Improving MOOC retention by a multiple of five

The availability of credits for a MOOC – massive open online course – at St George’s University in Grenada in the Caribbean was a prime driver of a more than five-fold rise in student retention, from 11% completion in 2013 to 58% the following year, the International Council for Open and Distance Education conference heard last week.

Professor Glen Jacobs outlined this exception to the rule of alarmingly low completion rates for online MOOCs compared to those of bricks-and-mortar universities, achieved by a St George’s MOOC titled “One Health One Medicine”.

He was presenting at the 26th ICDE World Conference held at Sun City, north of Johannesburg in South Africa, from 14-16 October. The conference is hosted by the University of South Africa under the theme “Growing Capacities for Sustainable Distance e-Learning Provision”.

The low student retention rates of MOOCs was one of the topical issues at the conference, viewed as one of the foremost challenges for the online learning format.

Behind the rise

“We gave credits for the course the second time around,” said Jacobs. “The course was introduced as a requirement in a lot of degree programmes, and as soon as that happened, student commitment went way up.

“It was probably the main reason for the improvement in retention.”

Other changes made to the course endeavoured to reduce the level of isolation that a student feels when studying from a remote location. Barriers to active participation also included language, educational diversity, lack of interactivity and lack of technological proficiency.

Even the time zone can be an obstacle, where students can’t immediately find answers to immediate problems. Jacobs gave an example of his son, who did a summer course during holidays but was unable to access the exam during the allotted time.

“Many students would simply have given up at that time and would not have completed the course. But my son sent an email to the convenor and was able to get instructions in real time on how to resolve the issue, and eventually he was able to complete the exam.”

That kind of real-time accessibility goes a long-way towards improving retention. It is similarly effective to design a course so that it stimulates interaction.

For “One Health One Medicine” there were live weekly interactive sessions, while students also had to submit interactive blogs wherein other students could comment and critique each other’s work.

“If there’s anything that you should take from this presentation, it should be that. A main reason for low retention is that students feel isolated.”


There may be a few caveats in the “One Health One Medicine” case.

Firstly, the course is not as massive as most MOOCs.

St George’s University has roughly 6,000 students, and while 1,000 enrolled in the course in 2013, only 610 enrolled the following year when entry criteria were made more stringent and the number of mandatory contact hours was increased from 1.5 hours per week to three hours per week.

“We also offered the course at a different time of the year, which possibly made a difference,” said Jacobs.

While the case study MOOC may not be fully applicable to MOOCs in general, it still serves as a useful guide for improving MOOC retention rates, which average 13% at St George’s University.

“It would not have been possible to have weekly interactive sessions if there were 10,000 or 100,000 students… You have to do what works for you” as an institution or department, he said.

Some conclusions

This case showed that by increasing the time commitment required for the course, there were fewer students enrolled in the MOOC but quality was improved in terms of level of student commitment.

The flip side of that coin is that the heavier time burden could also increase the number of students who fail to complete the course.

All in all, Jacobs said these were only guideline to help improve the retention of MOOC students.

At the end of the day, completion comes down to students themselves. And although he didn’t spend much time on it, Jacobs said the intention behind a student’s enrolment is a far stronger signal of commitment, and thus retention, than the design of a course.

10 steps for achieving 5x retention

Professor Glen Jacobs
  • • Develop online infrastructure and applications.
  • • Enable interactive opportunities.
  • • Create digitally prepared content, for instance recorded lectures and tutorials.
  • • Live interactive sessions on a weekly basis.
  • • Interactive blog submission where students comment and critique each other.
  • • Course communication with chat tools linked to social media.
  • • Peer review evaluations where students learn from engaged assessment.
  • • Student-led seminar presentations.
  • • Real-time course evaluation and feedback.