One of the biggest problems in online learning is disengagement. The debate about low completion rates in corporate elearning and many MOOCs keeps raging on. And while those pointing fingers usually compare apples with pears, it is certainly true that the issue of online student engagement needs special attention. Online, there is no such thing as a captive audience. Your email inbox or Netflix are always just one click away. So we thought hard about what makes other media experiences so successful. In this post, I want to describe the three motivational drivers we believe a good online course needs to tap into.
(Emotional + Interactive + Social) * Course Design = Effective Online Student Engagement
State-of-the-art pedagogy that aims at online student engagement combines key attributes of three highly addictive media experiences: films or TV-series, gaming, and online social networks. In order to motivate learners and keep them engaged, online courses have to be an emotional, interactive, and social experience. We combine storytelling techniques that create personal identification and immersion with what we call participatory pedagogy: an active engagement of learners through challenging assignments, and a focus on peer-to-peer relationships and mutual feedback. Our instructional design aims to combine these key motivation drivers in such a way that they keep learners engaged.
Emotions (Story-based Instruction)
Emotional storytelling is more than just fun fluff. Content in traditional lectures was typically structured in a very logical progression. Students were usually at the lecturer’s mercy, as they had to attend in order to pass the exam. In online education, we cannot take learners’ attention as a given. So we have to think hard about how to keep them engaged. Starting a course with definitions, therefore, probably isn’t a good idea. We have to draw people in. Grab them by the gut. In a security compliance training, I can just lay out the rules and say: “Please learn them by heart.” Or I can design a fictitious but plausible scenario that makes the learner the hero of the story: “A catastrophe is going to happen. You are the only one who can stop it… By the way, these rules will come in handy.” This has a completely different ring to it, doesn’t it? Stories are what makes people care.
Active Participation (Participatory Pedagogy)
Participatory pedagogy (or the less fancy ‘Mitmach-Lernen’ in German) is all about learners taking an active role in the learning process. If you look at the image above, you will see that the kid in the white t-shirt playing a computer game is very actively engaged. He is leaning forward and his facial expression and body language speak volumes. He is not (!) bored. This is the kind of attitude and engagement that, ideally, an online course should inspire. Learners should be at the edge of their seat. This is what we call “lean forward learning”. It’s the opposite of the consumption-oriented approach, where all I do is read, and click “play” or “next”. That is what we call “lean back learning”. Of course, a course will often be a mix of the two, but it is important for the first element to be present throughout. “Lean forward learning” is also the implementation of our design principle “assessment for learning”, which I will explain in more detail in another post on active online learning.
Social Feedback (User Interaction)
As I just explained, the kid in the picture playing a game is extremely engaged. One reason he is so engaged is presumably that he is taking an active role in the game. Another reason, however, is that someone else is watching. This is what makes online social networks so successful. The reason people post content to Facebook and Instagram is that I can share without giving away, and that there are other people who will comment or click like on my posts. Humans are social animals. We thrive on positive feedback and love a good challenge. Doing well is more fun when other people are watching. Direct feedback from others is a key motivating factor in the learning process. So we believe it’s important to build a virtual “campus experience” around the “lecture hall experience” of passive content consumption. An experience that facilitates user interaction and socialisation, enabling learners to chat, post questions, share the work they have created with each other, and establish a network of study buddies within the course.
When all of these elements work hand in hand, we see rates of online student engagement far above elearning and MOOC completion rates. Because if you do it right, people do in fact love to learn online :)