Peer interaction found to be a key to success in MITx Course

On my Open Master’s journey this year, I have been exploring the importance of relationships and community to self-directed, adult learners in self-organized communities outside of formal settings: such as P2PUCitizen Circles, Knowledge Commons DCHackCville, Black Mountain SOLE, Experience Institute, Enstitute, and, of course, the Open Master’s.

Understanding how self-directed learners find and form relationships with peers and mentors to support their learning outside of traditional schools, I believe, is one of the biggest nuts to crack in order to fulfill the great potential we all see in the open education movement.  Creating tools and programs that help them do so has become a central focus of my Open Master’s journey.

An obvious first step was to find out what other work has already been done on this question, so I began to explore the research and literature on social learning, in its many names, forms, and iterations.  I left breadcrumbs along my winding walk through a veritable forest of fields going by names like p2p learning, cooperative learningconnected learning, team-based learning, communities of practice, etc. in my open research notes.

Until now, I have found it difficult to find empirical evidence on the role of peer relationships and community to learners outside of traditional settings. Most of what I found was either anecdotal evidence (study circles!), psychological research on the importance of peer learning and modeling in human development (Bandura), or sociological theory (Vygotsky and Social Constructivism).

Meanwhile, while there is some pretty solid data on the importance of peer learning and teaching, I have found that nearly all of it has come from traditional learning settings, such as research on blended learning in K-12 classrooms, or Eric Mazur‘s pioneering research on peer teaching in his Harvard physics lecture course.  Even that field, though, is relatively nascent and sparse.

As a notable exception, one of my favorite surprises along the way was being told by a marine that the U.S. military has actually understood the importance of peer learning for a long time, and that that understanding is deeply integrated into their training model.  I looked into the matter and found that one enterprising Major actually bothered to research and document for us the importance of peer learning in the army training model.  Thanks Major Adkinson!

Until this week, however, I have been frustrated in my search for any real evidence whether relationships and community are important to informal, independent learners outside of institutions.  For example, I have stated in several of my talks this year that I wished we had better data and research on this question coming from massive online courses so that we could understand better whether peer interaction has or could have made a difference in student motivation and outcomes in those courses, whose completion rates tend to be very low.

This week I was very happy to be granted my wish by the first study of a large-scale data set on student outcomes in MOOCs, collected by MITx and dissected by “Lori Breslow, the director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL); physics professor David Pritchard, who heads MIT’s Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively (RELATE) group; and Andrew Ho, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.”  To wit:

“Peer interaction seems to improve a student’s chances of success in 6.002x. While the researchers found no correlation between achievement and age or gender, they say there may be a relationship between achievement and collaboration: In particular, they found that students who reported working with another student on a problem offline tended to score almost three points higher than someone working alone.

“Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and executive director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, says the new research establishes a noteworthy link between a student’s social interactions and her success in an online course.

“Educational success in a MOOC, but also in a face-to-face class, is not a wholly individual activity,” says Mintz, who was not involved in this study. “It has a social dimension. To put this another way, persistence and success are not simply products of cognitive factors. Noncognitive factors — in this case, social connection — are equally important.”

Further I was happy to see that “the researchers noted that some students who were not native English speakers formed groups on Facebook to help each other through the course.”

If you are interested in testing your own theories and helping dissect the massive datasets now coming from online courses, you may be interested in the Big Data in Education Coursera course this Fall, offered by Ryan S.J.d. Baker and the Teacher’s College of Columbia University.

If you are aware of any other resources, theories, data, examples, etc. to point me towards to help me on my quest to explore the importance of social learning for self-directed learners, I also invite you to comment, email me, or add directly to my notes.  Thanks!

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