Distance Learning

Stanford Video Discussion Group Tool Leads to Improved Outcomes

Stanford University is testing out the use of small group video discussions to see what impact it has on learning outcomes for people in massive open, online courses. So far it looks like scores on exams and assignments go up for participants.

"Talkabout," as the program is called, is available for a specific set of courses being offered through Coursera, which hosts the university's MOOC offerings. The project encompassed courses led by instructors who were willing to incorporate the optional discussion groups.

The basic idea is this: In a Talkabout-integrated class, students choose a time that works for their schedule and the program will organize a discussion session with about half a dozen people from around the world who are taking the same course. Talkabout integrates a custom agenda created by the faculty member to guide the discussion each week. Then it sends email reminders to the group members to bring them into a Google Hangout where they hold their discussion. Neither the instructor nor researchers moderated the discussion groups. So far nearly 18,000 students from 130 countries have tried out the new addition.

The program was developed by Stanford computer science Professor Michael Bernstein, his graduate student Chinmay Kulkarni and Scott Klemmer, formerly a Stanford professor of computer science and currently associate professor of computer science & engineering and cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego and a director in UCSD's Design Lab.

What the researchers have found out so far is that compared to enrollees who didn't use Talkabout, those who did were more engaged in the MOOC and saw about a half letter grade improvement in assessments.

The guidelines encouraged people using Talkabout to review topics brought up in the course lectures, but also to offer unique local perspectives on course material. Based on the amount of time participants stayed in their discussion groups, researchers concluded they were a popular option for MOOCs. "The classes required a 30-minute discussion," said Bernstein. "But the average discussion group lasted nearly an hour."

"I think talking to people from faraway places is the biggest opportunity MOOCs can offer," noted Kulkarni, lead author on a recent paper in Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing that describes the Talkabout tool.

The researchers tested how the diversity of the members of each group influenced participant performance. Talkabout was programmed to create groups with either a low or high diversity. Students in the "high-diversity" groups outperformed those in the "low-diversity" groups, a result that Kulkarni and Bernstein are interested in exploring further.

"It could be that the contrasts among them deepened their understanding," Kulkarni said, "or mediation, where you help explain what the instructor said to someone who did not understand."

While the researchers have made Talkabout available free to MOOC instructors who want to add the functionality into their own courses, they warned that the discussion groups have to be integrated "carefully" into the MOOC and publicized to students. "If you want people to participate, you have to treat it like educational technology, not social technology," Bernstein said. "It's not a magic panacea, but when integrated correctly into a curriculum it can have a positive effect."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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