For MOOCs to Work, We Need to Talk

Online courses have proven they can attract thousands of students, but then almost all of them drop out before finishing the course. Well, guess what? Sitting at home alone and staring at a pre-recording lecture is just about the most boring thing ever, as Geoffrey Fowler writes in a Wall Street Journal article published on October 9, 2013. Learning scientists have known this for years: we have decades of research showing that engagement and social interaction result in more effective learning.* Fowler reports that MOOC developers are re-discovering the same thing:

“The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is
interpersonal interaction and support,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant
director of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. She has
compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community-college
students and faculty in Virginia and Washington state. Among her findings: In
Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses,
compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.

Learning scientists have also known for decades that getting students to talk to each other, while they are learning, results in better learning.* MOOC developers are re-discovering this solid finding, as well:

One way to provide personal interaction at mass scale is to get students talking to each other. Several studies suggest that many students who spend more time contributing to course discussion forums end up performing better. More than answering specific questions, the boards send a message, says Mr. Ng [a co-founder of Coursera]: “You are not alone.”

A study of the online-only version of edX’s course Circuits and Electronics offered in the spring and summer of 2012 found a mild correlation between the number of posts people made in the discussion forum and their final grades. Some 52% of the students who earned a certificate for the course were active in discussion forums, according to the study by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT and Andrew Ho, an associate professor at Harvard.

I’ve been arguing that educational technology developers need to work more closely with learning scientists, so they don’t keep reinventing the wheel. (And even worse, reinventing the wheel after they spend millions of dollars first trying ineffective shapes like squares and triangles.) In the new master’s degree program I’m creating at the University of North Carolina–in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–we’re going to make sure students get a solid grounding in the learning sciences. That way, ed tech innovations will be much more likely to result in solid learning outcomes.

*Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

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