Friday, September 26, 2014

MOOC physics students outperform campus students

Prof Dave Pritchard
This guy teaches both a campus and MOOC course on physics. He is no amateur, a world-class researcher in atomic physics, winner of four major research prizes and three students who won Nobel prizes. When he compared their learning gains, he was astonished at the results. “I had hoped that because they (campus cohort) went to our classes, they would learn a lot more”.
Given the many positive announcements from vendors and negative reactions from academics about MOOCs, there is a remarkable lack of research on learning outcomes. Why this lack of interest? Well one feature of academic research is that it rarely looks at itself, for fear of what it will find. The lecture is the stand-out example. Despite many decades of research showing that lectures, and hterefore the professional job title ‘lecturers’, make little pedagogic sense, most academics will dive into the trenches of irrational indignity in their defence. But reson will prevail and on MOOCs we are now seeing some wonderful research by the likes of MIT and the University of Edinburgh.
Standout study
One standout study by MIT compares campus with MOOC students on the same course. It tackles the key issue; do students learn using MOOCs and how does this compare to the much more expensive campus course? If it is true that students learn more or as much on a MOOC, then the cost differential is such that it makes absolute sense to use MOOCs for these courses. This is a solution to the ballooning costs in HE. Even of the students learn less, there is still a strong argument for using MOOCs in terms of costs. Far too many researchers ignore this key issue – the massive reduction in cost.
Enter this study on Physics. It is a introductory, review course on mechanics with an emphasis on strategic problem solving. It starts with straight line motion through to momentum, mechanical energy, rotational motion, angular momentum and harmonic oscillation. The interesting addition is the content on problem solving that requires several different concepts and approaches leading to a single solution.
1000 students who completed the MOOC (Certificates of Completion) were compared with their similarly scored counterparts on the campus course. The relative progress across all groups was roughly equal across all groups. Identical pre- and post-tests were given to assess learning gains.
What surprised the researchers was that the online students did as well as the campus students, and this is the interesting part – regardless of previous academic experience, whether they had a PhD, Masters, Bachelors or high-school diploma. In fact, the MOOC generated “slightly more conceptual learning than a conventionally taught on-campus course”. But there was a further piece of analysis that was even more surprising. When comparing MOOC students with MIT campus students , even though the campus students had received a lot of extra input and instruction, the relative results were the same with “no evidence of positive, weekly relative improvement of our on-campus students compared with our online students”.

This is the only study of its type that I know but would be pleased to hear about more if they focus on learning outcomes. At last we are beginning to see some sensible research that cuts through both the hype and defensive posturing. Good, level-headed academics and institutions are doing what should have been done years ago – researched the learning and cost outcomes. The researchers are now going on to look at what caused the learning. This is good work and long overdue.

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