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This is the subject of a new study by René Kizilcec and colleagues at Stanford University, according to an article on Stanford News, Brief interventions help online learners persist with coursework, Stanford research finds. They noted that participants from countries with a lower rating on the United Nations’ Human Development Index were less likely to complete a MOOC than those from countries higher up that index. There are several potential barriers here such as inadequate infrastructure, lack of up-to-date devices or limited ability in English, but this study decided to look at the issue of social identity and a feeling of inadequacy when joining a course.
Kizilcec and others theorize that a psychological barrier contributes to the global gap in MOOCs, namely social identity threat, which is a fear of being seen as less competent because of a social identity. Research has demonstrated that social identity threat can impair a person’s working memory and academic performance.
Millions of people enroll in courses with low levels of self confidence that are often unintentionally reinforced by the way they are introduced to the course. Many are taking their first hesitant step into higher education with a strong built-in feeling that they are probably not good enough. Whenever they encounter unfamiliar terminology (especially academic terms) or unclear instructions their first reaction is something like "I knew I wasn't clever enough for this course" and unless they can get some support they are very likely to give up. This feeling is magnified if the course forum is full of confident and articulate native English speakers. It is vital that these learners get some positive reinforcement right at the start of the course.
The Stanford study tested pre-course activities where participants could write about how the course could support their most important values and allowed them to read testimonials from previous participants about how they overcame feelings of isolation at the beginning of the course and were able to succeed in the end. These activities did not require direct teacher interaction but simply giving learners the chance to state their own values and reflect over how to succeed in the course had a remarkable effect on the learners who otherwise were most likely to leave the course. The completion rate for learners from less developed countries was raised from 17% to 41%.
“It is an impressive result which suggests that social identity threat can be a barrier to performance in international learning contexts, even in online environments with little social interaction,” Kizilcec said. “It goes to show that a small change to the online experience can have profound and lasting effects if it influences people’s perceptions of an environment.”
This confirms how vital it is to create an welcoming and supportive course introduction and to offer learners a chance to reflect on their own values and objectives before starting. Course information must be as inclusive and clear (jargon-free) as possible and a variety of tools and strategies can be used to help everyone identify with the course and feel part of it. Online questionnaires like the ones used in this study are one way but others can be allowing learners to create study groups in their own languages or with people from the same region. Short personal and encouraging weekly video messages from the teachers can also help to create a sense of belonging. Often the difference between drop-out and completion can be a few kind words of encouragement.