Author: Adebisi A. Akinyemi
Department of Psychological Science
Editors: Thomas Matthew Colclough & Helen Meskhidze
Editor-in-Chief: Alex Bower
February 20, 2023
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are online courses that are open for enrollment to millions of learners without restriction. Examples of platforms that offer MOOCs include Coursera, Udemy, and EdX. These courses have arguably made learning more accessible to people all over the world. Since there are no prerequisites or enrollment windows, people can easily enroll in MOOCs at any time. There is also a wide variety of subjects taught, providing access diverse classes and instructors. Other benefits of MOOCs include the fact that they are inexpensive (and can be audited for free), they are often available in many languages, and students can earn a certificate upon completion. Moreover, completing MOOCs could boost one’s career prospects and promote lifelong learning.
However, the potential advantages of MOOCs may be limited by their high dropout rates (de Freitas et al., 2015). Therefore, to best realize the benefits of MOOCs and possibly improve educational equity, it is important to promote student retention in these courses. Below, I will discuss some evidence-based factors which may increase student retention in MOOCs.
By nature, MOOCs require students to be independent learners because the courses are self-paced and there is little to no guidance, interaction, or support from others (e.g., instructors, peers). Thus, it is essential that MOOC students utilize self-regulated learning (SRL), a process through which people can achieve their learning goals by engaging in cognitive, motivational, and behavioral functions that help them persevere through obstacles to their learning (Kizilcec et al., 2017). SRL is characterized by goal setting, strategic planning, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation, among other strategies. One of the SRL strategies that MOOC learners are most likely to use is goal setting (Ceron et al., 2020). This makes sense due to the finding by Kizilcec et al. (2017) that goal setting (and strategic planning) was a significant positive predictor of completing a MOOC and earning a certificate. The study also suggested that other SRL strategies were important for student engagement in MOOCs. For example, students who utilized more self-evaluation spent more time reviewing material they had already completed. Still, Kizilcec et al.’s (2017) findings provide support to research that underscores goal setting and strategic planning as vital SRL strategies that promote retention in MOOCs (Kizilcec & Schneider, 2015).
Similar to traditional classes, completion of MOOCs requires motivation. Motivation is arguably more important for MOOC students, given that they are likely not required to complete these courses. Indeed, lack of motivation predicts the likelihood of students failing to complete their MOOCs (Khalil & Ebner, 2014). In a review conducted by Moore and Blackmon (2022), they found that MOOC students were motivated by both intrinsic values (e.g., personal satisfaction) and extrinsic values (e.g., certificate of completion). Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are related to student engagement in MOOCs, and engagement in these courses is in turn predictive of retention (Xiong et al., 2015). Though both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important for student retention in MOOCs, research suggests that the latter is especially influential (Reeves et al., 2017). Paton et al.’s (2018) literature review suggests that providing certificates for completing MOOCs is a key factor that promotes student retention. Additionally, Xiong et al. (2015) suggest that extrinsic motivation is a stronger predictor of student engagement in MOOCs – which predicts retention – than intrinsic motivation. Therefore, one’s intent to earn an accolade (e.g., certificate, badge, college credit) may be their primary motivator for enrolling in MOOCs – and the key mechanism that helps them complete the classes.
The lack of interaction with instructors and peers in MOOCs can result in feelings of isolation, leading students to drop out (Khalil & Ebner, 2014). Connecting with others and forming learning communities may increase retention in these courses (Barak et al., 2016; Paton et al., 2018; Poll et al., 2014). One of the most common ways for instructors to foster these connections is through online discussion forums. Wen et al. (2014) found that students who shared more posts to the course’s online discussion forum per week were less likely to drop out. Additionally, students who spent more time communicating with other students in discussion forums were more likely to complete their courses (Xiong et al., 2015). This interactivity may even promote more than retention, as one study demonstrated that participating in forums predicted completing a MOOC course “with distinction” (Engle et al., 2015).
Recommendations for MOOC Instructors
Given research suggesting that MOOC learners who engage in SRL – specifically, goal setting and strategic planning – are more likely to complete their course (Kizilcec et al., 2017), MOOC instructors should encourage these strategies using prompts (Wong et al., 2019a). At the beginning of the course, students could be prompted to set goals and plan a course of action to achieve them. This could be a graded assignment or a thought exercise. Throughout the course, prompts aimed at promoting SRL could be embedded into videos and assignments (Wong et al., 2019b). For example, EdPuzzle, a platform with which questions can be embedded into videos, could be a valuable resource for this. However, to deploy SRL, students must be motivated. There is significant evidence demonstrating that most MOOC students are extrinsically motivated (Paton et al., 2018; Reeves et al., 2017; Xiong et al., 2015). Therefore, MOOC instructors should offer incentives, such as certificates, badges, or college credits, to encourage student retention. These incentives may be more effective for retention when combined with increased interactivity and collaboration among students and their instructors (Barak et al., 2016; Paton et al., 2018; Poll et al., 2014). One way for MOOC instructors to foster a sense of community among learners is through discussion forums, which offer students the opportunity to communicate and solve problems, collaborate with one another, and share information (Paton et al., 2018). Forums also foster a sense of inclusion, encourage students to dig deeper into the course material, and help build community (Poll et al., 2014). Social media platforms like Discord, Facebook, and Slack may be utilized in lieu of discussion forums. In summary, promoting SRL, motivation, and community among MOOC students increases their retention in these courses and may improve the prospect of educational equity.
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