The MOOC Where Everybody Learned

Some MOOC skeptics believe that the only students fit to learn in massive open online courses are those who are already well educated. Without coaching and the support system of a traditional program, the thinking goes, ill-prepared students will not learn a thing.

Not so, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The researchers analyzed data from a physics course that MIT offered on the edX platform in the summer of 2013. They found that students who had spent significant time on the course showed evidence of learning no matter what their educational background.

“There was no evidence that cohorts with low initial ability learned less than the other cohorts,” wrote the researchers in a paper published this month by The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Not only that, but the MOOC students learned at a similar rate as did MIT students who had taken the on-campus version of a similar course. That finding surprised the researchers because the on-campus MIT students studied together in small groups for four hours every week and had regular access to their professors and other campus resources.

“This certainly should allay concerns that less-well-prepared students cannot learn in MOOCs,” the researchers wrote.

But that’s not to say that the less-well-prepared students did well. Many of them scored significantly lower than did students with more schooling. Some would have earned failing grades.

The point is that even the students who got bad grades in the course came away knowing more than they did at the outset, says David E. Pritchard, a researcher on the study, and that their progress matched that of their better-prepared classmates over the same period.

“If they stuck it out,” says Mr. Pritchard, “they learned.”

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