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Pre-Course Prep for Online Learning Yields Few Benefits, Study Finds

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By Hannah Farrow

Up-front support for students as they begin online classes has little impact on their performance during virtual learning, a major study published by the National Academy of Sciences has found.

The study, released this month, tested three pre-course intervention techniques in about 250,000 college-level students enrolled in 247 online classes, including chemistry, political science, and business.

The findings showed that those techniques did not have an impact on the students' success in the courses.

While the research was conducted at the higher education level, it has implications for online course-taking in K-12, said Justin Reich, an author of the study and an MIT professor. The findings could offer clues as to the kinds of conditions school districts should put in place -- or avoid -- in trying to help students succeed in virtual courses.

"When people are successful in online learning, they have the traits and support to be successful at self-regulated learning," Justin Reich said. "We have to think about how our least well-served learners are going to be most negatively impacted and how we can support them most."

The study tested the effect of three different interventions with students:

  • Plan-making -- or efforts to help students set long- and short-term goals, in advance of taking the online courses
  • Value-relevance -- helping students define the values in their life and how their studies reinforce them
  • Student self-reflection¬†-- helping students reflect on the benefits and barriers to achieving their goals, and then helping them create plans for how to overcome those barriers

These techniques were chosen because of previous studies which yielded positive results. Once the researchers expanded their sample size and student population, the interventions didn't produce the same positive outcomes. The main reason was the context of the students and their surroundings, said Reich.

"If you imagined wanting to build the ideal learning environments for students, you'd have to know something about who they are, and something about the context in which they're learning," Reich said. "And that poses substantial challenges to scaling up these kinds of learner supports, because there are lots of different people, and there are lots of different contexts out there."

Helping students create plans was the only intervention type that increased students' persistence in the first few weeks, and it then fizzled out. The other techniques did not prove any significant increases.

"We couldn't find one version of that that we could give to hundreds of thousands of people that would work universally," Reich said. "But I still think teachers can think, 'How am I going to support students in bolstering their ability to self regulate their own learning online?'"

The study focused on students at Harvard, Stanford and MIT, taking courses that have similar rigorous education levels and online learning platforms, Reich said.

"Even when things were really, really similar -- about as similar as you could hope for in a large scale study --- there were still differences in context that mattered," Reich said.

Elliot Soloway, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, wasn't surprised with the study's results. Soloway studies K-5, and said pre-course intervention isn't enough.

"There's no motivation," through most pre-course interventions, Soloway said. "There's nobody to keep you going. There's no collaboration."

One of the keys to successful online learning is establishing a strong connection between the at-home learner and the instructor, said Soloway. Having a strong digital curriculum can help.

"But it's not just the digital curriculum," he said. "It's the teacher. Teachers are the heart, the curriculum is the heartbeat. You got to have both."

The continual support of teachers' presence and their check-ins is what results in success, Soloway said.

"It's the ongoing-ness when the going gets rough, and in learning, the learning always gets rough," Soloway said. "You need the teacher, and you need the support of your peers in the middle."


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