Online courses deliver same results as on-site classes: educator

Former Princeton University president puts his stamp of approval on massive open online courses.

The disruption of higher education has reached a fever pitch, punctuated by a tremendous surge in offerings from major universities through massive open online classes. So far, there is no apparent degradation in the learning experience --  measurable outcomes for the MOOCs are comparable to traditional on-site classes. And MOOCs are changing the concept of the "university" as we know it.

So far, so good with online courses, says William Bowen. Photo: L.A. Cicero for Stanford U.

Those are the views of William G. Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University and of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, keynote speaker for the 2012 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Stanford University (one of the epicenters of the MOOC trend).

Bowen discussed the results of a study by his nonprofit educational organization, Ithaka, on online learning results. While he cautioned that the data was only based on a single online course offered by Carnegie Mellon University, it's still significant, he says that researchers found no statistically significant differences in learning outcomes between traditional classes and hybrid-online classes, and this finding was "relentlessly consistent" across campuses and subgroups – undermining arguments that online learning is suited only for certain groups.

The leading platforms that are facilitating MOOCs include Coursera, an education technology company used by professors from more than 30 universities, including Stanford. Others, including Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and MIT/Harvard, are developing their own platforms for hosting MOOCs. Stanford's homegrown platforms are Class2Go and Venture Lab; Coursera and Udacity were developed by Stanford professors but are now off campus.

"I believe that the educational community should make every effort to take advantage of the great strengths" of existing platforms, Bowen said, adding that there is a formidable challenge in making them suitable for instructing tens of thousands of students worldwide while also serving the needs of a particular institution.

A strength of MOOCs not seen with traditional on-site settings is the amount of digital data that is generated regarding coursework and student outcomes, adds Daphne Koller, a Stanford computer science professor and a co-founder of Coursera. There is enormous potential through the analytics gleaned from online learning, where hundreds of thousands of students show us what works and what doesn't. This is "truly a miraculous opportunity," she said, whose possibilities will be revealed only over time.

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