Social support improves the results of online courses


Despite the results, researchers don't recommend using friends as learning support. This kind of support from friends can lead to superficial learning and prevent the development of skills.

Massive open online courses (MOOC) have been considered as personal learning experiences that require strong study skills. A new study of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki used a MOOC on programming to determine whether this claim is well founded. The study is based on a survey to the students who participated in the MOOC and its analysis by statistical methods and methods of data science.

According to the study results, approximately half of the students don't get any social support for their online studies – and these independent students are the ones who most often don't finish the course. Approximately 25% of students seek help from friends who don't participate in the same course and another 25% look for help through the discussion forum of the course.

'Students who received support from their friends used superficial learning methods more often. But, on the other hand, they also usually passed the course. Perhaps they also have a need to belong to a social group, and that helps them to stick with the course. Independent students don't have a similar social bond to the course, and that can affect their motivation,' says Postdoctoral Researcher Matti Nelimarkka from Aalto University and the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT).

When students received a lot of help from the course's discussion forum, it was very likely that they completed the course. When on the average less than half of the students who begin a MOOC complete the course, the percentage of those who received a lot of help was as high as 75%.

A little more than 25% of the students taking the programming course were women, and they sought more social support for their studies than men. Older students sought help from the course's discussion forum more often than average, and the younger students more often asked their friends for help.

Based on the study, skilled friends can be considered as social capital, but from the point of view of learning, Nelimarkka and Arto Hellas, university lecturer at the University of Helsinki, don't recommend using friends to support learning – despite the results.

'We don't know a lot about these friend helpers. Perhaps they are a little too helpful? This can lead to a very light and superficial approach towards learning. The students can struggle through their assignments but their understanding of programming can leave room for improvement,' emphasises Nelimarkka.

The study raises questions about how social learning could be supported more. Could we help the students by asking better defined questions? In different types of groups that support learning, it is worth considering that giving the answers straight away may not be the most useful option.

'The curriculum of basic education was reformed to emphasise phenomenon-based learning, and it would be interesting to know if the same findings hold true there as well. Can skilled friends help to achieve better learning results already during basic education?' wonders Nelimarkka.

Further information:

Matti Nelimarkka
Postdoctoral Researcher
Aalto University
tel. +358 50 5275 920

Arto Hellas
University Lecturer
University of Helsinki
tel. +358 2941 51269