MOOCs — massive open online courses — work only for the well-educated, many believe. But a new study finds that MOOC participants learned as much or more than traditional students in a MIT physics class. There was no evidence that less-capable students learned less, wrote researchers in a paper published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning

. . . 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.

Compared to students taking the same course in a face-to-face setting, the MOOC participants learned as much or more.

And that goes for even the least prepared, as reflected by their scores on pretests. (Co-author David) 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.”

“This certainly should allay concerns that less-well-prepared students cannot learn in MOOCs,”  researchers wrote.

In either setting, students will do better if they interact in small groups and participate in peer-to-peer learning, Pritchard told MIT News.

Pritchard hopes to track online students — “how long they spend watching lectures, how often they pause or repeat sections, how much of the textbook they read and when, and so on” — to figure out which online learning designs work best.

Many MOOCs have very high sign-up rates — after all, they’re free — but most students never start the course or quit after a few sessions. The study looked at those who stayed with the course to the end.