Why do you end up quitting the online courses you’ve started?

Don’t be ashamed, 96% of your peers quit them too. Maybe it’s time for a more student centred design.


During the last six months I have spent a great deal of time doing research through reading about online education, motivation and gamification as well as taking numerous courses from different digital learning platforms. During the spell it’s been great to observe the progress of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, founded and designed by Stanford, Harvard and MIT professors) and their course catalog expansion. Latest additions to these top-level course selections have appeared outside traditional educators by companies like Google, Autodesk, Salesforce and even from business guru Seth Godin, who is now teaching how to build start ups. Knowledge of these educators is immeasurable.

With the help of digital tools and platforms, hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world can now simultaneously access high quality university-level content with the possibility to network and discuss with like-minded people. Educators are also very happy to pass on their knowledge to bigger crowds. Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera (one of the most popular MOOCs) and a computer science professor at Stanford, put this vast number of students into a context in her TED talk by commenting:

To reach that 100,000 students, my colleague would have to teach the same class, normally of 400 students, for 250 years.

In addition to the large reach and high quality content, the costs of online courses for students are minimal. While undergraduates in US colleges are now paying more for tuition than ever before, most online courses are taught free. This has forced traditional universities and other educational institutes to analyse their future educational and financial models as well as their online presence. Digitalisation is disrupting education, like it has already changed many other industries, bringing more effectiveness, affordability and scalability: volume and automation bring immense cost advantages.

Despite all the great benefits mentioned before, digitalisation of education hasn’t started off too well. Students have had trouble motivating themselves too. According to a University of Pennsylvania Study, only 4% of students complete online courses they’ve started. There are several reasons for this, including free admission and loose timetables (also see recommended reading at the bottom), but I don’t believe these harming as much as bad design. Focus on current online courses is in the course material delivery optimisation and not on the improvement of student’s learning. Almost all the courses I’ve taken in the past months are designed with an emphasis on access to content at the detriment of learning. Courses are often restricted to this symbolic top-down pedagogy, where student has to study and memorise sequences of contents offered by a teacher, after being tracked by a test. Coursera’s About page describes the mentality of learning as follows:

Classes offered on Coursera are designed to help you master the material.
When you take one of our classes, you will watch lectures taught by world-class professors, learn at your own pace, test your knowledge ...

This frustrates me the most. I don’t want to master the material or have an access to 12 hours of videos, other daunting material and multiple choice question exams. I would rather ask online educators help me form a holistic understanding on the subject attaching it to my previous knowledge. Online education — or any kind of education — shouldn’t be educator but student centred.

Learning is more than mastering information.

I believe that this constant access to information is shifting balance from academic knowledge to competency, information finding and problem solving skills. Remarkably, some educational scholars, John Dewey among others, suggested this already in the early and mid 1900's:

Education’s goal should be stimulation for inquiry and process of knowledge getting, not memorising a body of knowledge

Current online learning environments also rarely leave room for reflection, critical thinking or experiences, which have often seen as the key elements of learning.

One more feature that frustrates me with the current online education is the lack of mixed content and blended learning. All of us have different ways of learning. Some of us learn by watching, some by doing, some by reading and reflecting and some with a combination of these different cognitive styles. Besides instructions and assessment tools, learner’s personality and cognitive style are effecting on learning results — so why do all online platforms offer education in a uniform way?

As I see it, MOOCs could easily create content and tasks for multiple learning styles. With a combination of videos, infographics, presentations, reflective thinking and writing, questionnaires, peer reviews and peer teaching, fieldwork, interviews, designing plans, problem solving and testing acquired skills in real life environment, students would obtain knowledge in various ways. The goal of online education should be in encouraging students to active learning, discussion and critical thinking as well as generating new knowledge and thoughts — not only copying existing material.

Furthermore, with the help of mobile phones and tablets, online learning wouldn’t necessary need to happen indoors, but in real life environment. This would help students to understand the acquired knowledge through experiences, which might end up leaving a stronger and reusable memory trace.

“Knowledge is experience, everything else is just information” Albert Einstein

This point of view emerges from a MOOC user and designer perspective, with a hope of better digital/blended learning experiences. I would love to hear your thoughts and arguments on how to design better online learning platforms. As Medium doesn’t allow comments, but only notes, please contact me through email if you want to explain your thoughts with more detail.

Jani Modig
Experience Designer
web janimodig.fi — email jani@janimodig.fi — twitter @janimodig


ps. I’m currently building a prototype for a digital learning environment, which combines bits and pieces of gamification, experiential learning and tries to offer content to different learning styles. If you’re interested to know more about the prototype, contact me via email.