How to improve MOOC completion rates in developing countries

The completion rate of MOOCs has been something of an open sore for sometime.  Equally perturbing is the relative homogeneity among the student body, with most students already possessing a degree of some kind.

These two issues converge in the developing world, where the uptake of MOOCs has been some way from ideal.  A Stanford based team believe that some simple, brief psychological interventions can rectify matters.

“MOOCs have expanded access to education but this doesn’t guarantee equal opportunities for people around the world,” the authors say. “Providing access to the internet and courseware is not enough. People need to feel welcome in online-learning environments to reach their potential.”

Growing confidence

The biggest gap in achievements among MOOC students have been geographic, with the paper analyzing completion rates alongside the UN Human Development Index, which measures things such as life expectancy and standard of living.

The analysis revealed that the lower the development index for the country the student was from correlated with a lower completion rate.

“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,” the authors say.

As we already know, most MOOC students are well educated, so it wasn’t that those from developing countries were not able enough to participate, but the researchers hypothesized that they may not have felt like they belonged on the courses.

Social identity threat

It’s a concept known as social identity threat, which is a fear we have that our social identity will cause others to view us as less competent.  It’s something that is known to impair performance.

Thankfully, there are some relatively simple steps that can be undertaken to overcome these psychological hurdles, with the intervention raising completion rates from 17% to 41%.

The intervention involved participants taking a simple test before starting the MOOC.  For some, this was a social belonging related activity that highlighted how past students felt a sense of belonging the more they involved themselves in the course.  The other participants were given an affirmation activity whereby they were told how the course reflected their core values.

The experiment was conducted on several thousand MOOC students on courses offered by both Harvard and Stanford across a number of disciplines.  It found that both interventions helped learners from less-developed countries, but the affirmation intervention had the biggest impact.

“It is an impressive result which suggests that social identity threat can be a barrier to performance in international learning contexts, even in online environments with little social interaction,” the authors say. “It goes to show that a small change to the online experience can have profound and lasting effects if it influences people’s perceptions of an environment.”

The aim now is to both further test out these interventions on a wider range of courses to prove their rigor, before then rolling them out on courses to try and narrow the gaps between students from different backgrounds.


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