The role culture plays in MOOC success

As MOOCs have grown in popularity, so too have attempts to improve them, whether that’s in terms of the demographics of the student body, the acceptance of qualifications in the labor market, or the completion rate.

One such study, which I covered a few years ago, suggested that we need to approach the pedagogy of MOOCs in a different way to capitalize on their potential.

The authors believe that the passive nature of MOOCs is often detrimental to the effectiveness of them, and that a more interactive approach would work much better.

The research forms part of Carnegie Mellon’s Simon Initiative, which aims to improve learning outcomes by improving the science behind education.  Their approach utilizes the interactive method of learning pioneered by the university’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI).

“Learning by doing gives students deliberative practice opportunities to address a course’s objectives,” the authors say. “With OLI, students get immediate feedback. If they do not master a concept, they have to go back to re-watch or re-read and then demonstrate they have learned before they are able to move on.”

One size doesn’t fit all

A recent Stanford study takes a slightly different approach, and focuses instead on the variance among the students themselves.  They argue that the cultural differences between students, especially in terms of individualism vs collectivism, can play a huge role in the success of their participation.

“Educational researchers have studied students either by observing them in classrooms or through controlled laboratory experiments,” the authors say. “For the first time, we have a lab in an authentic learning environment with large and diverse groups of people participating. Now we can learn much faster about how to support different learners through rapid experimentation and big data.”

The study saw 18,000 students from over 80 countries analyzed as they completed two Stanford MOOCs.  They received an intervention consisting of a two-part writing activity based upon a clear psychological strategy to provoke attempts to overcome obstacles in the participant.

For instance, participants would write about a couple of positive outcomes, and a couple of obstacles they faced with their MOOC.  They followed this with ‘if-then’ plans to help them overcome the obstacles.

Putting into practice

When the students subsequent performance was analyzed, it didn’t appear as though the intervention made much difference, until that is the researchers examined performance along cultural lines.

Those from more individualistic cultures saw a significant rise in completion rates after the intervention, with as many as 32% more finishing the course.  Those from more collectivist cultures however, saw no change in their completion rates after the intervention.

When the data was investigated still further, more intrigue was uncovered.  It emerged that those from individualist countries were especially helped by the intervention when the obstacles they had to overcome were relatively straightforward, such as family or work obligations.  When the obstacle was more practical however, such as a lack of Internet connection or a lack of time, the intervention was much less useful.

“If you’re in a less-developed country and the internet is out for two or three days, there’s not much you can do, even if you plan ahead,” the authors say.

Local differences

When the researchers investigated this in more detail, it emerged that the kind of obstacles students faced in collectivist cultures, they were often more challenging than those faced in more individualist cultures.  What’s more, many of the students spoken to, especially from India, revealed complex social environments that were not suitable for the relatively straightforward intervention proposed by the team.

“Just because a result is established in the literature doesn’t mean it will replicate everywhere,” the authors say. “The if-then approach to making plans resonates with Western individualistic tendencies. It is very analytic and it requires a sense of personal agency and a willingness to structure uncertain life situations. But once you take it to a more collectivist context, as we can see, it doesn’t work as well.”

To overcome these more challenging obstacles, the researchers suggest a degree of social accountability might help.  For instance, if students share their enrollment with friends, they can engage a wider support network to help keep them engaged and complete the course.

Suffice to say, the successful interventions were not confined to the online sphere, and were equally successful in traditional classrooms, and even the students wider life.  It suggests they could be a very cost-effective way of improving the lives of large numbers.

“We can provide this kind of activity to many people at no cost,” the authors conclude. “It takes only a few minutes for people to fill out and almost no time to implement. It could help millions of people, especially if it is targeted at those who are expected to benefit.”

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