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Beware the Subjective Achievement Factors in MOOCs

People in more developed countries are twice as likely to complete a MOOC than people in underdeveloped countries due to language and other socio-psychological barriers.

MOOCs diversity inclusion trainingWhen MOOCs first emerged about five years ago learning leaders thought they would disrupt higher education, democratize education and bridge educational divides globally. But completion rates for massive, open, online courses have traditionally been low.

Students often aren’t motivated to complete courses they elect to take. A study by Stanford University found there were other factors prompting learners in underdeveloped countries to abandon courses, factors that did not focus on their level of skill.

René Kizilcec, co-founder of Stanford University’s Lytics Lab, an interdisciplinary research community around educational data science, led “Closing Global Achievement Gaps in MOOCs.” The study began with two courses from Stanford and Harvard University, the first in 2014 and the second in 2015.

People in more developed countries are twice as likely to complete a MOOC with a certificate than people in underdeveloped countries due to language barriers and lower levels of prior education, but there’s also a socio-psychological barrier. Those from less developed countries who enter a Western academic environment may be afraid that they will be judged negatively, or that they’re at a disadvantage because the learning is unfamiliar or packaged in a U.S.-centric way. Kizilcec said this fear — social identity threat — can cause reductions in learning, performance and working memory.

Kizilcec and his team came up with brief reading and writing interventions that can be inserted at no cost at the beginning of specific MOOCs to alleviate these concerns. One activity encouraged learners to write about core values, which helped make certain threats less important for their sense of self-integrity. A second activity assured learners that their doubts about belonging in the course were normal and not unique to members of their group.

People in less-developed countries benefited from these activities, and the gap in completion rates closed. A scaled-out version is ongoing, and interventions have been applied to some 50 courses at Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

“We need to be aware of the subjective experience of people,” Kizilcec said. “We tend to focus on tangible structural factors that are very important, but we tend to forget the subjective experience which … is terribly important for people in a historically underrepresented group.”

Kellye Whitney is associate editorial director for Chief Learning Officer. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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