Moocs aim to keep engaged students coming back for more

Providers set sights on improving online study metrics

It is a problem as old as teaching itself, merely transferred to the era of the Mooc: how do you keep students coming back for more?

When massive open online courses, or Moocs, first appeared, much of the hype centred on the “democratisation of education” — courses from the world’s top universities made available to anyone with an internet connection.

It was easy to sign up — but it was just as easy to tune out. The Mooc was too impersonal: no campus, no student body, no upcoming essay deadline with a stern professor to mark it, no bar in which to swap ideas. Dropout rates were huge. Very quickly, Mooc platforms had to work out how to make their courses “sticky”.

Over the past few months, most have concentrated their efforts on making courses more personal and thus more engaging. In general terms, the basic ingredients have remained the same as in the early days of the Mooc — videos, lectures, discussion forums, quizzes and projects. But the way these are delivered has rapidly evolved.

Platforms have turned to organisations where the online consumer “experience” was vital for their success. Coursera, the largest, hired Tom Willerer in November 2013 to lead its product management and design team. Mr Willerer’s experience included stints at Facebook and Netflix. Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, a heavily design-focused platform owned by the UK’s Open University, worked on the BBC’s Radioplayer and iPlayer.

An increasing trend in recent months has been self-paced courses — courses you can start and finish at a date of your own choosing, rather than have to join at a fixed time. But while this may suit people who would otherwise find it hard to fit learning in around their jobs, “the challenge is to keep a sense of community . . . and interaction”, says Charlie Chung, editor of the blog Class Central, which covers the Mooc universe.

“In programming or problem-solving Moocs, if you have a question and go to the discussion forum, chances are you can already find the answer. If there is no ‘critical mass’ of students, you might not get an answer and the [forums] feel old.”

One answer has been the “cohort” — a group of like-minded people studying the same course who can team up to ask each other questions or just chew over the lessons. Cohorts can be formed of people “from related organisations [or] those who share similar goals, [and] create opportunities for networking and the creation of interpersonal connections”, wrote Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX, in a recent blog post on the subject.

“One of the hot trends right now is the use of Moocs in corporate environments for training,” says Mr Chung, where collaboration in small teams is central to the course. Notable in this sphere are newcomers such as NovoEd and EdCast. They offer both large-scale Moocs and smaller, privately run courses where groups submit assignments collectively, mark each other’s work and even rate individual members’ input.

Coursera also aims to nudge students in self-paced courses into sticking with them by suggesting deadlines and emailing reminders to finish certain tasks. As a result, “we are seeing many more people — double-digit [percentage] improvements — completing”, says Mr Willerer.

“At Coursera we are running more than 200 experiments to give learners different experiences and see which performs better.”

Another big trend is the move towards smaller “packaging” of subjects, particularly in business education. “People want the specific course,” says Mr Willerer. “Finance, marketing, digital marketing are all doing really well because they are targeted and packaged in a way that makes sense for students.”

One striking example came recently when the University of Illinois launched an iMBA on Coursera — the platform’s first MBA — in May. This consists of a set of specialisations, or mini-series of courses, in different areas of business. “You can work your way into it,” says Mr Willerer.

Other providers aim to keep students hooked with sheer production values. Bocconi University, for example, is establishing a reputation for the quality of its videos.

“We have never made a carbon copy [on video] of the traditional lecture,” says Valentina Todoro, who leads production and project management for Moocs at Bocconi. “Younger generations are used to videos, and good videos, so we exploit all the possibilities . . . for interaction: freezing the video to ask the community to say what they think, or ask a right/wrong question and then have the professor explain the answer, or putting in links [to outside content].”

Mr Chung is seeing more of these techniques. “Platforms should be doing this — questions that pop up, exercises that make you use information from the outside world,” he says.

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