Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mark Thoma and the Sesame Street MOOC

I've been arguing for a while that we should broaden our thinking about MOOCs. Apparently some folks at NBER are thinking the same thing.

From Mark Thoma:
Interestingly, one of the first MOOCs that attempted to address the educational needs of preschoolers has hardly been studied. As economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine noted in recent research at the National Bureau of Economic Research: "In essence, Sesame Street was the first MOOC. Although MOOCs differ in what they entail, Sesame Street satisfies the basic feature of electronic transmission of online educational material. Both Sesame Street and MOOCs provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings."

Their research attempts to do two things: examine whether MOOCs can improve educational outcomes, and assess the degree to which early intervention programs can promote student success later in life.

When Sesame Street was first introduced more than 40 years ago, it was broadcast on PBS stations using UHF technology. This type of transmission doesn't produce a very strong signal. As a result, reception was poor for some households, and about a third of them couldn't get the signal at all.

Thus, how far a household was from a transmission tower (this was pre-cable) determined how good the reception was. The hypothesis is that children who grew up further from transmission towers and unable to watch Sesame Street wouldn't do as well in subsequent grades, and would do worse in the job market once they finally graduated.

The results are encouraging. The researchers found a significant impact of the Sesame Street MOOC on educational attainment in the early school years. "This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and black, non-Hispanic children and those living in economically disadvantaged areas."

However, when the analysis is extended to labor market outcomes (children were tracked to see what types of jobs, etc. they eventually obtained), the researchers couldn't find evidence of "substantive improvements in ultimate educational attainment or labor market outcomes."

Although the improvements brought about by Sesame Street appear limited to the elementary school years -- eventually the effect wears off -- this research still has two important messages.

First, early childhood intervention and the availability of universal prekindergarten programs do help prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for elementary school education. That's a key finding.

Second, MOOCs appear to work. The cost of providing Sesame Street was "around $5 per child per year (in today's dollars)," the researchers found, far less than other means of providing the same education.

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