Thursday, August 17, 2006

Where is Everyone?

Michael Grant
Co-Founder and Director of Research
eLearn Campus

What would you do if you held a course and nobody came?

Our Director of Education, Rick Nigol, has graciously lent me his space so that I may pontificate on a big issue that I am hearing a lot about these days: the take up and completion of online courses. I wanted to put down some thoughts on this prior to our August 24th webinar on this topic.

For all the discussion around making the business case for eLearning, it seems to me that many people simply ignore the problem of lower take up and completion rates. You can do an elegant job of calculating the ROI for your eLearning, but if you are not attracting learners and they are not completing courses, then who are you fooling? Hint: yourself.

It seems to me that there are two management challenges here: one is that you have to get people to start the course and the other is that you have to get them to complete it. Let me take each in order.

Getting People to Take the Online Course

The main challenge here is that most people have never taken a course online. Think about it. Basically, our entire educational experience is shaped by a classroom model. People simply don't know what it means to take an eLearning course and they don't like things that they don't know.

I like the idea of using carrots and sticks. There are all sorts of things you can do to entice people to take a course including:
  • Let people see and try out a course.
  • Promote the obvious advantages, which include easy access, better time management, the ability to refer back to material, and (hopefully) the enhanced interactivity.
  • Some people will actually care about the learning outcomes and how this will help them do their job better or position their career. There is a tendency to focus too much on the content itself and not enough on the outcomes of the course, so communicate this clearly.
  • Offer incentives to first-time learners or employ various contests to encourage early sign up.
  • Celebrate those who have taken the plunge and let them tell their stories about the advantages of online training. Allow experienced eLearners to spread the word to newbies.
  • Make the course a requirement and track those who sign up.
Getting People to Complete the Online Course

eLearning has suffered from lower completion rates. There doesn't seem to be any decent data on this, but our discussions with clients tell us that this is a problem.

To a large extent I think lower completion rates are an eLearning design issue. There are two aspects of design that result in lower completion rates:

1. Poor Product Design

People are social and they prefer to learn in ways that have them interacting with other learners, a facilitator or with the content. It is amazing how much eLearning is nothing more than electronic content dump.

A client described to us how they went with a suite of eLearning content that amounted to an electronic library. Not surprisingly, the take up was underwhelming and the completions equally bad. If people are just going to read text why not just give them a book? You have to make it fun and engaging. Remember, your competition for people's attention is often TV or video games. There are lots of way to educate, engage and entertain so that people are dying to come back for more.

2. Poor Managerial Design

Managers can be very naive about people's motivations to complete a course. The K-12 model is basically a command and control system with not a lot of room for freelancing. People then move adult learners into an online environment and assume that none of those enforced disciplines are required. Big mistake.

Sure, we all believe in lifelong learning etc., etc., but in our experience people are pretty calculating when they take an eLearning course, and I mean that in a nice way. If you don't make the costs and rewards clear, people will simply not prioritize the course. And, unlike a classroom, there are not the same social pressures to not "showing up."

People are busy and you need to explicitly lay out the benefits of completion, on many levels. For some people, this involves tightly integrating course completions with performance appraisal systems. But for others it may be about providing recognition for completion. Still others like to be competitive, so why not turn successful completion into a sort of competition? The fact is that there are many motivations for completing a course and you have to make sure you are touching on as many as possible.

We have been most pleased with the participation and completion rates for our eLearning! I am looking forward to discussing these issues in further detail at our August 24th webinar. In the meantime, let me know what you think at


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