Let’s MOOC to Catch Up

The EAL Journal publishes plain language summaries of Master’s and PhD research. In this post Napat Jitpaisarnwattana summarises his dissertation work recently completed as a part of his MSc study at Oxford. Adopting a blended learning approach, he compared the effects of using a Massive Open Online Course alongside in-class learning, with in-class learning alone, to see whether the blended learning approach helped them pass their final exams.

Napat Jitpaisarnwattana

Background: Why I did this study 

Over the past ten years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been one of the central topics that teachers, educators and learners across all subjects and disciplines have often talked about. Language teachers have recently started to recognise the potential of MOOCs and to look at the possibility of using MOOCs designed for language learning (LMOOCs) to help their students. There are many ways in which LMOOCs can be used to facilitate learning and teaching a second language. These include showing students (some) LMOOCs that are relevant to the course they are taking and their current level of English and recommending them to take them independently in their own time, incorporating the content of an LMOOC as a blended learning component of a language course or even using the LMOOC as a way of providing remedial support to learners who cannot quite keep up with the content of the course they are taking. The last potential of using an LMOOC as a remediating tool sparked my interest.

My motivation for conducting this research originated from my experience of teaching EFL to nursing students in Thailand for almost 10 years. In a typical Thai nursing college, the class size for an English course is very large, ranging from 50 to 100 students, and there is often not enough time for me and other language teachers to cover all aspects necessary for delivering an effective language course.

This is how big my class is…

English for Trainee Nurses 101

More importantly, the proficiency level of students in these classes is extremely diverse. It is quite common to have a class where A1 and B2 (based on CEFR levels) students have to study together. From my years of experience, under these conditions, there is always a group of students who cannot quite keep up with the content of the course and fail their examinations, both midterm and final. Coupled with the fact that I never have enough time to offer extra learning support to help these students, I am always looking for other options that can help such students with their learning. Since MOOCs are quite resourceful and often free, I had the idea that using an LMOOC that is relevant to the content I teach in class might be a good way to help my falling-behind students catch up with the course content. 

My research question, therefore, was: “To what extent does the use of an LMOOC as a teaching intervention help falling-behind students catch up with their learning as measured by their scores in a standard end-of-year assessment?” I chose an LMOOC on English grammar as a teaching intervention in this study because grammar is a big part of the EFL curriculum at this nursing college, and it is where several of my students have previously had problems, based on my experience.

What I did 

I conducted this study with a group of Thai nursing students who failed their midterm exam in their compulsory English language course at a nursing college in Thailand. I divided them into two groups: an experimental (treatment) group (N=33) and a control group (N=26). I compared the midterm scores of both groups and found that they were quite similar prior to the intervention. The students in the experimental group studied an LMOOC called “Verb Tenses and Passives” on Coursera for 4 weeks, along with their usual in-class lessons, while the control group did not do anything extra and simply carried on with their usual in-class lessons.

The LMOOC used in the study

I chose this particular LMOOC because its content was quite similar to that of the course and suitable for the level of my students (beginners). Then, after both groups took their final exam, I compared their midterm scores with their final scores to see the extent to which each group had improved, and whether there was a difference in progress between those who had taken the LMOOC and those who had not. I compared both the overall scores from the exams and the scores on each component (grammar, vocabulary and reading) of the exam to see where any change took place. For example, was there improvement in just the grammar portion, or more generally.

What I found 

The statistical analysis (a series of t-tests) showed that after taking the LMOOC intervention for 4 weeks, the students in the experimental group statistically significantly outperformed the students in the control group in the final exam. That is, the LMOOC group made more progress than the no-LMOOC group between the midterm exam and the final exam. Also, the LMOOC group had statistically significantly higher mean scores on the final exams.

Moreover, when looking specifically at the scores for each component of the exam, I could see that improvement in the scores of the experimental group was only evident for the grammar component of the exam, not the other two components (vocabulary and reading), while the scores for all three components remained the same for the control group.

Despite making these gains, however, the LMOOC group still did not meet the passing grade for the final exam. So, while the LMOOC was responsible for improving the students’ performance on the test, it did not result in a greater number of passing grades. In essence they still failed, but less badly than they would have without the LMOOC. A tantalising and somewhat bittersweet finding.

What it means   These study findings demonstrate that LMOOCs can provide good remedial support for EFL learners who are falling behind in an English course, when the content of the LMOOC ties in well with the content of in-class lessons. However, although offering extra support in just one aspect (grammar in my study) was a good start, this was not enough to help my falling-behind students catch up with the content sufficiently to pass the final exam. So, I certainly intend to explore further to see whether LMOOCs that are better tailored to the different aspects of the final exam might help my students make that extra progress needed to succeed in their studies.

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