Online Education: How to Engage Students?

Massively Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) are classes taught online that integrate “traditional” course materials like recorded lectures and problem sets with tools that can only be used online, such as interactive forums or live chat windows. Sources from The New York Times to The Economist have touted MOOCs as “the future of education,” arguing that the Internet and online classrooms provide a medium that, in comparison to the classic in-person lecture model, is incredibly well suited for learning material. Online education startups like Coursera, edX, and Udacity are free to use, and they’ve enabled millions of students from around the world to study subjects they would never have been exposed to otherwise.

One major concern with MOOCs, however, is around user engagement. A University of Pennsylvania study found that course completion rates are incredibly low, averaging out at 4%, and the only course characteristic proven to boost completion rates is a lower workload. While students learning online may perform better than those who study in a traditional classroom setting, students struggle to commit to online courses long-term. How can we make online courses more engaging?

Argument for “Embodiment”

Natasha Myers, a professor of Science and Technology Studies at York University, argues that in order for students in Biology to deeply engage with course material they must physically interact with what they’re studying. Over the past 30 years, scientists have grown increasingly reliant upon digital three-dimensional models that capture the nuances of proteins, a microscopic physical object. These digital models are very effective in capturing the nuances of a protein, and Myers recognizes the temptation in solely using this most accurate representation in the classroom. By converging these digital representations with something that students can interact with in the real world, however, Myers finds that in order to generate a “complex mental image” that would be absent otherwise.

For Professor Jim Brady, one of the academics Myers studied, this means literally making his physical body mime the behaviors of a protein, and getting his students out of their chairs to follow suit. In his classroom, Brady has students stand up and cross their arms to demonstrate the packing of helices during folding, and to explain how collagen fibers form in wounds he has students examine their own scars. By literally making students more personally connected to what they are studying, Brady finds that his students become more engaged with their course material.

Is “Embodiment” Necessary?

It is tempting to extrapolate the results of a study like this and say that online education fails without an in-person component. Many, including the higher-ups at my university, are pushing for a “hybrid” approach that links “passive” lectures given online with an in-person “active” learning component that emphasizes personal engagement with the ideas discussed in those lectures. This approach has negatives, however, in that it goes against two of the primary appeals of online education by limiting class sizes and making courses far more expensive to run.

It is important to note that Myers is making her claims about embodiment for one distinct field (Biology). While embodiment is useful in helping students understand microscopic physical phenomena, it is probably less useful in helping students learn Computer Science. It makes a lot of sense to learn about how computers work while using a computer. Ultimately, the way that a course is taught should fit in with the material being discussed. For some courses a physical relationship to the material being discussed may be important, but others may thrive without this added constraint. There is no “one size fits all” solution for increasing engagement in online education, but there are general principles that should be considered.

Making Online Education More Personal

The incompletion rate for online education courses is high, not because they lack a real-world component, but because people do not see the real-world, personal implications of online studying. When the course becomes difficult or the workload too great, it is easy to close down the browser and never sign back when you feel like the course has no bearing on your day-to-day life. One online education website that has thrived off of creating a real world connection is, which donates ten grains of rice to someone in need for every correct answer to a vocabulary question. Over 100 billion grains of rice have been donated through Freerice since its inception. Not every course can make its material seem real in such a literal manner, but every course should strive to make its material seem similarly important.