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JPAM Featured Article: Connections Matter: How Interactive Peers Affect Students in Online College Courses

June 27, 2016 02:45 PM

"Connections Matter: How Interactive Peers Affect Students in Online College Courses"

As part of our ongoing effort to promote JPAM authors to the APPAM membership and the public policy world at large, we are asking JPAM authors to answer a few questions to promote their research article on the APPAM website.

By: Eric Bettinger, Jing Liu, and Susanna Loeb

What was the genesis/history of the idea for your research?

This paper is one of a series of research that we have been working on aiming to unpack the impact as well as the potential mechanism of online college courses, using data from DeVry University. The booming of online learning provides an unprecedented opportunity to study teaching and learning in higher education due to the corresponding “big data” generated from those online learning platforms, particularly the large-scale language data recording communications among students and between students and professors. One of the big questions is that how peers affect student learning in an online environment, as we know that students often feel less engaged with their peers and a lack of community in online courses compared with in-person classes, which is likely harmful to student learning outcomes. We thus apply novel computational techniques to analyze the large amount of textual data and generate measures of peers’ interpersonal interaction to answer two questions: how students interact with each other and the impact of peer interaction.

What is the main conclusion that becomes evident from your research? (Or, what is our main takeaway?)

We find that students vary systematically in their interpersonal interactions in online college courses. For example, females and older students are more likely to engage in student interactions. Students are also more likely to interact with peers of the same gender and with peers from roughly the same geographic region. For students who are relatively less likely to be engaged in online discussion, exposure to more interactive peers increases their probabilities of passing the course, improves their grade in the course, and increases their likelihood of enrolling in the following academic term.

What are some of the more interesting or surprising findings/conclusions, you discovered during this process?

Two findings are particularly interesting. First, peers’ interpersonal interaction has no average effect but has meaningful impact on students who are on the margin, thus those less engaged students are more likely to respond to potential interventions that aim to enhance peer interaction. Second, of the two online courses we study, the impact of peer interaction is much stronger in one (PSYC110) than the other (COLL148). Part of the reasons is that COLL148 intentionally cultivates peer interaction and has a lot of group activities, while PSYC110 is a more typical course. This finding indicates that interpersonal interactions may have differential effects in online college courses due to different course content and activities.


Authors' Bio


Eric Bettinger is an associate professor in the Stanford University School of Education. His research interests include economics of education; student success and completion in college; teacher characteristics and student success in college; effects of voucher programs on both academic and non-academic outcomes. Eric is also studying what factors determine student success in college. Eric's work aims to bring understanding of these cause-and-effect relationships in higher education. His most recent work focuses on the effects of FAFSA simplification on students' collegiate outcomes.



Jing Liu is a Ph.D. candidate in the program of economics of education at Stanford, where he also received a master’s degree in economics. His research interests include using computational social science methods to study teaching and learning in both K-12 and higher education, the formation and impact of student non-cognitive abilities, and teacher’s labor market.


Susanna Loeb is the Barnett Family Professor of Education at Stanford University, faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis, and a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education. She specializes in the economics of education and the relationship between schools and federal, state and local policies. Her research addresses teacher policy, looking specifically at how teachers' preferences affect the distribution of teaching quality across schools, how pre-service coursework requirements affect the quality of teacher candidates, and how reforms affect teachers' career decisions. She also studies school leadership and school finance, for example looking at how the structure of state finance systems affects the level and distribution of resources across schools. Susanna is a member of the National Board for Education Sciences, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, member of the Executive Board of the National Center for the Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, and a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.


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