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Grouping MOOC Students by Communication Mode Doesn't Help Completion

A research project at Pennsylvania State University looked at how to improve the completion rate for people who undertake massive open online courses — a rate that currently stands at a dismal 10 percent. The study examined the impact of putting learners into study groups with different kinds of communication based on their stated preferences.

The results, "Exploring the communication preferences of MOOC learners and the value of preference-based groups: Is grouping enough?" were published in the March 4, 2016 edition of Educational Technology Research & Development. The work was sponsored by Penn State's Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL).

A team of seven researchers undertook an examination of participants in a Penn State MOOC, "Creativity, Innovation and Change," which was delivered on Coursera and drew 200,000 people from 190 countries in 2013 and 2014. Volunteers in the course were asked to fill out a pre-course survey online to provide demographic information and designate their learning preferences: Did they prefer to be part of a group that used asynchronous text posts, synchronous text chats, or synchronous video and audio as their primary channels for communication?

The research also considered whether assigning learners to groups based on their preferences improved their performance or completion of the course.

According to collaborator Adelina Hristova, a doctoral student in adult education, as it turned out, the groupings didn't "significantly influence students' course performance and completion." However, she added, the results of the study can serve as "baseline data for making grouping decisions in future online courses, including MOOCs."

Kathryn Jablokow, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design at Penn State Great Valley, who also worked on the project, said the research gave her a "fabulous opportunity to study how students of different ages, cultures, genders and educational backgrounds learn and practice some of the subjects that I teach — namely, design, problem-solving and creativity."

The research did uncover a few interesting findings related to gender and age. First, there was a "positive association" between student age and course completion. "Learners who were 40 years old or older were more likely to complete the course or complete it 'with distinction' than learners under 40," said Jablokow.

Second, gender influences study preferences. Female students showed a higher likelihood of wanting to study in groups than male students did. Also, male students had a higher likelihood of preferring synchronous communication than female students.

Those types of insights, Jablokow added, "influence how I formulate new research studies." For example, "Observing reactions 'at scale' makes you think differently about what you want to ask and explore."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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