By far the biggest challenge when taking an online course is maintaining motivation. With no professor to praise you, no fellow students to foster competition, and – in a MOOC, at least – no credit-granting institution to hold you accountable, you have only your own will power and determination to get you through. Finishing one course – let alone enough courses to add up to a degree -  requires a disciplined, intrinsically motivated student.


The numbers tell a similar story. The New York Times recently reported on a University of Pennsylvania study on MOOCs whose headline stats included the fact that fewer than 4% of students finish the courses they register for, and 80% of those enrolled in MOOCs already hold a university degree. These results prompted Forbes to ask if MOOCs are in fact failing in their mission of democratizing education.


To my mind, it’s much too early to label MOOCs a failure. The fact that so many people are interested enough to register for these courses – regardless of whether they finish them – indicates the vast potential of MOOCs. Besides, there are plenty of good reasons why a person might sign up for a course and not finish it.  Maybe they were simply curious about the whole MOOC phenomenon and never intended to take a whole course. Maybe they understimated the amount of work involved. Maybe they started the course and then decided the assignments weren’t worth their time. (I’ll be honest, I’ve definitely shirked some assignments in my current MOOC. Don’t even get me started on how much I hate it when 120,000 students are given the assignment of posting a comment on a class-wide discussion forum.)


It all boils down to motivation.


So what might make it easier to sustain the motivation required to finish an online course? Anything that makes the student more socially accountable. Nobody wants to be seen as a slacker or a quitter, but as an anonymous student in an online class it hardly matters if you complete your assignments or not.


My personal solution to the motivation problem is to blog about my courses. Because I’ve made a personal commitment to write about my MBA experience in a public forum, I’m motivated to complete my courses – both to have new material to write about and to make good on what I’ve set out to accomplish.


But any strategy that fosters social accountability could have a similar effect. For example, telling friends and family that you plan to take a course can make it more likely that you’ll finish it. Discussion forums with thousands of students are useless, but a study group – even a virtual one – with just a few students could provide the necessary social accountability. Even better would be a live discussion section with a mentor or facilitator.


For me, the most difficult assignments are those that involve writing or creating something. Problem sets and multiple choice quizzes are easy by comparison. So I’m telling you now, I plan to work harder on creative assignments next semester. You can hold me to that. 

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