One of the most startling results from Massive Open Online Courses (or “MOOCs”) is that the student course completion rates can be shockingly low. Even with the more popular courses offered by Coursera, Udacity and Edx, up to 97% of students fail to complete the online course, as cited in this New York Times article. The elearning industry average course completion rate hovers at around 5 to 8%.
While this might be fine for big institutions like MIT or Stanford, who can keep attracting hundreds of thousands of new students when they announce a course, if you are building a business selling courses online it’s a big problem. If 97% of the buyers of your first course do not finish, what’s the chance they’ll buy your next learning product? To increase sales of your next online course, or for add on products like books, tools and consulting you might be offering, the completion rate matters. Even if you’re not selling and just providing learning in a private or corporate environment, your goals will not be met if you don’t help students finish.
Combating this course completion rate issue requires balancing “ease” of completion with a sense of “reward” for the student. Ease is pretty clear, but we don’t mean that the course should be “easy” and not be challenging; if it’s too easy students won’t think there was enough value in the course.
Reward is a bit more complicated to explain. We don’t mean rewarding them with badges for finishing lessons, which at this point most online course students dismiss as a gimmick. We also don’t mean giving them certificates, though that is definitely valuable as a “carrot”, but certificates often come at the end, too late to help address the course completion issue anyway. Reward comes down to giving a student a sense of accomplishment as they journey through the course.
In our surveys of students of online courses, and in reviewing the comments and ratings of courses on several sites like Udemy and lynda.com, students say need three things to build that sense of accomplishment.
1. The course needs to be sufficiently challenging: not too easy but not too frustratingly difficult. We call this the “In the Flow,” a “Goldilocks Zone” where students feel they are in a groove at a pace that is easy to maintain throughout the online course.
2. The course needs to have the right “length-to-value” ratio. The key thing here is that longer courses aren’t necessarily better, nor is short and quick necessarily the name of the game. Finding this ratio is actually easier than it seems; in fact some of the elearning tools that we recommend have published their numbers on the “right” length. We’ll summarize those in a separate dedicated post.
3. The last thing you need is to make sure you provide some sense of reward as early as possible. Sites like codeacademy.com, which helps students learn how to code, does this very, very well. The very first lesson lets students create and run code within a matter of minutes, right in the website. By comparison, programming courses on sites like udemy.com often require the student to download software development tools to their desktops, install those tools, configure their computers, etc. before they can write their first line of code. All of those things are needed, of course, but there’s nothing like that instant sense of gratification that a student feels when they can accomplish something directly relevant to their learning goal within a few minutes of starting the course.
These three things are the major insights, and we’ll cover them separately in details in other blog posts. There are some other things of course that are important that fall into each of these categories, like:
- Don’t make students passively watch videos of a talking head for hours.
- Give them quizzes (really, they do like that, if it’s not too easy and not too hard).
- Poll them for feedback as they go.
- Have them discuss with each other.
- Give them a podcast they can listen to while driving to work.
- Recommend books for further exploration, to show there is more to learn.
And make sure you choose the right elearning platform that can do all of these things in a way that is easy for you and the students to manage.
Keep an eye out for a deeper dive on building that sense of accomplishment for students in online courses!