How to attract, engage and keep your online students

October 5, 2011

Maximising motivation in digital workshops and online courses

Keep going. Image: Reuben Whitehouse via flickr

Online courses are being offered more and more, both as an alternative way of taking part in a traditional class, and as a way of providing totally new types of course.

If you are designing an online workshop, you will usually want to create something that provides the participant with genuine value and satisfaction.

This means producing courses that encourage the participants to sign up, then take part fully, and keep going right to the end. People who drop out or disengage are likely to be much less happy with their experience.

Motivation is a slippery concept. My old organisational psychology textbook defines motivation as the way in which behaviour is started, energised, sustained and directed. I would define it as a kind of forward energy which keeps us engaged, involved and acting.

There are at least three elements that motivate people to enrol in the first place.

  • A highly desired outcome

This could be a recognised qualification or formal course credit. In non-certificate courses, it is likely to be the knowledge or skills gained.

I think that course participants are often looking for some kind of personal transformation, too. This could be the simple acquisition of a new skill, or it could be a much deeper change in behaviour. Transformation is a hidden factor in non-academic courses: for example, I secretly hoped that the home organising course I did would help to turn me into a serene Martha Stewart figure. (Still sad…)

If the course doesn’t actually deliver what it promised, this can be pretty disappointing. Obviously, you can’t control what people do or what motivates them to sign up. You can, however, create an online experience which is very satisfying, giving people the very best chance to reach their outcome. Sadly, I did not turn into Martha Stewart, but I came away with loads of ideas and insight, and a huge sense of value.

  • Strong reputation of the teachers, the course or the institution.

Some classes are particularly coveted. I do evening classes at the Cambridge University’s  Institute of Continuing Education, and there’s no doubt that the  ‘Cambridge factor’ is a major attraction for students, irrespective of the content.

  • Interesting classmates

Unless someone is embarking totally on self-study (which is hard going), it’s likely that you’ll have classmates. At the very least, you’ll share the same journey. Connecting with classmates may also turn out to be a rich part of the experience, whether it’s to discuss and share class content, or to gain access to a valuable network on graduation.

As a course organiser, you can’t really control who shows up, but your course content and structure will attract some people more than others. You need to set clear expectations at the start: how much time is needed, what kinds of resources are important. You may need to gently filter out the people who don’t have the knowledge or experience to get the best out of the course.

You can also encourage the participants to be their best selves, in the way that you structure the course from the start.

Those are the entry factors. Let’s move on to the next phase: staying the course.

For some students, receiving course content is enough. For most students, a satisfying course that justifies the investment is one that they complete in full. For students to come back and sign up for every course you offer, you need to be offering something rather special: great content, great experience and good value for money.

So how do you help to build and sustain your student’s motivation during a course?

1. Through effective course content and structure

Get the basics right. Be very clear about the structure: class timetable, release of new material, deadlines, assignments, call times, assessment methods (if relevant). Make sure it all happens just as you laid out, especially at the beginning.

There are so many different approaches to structuring a course, that I can’t generalise. But consider: all courses have an element of journey to them. You can create a very simple journey of beginning, middle and end, or you can create something that is more demanding, which unfolds dramatically over time.

Maybe, like a movie, it will have a tricky final act where participants bring together everything in their final task. Perhaps it starts with a strong challenge which sets the scene for the journey that you’ll undertake together.

How can you dramatise the learning journey effectively?

2. Through encouraging peer-to-peer interaction

Personally, I struggle with courses that don’t have any peer-to-peer element. In the online context, it feels like I’m getting much less. Other people’s experiences and opinions can be extremely helpful in clarifying our own thoughts. Joining a class with peers also means sharing the journey – being able to look back and congratulate yourselves on the progress made and the knowledge gained.

For most subjects, a well-thought out private online forum, or small breakout groups, will enrich participants’ experience. It can be an add-on or a core part of the content. If it’s core, make sure that you’ve allowed sufficient time to moderate or facilitate the discussions.

3. By assigning great homework

Much like peer-to-peer interaction, good homework extends your participants’ engagement with your subject and your material. A well thought-out assignment can stretch your people. Make early assignments clear, interesting and doable, and assign them right from the beginning to set the tone of your course and bring people in.

If formal assessment isn’t relevant, then sharing the results of homework is powerful.

4. By providing constructive feedback and commentary

In many courses, participants hang on the leader’s every word. Maybe that’s not your model – but typically, your people do crave your insight, feedback and interest.

If your subject is heavily technical and curriculum-based, this may not matter so much.
For transformational work, I think it is very helpful to provide touchpoints – feedback, calls, responses, video – that show that you are out there, listening. Encouraging peer feedback will also strengthen this element.

5. By starting and ending strongly

A lot of professional courses really fall down here, especially at the end, by a dribbling start and a fizzling-out finish.

Where possible, create a positive start and a clear ending.  Welcome people in and give them things to do while they’re waiting for the course to kick off.  Set the tone and the energy you want right there.

For the finish, you could create an event, a roundup, a reward – anything that celebrates the course, the participants and what you all learned.  Just make it light, accessible, and inclusive of everyone.

It’s still early days for online courses, and there is huge freedom to do things in new ways, so I think it’s also important to be fun and surprising, especially if you’re creating your own curriculum. These things make for a truly rewarding experience, that will make your students happy and coming back for more.

Questions? Thoughts on what’s worked for you? Add them below.


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