Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Learning in an Introductory Physics MOOC: All Cohorts Learn Equally, Including an On-Campus Class

Researchers from MIT, Harvard and Tsinghua University in China have published a study analyzing learning in a Newtonian Mechanics MOOC offered by edX.

The class was intended for students familiar with the topic at a high school level. Approximately 17,000 people signed-up, but, as is typical in MOOCs, most were browsers. Only the 1,080 students who attempted more than 50% of the questions in the course were included in this study.

They looked at pre-post test improvement for several student cohorts based on previous education level and math and physics background. There was also a cohort of high school physics teachers.

Obviously, students in some cohorts did better on the average than those in other cohorts, but normalized gain for the various cohorts was about the same. They state that "there was no evidence that cohorts with low initial ability learned less than the other cohorts," which "should allay concerns that less well prepared students can’t learn in MOOCs."

Furthermore, the MOOC students learned at a similar rate to MIT students who had taken the on-campus version of a similar course. The on-campus students had four hours of small-group, flipped classroom instruction each week, staff office hours, helpful fellow students and access to physics tutors the MIT library. In spite of those resources, they were surprised to find no evidence of positive, weekly relative improvement of on-campus students compared with MOOC students.

Bear in mind that even the students who had less than a high school education and were relatively unprepared in math were motivated to complete the MOOC -- they were not typical low-performing students. Still, this is the sort of research we can look forward to seeing as we study innovation in Internet-based education.