Online Learner Engagement is Increased when Ideas are Shared

By simply asking students to share course ideas rather than personal details as icebreakers and social introductions, online learning engagement can be increased by nearly one-third.

According to new research co-written by a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign expert who studies the intersection of marketing and digital environments, sharing ideas in an online learning environment has a distinct advantage over-sharing personal details in driving learner engagement in massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

According to Unnati Narang, a professor of business administration at the Gies College of Business, simply prompting students to share course ideas in a discussion forum rather than having them share information about their identity or personal motivations for enrolling can increase online learning engagement by nearly one-third.

With less than 10% of online learners completing courses and less than 5% participating in course discussions, there is a critical need for online learning platforms to identify and implement strategies to improve student engagement, according to Narang.

Online learning engagement can be increased by nearly one-third by simply prompting students to share course ideas rather than personal details in the form of icebreakers and social introductions.

“Engagement levels in online classrooms have tended to be really low simply because students may never get the chance to get to know each other in the way they do in an in-person, face-to-face classroom,” she explained. “A lot of those elements are clearly lacking in the online learning environment.”

Initially, online platforms placed a high value on having discussion forums in order to engage students. However, those efforts tended to fizzle out over time, according to Narang. “Even if a student posts something, it may never be read by a classmate or the instructor, which can really demotivate students who are attempting to engage in the material,” she explained.

Narang and her co-authors analyzed more than 12,000 discussion forum postings over an 18-month period and conducted a field experiment involving more than 2,000 learners in a popular online course offered by a large U.S. university to determine how to increase learner engagement.

Idea sharing increases online learner engagement

“We nudged students at random to share something personal about themselves or ideas related to the course,” she explained. “We expected to see an increase in engagement due to the social aspects of identity sharing because it is so heavily emphasized in face-to-face classes for icebreakers and social introductions.”

According to the findings, asking learners to share ideas about the course had a greater impact on their video consumption and assessment completion.

“We discovered that the concept of sharing knowledge outperforms both identity sharing and the control condition of not sharing anything,” Narang explained. “We discovered that what learners share plays a significant role in enhancing the online learning environment, and they tended to perform 30% better in terms of how many videos they consumed, how many assessments they completed, and how they scored on assessments. As a result, idea sharing has a distinct advantage in online pedagogy.”

The implications of what the researchers dubbed the “idea advantage” for educators in an era of increased online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that identity sharing tends to be superficial and brief, so it’s better to push students to engage more in the course content and their ideas about what they’re studying, according to Narang.

“Just very basic getting-to-know-you introductions that instructors make in a physical classroom – who are you, where you’re from, etc. – doesn’t really translate into the online learning environment,” she said.

“When you’re in a virtual classroom, there’s just too much anonymity for that to work. Idea posts, on the other hand, are usually much more elaborate and well-articulated. Students devote more time and effort to crafting their responses. An idea-sharing post was 66 words long on average. However, an identity-sharing post was typically half the length. Students were clearly more invested in ideas than making friends in the online learning environment, which explains why the idea advantage is so strong.”