To maximize students' experience with MOOCs, focus on work-related skills

When Cornell University used their online division eCornell to launch a massive online open course (MOOC) in 2015, they chose an area where they had significant expertise: A new media marketing course targeted to sales, marketing, and financial professionals in hospitality.

Students could easily register for the short, three-week course through Facebook and LinkedIn. In fact, 5,600 students enrolled. They participated in synchronous webconferences and were only required to work six to eight hours each week. The quick registration and low commitment mitigated financial and time barriers that often inhibit students from enrolling.

While less than 10% of enrollees completed the course, administrators at eCornell were pleasantly surprised that 21% of those who completed the MOOC went on to purchase an additional course or certificate. After a student tried a course and knew they could be successful, they seemed more confident to pursue other offerings and further their education.

After completing the MOOC, students were offered the chance to enroll in a nine-week “mastercourse” from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration at a discounted rate of $999 (a savings of $2,500). Administrators predicted that a small fraction of students who completed the MOOC would enroll in the discounted course. To their surprise, it turned out that 50% of completers purchased something more expensive.

Your courses should benefit students' success at work

After digging deeper, administrators realized that the number of students who signed up for the MOOC mattered less than the number of students who finished the first assignment. Out of the 483 students who completed the first assignment of the course, 87% went on to complete the MOOC.

The first assignment required students to develop a social media marketing plan for a fictional hotel. Students had to create a plan to gain more social media attention and entice more people to stay at the hotel.

Create courses and assignments that benefit students at work

Students found this first assignment helpful because the outcomes demonstrated skills to impress their bosses. Students could show their social media marketing plan to their manager and prove that they were qualified to do the same type of work in their current role.

The MOOC offers career advancement to motivate the student to complete the rest of the course and often leads to a paid enrollment either by the student or their manager. A manager is more likely to reimburse tuition after seeing tangible results. Even without reimbursement, students often self-pay, knowing that future courses will benefit their career.

Assignments that could impress supervisors hold significant potential. The concrete nature of the goal would allow leadership to shorten courses as well. Program developers must wonder: Could something even shorter than three weeks achieve the same result?

If students can be nudged to overcome their reluctance to enroll in long-term programs, colleges and universities have potential to create new stackable pathways between programs of varying lengths. Administrators can identify existing programs and examine how shorter, outcomes-focused courses might entice larger groups of students to enroll.

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