Retaining learners on MOOCS – Part 1: Making time for MOOCs

Discussions on the MOOC platform and some questionnaires sent to a number of course participants, have provided lots to think about on the the issue of retaining learners on MOOCs. Looking at the contributions so far, it would seem that people have flagged a range of challenges, and possible solutions which could be grouped mainly into three areas. This post focuses on the first of these – lack of time.

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Lack of time was the most cited obstacle to doing the course – people spoke about busy work lives, with travel commitments. Many say that any available ‘free time’ is usually needed to catch up on emails and for other competing priorities.

A number of people could see clear benefits from the course, but in some cases, said they found it very difficult to allocate time to it ahead of more urgent priorities, stating that they did not have an immediate need for the skills (though also acknowledging that they would, at some time in the future)

Organization & Learner Support

It’s easy to register for a MOOC – but it’s substantially more difficult to get through the work. Though efforts are usually made to present materials in a more interesting and engaging way, with videos, quizzes, etc., courses don’t do themselves (!) and busy people need to figure out how and when they can make the time to do the course. One contributor[i] pointed out that we need to encourage students to view the MOOC the same way they would a scheduled class- you must attend and put the work in if you want to get the reward afterwards. We can easily forget about the need to help learners get organized – but this is key to successful online learning.

Another contributor[ii] proposed that learners need to be told how much time each section will take so that they can plan their studies. In our MOOC, we suggested that it would require an estimated 2 – 4 hour time commitment per week, but rather than estimating just the weekly time commitment, it could be useful to give a more detailed outline of the time required for each activity in each section – a type of map of each section to help learners plan 10 minutes here and there, or larger chunks of time when needed.

We learnt about the experience of another contributor[iii] in getting learners to submit a study plan and fill it in as they progress. This could go a long way to getting learners to organize themselves for a successful learning experience, helping them also to get a greater sense of accomplishment/satisfaction as they see how they are moving through the course – maybe even reinforcing their motivation to continue. Doing an exercise at the beginning of the course to schedule in the required time every day for the duration of the course could be very useful and might make the difference between moving smoothly through the course or falling behind and eventually giving up.  I wonder if it would be useful to develop some sort of template for learners to fill in as the first homework assignment, as suggested by another contributor?

 Just-in-time MOOC design

Is just-in-time learning more workable for busy professionals? We talk a lot about the flexibility and convenience of online learning – people can do the course at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon or 4 o’ clock in the morning – or any other time – as long as they complete each section within a given time frame, they can choose when to do it. Is this enough? How does this meet the needs of people who are correcting exam papers during the course, or attending a conference, or any other longer-term obligation that makes it impossible for them to keep up? Brian[iv] shared something he had read about MOOCs that claimed continuously open access MOOCs have better completion rates than MOOCs with fixed dates – though talking with him this week, he noted the difficulty of doing assessments in this format. How about rolling 2-week courses which would help people to pace themselves, but still work as part of a cohort, and allow them the flexibility to choose when to actually do it?  One of the course team[vi] provides some evidence that this is a model that can hold potential – with the first Udacity MOOCs (including his own) which operated (and still operates) without a fixed schedule, and the fact that Coursera has introduced some MOOCs that are “self-paced” and/or use monthly cohorts.  What could be done about the wealth of information and experience in the discussion forums, which would be lost at the end of each two-week period? Would it work to transfer all discussions to e.g. a linkedin group or snapchat so that knowledge builds up and the community is sustained after the end of the course? In this way, as suggested by another contributor[vii], the social media network could be linked to the MOOC platform and also become an instrument of recruitment.

Another suggestion[viii]  was made, to use the analytics function of the MOOC platform to identify people who have been inactive for a longer period of time, and send them a personal email to try to re-engage them. This would be ideal, and may work well for small groups of learners, but could it work if we are talking about thousands of learners? If we could manage to get learners organized at the beginning of the course, through the suggestions above, could we assume that the number of people who need to be brought back would be lower – and possibly the personalized outreach will be more manageable?

Your thoughts welcome in comments section below, or on the MOOC at this link, or you could also join a conversation on our linkedin group

Thanks to contributors to this discussion and emails sent for the people below and others who asked not to be named.

There are two more posts on this topic which you can access here Part 2: Community
Part 3: Content, assignments, and accreditation

[i] @eshinners

[ii] @PeterKorevaar

[iii] @sparks

[iv] @brianmmulligan

[vi] @JoernLoviscach

[vii] @OlgaUshakova

[viii] @PeterKorevaar

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