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Research raises MOOC participation concerns

Even as massive open online courses (MOOCs) continue to assume an increasingly prominent role in higher education, the majority of enrolled students fail to participate in online forums meant to reproduce a classroom environment, according to University researchers.

Having examined forum usage data from 23 Stanford MOOCs offered from early 2012 to early 2013, researchers from the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) found a positive correlation between forum participation and student scores, even as fewer than 10 percent of all students enrolled – which for some classes can total in the thousands — posted to the forums at all.

“One of the great things about these MOOCs is the diversity,” said Marc Sanders Ph.D. ’94, a VPOL instructional designer and one of the researchers. “You can think of having 30,000 people or 100,000 people in your class as being kind of overwhelming.”

“If people don’t post, you don’t get the value of diversity,” added Jane Manning M.A. ’93 Ph.D. ’94, VPOL’s director of platforms and another researcher. “So there’s an argument for why posting would be important.”

Among students who scored above 10 percent in their course, an average of 12.3 percent students made at least one forum post, while 21.7 percent of students who scored above 90 percent participated in the forums at least once.

Even so, Manning and Sanders hesitated to assess the MOOC concept’s overall effectiveness solely as a product of low forum usage.

“MOOCs are different things to different people and they serve different purposes,” Manning said. “The fact that the attrition is high or the complete rate is low…that doesn’t mean the courses are bad. So measuring the efficacy of MOOCs is tricky.”

“This [research] might say that actually not that large a percentage of the effectiveness comes from the [social] experience for many people,” Sanders conceded. “I don’t think it says anything about the effectiveness of MOOCs.”

Low forum usage may indicate a lack of need for synchronous MOOCs, in which students register and take the course during a defined time period.

“There’s no reason to artificially limit access to the materials to a certain period in the hopes of fostering a forum community,” Sanders said. “Maybe lots of students would benefit from the materials being available all the time even if that would hurt the forum community.”

Kristin Sainani M.S. ’99 Ph.D. ’02, clinical assistant professor of medicine and an instructor for a “Statistics in Medicine” MOOC, noted that in her experience students still used forums productively.

“For my forums, they’re definitely useful in the sense of stats questions that get answered by other students,” Sainani said. “I think it’s a learning experience just to be able to communicate with each other in that way.”

Going forward, Manning and Sanders hope to examine more data from various aspects of MOOCs’ broad usage.

“We’d like to correlate this forum-posting data with demographic data, gender and age and so forth,” Manning said.

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