One of the hopes with Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is that they give anyone around the world access to great teachers. But high profile experiments with MOOCs at the university level show that students from underprivileged groups tend to struggle and that the mass adoption of such courses could exacerbate inequalities.

But rather than simply examining how students did relative to one another, a new study of MIT’s required physics course decided to investigate whether all students who took the class learned something.

“There was no evidence that cohorts with low initial ability learned less than the other cohorts,” wrote the research team, which separately analyzed students according to a pre-test of their abilities and prior physics background.

MIT’s introductory course is designed to help anyone with basic knowledge gain a more sophisticated understanding of physics. Because EdX’s version is the equivalent of a required on-campus course in Newtonian physics, the team was able to compare how much students learned online compared to their traditional counterparts.

“In spite of the extra instruction that the on-campus students had,” explained the team, the on-campus course “shows no evidence of positive, weekly relative improvement of our on-campus students compared with our online students.”

The study’s implications should be taken in context. It does not prove that MOOCs are a substitute for the college experience, nor does it solve the fact that some demographics may benefit disproportionately from online education.

However, it is a happy tale of learning. The study proves that MOOCs are fulfilling their promise of spreading knowledge. Nearly anyone with a desire to learn, regardless of ability, can benefit from having access to world class instruction.


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