More than 7.1 million students are currently taking at least one online course. Despite the apparent popularity, however, educators have given the trend low marks.

But a new study from MIT suggests naysayers should think otherwise. Massive open online courses are not only effective, researchers have discovered, they are as effective as what’s being traditionally taught in the classroom — regardless of how prepared or in the know students are.

Researchers’ findings have been published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, and co-author David Pritchard, MIT’s Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, knows they will be controversial.

“A number of well-known educators have said there isn’t going to be much learning in MOOCs,” said Pritchard to MIT News, “or if there is, it will be for people who are already well-educated.”

The group, comprised of researchers from MIT, Harvard and Tsinghua University, completed a before-and-after test on students taking “Mechanics ReView,” an introductory mechanics course offered on massive open online learning platform edX. Researchers then conducted a similar test on students taking the class residentially, discovering:

The amount learned is somewhat greater than in the traditional lecture-based course.

And that goes for even the least prepared, as reflected by their scores on pretests. Pritchard said improvement levels increased across the board, explaining that, even if a student with a lower initial score ends the online course with what would be equivalent to a failing grade, “that person would nevertheless have made substantial gains in understanding.”

Translation: Online learning outcomes are equal, or even better than, those produced in a traditional classroom.

If professors want to improve outcomes in either setting, researchers suggest an approach called “interactive engagement pedagogy,” where students regularly interact in small groups and participate in peer-to-peer learning.

Pritchard told MIT News the study is “just the start of a process of mining the data that can be gained from these online classes.” How long students spend watching lectures, or how often they pause or repeat sections, can all be recorded and used to discover what method of online learning works best.

MIT recently released its final report on what the school’s future will look like, education-wise. At the time, President L. Rafael Reif said the Institute will be engaging in bold experiments — exactly what this new research suggests. Faculty might even begin blending traditional, residential learning with online education to keep tuition costs low.

So, for the remaining naysayers out there, consider this statement by Reif:

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have been viewed with enthusiasm in many quarters and skepticism in some. However, the underlying facts are inarguable: that the rising cost of education, combined with the transformative potential of online teaching and learning technologies, presents a long-term challenge that no university can afford to ignore.

It’s been determined: Online learning works.

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