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Assuring learners from less developed countries that they belong and encouraging them to share their core values can help them succeed in online courses, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have found.

The study, “Closing Global Achievement Gaps in MOOCs: Brief Interventions Address Social Identity Threat at Scale,” doesn’t focus on the structural challenges that keep those learners from finishing massive open online courses, such as insufficient English language skills or internet access. Instead it looks at what MOOC designers and instructors can do to create an environment in an online course that tells learners they are able to do well regardless of their background.

The findings, which suggest something as simple as a one-time, 10-minute exercise can double persistence and completion rates, joins research that has found at-risk learners need additional support when studying online. This study, which was published in the Jan. 20 issue of Science, explores that concept on an international level.

“Social identity threat appears to be a barrier to performance in an international learning context, even an online environment with little social interaction,” the report reads. “Psychological and learning sciences can help turn an accessible educational experience into an equitable one.”

Millions of people have signed up for MOOCs since the beginning of the decade, but millions more have signed up and dropped out. Researchers have over the last several years begun to piece together what makes learners persist, finding certain characteristics in learners that make them more likely to finish the courses (such as whether they complete an optional precourse survey), course delivery methods that keep learners engaged (short video lectures followed by quick assignments have emerged as a popular structure) and behavioral tools that limit procrastination.

Critics of MOOCs initially seized on their low completion rates, which have frequently dipped into the single percentage points. MOOC providers and some researchers have pushed back against that argument, however, pointing out that there are bound to be many learners who drop out or never show up in the first place when registering is as simple as clicking a few buttons.

As MOOCs have evolved and researchers have learned more about who appears to benefit from them, a different line of criticism has emerged: MOOCs, despite the talk about “democratizing” education and bringing famous professors to all corners of the world, have in many cases attracted working professionals with advanced degrees.

“Judged by completion rates, MOOCs do not spread benefits equitably across global regions,” the report reads. “Rather, they reflect prevailing educational disparities between nations.”

The researchers, René F. Kizilcec, Andrew J. Saltarelli and Geoffrey L. Cohen of Stanford and Justin Reich of MIT, explored two ways instructors can boost morale among students who feel like they may not belong in an online course. In two experiments, random learners in two MOOCs were assigned to complete either a writing exercise in which they reflected on their personal values and how they were connected to the course material, or a reading exercise that presented them with testimonials from previous learners who initially were unsure about whether they belonged in that course but grew more confident over time. Most learners finished the exercises in about 10 minutes.

Both exercises closed the persistence gaps between students from less and more developed countries, the researchers found. In the original experiment, conducted in 2014, learners from less developed countries (such as Egypt, India and Pakistan) who completed the exercises studied twice as much course material as those who didn’t, effectively doubling their persistence rates.

The researchers found the same effect in a 2015 replication experiment, which also looked at the impact on completion rates. Learners from less developed countries in the control group posted a completion rate of 17 percent, but the rate jumped to 28 percent and 41 percent for learners who completed the writing and reading exercises, respectively. The researchers used the United Nations' Human Development Index to determine whether to classify countries as less or more developed.

Curiously, the researchers found that the reading exercise had a negative effect on learners in more developed countries (such as Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.). Those learners posted a 23 percent completion rate, down nine percentage points from the control group.

The researchers suggested heaping affirmation on students from more developed countries could actually make them less engaged, not more.

Kizilcec, lead author of the report, said the activities tested in the study go beyond simple "nudges," which may influence short-term decision making but not change people's behavior long term.

“The power of the psychological interventions in this study is that they target people’s construals and attributions, that is, how they interpret the situation and make sense of what is happening,” Kizilcec, who recently defended his dissertation at Stanford, wrote. “This can have a profound and lasting impact on behavior and academic performance.”

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