June 14, 2021
5 Minutes

Improving Online Course Completion Rates

With a lower barrier to entry for teaching online, aspiring online teachers must remember that a course should help students to achieve a specific goal.

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Online education has been growing over the last decade. And since the outbreak of COVID-19, we can assume that the growth of online education has accelerated, with schools and universities unwittingly forced to adopt online courses. According to Global Market Insights, the online education industry is on track to be worth $375 billion by the year 2026. Having contributed to the sphere of online education - teaching over 100,000 students, I've garnered some ideas on how to improve their abysmal completion rates. Because, even though online courses allow us to learn from anywhere with an internet connection, I'm not sure we are.

A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that online courses had a colossal dropout rate of 96~ per cent on average. As both a teacher and student of online courses, there seems to be a variety of reasons as to the low completion rates, allow me to divulge into them.

  • Inclusive: Online courses which lack an element of scarcity tend to perform worse. Classes which have a sense of exclusivity, often through admission criteria, perform better.

  • Free: Across the board, free courses achieve lower completion rates than their paid counterparts. Students aren't vested enough to follow-through with free classes.

  • Expectations: Students who have professional reasons to complete a course are more motivated to do so. Whereas, hobbyist learners are more inclined to learn as and when.

  • Quality: The quality of both the content and delivery in online courses plays a significant role in completion rates. Online teachers have to be more enthusiastic to keep learners engaged.

How Can We Keep Students Motivated?

More Text Lectures

Online courses predominantly get delivered via video lectures. The concern I have with videos is that it's easy to miss crucial details as you passively watch them. For this reason, we should place a stronger emphasis on text lectures to improve completion rates. It's harder to multi-task while reading, combatting the inherent flaw of video lectures - passive consumption. For example, consider the discipline of programming. Programming requires intense periods of reading and writing. The syntax is of the utmost importance in programming. Gaining the unwavering attention of students via text lectures provides teachers with the opportunity to engage students further.

Create Social Experiences

The internet is at its best when connecting people. Yet, the majority of online learning happens solitarily. The default method of teaching online - video, is an isolating way in which to learn. With this in mind, online courses should consider building themselves around a social experience. Though creating such social experiences is difficult, it's not impossible. Again, referencing the discipline of programming, it would be beneficial for a student if they could request a paired programming session. Subsequently, matched with a student who is similarly proficient. Not only do such social learning experiences improve students skills, but they also enhance the students soft-skills. In such environments, teachers must actively facilitate discussions. Teachers can't expect students to engage in such social situations without any prompting.

Mask Answers

Students participate in courses to learn something. It's generally not a hobby. Therefore, the goal must-be to enforce active learning. A compelling avenue in which to achieve this, would be through masking question and answer discussions in courses. Such a tactic forces active learning. Students must ask precise questions to get clear answers. Such method teaches students how to think critically - gaining more in-depth expertise. That is the goal of a course. After all, many question and answer discussions don't make sense without context applied. So why not obscure them? That doesn't mean teachers can't open up specific previously answered questions, they can, but once they're confident a student has fully understood the topic at hand.

Realtime Responses

In many online learning environments, students have to wait if they need something clarified by the teacher. The waiting time varies. Some learning environments don't emphasise timely responses, whereas others do. However, both types of learning environments tend to use discussion boards as a means of communication between students and teachers. If a student is 'in the zone', waiting for a reply in a discussion board can be detrimental to their progress. Hence, discussion boards could be substituted for live chats to avoid halting a student's progress. Naturally, teaching assistants would be required. It's not out of the question for teaching assistants to be based offshore, as well as the potential benefit of cost-saving, it ensures that the platform has staff continuously. However, platforms would have to provide appropriate training to teaching assistants.

Automated Tests

Courses shouldn't give students a false sense of mastery. But the unfortunate truth is that most do. The primary cause of this is teachers assuming that videos equate to courses. It's naive for a teacher to believe that as long as video lectures are there, students will learn. The way to interpret a students sense of mastery on a topic is to assess them - though we don't want to test them in the traditional sense of the word. We want to test their proficiency through automated tests, where students don't have to wait for their results. We can garner such inspiration from programming courses built upon GitHub, where students code is subject to automated tests.

Do We Know How To Learn?

It strikes me as bizarre that in our early years of education, there isn't an emphasis placed on learning how to learn. The basis of everything in life is learning. There are a plethora of amazing teachers in the world. But, they are useless if students can't interpret the wisdom they're sharing. If students don't know how to learn, then no course will ever serve its purpose for them. Students will never succeed if they can't interpret your material. In the case of online courses, teachers should embody the spirit of teaching students how to absorb their material best. It's a win-win situation.

Are Completion Rates Important?

Are completion rates the correct success metric for online courses? After all, length heavily influences an online course's completion rate. With the affordability of many online courses, what if students started to adopt an approach of stopping once they've gained mastery? If students learn everything from an online by consuming 80% of the content, should they have to absorb the remaining 20% for the sake of a certificate of completion? These questions open up the floor to other methods in which to validate a students mastery, because satisfying completion rates for a completion certificate, might not be the correct measurement.

Teachers must do a better job to improve online course completion rates. What completion rates entail is open for debate. It could be that students are required to pass a final automated test, which is accessible for students to take once they feel they've gained mastery of the topic. With a lower barrier to entry for teaching online courses, aspiring online teachers must remember that a class should help students to achieve a specific goal. And, accomplishing that goal as quickly as possible. Contrary to popular belief, longer courses don't equate to better classes.

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