Thursday, June 4, 2015

How sticky are your courses?

Glue goo by Sam-Cat, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Sam-Cat

How sticky are your courses? What sort of glue is required to keep learners involved? How do we awaken interest and create the critical momentum and engagement that are needed to guarantee completion? It all depends on what type of course we're talking about and the glue needed on an open online course is fundamentally different from the glue traditionally applied.

Traditional post-secondary education is often selective and exclusive. The institution clearly states the prerequisites for application (required qualifications and grades, previous experience etc), the curriculum, required workload, schedule and expected outcomes and the student, by applying, agrees to abide by these. Of those who apply only a select group make the cut and they generally have to apply for a loan or grant to pay the fees and the costs of studying. This group has therefore invested greatly in the course and has agreed to the terms and conditions. Dropping out is a major decision and so the completion rates will naturally be high. The rewards are also clear in the form of a degree, certificate and job prospects. Basically there is a lot of glue holding the students and the course together and this will hold even if the course design and pedagogy are less than ideal. The high completion rates of many campus courses are perhaps an illusion in terms of course quality; for many students dropping out is simply not an option.

On the other hand non-traditional post-secondary education in the form of open online courses do not have these extrinsic motivating factors. The greater the openness and flexibility the weaker the extrinsic motivators and the course has to rely on the students' intrinsic motivation and the design and pedagogy of the course to keep them on board. Learners participate because they want to learn and because the process is stimulating and engaging. The glue needed here is all about inspiring intrinsic motivation by good course design and skilled teaching and facilitation.

A post on Edugeek Journal called What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else? develops this idea and provides a new angle on the old theme of MOOC completion rates. Maybe it's not the MOOCs that are failing but that the traditional system has made us dependent on grades, exams and credits and we cannot imagine education without them. We have focused too much on the stickiness of extrinsic motivation that we have neglected the preconditions for real learning. Maybe MOOCs are simply revealing a flawed system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.
You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?

We assume so often that only by offering extrinsic rewards can we win students' loyalty and so when those rewards are stripped away, as they are in a non-formal educational context the only glue we have is the fundamental joy of learning and teaching.

Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

So it's time to stop comparing these two fundamentally different learning contexts and see open education as a challenge where the focus is fully on course design, pedagogy and enthusiasm.


  1. You ask a very important och difficult question.
    I feel it will be impossible to turn back time and make students more well behaved and diciplined in order to do better in school. On the other hand it is difficult to find the other, good enought, carrots for learners when they don´t get diplomas or grades to garantee that they have passed the course. We all like to know stuff but it takes time to learn and to learn it well enough to be able to take the last step: the final assignements or tests.

  2. Thanks for your comment Charlotta! They key is that real learning happens when the motivation is intrinsic. If we are only learning to get the grades it's not the same as learning because you genuinely want to.

  3. True. More easily said than done though, there are so many things in life we want but never get enough time and energy for - including lots of learning. How do we make students be enough motivated to make it happen? And how do we help them so that it is possible for them to manage it?
    I think one key can be to provide help to find answers to questions they allready have, help to solve problems they already have instead of constructing problems that they are not challenged with right now. Which means we would help them with their everyday life instead of making their life more stressful. But now I am talking of the kind of extra courses that people can take while they work, not the basic studies (which I think needs to be more systematic). Or can we (will we have to?) jump over that step somehow?

  4. It is indeed very difficult. My comments relate mostly to non-formal and informal learning where we can't lean on artificial motivators like exams and certificates to keep students on track. We have to rely on real teaching skill and students' own motivation.

  5. I understood and am taking about the same kind of courses. :) The courses you don´t take because you need the exam, but the one you would take of pure interest.
    And I think that there are many things people want to learn, they just don´t want it or need it so bad that they make that last effort to finish a course. So I am not sure we have to have them completing the whole course as an aim. They still learn from it. So maybe we should stop meassuring how successful a course is through looking at how many that completes the whole course and passes through all the assignements and tests? Maybe we should meassure it through asking students how much use they have had of having access to the material? Or how much they themselves feel they have learnt from it? Or how much they have interacted with other participants of the course?
    And I want to emphas again that I believe that if we want students to stick to the course we have to individualize it so much that they feel they have more or less immediate use for what they learn here and now, that they get help with doing something they allready feel they have to or truelly need to do, some problemsolving, some task they need to do and at the same time learn some skill they have to have in order to manage work or in their private life. (I am sorry if I am not making myself understood so well in English, but it did not feel right to comment in Swedish here.)

    1. I agree completely. The challenge is how to teach in this new environment. Is the concept of "course" still relevant when we're talking about individualised learning? A course is a package that someone else has put together and which you are asked to accept. I wonder ...

    2. Good question! And I think you have the answer allready. ;)

  6. School has taught pupils that education is all about getting high grades; this conception about education is noticeable already in upper secondary school. If we want to implant the idea of learning without extrinsic rewards, one way is to start earlier – get them while they are still young children.