Small interventions, big effects: Closing the MOOC achievement gap

MIT Campus News

Between 2012 and 2015, more than 25 million people enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs), including 39 percent from developing countries. While this democratization of educational opportunities is certainly worth celebrating, a team of researchers from MIT and Stanford University recently discovered that the benefits of MOOCs are not spread equitably across global regions.

“The central problem we have in our educational systems is inequality. There are many great learning opportunities out there, they just aren’t equitably distributed,” explains study coauthor Justin Reich, who is the executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab and a research scientist within the MIT Office of Digital Learning.

It’s tempting to chalk up this disparity to lack of broadband access or English-language proficiency. But the research team led by Stanford’s Rene Kizilcec, Geoff Cohen, Andy Saltarelli, and MIT’s Reich suggests another underappreciated cause: social identity threat.

In “Closing the Global Achievement Gaps in MOOCs,” published Jan. 20 in Science, the team defines social identity threat as a feeling of unwelcome, or a fear of being stereotyped as less capable because of one’s group. These cognitive burdens can impair working memory, learning and performance.

How can educators fight back? In two studies conducted a year apart, the team tested the theory that brief interventions, or “nudges,” can dramatically close the gap caused by social identity threat, especially when timed to accompany key moments in a class.

In the experiments, students were randomly assigned one of three interventions — in this case, writing activities — at the beginning of their MOOC. The “Value Relevance” intervention asked students to share how taking the course reflects their core values. The “Social Belonging” intervention had participants review testimonials from past students, and write advice of their own. The control intervention asked students to read and write about study skills, an activity shown to have no impact on performance. Outcomes were measured …

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