MOOCs (Credit: IlonkaTallina/Flickr)

Massive Online Open Courses – A few years ago, it seemed MOOCs were destined to revolutionize education.

MOOCs (which stands for Massive Online Open Courses) offer open online courses in a variety of topics, often taught by professors at top universities such as Harvard and MIT, and are facilitated by companies such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. By increasing access to low-cost, high quality education options, students around the world could, in theory, digest the same information and listen to the same lectures as students on top campuses worldwide. The New York Times called 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”

Today, MOOCs have yet to live up to their promise. Completion rates are low across the board (as low as 5 percent for edX courses). Coursera and Udacity both pivoted to focus on “nanodegrees,” a hybrid online course and MOOC, created in partnership with universities and tech companies, but with mixed results.

Offering certificates and course credit (for a fee) seems to help a bit, given students have some financial skin in the game and incentive to finish the course. But studies show MOOCs are largely taken by people of higher economic status, and already have degrees. With this in mind, educators and researchers are seeking ways to incentivize students across the board.

As online courses evolve, could a “nudge” help people finish MOOCs?

Northwestern Kellogg professor Gad Allon has been quietly experimenting with ways to not only get students to sign up for these courses, but actually finish them. In addition to teaching operations courses at Kellogg, he teaches “Scaling Operations: Linking Strategy and Execution,” a MOOC through Coursera. It is a free course, but students can pay to get a certificate of accomplishment.

Recently he and two other Kellogg researchers, Jan Van Mieghem and Dennis J. Zhang, tested out their hypothesis that emailed “nudges” could push students to talk with classmates and check out a discussion board. That, in turn, could help students stay engaged, and therefore be more likely to complete a course. This course had about 24,000 students and about 4,200 of them submitted at least one of the weekly quizzes.