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Adding Spice to MOOCs


Online classrooms may be the way of the future, but they aren’t very effective without a little old-fashioned face-to-face learning. That’s the finding of a new study from the journal Research & Practice in Assessment, which has conducted one of the first comprenesive studies of the functioning of MOOCs. The study combed through student data from MIT’s “Circuits and Electronics” MOOC. Among other things, it found that conversations on discussion forums were largely dominated by a few individuals, and that students spent most of their time on lecture videos and homework assignments, and much less time with textbooks and labs.

All of these statistics are interesting, but they’re also not that surprising to anyone with a significant understanding of MOOCs and how they work. The finding that has received the most attention is the one that appears most damning to MOOCs: students who supplemented their online coursework with face-to-face teaching performed best. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

“On average, with all other predictors being equal, a student who worked offline with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject would have a predicted score almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself,” write the authors.

The correlation, described by the authors as the “strongest” in the data set, was limited to a single instance of a particular MOOC, and is not exactly damning to the format. But it nonetheless may give ammunition to critics who say human tutelage remains essential to a good education.

The points raised here are important, but this shouldn’t be used as an anti-MOOC talking point. Common sense dictates that students who go the extra mile and seek out additional tutoring will do better than those who don’t.

In any case, online education and face-to-face learning aren’t mutually exclusive options. Even most MOOC supporters don’t envision a world in which students learn exclusively by watching short videos while lounging on a sofa at home. Georgia Tech, which is pioneering a MOOC-based, fully accredited computer science degree program, specifically carved out a space for a new class of dedicated TAs who will supplement the classwork with smaller discussions and more intimate learning environments. If online education expands, as we believe it will, it’s likely to include a mix of online lectures and face-to-face seminars, small study groups, or the like.

Far from being a death blow for MOOCs, this study is pointing the way to how they are likely to evolve.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Motivated students do better than less-motivated ones? Now there’s a educational breakthorough!
    The study is meaningless absent a parallel one measuring results for face-to-face students who do the same.

  • BobSykes

    MOOCS are only for working class and middle class students, the infamous “mooks” (a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person-see the Sopranos). The ruling class will not permit this form of education for its children.

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