Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



First Advisor

Noah Finkelstein

Second Advisor

Michael Dubson

Third Advisor

Steven Pollock

Fourth Advisor

Scot Douglass

Fifth Advisor

Diane Sieber


Higher education institutions, such as the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder), have as a core mission to advance their students’ academic performance. On the frontier of education technologies that hold the promise to address our educational mission are Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are new enough to not be fully understood or well-researched. MOOCs, in theory, have vast potential for being cost-effective and for reaching diverse audiences across the world. This thesis examines the implementation of one MOOC, Physics 1 for Physical Science Majors, implemented in the augural round of institutionally sanctioned MOOCs in Fall 2013. While comparatively inexpensive to a brick-and-mortar course and while it initially enrolled audience of nearly 16,000 students, this MOOC was found to be time-consuming to implement, and only roughly 1.5% of those who enrolled completed the course -- approximately 1/4 of those who completed the standard brick and mortar course that the MOOC was designed around. An established education technology, residential communities, contrast the MOOCs by being high-touch and highly humanized, but by being expensive and locally-based. The Andrews Hall Residential College (AHRC) on the CU campus fosters academic success and retention by engaging and networking students outside of the standard brick and mortar courses and enculturating students into an environment with vertical integration through the different classes: freshman, sophomore, junior, etc. The physics MOOC and the AHRC were studied to determine how the environments were made and what lessons were learned in the process. Also, student performance was compared for the physics MOOC, a subset of the AHRC students enrolled in a special physics course, and the standard CU Physics 1 brick and mortar course. All yielded similar learning gains for physics 1 performance, for those who completed the courses. These environments are presented together to compare and contrast their strengths and weaknesses so that the best pieces can be synthesized for future innovation to better encourage academic success in higher education.