The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s catalog of publicly available massive open online courses is typically marketed toward the non-MIT public. Last fall, however, the university experimented by offering the MOOC version of a popular class for on-campus students, for credit, in an attempt to help students facing scheduling issues.
A recently released study of the class found students not only performed well but also -- at an institution known for its rigor -- reported feeling less stress and having more flexibility.
MIT’s circuits and electronics class was offered in a MOOC format through edX, a MOOC provider created by MIT and Harvard University in 2012, both semesters this year. In this study, the class was supplemented by a private discussion forum specifically for MIT students. Some professors across the university use the MOOC format to supplement in-person classes, but this course was the first of its kind in the sense that the MOOC model completely replaced the in-person model.
Students in the fall MOOC -- which the study notes was taught by a different instructor than the in-person course, with “different styles and/or topics of focus” -- reported the circuits and electronics class was “significantly less stressful” compared to their various in-person classes, according to the study. While the study on the spring session isn’t completed, the study on the fall class has MIT administrators thinking about what can be done to create a more flexible, digitally enhanced learning atmosphere for students and professors. The MOOC pilot came about after students reported frustration with scheduling conflicts.
“As you can imagine, MIT students are a very active bunch,” said Sheryl Barnes, director of digital learning in residential education. “And they expressed frustration they couldn’t resolve scheduling conflicts by having more flexibility.”
The course itself was a good benchmark to use for an experiment because of its history at the university and as a MOOC, Barnes said.
“The class itself is quite significant,” she said. “MIT and the faculty have invested a lot in the class, and it’s been refined through this [online] delivery. A lot more students have taken it and experienced it -- that refinement had some benefit.”
The study’s sample size is small -- 31 students started the class, and 27 students completed it -- and there were slight differences in the homework and exam format compared to the in-person class, but the study reported that the difference in the distribution of final grades wasn’t statistically significant between the in-person and MOOC groups. The MOOC homework sets and exams allowed for multiple tries on a question if the student got it wrong, although that also meant that questions were all-or-nothing, with no partial credit. MOOC students were also unable to review graded exams to figure out where they had strayed off course.
MOOC students did have opportunities to meet with professors and the TA, although the study reported “few opted to attend office hours.”
One of the students quoted in the study said the instant feedback of the homework was a key to lowering stress.
“I really like just getting the instant feedback of knowing that after the homework is done I know I’m done now, and I don’t have to worry about, like, ‘Oh, but what if this question was wrong?’ And then you’d have that in the back of your mind, and so you turn it in,” the student said. “That’s stressful, and it was nice just getting that feedback.”
The study notes that instant online feedback for homework is available to students who take in-person classes that use MIT’s MOOC system as a supplement, so its use is not necessarily unique, although it was a factor for every student in the circuits and electronics class in this study.
The same student also identified the instant feedback of the homework as being helpful for learning. To protect their privacy, students were anonymous.
“Another thing that I really liked is just getting the answers right away, so if I tried a question, and I’m like, ‘Oh, whoa, I got that, but I don’t really know exactly why this worked,’” the student told researchers. “I could go back instantly when I’m involved with a question, and it’s still fresh in my mind, and, like, look at the solution, and be, ‘OK, that’s how they did it.’”
The study comes just after a Brookings Institution report, created with data from DeVry University, cast doubt on how well less prepared students do with traditional online classes. The Brookings study and the MIT study are both full of caveats -- they use data limited to one university each, and MIT’s study was done on a MOOC course, not a traditional online course. But MIT’s study seemed to support another finding in the Brookings study, which was that well-prepared students don’t suffer the same negative effects from taking online classes that less well-prepared students do.
As for MIT, the study was conducted primarily because of scheduling concerns from students, not specifically to look at how much the university can or should shift the balance of online versus in-person course work, Barnes said. She said that based on the studies results, those questions may arise, but any proliferation of MOOC courses on MIT’s campus would have to come from the bottom up.
“[Expanding MOOC offerings] will be defined by what individual faculty want to do at MIT, and the faculty committee that determines the curriculum,” Barnes said.
As for the advantages of the MOOC apparently easing students’ stress?
“Students had reported [in 2014] that flexibility in the curriculum had been one of the key areas for MIT to explore. That was a broad report, not just [the Office of Distance Learning], but it’s gratifying to help be able to meet some of these key areas,” Barnes said, calling the MOOC “one more tool in the tool box.”