3 Ways To Retain Online Learners

3 Ways To Retain Online Learners
ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock.com
Summary: Online education is booming, enrollment is increasing, but attrition is growing as well. As an Instructional Designer, how can you provide an engaging learning environment to let online learners truly enjoy their learning experience and stay? Here are some methods.

How To Retain Online Learners

According to Babson Survey Research Group's 2016 "Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States" [1], the number of learners taking online courses grew to 5.8 million nationally in 2016. That is to say one in four learners enrolled in online courses, and this number keeps going up [2].

While making lots of efforts to bring more programs online, institutions are also fighting hard with the high rate of attrition to improve online learners retention. Being the architect of an online course, an Instructional Designer can contribute using their Instructional Design magic to create an engaging learning environment for online learners to enjoy learning and expect more online education opportunities. Here are 3 ways Instructional Designers can help retain online learners.

1. Establish A Learning Community That Allows Learners To Develop Their Professional Network

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Yale University report in 2016, 70% of all jobs are found through networking. An online course could be a perfect place for learners to start building own profession network that will benefit their career growth. With some design idea, it can easily turn the online course into a small learning community for learners to know each other, interact with peers, and grow a professional network.

Start With Opportunities Of Knowing Peers

A learning community begins with self-introduction. Using a discussion board to create a place for learners to share some information of themselves, using something like a background, helps them see the connection with this course, the expectations of the learning journey, etc. The instructor can also include light instructions to clarify the discussion board purpose and guide the communication. For instance, the instructor posts a self-introduction as an example, he/she selects a few questions (formal or informal) to help students start. Moreover, it is helpful to encourage students to include a picture or a video of their self-introduction, as this creates the opportunity to visually "see" peers in an online class, making the whole experience a real thing.

Virtual/Office Hours Between Instructor And Students

One reason for online learners quitting their study is the feeling of frustration that may be caused by not receiving timely support. When learners need help in the learning journey, they need instructors to be around. If an instructor could commit a "fixed" supporting time for online learners, that would dramatically decrease such "frustration" and it would definitely encourage learners to continue their learning. Virtual (in case of not having a location office)/office hours will give learners the opportunity to share their concerns of learning and ask any questions. It could be through an LMS or Skype and it could happen either once or even twice a week. In this way, students would not "panic" when seeking help during learning.

For instructors who traves a lot, think about a possible plan of meeting online students in real life. Check the course Programming for Everybody that offered by Dr. Charles (Chunk) Severance on Coursera. The instructor posts his national, or even international, office hours and locations regularly through the course for local students to see and schedule a meeting online or a discussion face to face.

Collaboration Opportunities For Students

In a learning community, learners can also learn from peers and support each other. When designing an online course, activities that allow collaboration, such as group projects, group discussions, group presentations, etc. provide the opportunities for learners to grow together. When working collaboratively, learners have the sense of active participation and can take up their responsibility, which not only develops learners' critical thinking ability but also allows them to establish their professional network which will later benefit their career in the long run.

2. Provide Early Feedback To Learners, As Early As Possible

Studies show that more questions are asked at the beginning of a course than towards the end. In online course design, early intervention will help students to be clear about the going-to-be learning journey.

Early Feedback On Learners' Performance

Once a learning journey starts, learners need guidance to be on track even in a self-paced course; so as early as possible, feedback to learners is necessary. Activities, such as discussions, quizzes, or learning module reflections could all be integrated as early as in the first week of an online course. By providing feedback to learners' activity performance as early as possible, provides the instructor with the ability to make any necessary adjustments in order to retain online learners.

A Mechanism That Allows Learners To Reflect

Introducing a mechanism that allows learners to reflect their learning can help learners recognize the meaning of learning, as well as examine the connection between content and their learning needs. Creating such a mechanism as learning starts is strongly recommended. Activities such as module reflections, discussions on the lecture topics, and essay questions help learners explore their learning behind presented content. Once the connection between learners and the course is built, it would be hard to separate learners from their learning journey, and as a result, decrease the attrition.

3. Support Online Learners In A Timely Manner

In addition to designing a virtual space at the beginning of a course for students to introduce each other and ask questions whenever they need it, sufficient information can also be included throughout the course, such as details of technical support (LMS, a LTI, any external educational tool adopted), information of hotline/helpdesk, email contacts, and expectation of responses in order to support learners. Those miscellaneous items might not be the main part of learning, but it's a sure thing that learning can't happen smoothly without them. So, be prepared to include that information in your online course so as to provide comprehensive support for your online learners' success.

To sum up, the loneliness and frustration learners may feel during learning can easily destroy online learners' journey. To eliminate the loneliness and minimize the frustration, a learning community should serve learners with better experiences, through which online learners will feel welcome as soon as they enter the course. Providing learners with more opportunities to communicate and learn from each other is also of major importance. Through careful design, learners will be parts of a learning community that not only helps them to grow in terms of acquiring knowledge but also establishes a professional network that will benefit them for future careers.


[1] Online Report Card – Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2015 (https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-report-card-tracking-online-education-united-states-2015/)

[2] One in Four Students Enrolled in Online Courses (https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/report-one-four-students-enrolled-online-courses/)