A research project has recently been carried out at Pennsylvania State University that looked into different modes of communication with a view to improving MOOCs' completion rate.
The Massive Open Online Courses, referred to a MOOCs, are reported to have a staggeringly low 10 per cent completion rate.
While the study found that separating learners into different groups based on communication preferences didn't help to improve course completion, collaborators say that it has given a valuable and necessary insight into the learning methods of students across different cultures, age groups, genders and educational backgrounds.
The Penn State research project, titled "Exploring the communication preferences of MOOC learners and the value of preference-based groups: Is grouping enough?", was focused predominantly on putting learners into different study groups, based on their communication preferences.
Volunteers who took part in the study had to fill in a pre-course online survey and were then assigned to groups based on their preferred modes of communication. One of these was the asynchronous mode, which allows students to learn at their own pace through widely used online communication tools such as emails and forums. The other was the synchronous mode, which is a more immediate form of communication such as via live chat and videoconferences.
According to one of the study's collaborators, Adelina Hristova, a PhD student in adult education, organizing the students into groups didn't "significantly influence students' course performance and completion."
However, another collaborator, Kathryn Jablokow, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design at Penn State Great Valley, has spoken in glowing terms about the insights provided by the undertaking of the project. She said:
"It has provided me with 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. Those insights influence how I formulate new research studies, and the MOOC also gives me a unique setting in which to test and disseminate new research results."
MIT Tech Review's Justin Pope has previously written about "MOOCs' famously high dropout rates. A widely cited figure is that 90 percent of students don't finish their courses; a study at Penn determined that the number was 96 percent."
However, he also cites MIT physicist David Pritchard in saying that these numbers are misleading, as most of the students that dropped out can be classified as "window shoppers who face no cost barrier to trying a lecture or two." This accounts for the extremely low completion rate and the fact that "half of the people in the Penn study dropped out before the first class".
According to Pope, this should be seen as one of the victories of MOOC courses; the fact that one can learn what they want to at will without having to sit through an entire course.
The first MOOCs emerged during the open educational resources (OER) movement, and the term MOOC was coined by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island.
According to the New York Times, 2012 was "the year of the MOOC". They stated that MOOCs had "been around for a few years as collaborative techie learning events, but [2012 was] the year everyone want[ed] in."
2012 saw the emergence of a handful of well-financed organizations, such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, providing MOOCs and partnering with top universities including Princeton, Brown and Columbia.