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In this two-part article, we'll look at how to keep learners engaged in courses.
The BBC reports that Futurelearn's latest course for English language students has attracted more than 380,000 students worldwide. Futurelearn says it believes this figure makes it the biggest MOOC ever. And there's no denying it's an amazing example of how the internet opens up learning to people all over the world.
Futurelearn says it's the high quality of their courses that has allowed them to catch up and overtake the well known US programmes run by universities such as Harvard and MIT. But there's surely more to it than that: there's the simple fact that the IELTS English language test is one of the most popular around the world. From a mere 4,000 candidates in 1981, it has expanded to millions of students today. So a MOOC offering well structured preparation is bound to attract interest.
Futurelearn's success is clear. But sooner or later, they will face what nearly all course providers encounter – a certain proportion of students will drop out, and some will never even start. This is such a common problem with online learning that for several years, researchers have been trying to figure out what determines dropout rates. More positively, they have also been looking at success stories – programmes that have high retention rates, and courses that evolve and improve student engagement.
It's important to keep perspective when looking at retention. Hoping for 100% completion would be foolish. But if large numbers drop out of a large course, it can help to think in absolute numbers rather than percentages: if a classroom course starts with 20 learners and two drop out, it still ends up only teaching eighteen students. By comparison, if an online programme starts with a thousand learners and loses half before the end, it's still managed to successfully teach five hundred.
Of course, that doesn't mean course designers should just give up on retention. A great way to start thinking about maintaining engagement is to understand reasons for dropout. A Warwick University paper (PDF) published last year suggested there were eight main reasons for a learner to abandon the courses they looked at:
- No real intention to complete
- Lack of time
- Course difficulty and lack of support
- Lack of digital skills or learning skills
- Bad experiences
- Unrealistic expectations
- Starting late
- Burden of peer review
These reasons will probably have raised the beginnings of solutions in your mind already. In the second part of this article, we'll look at some of the many ways programme designers have improved retention – sometimes spectacularly!