Jacob Roeland / Creative Commons

Jacob Roeland / Creative Commons

The recent growth of online education has been astounding. Last year, 35 million people signed up for at least one online class. That’s more than double the previous year’s enrollment.

The popularity of online learning is easy to understand. Today, students have access to well over 4,000 courses in a wide array of subjects, from chemistry to philosophy to graphic design. They participate at a time and place that suits their schedule. Many courses are free.

There is, however, a serious problem currently keeping online education from reaching its full potential — low retention rates. About 90 percent of enrollees in “MOOCS” — short for “Massive Open Online Courses,” which have unlimited registration and are the most popular online education product — drop out within two weeks.

The key to solving this problem? Making MOOCs more interactive. While MOOCs can never perfectly replicate the in-person back-and-forth of traditional brick-and-mortar schools, they can capitalize on modern technologies that empower students to more intimately engage with the material, their instructors, and their peers.

It’s no surprise that so few online learners finish. Few MOOC platforms include features that allow students to collaborate or ask questions in real time. Students are often expected to just click play on a lecture video, sit back, and passively learn.

They’re stuck studying alone, with no sense of belonging to a broader community. If they find a lesson especially challenging, there’s no one to boost their morale or guide them over the hump. It’s easy to lose motivation.

Meanwhile, interactivity is the rule at traditional schools. Students can raise their hands in class and interrupt their teachers to ask questions. They can go to a professor’s office hours for further clarification. They join study groups and mentorship programs.

And all the extracurricular activities integral to college life — clubs and sororities and sports teams — further strengthen students’ social networks to keep them motivated and working.

MOOCs can replicate those connections by incorporating interactive tools that let students share notes, ask questions, and cheer each other on.

A new study from Penn State suggests that social media sites should be a prominent part of the MOOC toolkit. Researchers analyzed data from Facebook and Coursera, a popular MOOC provider. They found that students greatly preferred traditional social media channels to Coursera’s built-in message boards. Less than 10 percent of Coursera students used its boards, while nearly 30 percent of students were active on Facebook groups set up for specific classes. Researchers noted that the use of real names on the social site gave students “a sense of community.”

Some of the highest MOOC retention rates can be found at institutions that have invested in interactive technologies.

Harvard University, for instance, set up small virtual discussion groups supervised by a Harvard Law teaching fellow for an online course on copyright law. Out of 500 enrollees, about half took the final exam — a completion rate that’s well above the norm.

Likewise, St. George’s University, where I teach, has incorporated live sessions and student-led seminars into one of its public-health courses. Completion rates have jumped to five times that of the average MOOC.

Online learning is transforming lives all over the world. But too many students don’t finish what they’ve started. MOOC providers need to create more engaging, interactive experiences. That’s the best way to boost completion rates — and ensure that students take full advantage of this revolutionary new way to learn.

Satesh Bidaisee is an Associate Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies at St. George’s University, Grenada.

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