Intervention helps online learners, study finds

by L&D23 Jan 2017
Whether learners are likely to succeed in online courses largely depends on where they live, according to new research.

The study, published in the Jan. 20 issue of Science, found that people in less-developed countries complete MOOCs at a lower rate than those in the more developed parts of the world.
The researcher team – headed by lead author René Kizilcec – found that while more than 25 million people enrolled in MOOCs between 2012 and 2015 (including 39% from less developed countries), the educated and affluent in all countries enrol in and complete their courses at relatively higher rates.

“Judged by completion rates, MOOCs do not spread benefits equitably across global regions. Rather, they reflect prevailing educational disparities between nations,” Kizilcec said.
“Although the global achievement gap could be caused by barriers in Least Developed Countries [LDCs), such as less broadband Internet access, formal education, and English proficiency, we explore another potential but underappreciated cause.”
He added that members of LDCs may suffer from the “cognitive burden” of wrestling with feeling unwelcome while trying to learn and, therefore, underperform.
“This can be exacerbated by social identity threat, which is the fear of being seen as less capable because of one's group,” he said.
“We discussed field experiments with interventions that targeted social identity threat and caused substantial improvements in MOOC persistence and completion rates among learners in LDCs, eliminating the global achievement gap.”
"It's not the average person in less-developed countries who is taking online courses," Kizilcec said. "These learners tend to be well educated and highly motivated. So, instead of focusing on structural barriers that are complex and expensive to overcome, we tested a psychological explanation."
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How to break the ‘psychological barrier’
Kizilcec and others theorise that a psychological barrier contributes to the global gap in MOOCs, namely social identity threat, which is a fear of being seen as less competent because of a social identity. Research has demonstrated that social identity threat can impair a person's working memory and academic performance.
However, Graduate School of Education and psychology Professor Geoffrey Cohen, who is a co-author on the study, showed in his previous work that simple interventions that encourage people to feel like they belong in the group helped reduce the effects of the social identity threat.
“Psychology matters even in a diverse worldwide population over the Internet, and a little gesture of inclusion can have a big effect on learning outcomes,” Cohen said.
Successful interventions Cohen used in face-to-face experiments were adapted for the online environment and implemented into the design of two MOOCs researched as part of the new study.
In both classes, learners were asked to complete an online activity before starting the MOOC. Some learners were randomly assigned a social belonging activity, which had them read and summarize testimonials from previous students about how they worried about belonging in the course at first but felt more comfortable with time.

Online education gained momentum in 2011 when institutions and entrepreneurs began developing different MOOC platforms. The following year, the New York Times called 2012 “the year of the MOOC as several well-financed providers, associated with top universities, emerged, including CourseraUdacity, and edX.
Since then, MOOCs has grown to become the most crucial enabler of distance education.