This simple nudge can inspire students to become more engaged in online classes

When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were first introduced a decade ago, many higher education professionals viewed this new arrival as a gimmick. However, in the wake of the global pandemic, many institutions and instructors have been forced to switch their in-person classes to online formats overnight. This first-hand experience has taught many of us that online learning is possible. What is less clear is how to do it effectively.

Although MOOCs have provided access to education for millions of learners, they are often criticized for their limited degree of engagement. The statistics have been said and retold: 80% of learners who enroll in a MOOC do not complete it, completion rates tend to be dismal, and interactions in discussion forums are generally one-way conversations.

My recent research, co-authored with Manjit Yadav from Texas A&M University and Aric Rindfleisch from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, aims to address this problem by introducing and testing a novel approach to improving engagement in online courses. We are based on the simple idea that online learning environments are different from face-to-face classrooms. Online environments tend to be larger, more diverse and more impersonal than a face-to-face course. Thus, traditional strategies that work in a physical classroom, such as discussions or ice-breaking activities, may or may not be effective in online environments.

We examined the effectiveness of various content sharing strategies that encourage learners to share something about their identity or course-related ideas. We conducted a randomized field study in a popular asynchronous digital marketing course offered by a major US public university on Coursera. Specifically, we randomly assigned 2,122 learners to a discussion prompt during the first week of the course that asked them to either post course-related ideas (idea sharing) – such as how the digital world has affected businesses and consumers – either to publish their ideas. introduce themselves (identity sharing) – like where they are from and what they do. We also had a control condition without such an invitation to share. We measured the effects of these sharing prompts on subsequent learner engagement with videos and assessments.

Our results showed that asking learners to share their ideas about the course leads to about a 30% increase in video consumption and assessment completion. On the other hand, asking learners to share their identity did not produce any effect. So while encouraging learners to disclose information about their identity can be effective in a traditional face-to-face classroom, its effectiveness seems limited in large online classrooms.

So why is there an “idea advantage” – why are idea sharing nudges more effective at improving online learner engagement? When we looked deeper into the text responses posted by learners who were asked to share ideas, we found that their responses tended to be longer, more elaborate, and more complex. Essentially, the online learner seems to think more about these postings of ideas, than just posting a few short sentences about who they are, where they’re from, etc. in the identity sharing boost.

Given that online learning environments attract learners from around the world with a variety of backgrounds, we also wanted to examine if there were any differences in the type of learners who engage most once they were asked to share ideas. This is because the benefit of the idea does not apply equally to all learners. Our data shows it is most effective for learners in English-speaking countries and those new to online learning. Since sharing ideas requires a greater ability to communicate and articulate complex thoughts compared to sharing information about one’s identity, language proficiency plays a greater role in sharing ideas. Similarly, learners new to the learning platform (i.e. Coursera) may be more enthusiastic about sharing ideas due to the newness of the platform and the kick inch.

Overall, our research presents a simple yet effective tool in the form of idea sharing incentives to engage learners in massive online classrooms. We also show that some practices aimed at encouraging engagement in face-to-face learning environments may not translate easily to online contexts. As higher education faces new challenges and opportunities in the form of technological change accompanied by rising costs and declining enrolments, it will be impossible to completely ignore the digital revolution. It is essential that education experts design and apply digital tools, strategies and data analysis approaches that can better assess and advance learner engagement in the future.

Karen O. Fielding