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Small interventions, big effects: Closing the MOOC achievement gap

Techniques that develop a sense of belonging help to improve global MOOC persistence and completion rates.
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Researchers are collaborating to close the achievement gap in MOOCs worldwide.
Researchers are collaborating to close the achievement gap in MOOCs worldwide.
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Between 2012 and 2015, more than 25 million people enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs), including 39 percent from developing countries. While this democratization of educational opportunities is certainly worth celebrating, a team of researchers from MIT and Stanford University recently discovered that the benefits of MOOCs are not spread equitably across global regions.

“The central problem we have in our educational systems is inequality. There are many great learning opportunities out there, they just aren’t equitably distributed,” explains study coauthor Justin Reich, who is the executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and a research scientist within the MIT Office of Digital Learning.

It’s tempting to chalk up this disparity to lack of broadband access or English-language proficiency. But the research team led by Stanford's Rene Kizilcec, Geoff Cohen, Andy Saltarelli, and MIT's Reich suggests another underappreciated cause: social identity threat.

In “Closing the Global Achievement Gaps in MOOCs,” published Jan. 20 in Science, the team defines social identity threat as a feeling of unwelcome, or a fear of being stereotyped as less capable because of one’s group. These cognitive burdens can impair working memory, learning and performance.

How can educators fight back? In two studies conducted a year apart, the team tested the theory that brief interventions, or “nudges,” can dramatically close the gap caused by social identity threat, especially when timed to accompany key moments in a class.

In the experiments, students were randomly assigned one of three interventions — in this case, writing activities — at the beginning of their MOOC. The “Value Relevance” intervention asked students to share how taking the course reflects their core values. The “Social Belonging” intervention had participants review testimonials from past students, and write advice of their own. The control intervention asked students to read and write about study skills, an activity shown to have no impact on performance. Outcomes were measured in terms of persistence, assessed by the amount of course material the three groups engaged with after the intervention.   

In both studies, the interventions had dramatic effects — in some cases doubling persistence in learners from less-developed countries, and often eliminating the global achievement gap entirely.

“Though many had inklings that the gap was there, being able to identify it consistently across so many courses and learners was profound and provided us the foundation to dig deeper and explore interventions that could address this gap at such a scale,” reports Andy Saltarelli, a co-author of the study and a senior director of teaching design and practice in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning at Stanford.

These encouraging results raise a number of interesting questions: What are the root causes of social identity threat in MOOCs? How do they differ from causes found in more traditional in-person classroom experiences? Will interventions help other groups who face social identity threats, such as minorities and women in traditionally male-dominated fields?

The next stage of the team’s research, currently underway at MIT, Stanford, and Harvard University, may shed light on these questions. The team will conduct larger replication studies, testing the effectiveness of “nudges” across dozens of classes and tens of thousands of students.

As leader of the research at MIT, Reich believes the experiments can help further refine educational interventions at the Institute — both for MOOCs and more traditional classes — and create new, powerful applications for “nudges” moving forward.

Says Reich: “We’re here to help every student come to class with a frame of mind that leads to success. That’s what it’s all about.”

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