How to Design an Online Course with a 96% Completion Rate

Steph Habif
Psychology of Stuff
6 min readSep 19, 2016


Online education is a $100+ billion dollar industry and growing. Easier access to education makes the world better, and, according to MIT researchers, people who finish online courses end up with the same learning gains as those who physically attend class. Trouble is, to reap the benefits, students have to finish the course.

Too bad studies show the average completion rate of online courses is 4%.

So where is the other 96%?

I found it at the altMBA.

The altMBA — one of the most successful online learning experience to date — has a 96% completion rate. It’s an online leadership and management workshop founded in 2015 by Seth Godin. The program uses digital tools like Slack, WordPress and Zoom to engage more than 100 students at a time in an intense four-week course. In 2016, students from 27 countries and 85 industries worldwide participated.

In a domain that suffers, let’s say, opportunistic engagement statistics, what is the altMBA doing to defy such odds?

As a behavior designer and teacher, I’m constantly curious about initiatives that impact students and push the edge in education. For the past few years I’ve been teaching several courses at the at Stanford, including the popular course “The Consumer Mind and Behavior Design” with bestselling author Nir Eyal. We bring into our classroom the latest and greatest ways to design for consumer engagement.

So I reached out to the Director of the altMBA, Wes Kao, and asked for all her secrets. It wasn’t just the completion rate that impressed me, but the rigor of the program: altMBA students voluntarily opt-in to the ~3–5 hours of work per day everyday on top of their full-time jobs during the four week program.

Wes and I discussed the program evolution, how the altMBA leverages technology to bring people closer, and how she uses design-thinking to maximize online student engagement.

SH: You accept around 100–130 students per session and employ a total of 15 coaches. How did you determine this number/ratio?

WK: At the heart of every learning engagement is the ratio that the organization chooses. From Socrates tutoring one or two people to a MOOC with 100,000, choosing this number determines so much else — and so it was one of the first decisions we made.

We begin everything we do (and teach) at the altMBA with the question, “what is it for?” Our answer for the workshop itself is: To change people. To fundamentally alter the way that they see, the way they make decisions, the way they engage and enroll others in their journey.

We spent months looking at different combinations on the x-y axes spectrum and what the trade-offs and gains would be. Some questions we considered:

  • 10 people or 10,000 people per session?
  • In person or online?
  • Synchronous or asynchronous?
  • High touch or low touch?
  • Free or expensive?
  • Content consumption or production?
  • Dreamers or doers?
  • Seth-centric or separate entity?
  • Easy or difficult to complete?10 people or 10,000 people per session?

One of the guiding principles that came out of this questioning was this: Scale isn’t the point. Change is the point. And once we discarded scale, we added coaches into the mix (because you can’t have 10,000 coaches in a 100,000 person course).

From there, finding the platonic ideal of 10 coaches, 10 students per coach seemed a natural place to settle.

SH: How do you touch people in an effective way by replicating the experience of working with Seth without really having him there?

WK: Seth is a non-scalable asset. Students are learning his material, for sure. But when you go to college, it’s not just what you are learning — it’s physically being in lecture hall and being in dorms and being with other students.

We wanted to tap into mechanisms to enable people to be more accountable. We kept asking ourselves: Is there a way to use online tools in a way in which students won’t give up so easily?

For instance, like a traditional university experience, we decided to enable students:

a) to see each other during learning sessions, so we use Zoom;

b) to learn on a synchronous schedule, so we have students meet in real-time Tues/Thurs/Sunday;

c) to receive coaching support, so we use Slack for coach/student interactions.

Synchronous times for students getting together is critical, and students are required to attend. People push back in the beginning, but then they do very well.

SH: How do you know whether or not something is working?

WK: People want to succeed, so finding that sweet spot around how much structure to build in versus how open to leave it is something we are constantly observing.

We rarely ask people for feedback in the traditional way, after the fact, with structured surveys. Instead, we observe behavior and watch how people interact to see if they are acting the way we designed for or not.

Along the way, we explored not only how to teach a concept, but how to engage students more deeply, how to encourage honest and rigorous peer feedback and how to create a platform that was both safe and in public. We didn’t get any of this right at first, but having a posture of rapid evolution helped us turn the workshop into what it is now.

SH: Was there a formal job description for your role when you left SF for NYC to work with Seth? If so, would you be willing to share the altMBA Director job description to highlight what you regularly do?

WK: I joined the team as Special Projects Lead in the fall of 2014. There wasn’t a formal job description.

  • 50% of my time was helping to launch and lead the go-to-market roll out for various projects, including launching Seth’s Udemy course, the Your Turn Challenge, Ruckusmaker Workshop, design prototyping days, Seth on Instagram, etc.
  • 50% was ideating with Seth and building a case for what projects he should do next. This included identifying market opportunities, seeing where we had leverage, and analyzing how different business models and distribution channels could work. This eventually led to the start of the altMBA.

As the Director of the altMBA, I’m fortunate to work with an amazing team and community. Again, there’s not a formal job description, but I can share some of how I spend my time:

  • Making sure our team is highly-leveraged, fulfilled, productive
  • Planning our short and long term growth strategy
  • Prioritizing where we invest our attention, which includes identifying what we could and should be doing, then working with folks on the team to get things done
  • Deciding what problems we should be solving. Is it actually a problem? What’s the impact? To whom? Is it worth solving? Then, finally, how should we solve it?
  • Finding ways to reach people who would be glad to know we exist and be glad that they did the workshop, using approaches that we’d be proud of down the line
  • Working with organization who realize that soft skills are the difference between A-players and everyone else, and helping them pick which employees should take the program
  • Experimenting, which sometimes feels like getting punched in the face repeatedly

SH: Who do you consider competitors to altMBA?

WK: Inertia, fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear/dislike of hard work. It would have been significantly easier to build a workshop like the altMBA if we had direct competitors. Easier to build and easier to find the right students. But our instinct is to pioneer, not to grow market share.

In summary, takeaway design guidelines for making or sponsoring an online learning experience include:

1: Clarify a specific purpose in the form of an answer to the question “What is it for?”

2: Steer clear of already existing online learning programs during the ideation/design phases of your program build.

3: Identify what elements of in-person learning are critical to incorporate for engagement. For instance, altMBA students must be able to see and hear each other when they interact. They must sync to interact at the same mandatory times every week. And students have constant support from their peers and coaches.

4: Design an application process that reveals what you need to know about the kind of people you want. For example, traditional education places a lot of emphasis on criteria and less on spirit of eagerness. The altMBA looks for how ready the applicant is to work hard and commit, as well as track record.

5: Stick to the integrity of your design. The market will constantly push you towards cheaper, easier, less difficult to accomplish. It does not always pay to customize an experience.



Steph Habif
Psychology of Stuff

Currently VP of Behavioral Sciences at Tandem Diabetes Care. Previous academic posts at Stanford, Columbia, and UCSD Design Lab.