When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were first introduced about a decade ago, many higher education professionals viewed this new arrival as a gimmick. However, in the wake of the global pandemic, many institutions and instructors were forced to switch their in-person courses to online formats overnight. This firsthand experience taught many of us that online learning is possible. What is less clear is how to do it effectively.
Although MOOCs have provided access to education for millions of learners, they are often criticized for their limited degree of engagement. The statistics have been told and retold: 80 percent learners who enroll in a MOOC do not finish it, completion rates tend to be dismal, and interactions in discussion forums are usually one-way conversations.
My recent research, co-authored with Manjit Yadav at Texas A&M University and Aric Rindfleisch at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, seeks to address this issue by introducing and testing a novel approach for enhancing engagement in online courses. We build on the simple idea that online learning environments are different from face-to-face classrooms. Online environments tend to be larger, more diverse and more impersonal than a face-to-face course. So, traditional strategies that work in a physical classroom, such as discussions or ice-breaking activities, may or may not be effective in online environments.
We examined the effectiveness of various content-sharing strategies that nudge learners to either share something about their identity or about ideas related to the course. We conducted a randomized field study in a popular asynchronous course about digital marketing offered by a large public U.S. university on Coursera. Specifically, we randomly assigned 2,122 learners to a discussion prompt in the first week of the course that either asked them to post ideas related to the course (idea sharing)—such as how the digital world has affected firms and consumers—or to post their self-introductions (identity sharing)—such as where they are from and what they do. We also had a control condition with no such invitation to share. We measured the effects of these sharing prompts on learners’ subsequent engagement with videos and assessments.
Our results showed that asking learners to share their ideas about the course leads to approximately a 30 percent increase in both video consumption and assessment completion. In contrast, asking learners to share their identities did not produce an effect. So while encouraging learners to disclose information about their identity may be effective in a traditional face-to-face classroom setting, its effectiveness appears limited in large online classrooms.
So why is there an “idea advantage”—why are idea-sharing nudges more effective for enhancing online learner engagement? When we looked deeper into the textual responses posted by learners who were asked to share ideas, we found that their responses tend to be longer, more elaborate and more complex. In essence, the online learner seems to be putting more thought into these idea posts, relative to simply posting a few short sentences about who they are, where they are from, etc. in the identity-sharing nudge.
Since online learning environments attract learners from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds, we also wanted to examine if there were any differences in what type of learners engage more once asked to share ideas. Indeed, the idea advantage does not apply uniformly to all learners. Our data show that it is more effective for learners from English-speaking countries and those new to online learning. Since sharing ideas requires a greater ability to communicate and articulate complex thoughts compared to sharing information about one’s identity, language fluency plays a more important role for idea sharing. Similarly, learners who are new to the learning platform (i.e., Coursera) may be more enthusiastic about idea sharing due to the novelty of the platform and the nudge.
Overall, our research introduces a simple but effective tool in the form of idea-sharing nudges to engage learners in massive online classrooms. We also show that some practices for encouraging engagement in face-to-face learning environments may not readily translate to online contexts. As higher education faces new challenges and opportunities in the form of technological changes accompanied by rising costs and dwindling enrollments, it will be impossible to completely ignore the digital revolution. It is critical that education experts design and apply digital tools, strategies and data analytics approaches that can better assess and advance learner engagement in the future.