MOOCs’ failure: lack of social-belonging factor

We base much of Reality Learnings’ success on its’ high level of inclusivity.  It enables personal, empathetic engagement from all participants, even with  high levels of student diversity. This is integral to the total design.

MOOCs’ new psychological mapping strategies aimed at increasing inclusivity,  may in the long run be perceived by students as generic as the learner experience they were installed to change. However, understanding that learning success is more about psychological experiences than just information-led activities is a start. Read more from John Ross, Sydney Higher Education reporter.

“Massive open online courses were supposed to democratise education, teleporting the world’s best universities to students anywhere, from Boston to Botswana.

But these equitable aspirations have fallen short, with MOOCs’ notoriously steep dropout rates proving highest in developing countries.

Analysts have blamed internet access and the educational background and English-language skills of Third World students. But online learning experts from two of the world’s top MOOC producers — Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — believe the problems could be more psychological.

They say the gap in completion can be closed or even reversed by laying out the psychological welcome mat.

In experiments outlined in the journal Science, the team effectively doubled the achievement rate of Third World students enrolled in two MOOCs — a 2014 Stanford course on computer science and a 2015 Harvard University offering on public policy — by embedding them with two short written tasks.

Each activity was designed to neutralise “social identity threat” — the perception of being an outsider because of one’s race, gender or social status — which researchers have found can affect learning and memory.

One, a “value relevance affirmation”, cajoled participants into boosting their self-esteem by elucidating cherished personal values such as family relationships.

The other, the “social-belonging intervention”, obliged participants to read supposed testimonials from previous students describing how they had overcome worries about whether they belonged. The participants then wrote similar letters of advice to future students.

The experiments involved almost 3500 students including about 450 from less developed countries such as India, Pakistan and Egypt. Third World students who undertook the social-belonging task ultimately completed at a rate just 2 percentage points behind their Western counterparts, compared to a 15 percentage point gap in a control group.

Developing world students who undertook the affirmation task saw an even more dramatic improvement, with their completion rates increasing by 24 percentage points while the rate among Western students dropped 9 percentage points.

The researchers said this reversal accorded with previous research suggesting affirmations could prompt people not under duress to look for different things to do with their time.

Lead author Rene Kizilcec, a Stanford social scientist, said similar interventions had boosted achievement among under-represented groups in the US. This was the first time they had been shown to work in an international context and in online environments with little social interaction.

Dr Kizilcec said MOOC designers should consider embedding similar activities in their courses, tailored to those likely to benefit. “The interventions are quick, inexpensive and scalable and we have scientific evidence that they improved outcomes.”

He said it was ironic that most MOOCs took a one-size-fits-all approach, given that “there have never been classrooms this diverse”. Digital environments allowed the learning experience to be personalised, he said.

For example, Third World students could receive the types of interventions used in the study, while counterparts in countries such as Australia could be given “plan-making” activities that helped them stay engaged.

Dr Kizilcec said Harvard and MIT researchers were now analysing more than 40 MOOCs to identify the groups of students likely to benefit from different types of interventions.”

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