Building personal connection in an online learning community

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Two women gather around a computer on which an online course is displayed.
J-PAL Africa staff view an online course in the MicroMasters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy.
Photo: Aimee Hare | J-PAL Africa

Online learning has the power to democratize access to education. J-PAL and MIT’s Department of Economics developed the MicroMasters program credential in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP) to increase access to high-quality training in development economics.

However, online learning doesn’t come without challenges: students can feel a sense of isolation and disconnection from the broader learning community.

J-PAL Africa learned from focus groups in Ghana that lack of local connection and learning with peers is one of the biggest challenges experienced by students. As a response, J-PAL Africa developed a course representative system. The course representative system was designed to promote an organic sense of community in online learning.

The DEDP program

The DEDP program is designed to equip learners with the practical skills and theoretical knowledge to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing developing countries and the world’s poor. Through a series of five online courses and in-person exams, learners gain a strong foundation in microeconomics, development economics, and probability and statistics, while engaging with cutting-edge research in the field.

The program is unique in its focus on designing and running randomized evaluations to assess the effectiveness of social programs and its emphasis on hands-on skills in data analysis. The courses are free to audit. Those interested in earning credit from the courses can pay a personalized price according to their income level.

Course representatives help students engage

Despite making the course content accessible to students, there are multiple challenges that students face in order to complete online courses: chief among these is a sense of community.

The course representative system is an innovation the J-PAL Africa team is trialling to proactively address some of the challenges that students face in accessing and completing the DEDP MicroMasters program. We piloted this system over the summer term of 2020, in Kenya and Nigeria for two courses: Data Analysis for Social Scientists (14.310x) and Designing and Running Randomized Evaluations (JPAL102x).

We had four rockstar course representatives kickoff the program, and were really encouraged to see the level of passion for the course content from these course representative students.

four images of people are pictured side by side.

The course representatives organized several support activities for students including small online study groups, reminders for important deadlines, and hosting guest sessions to see course content applied in the real world. 

Students overwhelmingly felt that the course representative system brought them closer together, in spite of their physical distance:

“The course representative system brought MIT closer to us. The small unit system helps coordination and better engagement.” 

“Initially, the course representative system provided an avenue to discuss strictly course material only. Over time, the bond grew stronger and we were able to forge good friendships, which enabled us to be there for one another, encouraging each other during the difficult COVID times. We would often have video calls simply to hang out and have small talk.” 

Thank you to Karimi, Chuka, Prince and Temidayo for your contributions as course representatives during the summer term! 

The fall session of the DEDP MicroMasters program starts September 8. The J-PAL Africa team will continue piloting the course representative system during the fall term. Course representatives will receive a reference letter from J-PAL Africa recognizing their efforts.

If you are planning on taking MITx14.310x or J-PAL102x in Kenya or Nigeria and would like to be a course representative, please complete this application form.

If you are planning on taking MITx14.310x or J-PAL102x in Kenya or Nigeria and would like to join the local learning community, sign up here