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Research: Facebook May Keep Students in MOOCs

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have published a study that suggests students may be more likely to stick with massive open online courses (MOOCs) if they use Facebook.

Saijing Zheng, a former doctoral student at Penn State and current research scientist at Microsoft led the research and said she found that open course students were more engaged on Facebook groups and preferred interacting more on the social media site than through the course tools. That may be good news for MOOC instructors who, according to Zheng, get frustrated because 90 percent of students who enroll in MOOCs leave the course after less than two weeks.

"Social media may provide another communication channel for the students," Zheng said. "Current MOOC platforms do not include collaborative features for students to work together or good conversation channels between students and between students and teachers."

Interacting with fellow students and teachers in Facebook groups and other social media sites is sometimes easier than through the conventional course tools. One advantage of Facebook groups is that users tend to sign up with their real names while students can create fake personas on course message boards and forums.

Students also appreciate that Facebook offers several ways to contact the professor, she said. They can reply to a post, like a post and even send a private message. Students on Facebook groups can meet and chat weeks before the course starts and, in some cases, long after it ends.

Facebook replies and posts also tend to be better organized than message board conversations, which can easily become buried among other posts, according to the researchers.

"Students often have information overload and they become confused in the MOOC platform message forum," Zheng said. "For example, the same topic might be posted several times, but people won't be able to see it."

For the study, the researchers collected data from three different courses on Coursera, a platform that hosts MOOCs, and from Facebook groups. They found that less than 10 percent of Coursera users posted content while 28 percent of Facebook users were active in the three course groups. The research team, led by Zheng, also interviewed several MOOC instructors and students for the research report.

The findings were announced at the annual Association for Computer Machinery Conference on Learning at Scale at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland, in late April.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.

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