Osa Ohiomoba works on his laptop outside Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH)
"Massive open online courses," or MOOCs — the fast-growing movement to put higher-education courses online for free, have gotten the attention of President Obama.
"Universities like Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State, they're starting to show that online learning can help students master the same material in less time and often at lower costs," Obama said recently.
But the jury is still out on the effectiveness of online courses: Are they worth the hype or a passing fad?
At Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown second-year computer science student Osa Ohiomoba sinks into a chair in the student lounge, his fingers dancing across his laptop, his eyes fixed on zeros and ones on his screen.
While other students buzz around him playing ping-pong and chatting, Osa stays focused on his computer screen, watching a highly-produced online video seminar. He's taking a massive open online course on how to write computer code for programs that you might take for granted.
Osa Ohiomoba takes a break from his online studies. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH)
"When I get bored or finish a section, I'll get up and play a game," Osa said. "Come back. See what I've absorbed … If I've absorbed enough, I'm feeling good, I'll move on to the next section."
But what if he's not feeling good about the material?
"I won't be down here," he said. "I'll usually be in the library or somewhere else."
Osa can be anywhere — at a coffee shop or in his bedroom in his pajamas. MOOCs like the one he¹s taking are mobile.
For the past two years, Harvard and MIT have been bringing their new online teaching models to students like Osa at Bunker Hill Community College. And like many students here, Osa is busy. He's in student government. He plays in a band. And he has a full-time job off campus as a systems administrator.
Despite his frenetic schedule, Osa sees these online courses as a tremendous opportunity to access a prestigious education from engineers at MIT and Harvard that he might not have gained otherwise.
"I have a lot of different things going on throughout the day, so it¹s pretty hard to manage time," he said.
Osa is one of millions who've signed up for free massive open online courses. They're all trying to balance schedules, hoping to learn something that will give them the edge in a tight job market.
But there are questions surrounding MOOCs: Are they worth all the hype? Are they just the latest campus fad? And what does this new technology mean for the business models of the vast majority of colleges?
While enrollment at traditional colleges and universities has fallen flat in recent years, online enrollment has skyrocketed. But how effective are online courses?
Shanna Smith-Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. (Jeannie Choi for WGBH)
"The problem is that we don¹t really have hard evidence on that yet at least in terms of MOOCs," said Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, who studies online courses. Do they work? Do people who take them get ahead? Do they increase access for low-income students and close achievement gaps?
It turns out, despite recent rapid growth in online learning, little is actually known about the effectiveness of these courses for community college students.
"But we do have a lot of information on online courses in general, which suggests to us that if you were to offer MOOCs for regular course credit, the outcomes might not be really good for a lot of students," Smith Jaggars said.
Smith Jaggars and her colleagues at Columbia have been crunching the numbers, pouring over surveys from community college students in two different states: Virginia and Washington. Their research included more than 50 colleges, tens of thousands of students, and hundreds of thousands of courses taken over several years.
"We found that when the same student takes an online section of a course they tend to do less well than if they take a face-to-face section of the course," Smith Jaggars said.
Some studies show that for every ten people who sign up for a MOOC, only one completes the free online course. So Smith Jaggars cautions colleges and universities eager to embrace new technology to slow down.
"We have to make sure that we're not running ahead of the research on how students are going to perform in these classes," she said.
Still, some say there's real potential for massive open online courses to increase access and expand the higher-ed tent to cover more low-income and nontraditional students.
Inside his lab at MIT, Professor Sanjay Sarma shows some of his students' experiments. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)
"We need to make sure that our populace is equipped to play ball in a world that¹s changing," Sarma said.
Sarma runs MIT's department of digital education. He was initially skeptical about the potential of free online learning.
"You just don't want to run headlong into something, but you've got to start the research somewhere," he said.
As part of its research, MIT has been collecting and assessing data on how well students learn both in-person and online. And Sarma says initial results are mixed.
"People who are diligent early, you can almost predict their success," Sarma said. "And the folks who fall off in the first couple of weeks — they never actually come back up because they lose faith, they lose momentum."
Sarma's research will help determine what works and what doesn't in online learning. His results will help improve online courses at MIT and at community colleges.
One thing is clear: Higher education is becoming a fully disrupted market and we've entered a new era of massive change.
"You no longer need a teacher to acquire knowledge," said Tony Wagner, who follows education trends at Harvard. He says it's not a failure of the technology if people follow a course for three or four weeks and then decide to go do something else.
"We teachers used to have a corner on the market," he said. "You had to go to us because we were the only ones who had the clay tablets, the papyrus reads and then later those expensive things called books."
Wagner believes it doesn't matter what graduates know anymore. It's how they use what they know.
"The real challenge of colleges in the future will be: Can they add value beyond content knowledge?" Wagner said. "Can they develop skill and will? Because those are the things that matter in terms of what the world is going to demand of us."
For many colleges, what was innovative a few years ago is now conventional. And as college costs continue to rise, everyone involved in higher education is trying to find ways to add value.
Osa Ohiomoba commutes to Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown.(Meredith Nierman/WGBH)