Professors at MIT just finished a study of 250,000 students worldwide involving online teaching techniques in higher education. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences and was meant to explore behavioural interventions to improve course completion rates. These activities were small, such as getting the students to think about their plan for the course and improving skills such as time management. The researchers were confident that they would see positive results for completion based on their similar, albeit smaller, studies. However, the researchers reached a disappointing conclusion: none of the behavioural interventions had a significant effect on a student’s likelihood of completing the course. 

The research team expected to provide professors with a simple and fail-safe way to improve their online courses, but instead were forced to admit that context may be key. Learning science often strives for the easy, one size fits all approach of behavioural interventions, but this perspective may need to change in light of these results. It is difficult to conduct research that goes beyond this because funding is normally allocated to studies looking for big picture interventions, rather than more exploratory investigations. The next steps for these researchers is to find an intervention that works and start exploring contextual variation by applying the intervention to various conditions of online teaching. An example of these conditions could be the various kinds of online learning setups – whether the class is discussion board heavy, or perhaps more quiz based. 

Some professors have pointed out that generalizations can be useful, as long as the conditions in which they apply are identified. Thus, there is a happy medium between snowflake and cookie-cutter online classrooms. The mindset required for further investigations of online course completion is one that is open to context and adjustment. Science itself is never a linear process, and learning science seems to be no exception. It seems that improvements in online teaching will be gradual. This waiting period is unfortunate for professors but necessary to benefit students in the long term.

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This post was written by McKenzie Cline