A Gentle Nudge Can Increase Participation in MOOCs
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Operations Innovation Dec 7, 2015

A Gentle Nudge Can Increase Participation in MOOCs

Reminders to collaborate benefit students in massive open online courses.

Two people collaborate online.

Runeer via iStock

Based on the research of

Dennis J. Zhang

Gad Allon

Jan A. Van Mieghem

The Internet was supposed to revolutionize and democratize education. In particular, massive open online courses (MOOCs) were going to, as the New York Times wrote in 2012, “bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet.”

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While MOOCs have indeed opened up cours­es taught by fac­ul­ty from renowd­ed insti­tu­tions to stu­dents all over the world, a per­sis­tent con­cern is low com­ple­tion rates: only about five per­cent of peo­ple who reg­is­ter for the cours­es actu­al­ly fin­ish them. Most peo­ple, it seems, have a hard time engag­ing with course mate­r­i­al in the iso­la­tion of their own homes — par­tic­uar­ly when they have lit­tle finan­cial skin in the game.

Peo­ple have start­ed to real­ize that MOOCs may not do what some of the ear­ly vision­ar­ies thought,” says Jan Van Mieghem, pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences at the Kel­logg School. A key con­cern of online edu­ca­tion is obvi­ous­ly the lack of col­lab­o­ra­tion among students.”

He won­dered whether a col­lab­o­ra­tive envi­ron­ment could be cul­ti­vat­ed in a MOOC. And, if so, if it would help stu­dents do bet­ter in the course.

So Van Mieghem and fel­low Kel­logg School researchers — Gad Allon, also a pro­fes­sor of man­age­r­i­al eco­nom­ics and deci­sion sci­ences, and Den­nis J. Zhang, a doc­tor­al stu­dent — decid­ed to test out a few tech­niques in their own MOOC. Specif­i­cal­ly, they decid­ed to see what the impact would be of encour­ag­ing inter­ac­tions via the class dis­cus­sion board and one-on-one dig­i­tal dis­cus­sions with fel­low students.

A key con­cern of online edu­ca­tion is obvi­ous­ly the lack of col­lab­o­ra­tion among stu­dents.” — Jan Van Mieghem

They found that these small prods to inter­act can have a mod­est impact on stu­dents’ engage­ment and performance.

Mea­sur­ing Impact

The researchers’ MOOC — a five-week-long course on scal­ing oper­a­tions that con­sist­ed of four week­ly lec­tures and a week­ly quiz — attract­ed more than 24,000 reg­is­trants, some of whom paid to take the class in return for a cer­tifi­cate of accom­plish­ment and oth­ers of whom took it for free. About 4,200 stu­dents sub­mit­ted at least one of the quizzes.

In their first exper­i­ment, the researchers sent a sur­vey at the begin­ning of the sec­ond week to all course par­tic­i­pants, ask­ing for feed­back on the first week’s mate­r­i­al. Those who returned the sur­vey were then divid­ed into two groups, one of which recieved an email remind­ing them to con­tribute to the course’s dis­cus­sion board.

The encour­age­ment worked. The sim­ple nudge increased vis­its to the board by 26.5 per­cent and increased posts to the board by near­ly 97 percent.

And vis­its to the board were linked to bet­ter per­for­mance. The researchers found that each addi­tion­al vis­it to the board in the first week increased the like­li­hood that a stu­dent would com­plete the fol­low­ing week’s quiz by about 3.5 per­cent. And, on aver­age, each stu­dent who received the nudge vis­it­ed the board four addi­tion­al times a week, mean­ing that over­all, stu­dents who received the encour­age­ment to vis­it the board were, on aver­age, 13 per­cent more like­ly to com­plete the fol­low­ing week’s quiz.

The vis­it did not improve quiz scores, how­ev­er, and after that first week, vis­its to the dis­cus­sion board had rapid­ly dimin­ish­ing influ­ence on quiz-com­ple­tion rates.

Still, Van Mieghem points out that the cost — a sin­gle email — was very small. We did a very minor kind of stim­u­lus,” he says. We just said to stu­dents, Hey, don’t for­get to go to the dis­cus­sion group.” That there were effects at all, he says, is a hope­ful sign.”

In their sec­ond exper­i­ment, the researchers invit­ed some par­tic­i­pants to take part in online one-on-one dis­cus­sions about the course mate­r­i­al. They found that stu­dents who took them up on their offer were 10 per­cent more like­ly to com­plete their week­ly quiz — and their quiz scores increased by 2 to 10 per­cent in sub­se­quent weeks.

The upshot is that the direct com­mu­ni­ca­tion fos­tered by one-on-one dis­cus­sions seems to be more con­ducive to actu­al­ly learn­ing the mate­r­i­al. Still, only 7 per­cent of stu­dents who received an invi­ta­tion to take part did so. One bar­ri­er is the time and effort it takes to set up — and show up for — a dig­i­tal dis­cus­sion. Anoth­er is the anonymi­ty inher­ent in online edu­ca­tion: If peo­ple don’t show up, there’s no way to penal­ize them,” Zhang says. And they won’t even feel bad, because there’s no sham­ing fac­tor. If they don’t show up, no one knows who they are.”

Take Aways

The researchers note that their results may not be rel­e­vant to all online edu­ca­tors. For one, nei­ther manip­u­la­tion had a mea­sur­able effect on one group of stu­dents — those who actu­al­ly paid to take the course. Pay­ing stu­dents, it seems, were high­ly moti­vat­ed to take part in the dis­cus­sion board and one-on-one chats, even with­out the researchers’ nudges to interact.

But one imme­di­ate take­away is that, among non­pay­ing stu­dents, ear­ly social engage­ment packed the most punch.

You real­ly have to think hard about the incen­tives that will help [stu­dents] at the begin­ning of the class,” Zhang says, which is not the typ­i­cal approach with dis­cus­sion boards.” Much cur­rent think­ing, he says, is focused on ways to high­light and rec­om­mend posts that would be rel­e­vant to stu­dents. But in the ear­ly weeks of the course, there are too few posts for that strat­e­gy to be helpful.

It is a prin­ci­ple that also holds true for online com­merce, accord­ing to Zhang. For busi­ness­es that use online sur­veys to request cus­tomer feed­back, for exam­ple, soon­er is bet­ter than lat­er. If you’re try­ing to facil­i­tate inter­ac­tions with cus­tomers, you have to engage them ear­ly, or they will lose interest.”

Because the MOOC will be offered on an ongo­ing basis, the researchers will con­tin­ue to exper­i­ment with ways to encour­age social inter­ac­tion — and hope­ful­ly, course com­ple­tion. They are opti­mistic that the sheer scale of online edu­ca­tion will make it pos­si­ble for them to refine their techniques.

Many edu­ca­tors run­ning a field exper­i­ment would be impressed if they had 30 stu­dents,” says Van Mieghem. But we’re talk­ing about 10,000 or more stu­dents. So the scale, and the amount of data, and the kind of exper­i­men­ta­tion we can do — it’s just very impres­sive, and some­thing that can­not be done in a typ­i­cal, phys­i­cal channel.”

He expects that, even if online cours­es are not the rev­o­lu­tion­ary force some peo­ple imag­ined they would be, they will con­tin­ue to evolve.

The rea­son I got involved is that we have no idea how this is going to work out,” he says. And my feel­ing was, instead of let­ting it come to me, I’d rather be there ear­ly and be able to influ­ence it. There’s no doubt that, one way or anoth­er, some of this tech­nol­o­gy will stay.”

Featured Faculty

Gad Allon

Member of the Department of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences from 2005-2016

Jan A. Van Mieghem

Harold L. Stuart Distinguished Professor of Managerial Economics, Professor of Operations

About the Writer

Theo Anderson is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

About the Research

Zhang, Dennis J., Gad Allon, and Jan A. Van Mieghem. 2015. “Does Social Interaction Improve Service Quality? Field Evidence from Massive Open Online Education.” (September 21). Available at SSRN.

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