”

Inspired by the success of this pilot independent study program — and the work of Tariq and Caleb — Sheninger has created a Computer Coding club at NMHS and will offer the IOCS program for next year’s seniors. Although he hasn’t tweeted about it yet, he’s also begun exploring other ways to use OCW Scholar courses as part of the Academy curriculum.

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