New York, NY—During the same month that The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” Ithaka S+R partnered with the University System of Maryland (USM) to determine the feasibility of using MOOCs in new ways—incorporating MOOCs and other online technologies into undergraduate classrooms.  The results of that study are available today:  Interactive Online Learning on Campus: Testing MOOCs and Other Platforms in Hybrid Formats in the University System of Maryland.

Over the course of a year, Ithaka S+R worked with faculty on seven USM campuses to set up side-by-side  tests in classes from statistics to biology comparing sections using  interactive online learning technologies to those taught through more traditional methods.  Four of these used MOOCs and three used a course from the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon University.  Ten additional classes incorporated MOOCs in order to gain further insight into the opportunities and challenges presented by using these materials in campus environments.

Findings indicate substantial promise for using interactive online technologies in traditional college settings.  The USM faculty were enthusiastic in their willingness to experiment with MOOCs and found they  could serve as useful tools for accomplishing their goals with students and—perhaps most importantly—most would like to continue using them in the future and would recommend them to their colleagues. Specifically, faculty reported that by using the lecture videos to cover content, they were able to engage in more active teaching activities with their students.  Some instructors also found that MOOCs could be used as a tool to strengthen students’ foundational skills in critical thinking. Additionally, despite the significant time investments faculty made to use MOOCs in the study, they believe they can save time teaching by incorporating existing online materials into their courses.

The study also found that student outcomes were roughly the same in hybrid sections as in traditional face-to-face sections. These results held in the subgroups we examined, including those from low-income families, under-represented minorities, first-generation college students, and those with weaker academic preparation.

While these findings point to the potential benefits MOOCs and OLIs might offer, Ithaka S+R also found several challenges will need to be overcome before the wider-spread implementation of these technologies will be feasible.   To better fit this type of use, MOOC providers will need to make their courseware more modular and must consider the intellectual property and licensing implications of making this content available in different contexts.  At the same time, universities must provide leadership, infrastructure, support, and incentives to help faculty engage with this new type of content, in much the same ways that the USM committed to in this study.

MJ Bishop, director of the Center for Academic Innovation at the USM, said of the project: “The University System of Maryland is especially pleased to see the positive reaction of our faculty participants in this endeavor, and to see that our comparison of MOOCs with traditional teaching settings showed roughly the same academic outcomes. As important, though, the study reflects USM’s careful stewardship in this process, because challenges remain before we can grow the use of these new technologies. We are even more confident in the soundness of the approach we are bringing to this study, an approach that values a deliberate and careful collection of feedback from students and faculty.”

As project advisor and President Emeritus of Tufts University Lawrence S. Bacow notes: “This study provides much needed data about the benefits and challenges of adapting MOOCs for traditional institutions and putting these opportunities in context. This is an important step forward, and I hope that university and college leaders and faculty take note of these findings and consider ways that they can take advantage of existing online content in their courses. I hope, too, that the institutions and platforms offering MOOCs continue to explore ways that these resources can benefit mainstream students at public universities.”

Ithaka S+R would like to thank the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their generous funding of this project.