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Scaling up behavioral science interventions in online education

Graph of average student activity
Average student activity (count of course platform events) in the first 3 wk after exposure to each intervention. Points show covariate-adjusted means on a logarithmic scale (to match the log-transformed outcome in the regression model) with cluster-robust SE bars.

“Adequately supporting diverse students will require more than a light-touch intervention.”

Low persistence in educational programs is a major obstacle to social mobility. Scientists have proposed many scalable interventions to support students learning online. In one of the largest international field experiments in education, we iteratively tested established behavioral science interventions and found small benefits depending on individual and contextual characteristics. Forecasting intervention efficacy using state-of-the-art methods yields limited improvements. Online education provides unprecedented access to learning opportunities, as evidenced by its role during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, but adequately supporting diverse students will require more than a light-touch intervention. Our findings encourage funding agencies and researchers conducting large-scale field trials to consider dynamic investigations to uncover and design for contextual heterogeneity to complement static investigations of overall effects.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jun 2020, 201921417; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1921417117

Justin Reich
Written by
Justin Reich

Justin Reich is an educational researcher interested in the future of learning in a networked world. He is the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, which aspires to design, implement and research the future of teacher learning. He is the author of Iterate: The Secret to Innovation in Schools andFailure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education from Harvard University Press. He is the host of the TeachLab podcast, and five open online courses on EdX including Sorting Truth from Fiction: Civic Online Reasoning and Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices. Justin is a former fellow and faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

On leave in Fall 2024.

Justin Reich Written by Justin Reich