Case Study: How Online Education Can Keep Students Enrolled and Engaged

By Satesh Bidaisee, Associate Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, St. George's University
August 17, 2016

Online coursesThis time of year, college students are flocking to register for classes. Enrollment in online courses is surging. But few of these students see the courses through to completion. Universities need to change that.

Online courses grew in popularity for the 13th straight year. Enrollment for online courses nearly doubled in 2015, topping 35 million students.[1] Their appeal is simple – a more cost-effective and convenient way to learn the same course material offered in a traditional class.

The most popular type of online courses are Massive Open Online Courses designed to accommodate large numbers of students from all over the world. Close to 2,000 additional MOOCs were created last year, a growth rate of 75 percent.[2]

Despite the high enrollment rates, however, course completion rates are appalling. Studies show that only 5 percent of students complete MOOCs.[3]

MOOCs have the potential to be incredibly effective educational tools if implemented correctly. The key is to create a community of students who are invested in the course content and are accountable to each other through regular interaction.

In a study of over 50,000 students enrolled in MOOCs, the lack of engagement was a primary factor in low completion rates.[4] Conversely, engagement increases in courses with diverse course content, student-staff interaction, and discussion forums with peers.[5]

At St George’s, we put these elements to the test in our own MOOC – One Health, One Medicine – a course on the intersection of medicine, veterinary medicine, and public health.

OHOM first launched in 2013 and was taught through recorded lectures and online discussion forums.[6] Only 11 percent of our students completed the course.

So we revamped our OHOM model a year later to increase student interaction.

We created peer review assignments and additional discussion forums administered for and by students. And to improve student-instructor engagement, we added more live lectures so instructors could interact with students in real-time, like they would in a traditional classroom setting.

The changes were tremendously effective. Nearly 53 percent of students completed the course, which is a 400 percent improvement from the previous year.

It doesn’t matter whether students are in the classroom or in front of the screen. Students learn best when they get constant feedback from their peers and instructors.

MOOCs can work – as long as they create a community of students engaged with the material and with each other.


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