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Posted in: MOOC Research

Can an online course really teach students as well as a traditional on-campus course? Many believe not – they feel that while Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are accessible, they are offer an inferior learning experience, lacking the richness of person-to-person interaction possible on a campus. We set out to assess this situation and learn more about online learning itself.

Here at the Australian National University, we have put together a series of four MOOCs covering different areas of modern astrophysics (Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, Exoplanets, The Violent Universe and Cosmology). Co-taught by myself and the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of Dark Energy, Professor Brian Schmidt, three of these courses ran in 2014, and had an enrolment of over 40,000 students from 178 countries. Those who passed the courses were extremely diverse, ranging from an 11 year old school child to a 92 year old retired professor. Around 70% of the students already held a college degree.

These courses were extraordinarily popular, drawing tens of thousands of students. But, we wanted to answer a deeper question: were the students really learning from the MOOCs, or just having fun?

We noticed in the discussion forum that many of these students were comparing their MOOC experience to their previous on-campus courses. This seemed like a good way to get a student perspective on learning in online courses compared to residential ones. So, at the end of the third course, we asked the students who had previously done on-campus courses to complete an anonymous survey. We asked them “How much do you think you gained from this online course, compared to the typical face-to-face courses you have done?”

We were excited and encouraged by the results. 87% of our students said they gained as much or more from online learning compared to on-campus learning.

Student Satisfaction Chart

We also asked our students to explain the reason for their rating, and a very consistent picture emerged: MOOCs were preferred because of the ability to pause and re-play the material. We were excited to learn about this from the students directly:

“In the MOOC, I could really pay attention in the lectures without having to do so much rapid note taking that all I was doing was copying down the blackboard into my notebook. We get it all, and can go back and attend to the lecture as many times as needed to get the concepts through my thick head.”

“Doing lessons in a MOOC allows for pausing, rewinding, re-watching, custom pacing, and flexible scheduling. All of that contributes to better understanding of the material.”

“In a MOOC, whenever I don’t understand a concept, I can instantly pause the teacher (which is hard but funny to imagine in a face-to-face class) and search it on the web.”

Those who felt that they gained more from on-campus courses typically cited the rich discussions, but still had praise for the MOOC experience:

“Often a live conversation reveals other discussions that you do not get to in the online discussion forums – on the other hand, if you engage in the online discussions you have the chance to work your way deeper into the subject than time allows in traditional classes.”

These are the opinions of people who have just completed a MOOC, so they may not be representative of typical on-campus students as a whole. Nonetheless, I find it remarkable that such a diverse group of students perceive a purely online experience as being at least as good as a traditional course. I’m pleased by these early results and look forward to their impact on both on-campus and online education in the future.

And, the future of education in many ways is already here. In the Physics Education Centre here at the Australian National University, we are starting to combine online MOOC-style lessons with face-to-face workshops. This “flipped classroom” model can hopefully combine the advantages of both teaching styles and integrate the best of online and on campus learning.

Our fourth MOOC, Cosmology, starts on 3rd February. Sign up today and join us as we explore the origin, fate and nature of our universe. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on your online learning experience.

Guest Post: Dr Paul Francis, The Australian National University