Online Courses and Student Engagement: an unhappy marriage?

Free large-scale access to educational resources and teaching, through MOOCs and other online courses, certainly has the potential to change education forever. By reaching out globally to all those for whom a traditional university education is not an option, online courses could streamline the pursuit of knowledge and open up education for all. But despite the promising views of the future MOOC proponents advocate, the challenge of keeping students motivated and engaged throughout entire courses is becoming a cause of concern.


by Matthew Labrooy and Alasdair MacKinnon


ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN speaker and E-Learning 24/7 blogger Craig Weiss has described the completion rates for MOOCs as “dismal” – with research from the Open University showing typical completion rates around the 7% mark. The same research also shows that larger MOOCs in general have much lower completion rates, a fact that threatens the expansion of the medium.


Reasons for the low completion rates may not, of course, be wholly to do with a lack of engagement: students are not feel the same financial pressure to finish a free MOOC as they do for a costly university course, and can “shop around” within the online environment, perhaps enrolling in many courses but only finishing the ones they are really interested in. Nevertheless the anonymous atmosphere of online courses is also a factor, allowing students to withdraw from their studies when tasks become difficult or the workload too great. Without face to face interaction, students are less able to voice their concerns and receive immediate feedback and support. Furthermore, in the absence of face-to-face interaction it is more difficult for lecturers to express enthusiasm and positivity for the course work, and share their emotions, factors that encourage students to work harder.


We must also accept that MOOCs and other online courses are currently in their infancy – and that in future, more subtle and adaptable systems less reliant on traditional models of learning may take the emphasis off course completion, and also award partial studies and overall achievement in several MOOCs. In the current trial phase, teachers and students are still getting used to the technological options available to them, and working out how to engage fully on a technological level. It is only natural that many educators will make mistakes, as neatly demonstrated by the recent calamitous failure of one particular online course, whose subject was – how to teach online courses.


How can we encourage students to actively participate, remain engaged and motivated to follow the course for the full duration? Is the answer a need for greater communication?  The inverse proportionality between size of MOOCs and completion rates suggests that alienation is a key issue: pupils enrolled in larger courses are lost in a crowd, perhaps unfamiliar with technology, unable to interact with the class, and distanced from subject material not tailored specifically to them.


E-learning co-ordinator and ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN speaker Inge de Waard, of the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerpen, is a supporter of MOOCs, considering them “the most fitting pedagogical approach for this contemporary learning era”. Interviewed by the News Portal, she suggested three ways in which students’ lack of engagement should be approached: individually, socially and technically. These reflect the many levels of social engagement required of educators seeking to produce a successful MOOC.


On the individual level, she identifies increasing digital skills and improving self-directed learning as areas to be addressed: students must be made aware of how “to optimise their own learning, taking into account what they want out of it, and how they can achieve their learning goals”. They must also interact with their peers on a social level, and learn how to learn collaboratively – interacting with colleagues, friends or other experts.


The technology that underpins online courses is also, according to Inge de Waard, in need of enhancement: learning environments need to be made ubiquitous and seamless, with students able to access them from mobile devices as well as desktops, and “switch between devices, between learning moments and locations while keeping track of what they learned and which learning activities they engaged in”. In this way MOOCs can be made to fit “the contemporary realities of mobile learners of today”.


Inge de Waard will be appearing at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013 to deliver an interactive session with practical take-aways on “how to MOOC yourself”. The author of an e-book on the subject, “MOOC YourSelf”, she will be bringing the considerable expertise she has gained from her background in IT and pedagogy, writing, research and international speaking, and an astonishingly varied career.

5 Responses

  1. global_learner

    It has been proven that online discussion forums do not work for learning. In a classroom, someone not contributing in VISIBLE to the teacher. Online, they are INVISIBLE.

    • hoerfurter

      @global_learner: proven by whom? It depends how you use discussion forums. I have seen many cases, in which discussion forums worked very well for learning. As most educational instruments, it should be used deliberately, which means for the right target and as a moderated and guided approach. With a good moderator there are cases, when discussion forums are a powerful source of mutual learning.

      • global_learner

        Granted, there may be some cases, but whilst MOOCs being lauded as the next-big-thing in higher education, we have to pull the stars out of our eyes and realise that there are major weaknesses in the model when applied without extensive care and advanced pedagogy.

        The idea that anyone can just make a MOOC and reach 100,000 learners by making a few short videos and giving students a chatroom, as google & co. would like us to buy into, is deeply flawed!

  2. hoerfurter

    @global_learner: when it comes to MOOCs i fully agree. Discussion boards, as I mentioned, work, but as you rightly state- they need extensive and I would add intensive care and should be used with a pedagogical/instructional approach.

    Within Moocs it might work mostly for people who are already experts in the field (at least at the MOOCS I was part of, those were the ones who really benefitted). But thus I might see MOOCs rather as a tool for communities of practice for experts rather than a tool for learning for novices.


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