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One of the Largest Experiments ever Conducted in Higher Education and Lifelong Learning Happened on edX. Here is what they Learned.

Today, we’re excited to share insights from a new study on online learning. The study, which is one of the largest experiments ever conducted in higher education and lifelong learning, shows the incredible power and potential of at-scale online learning platforms, specifically edX, as particle accelerators for learning. What does that mean exactly? It means that you, the edX learner community, are part of a massive movement to radically transform the way we learn (and teach) across the world. This new study underscores one of the pillars of edX’s founding mission, to advance teaching and learning through research. 

The study, which was conducted by researchers from MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Cornell, looked at ways to help learners complete online courses.  Studies like this are instrumental in helping the online teaching community better understand how they can create experiences that help those learners who do want to complete a course achieve their desired outcome. 

Additionally, as we see the world shift toward online and remote teaching and learning, both during COVID-19 and after, research like this that helps us to improve the impact and outcomes of teaching and learning online is extremely important. 

What did the study find? Well, like most things, there’s no magic solution to the problem. The study investigated a few different ways that online learning platforms, like edX, can help. Working with learners in online courses offered by MIT, Harvard and Stanford, the researchers found that the tactics or interventions below can be helpful tools for completion: 

  • Plan-making, creating detailed approaches to how coursework will be completed and when it will happen 
  • Social accountability, choosing a ‘buddy’ to hold you accountable for completion 
  • Value-relevance, reflecting on the value you hold in completing the course 

To quote René Kizilcec, Assistant Professor of Information Science in the School of Computing and Information Science at Cornell University and co-lead author of the study, it showed that “short, light-touch interventions at the beginning of a few select courses can increase persistence and completion rates, but when scaled up to over 250 different courses and a quarter of a million students, the intervention effects were an order of magnitude smaller.”

Justin Reich, Mitsui Career Development Professor, Assistant Professor at MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and co-lead author of the study, shared his thoughts with us, “as online teaching and learning is adopted at an increasingly rapid rate, it is crucial that researchers test instructional approaches at large scales and across different geographies and learners. Working with two edX founding partners (Havard and MIT) and one Open edX platform instance (Stanford), we were able to investigate the effects of new student support across different institutions, disciplines, and courses with learners from all over the world. Since edX provides researchers at partner institutions with detailed data about learner persistence and activity, we were able to better understand the courses and contexts in which experimental supports helped learners meet their goals, and where they didn’t. With support from edX, we were able to conduct one of the largest-scale experiments in higher education and lifelong learning.” 

“The combination of broad cross-institutional cooperation combined with research best practices make this study very special,” added Dustin Tingley, a co-author, and Deputy Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, Harvard University.

As I mentioned, the research did not conclude that one or, in fact, all of these create automatic completion at a massive scale, but it’s exciting to share that it did find effectiveness in these tactics for smaller groups.  The researchers are advocating for continued experimentation, especially with an eye to how emerging technologies like AI and Machine Learning might play a valuable role in creating scalable success with completion tactics. 

As we say at edX, we are always learning and always looking to the next exciting discovery.