Massive open online courses (MOOCs), which can be delivered at low-cost to thousands of students anywhere in the world, are often considered a way to increase global educational equity and bridge divides within and across countries. However, enrollment and achievement in MOOCs tends to reflect prevailing educational disparities, with participants from more affluent countries taking and and completing courses at higher rates. Social identity threat, or the fear of being seen as less capable because of one’s group, has been raised as one reason that students in less-developed countries may not fare as well with MOOCs.

Geoff Cohen and his research team designed a study to test this hypothesis by developing online exercises aimed at reducing social identity threat felt by students participating in these online courses. The study participants were students enrolled in a MOOC covering computer science and another group of students participating in a U.S. public policy MOOC.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a value relevance affirmation, a social-belonging intervention, or a control condition. In the value relevance condition participants wrote about their personal values, while participants in the social-belonging condition summarized testimony about how worries about belonging are normal and short-lived. Participants randomly assigned to the control condition read and wrote about study skills.

These brief, 10-minute activities eliminated the global gap in rates of completion for these MOOCs and samples of students. Persistence was doubled for participants in both the value relevance and social-belonging conditions from less-developed countries, but did not significantly affect persistence for participants from more-developed countries.

This research suggests that threats to social identity are barriers to creating inclusive online learning spaces. However, brief online exercises may offer one way to reduce these threats and improve outcomes for individuals from negatively stereotyped groups in academic settings. More research should continue to look into how to foster welcoming online spaces that promote belonging from users of all different backgrounds.

To learn more about this study check out the full paper or the following media features:

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