The question in higher education over the past couple of years has been: Can people learn effectively from MOOCs? And the answer, after getting through all of the fuss about completion rates and so on, appears to be “yes.”
One of the biggest tests for MOOCs as a valid model of education has been the Georgia Tech MOOC master’s degree in computer science. While the program is only in its second year, the preliminary reports have been positive. More than 2,000 students are expected to start the program come January, and thus far 93% say that they would recommend the program to a friend.
Georgia Tech’s Zvi Galil recently wrote for Huffington Post that the success of this program serves as a proving ground for the MOOC model of education, and for online learning in general. He noted: “…the central innovation was not in the online delivery of the courses, nor in the fact that they lead to a complete degree. Rather, the key point is that the online nature of the degree is affirmed to be immaterial: the online classes are fully the equivalent of on-campus ones, in terms of both education and credentials, at a fraction of the cost” ($7,000 compared to the $46,000 price tag of a traditional CS masters at Georgia Tech).
Significantly, research has also found that it isn’t only already-highly-educated students who are able to learn from MOOCs, but everyone, regardless of their background. The results of a study released last week showed that students across the educational spectrum (from those with less than a high school diploma to physics teachers) showed similar learning gains in an edX MOOC. Now, this doesn’t mean that they all passed with flying colors, but rather that all students improved roughly equally from where they started—i.e., they learned.
Just to put these results in perspective, consider Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2011 finding that after two years of college, at least 45% of students show no statistically significant improvements in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing skills. Before this research started to come out, it was assumed, for a variety of reasons, that students couldn’t learn in MOOCs. But, a lack of learning in non-traditional education can’t be assumed any more than can the surety of learning be taken for granted in traditional education.
We know that learning does happen in MOOCs, and we have a model, in the Georgia Tech master’s degree, of how to create low-cost MOOC programs that lead to credentials that are just as real as those earned in full-price in-person programs. So now the question becomes: What are we going to do with this knowledge?