Research: Student Participation Declines Dramatically in MOOCs

A new study shows that student participation declines dramatically over time in massive open online courses (MOOCs). With the launch of MOOCs in 2012, many believed that offering online versions of university classes could attract vast audiences of high-quality students from all over the world, and these courses could be an alternative to traditional on-campus learning.

Various studies showing that student enrollment is growing in MOOCs, but completion rates are declining. MOOC providers are taking steps to improve education quality and course completion rate.

The study, conducted by Christopher Brinton and colleagues at Princeton University, involved more than 100,000 students taking MOOCs. The researchers studied students' behavior in online discussion forums and found that participation rates fall quickly and continuously throughout a course.

Almost half of registered students never post more than twice to the forums, according to MIT Technology Review.

Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that the university's online classes program had failed miserably. According to the researchers, only 4% completed a course, while only about half of the students who registered ever viewed a lecture.

Brinton and team studied the discussion threads associated with 73 courses offered by Coursera, the leading MOOC provider based in United States. These involved 115,000 students who wrote over 800,000 posts in 170,000 different threads. Then, the researchers plotted how the volume of discussion varied through the course and what factors correlate with this drop.

Brinton and co say they've found various correlations with the drop. One of these is the amount of peer-graded homework on the course, a factor which moderately increases the rate of decline. More worrying is the discovery that teacher involvement in a thread seems to accelerate the decline (although it also increases the number of posts).

There are three categories of posts, according to Brinton and team. The first category is small talk, student introductions and the like, that are of little use in completing the course. The second category is about course logistics such as when to file homework, and the third category is course-specific questions which are the most useful for students.

The problem is that the useful posts are drowned out by the others, particularly the small talk. "For humanities and social sciences courses, on average more than 30% of the threads are classified as small-talk even long after a course is launched," according to Brinton and co. "Small-talk is a major source of information overload in the forums."

In order to resolve this problem, the researchers have developed an automated system that spots small talk and filters it out, allowing students to focus on the useful posts. However, it is still not clear whether it will improve the failing metrics for MOOCs. There is scope for more work to identify the reasons why the courses fail to work for so many students.

12 25, 2013
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