Editor’s Picks

SPOT, Developed by Penn State Doctoral Candidate Nicole Wang, Aims to Increase MOOC Completion Rates

By Henry Kronk
May 12, 2019

After a period of initial hype, MOOCs were written off by members of the media due to widespread low completion rates. While many popular MOOCs enrolled over 100,000 learners, a fraction of that initial cohort were actually seeing the course through to completion. Many today believe low completion rates mark a reason to write off MOOCs, and most other MOOC detractors have moved on. One group of researchers, however, have sought to do something about these low completion rates. Penn State learning design and technology doctoral candidate Nicole Wang has researched MOOCs for years. She and her team have been developing a web app that she believes will increase engagement and completion rates. The app SPOT, which stands for Social Performance Optimization Tool, is currently being piloted in 12 online courses at Penn State, St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, and Tohoku University in Japan.

Increasing Completion by Increasing Social Engagement

As Wang related in a descriptive video for SPOT, the inspiration for the app first came when she herself was taking an online course. “I have taken several online courses and I absolutely loved them. However, I also struggled because I felt lonely and isolated. I couldn’t have any casual conversations with my classmates, help others, or experience the social learning part of it.”

Wang is not the first person to describe this phenomenon. When the synchronous MOOCs emerged in 2012 and drew in hundreds of thousands of learners, many reported enjoying the social nature of the course. But as more courses moved behind paywalls or became prerecorded asynchronous modules, that social aspect diminished.

“I looked around, but I couldn’t find anything that addressed those issues,” Wang relates in the video.

Using SPOT, online learners are represented by dog avatars and can choose a user name if they want to protect their privacy. The dog avatars’ expressions indicate the current performance of the learners they represent. If a dog is looking happy, that indicates the learner is at- or ahead of schedule. If a dog looks sad, they have fallen behind. Learners also have the option of ‘raising a paw,’ which indicates they are struggling in the course.

The app also contains a discussion forum where users can chat and pose questions. In addition, a course leaderboard shows who is currently the top performer in the class.

It Remains to Be Seen How SPOT Will Work in Different Courses

“The idea is for SPOT to be an avenue of communication for students,” Wang told Penn State News. “If you’re in a traditional, residential class, you can talk to your classmates and ask them questions after class, things like ‘What did the professor mean by this?’ In an online setting, there’s no easy way to do that.”

“An important part of the research is making sure SPOT is applicable across cultures,” Wang said. “We don’t want it to be useful only to Penn State students. We want it to be useful for all online learners no matter where they are enrolled.”

SPOT has been developed with help from a $40,000 seed funding grant from Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation and Learning (COIL).

“We’re receiving a lot of interest and that’s great,” Wang said. “But we also want to make sure that we have all the kinks worked out before it is widely shared. We are applying for an internal grant because even though it is working, it is not perfect. We haven’t had a large enough sample size to actually do a true quasi-experiment to prove if it is going to work on a larger scale.”

Featured Image by Yoshi Shih-Chieh Huang.