“And will you succeed? Yes indeed!” Learner motivation in online courses

“And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!”

Dr. Seuss, Oh! The Places You’ll Go

Image from istockphoto

Image from istockphoto

98.75% guaranteed! Dr Seuss is talking about success, of course, be he could just as easily be talking about the dropout rates on some online courses, particularly MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which can be notoriously high. Engendering high levels of student motivation has always been a challenge for educators, but the problem can be particularly acute in online courses. MOOCs are perhaps a case apart, but any teacher who has run or participated in an online course — whether blended or 100% online — will recognise that they pose a very particular set of problems with regards to student motivation, especially compared to predominantly face-to-face courses. In their 2007 paper We’ll Leave the Light on for You: Keeping Learners Motivated in Online Courses, Dennen and Bonk even go so far as to quote Salmon’s (2000) comment that participation in online courses is “an act of faith”.

But does it need to be that way?

Challenges to motivation

Students studying online certainly face numerous challenges to their motivation levels, some internal and some external. Externally, they may perceive a lack of support, especially when the course moderator is failing to communicate regularly or is absent altogether; they can feel anonymous and as if no one cares what they’re doing. They may also find the barriers to dropping out very low: it’s harder to quit your course when you have to confront your teacher face-to-face and let them know; it’s also a lot easier when you’ve paid very little for your course or when it’s completely free. Internally, students may be battling with work and family commitments, stress, and a feeling that their course is either a time luxury that they can’t afford or an albatross around their neck that they can’t break free from.

For the teacher, it can be very hard to pick up on the warning signs that a learner is on the verge of dropping out of an online course. Looking out at a sea of faces in the classroom, we can soon spot those who aren’t engaged, who seem bored and uninterested, and we can act accordingly, providing extra support and guidance. For the online course moderator, those signs are harder to pick up on, or may be completely hidden. But what we can do is find ways to design and deliver our courses that, while not guaranteeing 98.75% success, can go a long way to increasing learner motivation and, in turn, completion rates.

What can we do to help?

It seems obvious, but getting the course design and content right is essential. It seems obvious, but it’s still often overlooked. Learners should enjoy being in the online space, meaning user experience becomes incredibly important. Make sure that students can get started quickly, that their learning path is easy to navigate, and that any interactive activities are intuitive and present the right level of challenge. It’s also important that learning aims are clearly articulated and — more importantly — relevant to the learner’s needs. If your content doesn’t feel relevant, learners will have no desire to engage with it; and an unengaged learner is soon an unmotivated learner.

It’s also important to recognise that learner needs are constantly evolving. Christofer Bullsmith, one of Reallyenglish’s online coaches, has noticed a significant change over the last few years: ‘We’ve gone from “I need a TOEIC score but don’t need English” to “I need English NOW!”’. Showing an understanding of those changing needs, and pointing out how the course they’re taking will help them achieve them, can keep learners on track. We may even need to recognise the fact that some students will not enjoy their course, no matter how well it’s designed or run; for some people, learning a language or similar skill in their spare time will always seem like a burden. In these cases, Christofer will often explain to the learner that the goal is to help him or her achieve various contexts and levels of communicative competence, and that English is a tool to help them achieve that. They don’t need to “love English”, he points out. (He also adds that he doesn’t love his woodworking saws, but that he’s used them to reach goals that are important to him. A nice analogy.)

Coaching programs such as the one Christofer runs can bring several benefits. He attributes the 85% completion rate on Reallyenglish courses in part to the personal touch that a well-run coaching program can bring: ‘It reminds learners that it’s not just them and the impersonal internet, that there’s an actual team of people here working to help them’. This is especially important in courses with no classroom component: ‘It’s very important to have some social connection and a sense of community, someone to send reminders and set a schedule, for there to be a way of asking questions and getting advice.’ Encouraging peer-to-peer interaction and problem-solving via course forums or discussion boards can provide a similar effect, especially if the course moderator is over-stretched.

Tools for learners

Image from istockphoto

Image from istockphoto

For learners with no access at all to a course coach or moderator, there are still useful tools available. Some are incredibly simple, such as making a list of the reasons you’re taking this course and putting them somewhere you’ll see them every day. Others can help make regular practice a part of our daily routine. Christofer always offers the following advice to new learners:

The best way to improve your language skills, or in fact any skill you would like to learn, is to study or practice regularly. How can make sure you do that? Here’s a simple tip. Get yourself a large wall calendar, preferably with the whole year displayed. Every day you study, even if only for a few minutes, mark the day with large red “X”. If you manage to study a little every day, you will soon have a chain of “X”s! Now, keep doing this and try your best not to break the chain. After a few weeks you’ll find that it’s easy to keep studying regularly.

(Believe it or not, this technique comes from none other than Jerry Seinfield, who used it to stay motivated when writing.)

The online learning “contract”

Finally, it can be useful to remind learners why they signed up for an online course in the first place, especially if it was instead of a face-to-face course. The course is designed to fit around them; it allows them to study what they want, when they want; it’s been calibrated to their specific needs. But that in itself is a kind of contract. In return for the flexibility that online learning can offer, there’s a price to pay in terms of self-motivation, self-direction and self-discipline. Engaging with learners in an open discussion about this, and clearly articulating the expectations of the course — along with the benefits it will bring them — can be the first step towards Dr Seuss’s seemingly impossible ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guarantee.


One Comment on ““And will you succeed? Yes indeed!” Learner motivation in online courses”

  1. […] slow and difficult. At the very least, it’s time-consuming. That’s one of the reasons that motivation is so important: it takes self-control, discipline and focus to learn a language, and some, if not […]


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