MOOCs help further student and faculty research at Penn State

Emma Gosalvez
June 24, 2016

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have fueled quite a few graduate student and faculty research opportunities at Penn State.

This past spring semester, two research articles written by Penn State graduate students and faculty members about MOOCs were published in highly-regarded journals.

Adelina Hristova, a doctoral student in Adult Education, was one of seven collaborators on "Exploring the communication preferences of MOOC learners and the value of preference-based groups: Is grouping enough?", which was published in the journal Educational Technology Research & Development. 

"This research provided me with an opportunity to work with massive data from MOOC learners around the world and enriched my understanding of adult learning theories," Hristova said.

Focusing on findings of a project funded by the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL), the research explored how students from different cultures prefer to be grouped in a MOOC and how these group assignments impact students' performance in the course.

For the study, a pre-course online survey was administered to volunteers who were taking the Creativity, Innovation, and Change (CIC) MOOC offered by Penn State University through Coursera. Students were assigned to groups based upon their preferred modes of communication (asynchronous, which allows students to learn at their own pace with common online methods of communication, such as email and discussion boards, versus synchronous, which is a more facilitated type of communication with methods such as chat and videoconferencing).

"These differences were statistically different and were moderated by English language proficiency, gender, level of education, and age," Hristova said. "Although the groups designed for the study did not significantly influence students' course performance and completion, our study can serve as baseline data for making grouping decisions in future online courses, including MOOCs."

Another collaborator on the article was Kathryn Jablokow, an associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Design at Penn State Great Valley, who said the CIC MOOC has fueled her research in a variety of ways.

"It has provided me with a fabulous opportunity to study how students of different ages, cultures, genders, and educational backgrounds learn and practice some of the subjects that I teach -- namely, design, problem-solving, and creativity. Those insights influence how I formulate new research studies, and the MOOC also gives me a unique setting in which to test and disseminate new research results."

In addition, the CIC MOOC introduced Jablokow to new research questions and methods that would not have arisen in a smaller educational setting.

"Observing reactions 'at scale' makes you think differently about what you want to ask and explore," she added.

According to Jablokow, several key findings of the article involved gender. For example, female students have a higher likelihood to want to study in groups than male students and male students have a higher likelihood to prefer synchronous communication than female students.

There was also a positive association between student age and course completion.

"Learners who were 40 years old or older were more likely to complete the course or complete it 'with distinction' than learners under 40," Jablokow said.

The second article, published in  the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, focused more on factors associated with MOOC completion. For "Understanding MOOC students: motivations and behaviours indicative of MOOC completion," data was collected from the first offering of the CIC course which had a student enrollment of more than 100,000.

Bart Pursel, Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) at Penn State research project manager, who co-authored this article, along with four graduate students and faculty members, said that various types of activity within the MOOC proved to be strong completion indicators.

"We also discovered that students self-identifying as fluent in English, but not native English speakers, were more likely to complete the MOOC when compared to native English speakers."

One of the graduate students who co-authored the article is Gi Woong "Josh" Choi, a doctoral candidate in Learning, Design, and Technology.

Choi, who has been working with TLT for more than three years, said MOOCs are one of a variety of learning technologies that have opened doors to research opportunities for him.

"It is exciting to see how higher education is going through a transformation with different technologies. Also, it is great to see how Penn State is adapting to this new era and actually integrating innovation into education."

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Last Updated June 30, 2016