MOOCs (Credit: IlonkaTallina/Flickr)
MOOCs (Credit: IlonkaTallina/Flickr)

A few years ago, it seemed MOOCs were destined to revolutionize education.

MOOCs (which stands for Massive Online Open Courses) offer open online courses in a variety of topics, often taught by professors at top universities such as Harvard and MIT, and are facilitated by companies such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. By increasing access to low-cost, high quality education options, students around the world could, in theory, digest the same information and listen to the same lectures as students on top campuses worldwide. The New York Times called 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”

Today, MOOCs have yet to live up to their promise. Completion rates are low across the board (as low as 5 percent for edX courses). Coursera and Udacity both pivoted to focus on “nanodegrees,” a hybrid online course and MOOC, created in partnership with universities and tech companies, but with mixed results.

Offering certificates and course credit (for a fee) seems to help a bit, given students have some financial skin in the game and incentive to finish the course. But studies show MOOCs are largely taken by people of higher economic status, and already have degrees. With this in mind, educators and researchers are seeking ways to incentivize students across the board.

As online courses evolve, could a “nudge” help people finish MOOCs?

Northwestern Kellogg professor Gad Allon has been quietly experimenting with ways to not only get students to sign up for these courses, but actually finish them. In addition to teaching operations courses at Kellogg, he teaches “Scaling Operations: Linking Strategy and Execution,” a MOOC through Coursera. It is a free course, but students can pay to get a certificate of accomplishment.

Recently he and two other Kellogg researchers, Jan Van Mieghem and Dennis J. Zhang, tested out their hypothesis that emailed “nudges” could push students to talk with classmates and check out a discussion board. That, in turn, could help students stay engaged, and therefore be more likely to complete a course. This course had about 24,000 students and about 4,200 of them submitted at least one of the weekly quizzes.

First, they sent an email reminder to 175 students (who had previously responded to a survey) to participate in a class discussion board (an additional 160 students served as a control group). Here’s what happened, according to Kellogg.

The simple nudge increased visits to the board by [28 percent] and increased posts to the board by nearly 97 percent [compared to the control group]. 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.

Over the course of the class, the control group visited the discussion board 53 times on average, while the nudged group visited the board 69 times. The control group averaged about 2.5 posts, while the nudged group posted about 5 times.

Second, in a separate experiment, they invited 946 students to participate in an online, one-on-one discussion about material. Though only 6 percent of those they invited chose to participate in the discussion (54 students), they were 10 percent more likely to complete the weekly quiz, and their scores increased by 2 to 10 percent in following weeks.

The takeaway? Nudges work, kinda. Allon said that it certainly confirmed that while MOOCs offer quality material, there’s a disconnect when it comes to motivation.

“One of the biggest issues in education is not a lack of resources, it is actually [a lack of] commitment and accountability,” Allon said to Chicago Inno. “What is really missing, and what the nudge is trying to do, though it is really clearly not enough, is to create some commitment from the students.”

Allon likens MOOC students to someone browsing a bookstore. The number of people who pick up a book, read the first few chapters, or simply find the information they want and put the book back, are about similar to someone sampling a MOOC. There are small nudges that convince people to buy the book, such as employee recommendations, but ultimately unless someone has a concrete reason to read a book cover to cover, many more people will simply browse and not buy. That’s exactly what usually plays out with MOOCs; even Allon admitted he’s attempted about 50 on his own time, but has never completed one.

With that in mind, he sees the future of MOOCS as a tool students can use to explore and pursue learning. He pointed out he has had students from around the globe partake in his course, which means students who wouldn’t be able to come to Northwestern’s campus have access to a high quality course. But it also helps students discern their education path. He’s met students who have applied and attended Northwestern because they took his MOOC, and wanted the chance to learn more.

But in terms of disrupting higher education? It’s going to take more than a nudge. MOOCs likely have a few more pivots before they find a permanent place in education, he said.

“If I told you there was a bridge here built by engineers all of them took all their courses on Coursera, would you go over that bridge? And the answer is not yet,” Allon pointed out. “Will that be the case 10 years from now? I don’t know.”

Photo credit: Flickr/IlonkaTallina