Section 6: Understanding and engaging your learners


There may be many reasons why someone decides to organize and deliver a MOOC. Perhaps an opportunity has emerged to make one; maybe an educational institution has requested one; or because exploration into the MOOC world itself is desired. Whatever the reason, the developer has an actual reason to be motivated to build a particular MOOC. But what about the learners? What are their reasons for signing up?
Here we will pinpoint some of the main issues in relation to learner motivation in order to identify some actions which may result in maximum engagement of learners on a MOOC.

Categories of learners

First of all, one should ask the question “Who are our tentative, target students?” The reasons why a person registers for a MOOC may be multiple. Registering is sometimes very simple, but understanding retention rates is more complex.
Types of students who register for a MOOC may be divided into:

  • Those who have curiosity about the subject
  • Those who loved the title
  • Those who have some knowledge in the field, and are willing to explore further
  • Those who already know the subject, but want to obtain a certificate, accreditation, badges, etc.
  • Those who register by mistake
  • Those who are not sure if the course is of interest for them, but register anyway
  • Others         

During the first days of the course, depending on the administrative criteria, there may be a combination of dropouts and registrations. Usually there is a some hype: people talk about the course, videos of the first activities are very enticing, nice and simple, so people claim the course is great.
At the end of the first week, however, students are requested to do the first assessment, and a problem may arise – students start dropping out!
Unfortunately, when students face the first difficulty, some think “that is not for me”, “I do not have time enough”, “I am tired”, etc., so the MOOC leader must deal with those people that might be interested in the MOOC, but have difficulty with time, energy or other issues.

Engaging different categories of learners

The first category that one should think about, and plan for, consists of those students who are actually willing to complete the course.
The second category to focus on includes those that may like the course, but are unsure about being able to complete it.
For the first category, one should plan items that keep participants even a little bit engaged – provide nice activities and resources – and this could be enough to have them complete the MOOC. This group may account for approx.  10% of registered learners, and is  the easiest group to retain.
However, the category where our efforts should be most invested in is the second one – those who are unsure whether they will be able to finish the course. One must permanently try to convince them to stay engaged.
As far as other registered students, e.g. curious people, those who signed up just because it was easy etc. –  you might be lucky if some of them complete the MOOC, but there may not be a strategy that will yield significant results with this group.
It is especially important to prevent dropouts after the first module and especially after the first assessment. Expectations should be kept high, and a clever combination of stimulating assessments and attractive resources should be provided.
One might add some gamification, to provide awards and prizes, to plan tweetups or hangouts (e.g., streaming live with a twitter backchannel). Whatever you decide to do, any actions you decide to take to maximize registration and minimize dropouts should not create additional stress.
Of course, besides taking care of enthusiasts (1st category) and likers (2nd category), items planned should also try to maximize retention of 3rd category: curious-minded. The spreadsheet, described in section 4 above, may be useful for this,  stating clearly their purpose with respect to each category.

Planning engagement strategies

A second, key question that any MOOC builder should answer is “How is the asynchronous character of this course being addressed”? MOOCs in general are asynchronous: the course leaders do not actually connect with student synchronously. The course flow may also be different for each student of the course. This is very important to keep in mind. Of course, one might design a MOOC so everyone follows its timeline simultaneously. But usually one allows students to start the first module when others may already be completing later modules. Neither do students advance at the same pace. They may spend two days on a particular module, or be involved in something else for a few days, or even work hard only for two weeks.
Learners on a MOOC do not necessarily solve problems or carry out activities with the same frequency. This affects face-to-face activities, peer to peer (p2p) assessments, and anything that must be synchronous. For instance, one might think of giving an online seminar, and answer questions posed by students through a backchannel. It is a good idea, but not everyone is available, nor are they all at the same point of the course timeline. While it is very low cost, it is difficult for the webinar to be useful to everyone. Perhaps a forum would be better for the aim. A short video might be also provided, and comments/suggestions asked to registered participants by text of even video.
Another interesting item to be added to the plan is to build up a wiki, where everybody may provide information and state opinions, asynchronously, regardless of there they are in the course or geographically. Maybe they can be encouraged to contribute to Wikipedia! MOOCs help to build knowledge, and to many people, low-cost may mean high-reward and high-commitment to open knowledge.
Sharing is important, and might be the subject of another item in the timeline: encouraging students to share ideas openly in forums but also in the public Internet and social networks. This is likely to help, if it is not compulsory. Sharing bring about staying in the course and engaging.
As an example, let’s suppose that we build a MOOC on Art or on Geography where taking pictures is interesting and relevant. You might ask learners to take pictures and share them when they follow the MOOC, so all students can take a look at everyone’s pictures, exercises, drawings, or small projects. Sharing adds a low-cost way to build a MOOC. Share your own material, and remember that it is not synchronous – some learners may be online one day, while others may follow that part two weeks later.
Surveys and badges might be items to add to the planning phase. Reward students with explorer honours with various levels. Even rank those involved in optional activities. Google Forms might be a low-cost means of organizing such surveys and games. Results might help to rank participants, even though one must be cautious not to hinder progress of students less interested in playing. Google Forms allow to collect all information into a Google Spreadsheet, which may be viewable live.  This is a quite good low-cost approach to keep students engaged.
Engagement is bidirectional. One should address the requirements of building up the MOOC in terms of time, energy/money and personnel. In particular, one should think of the MOOC Team: “How are we going to build up the MOOC?”
Students will keep engaged with the course if they realize that instructors are also engaged. So builders and instructors should participate in discussions, have everything ready and on time, participate in social networking and sharing activities, record good-enough videos, etc.
Action by instructors should not forget the core students, that 10% of learners most likely to complete the course. Those students should be kept happy and engaged. As far as the next 15% of students, one should ask “why they may not continue”, and “what the the difficulties they face now”. One should state in some way “May I help you?”, for instance asking them, where possible, to attend a physical meetup somewhere, e.g. in a library. That should create a sense of community and create online community as well. All this should be properly stated in the planning spreadsheet.
Of course there may be other low-cost ideas to maximize registration and prevent dropouts. They should all be stated in the MOOC planning spreadsheet and clearly assigned.
Here we provide a couple of examples: an actual MOOC being developed, and another MOOC which is just an idea at the moment. Please remember that the  blank spreadsheet in section 4 can be used for this.
The #magcimooc Magic and Science MOOC – this is an actual MOOC being developed in Spanish, that deals with the field of intersection of Magic, Science, and Education. It is being built by two teams, one in Madrid and another in Girona, so planning is especially important. The template is found at
The Science of Color MOOC. This is not an actual MOOC… but it might be! The template, with just the indexes and descriptions, may be found at