Monday, August 16, 2021

Large-scale online course design? Use collaborative learning for high engagement

The big challenge with large-scale online courses (100+ participants) is to keep people engaged. It is easy for people to drop out: due to urgent matters on their to-do list, due to learning assignments that do not exactly match their learning goals, due to not understanding the platform…. Offering the course for free does not help either: the threshold for participants to register is very low, but equally low to give up. Collaborative learning can help keep people engaged and motivated online. In this blog I motivate my experiences with the food system e-course. 

In May I was asked to design and facilitate the free food systems e-course together with Wageningen University and the Netherlands Food Partnership for 500 participants from all over the world. I immediately thought this was a super fun assignment. Such a large and diverse group! I saw it as my personal challenge to ensure that the 500 people would remain active, and that they would also apply the food systems thinking in practice. It was a 5 week trajectory: 4 week with a food systems theme like 'Why does a food systems approach matter?'. Halfway through there was a catch-up week. The time investment was 16 hours. 

I have chosen to focus strongly on collaborative learning. This consisted of group assignments with the ultimate assignment to write a joint blog. An expert jury selected the best blogs and the three best were published. This collaborative assignment was an important factor in keeping people active and has been highly valued. Some spontaneous reactions online: 
 “Here we go Group 17- the “Food Ambassadors”! I am delighted with the dedication and respect of our members, thanks to our team leader” 
“My Group 1 colleagues: it is good working together with everyone. Thank you Yvonne for expertly leading the group. Let's keep up the good spirit” 
“Group 8: It was a great trip!”

My own experience as drop-out 

I participated in the Learning Experience through Design workshop of NovoEd before the holidays. I really wanted to finish this one. I really looked forward to it, had quite some time and a good motivation: I wanted to work on my own case: a new learning experience. Yet I gave up. I had to get used to the platform. I wanted feedback on my case and signed up for a group with the idea of ​​getting feedback, but there were 100 people in this group so I did not gain connections. I was deeply ashamed when I saw a month later that I did have a comment! I didn't see this because I didn't get a notification. I had a positive boost when my work was shown as an example during a Zoom session. Then I went on vacation and dropped out. So you see that there can be a lot of drop-out moments. Could I do that better through collaborative learning? 

Did we succeed to keep people engaged in the Food systems course? 

Not 100% but 54%! The course had a total of 558 participants who were selected to participate in the course. Of these participants, 299 completed the e-course and obtained their certificate (54%). I am very proud and satisfied. This is a high percentage compared to other large scale online courses. Research by Katy Jordan shows that in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the completion rate can approach 20%, but most MOOCs have a percentage of less than 10%. Some MOOCs are larger and scale up to 50,000 participants, I can imagine that lowers the completion rate. 

Is the glass half full, or half empty? Maybe you also think 54% is low? I regularly work with people who have less experience with this type of online trajectory and find 54% very low. They compare it with face-to-face training where completion is almost 100%. Online offers much more flexibility, maybe someone will learn a lot by participating in two of the four modules and only following the resources that are relevant. In other words: in doesn't mean the 46% did not learn anything. 

How to measure success?

Success can be measured in several ways: by observations and measurements- and measurements can be clicks or surveys. We had a weekly barometer - a short survey to get feedback. When interpreting your findings it helps if you can compare it with other online courses.

1. Observations. People reacted super enthusiastically, gradually there was more and more reaction to each other.

“During this course, expectations were exceeded. I am very grateful to be part of this community of scientists and mentors. The facilitators were great and very rich in knowledge sharing. Thanks again WCDI!”

“Thank you very much to our supervisors. You guys were amazing to share with us so much knowledge that you bridged my knowledge gap. I am eternally grateful to WCDI for this free, customized training. To my fellow participants, thank you for connecting and hopefully we'll keep in touch. Karibu Tanzania”

“I enjoyed the modules and how they were designed. I have learned and make good use of the knowledge gained. A great appreciation to all supervisors and WCDI. I look forward to collaboration between some of the resource persons and myself in the field of food safety and biotechnology. Thank you very much!"

2. Measurements. Engagement can also be measured quantitatively. The first week there were 3,800 responses, but the other weeks there were even more – above 4,000. There were between 180 and 280 participants in the plenary sessions with guest speakers, while the recordings were also viewed an average of 150 times.

46% are dropouts. These were mainly people who did not start, or people who dropped out after the first week. 25% never started the course despite the fact that we emailed them separately a week after the start that they are taking the place of other people who also wanted to join and were rejected. 

If you would like to support these people, you may need more personal attention, which takes a lot of time. 22 people who did not start have responded to our survey and this shows that being too busy with work was the most important factor followed by the internet connection. 

So what were the main success factors?

An important precondition for involving people: good content – ​​practice-oriented

It may seem obvious, but the content of the food systems course was relevant and practical. The topic of food systems is relevant because of the great challenge: how do we feed 9-10 billion mouths in 2050? An important UN food summit will take place in September. This was the second edition of the food systems e-course. The content of the first edition was developed in collaboration with experts from Wageningen University and an external consultant, all with extensive field experience. Hence, the content was good and relevant. Lots of short, relevant videos and cases and interesting speakers in the synchronous Zoom sessions. The advantage of a second edition was also that the core team was well attuned to each other. In this case, the experts were really practice-oriented, which was a big advantage. My role was to refine the questions and to organize collaborative learning.

Collaborative learning as part of a broader vision of social learning

Collaborative learning was part of social learning. Other components were forming a group feeling, building trust, and learning from each other. We have used the Curatr platform within StreamLXP. This platform is developed for social learning which facilitates online exchange. There was a network café where people introduced themselves and placed themselves on a worldmap.

“This map is so cool! It's nice to see three others from my country on the course."

 The network café was also open to people with a call for collaborations or advice. For instance:

“I am working on a book proposal focused on the intersection of urban agriculture and forced displacement/humanitarian crisis. It will largely focus on case studies from the field. Given the wealth of expertise in this e-course, I was wondering if you have come across any projects in your work focusing on gardening/agriculture for refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs)?”

Another way of social learning was through the open space. After the catch-up week, we started an open space area online with important themes that emerged from the discussions by participants. We also asked a number of participants in a Zoom session to present and discuss their case with an expert.

The facilitation was aimed at creating a group feeling. People with an interesting contribution were mentioned in the emails, the network was made visible by means of a map, but also by making a YouTube playlist of participants' favorite songs. When playing, you become aware again of the great diversity in the group. The playlist was certainly popular, new songs were contributed until the very end and had 1200 views. 


Last but not least, there were elements of gamification. A leaderboard showed the most active participants- not only the people which reacted a lot but also those whose reactions are valued. At one point it became a race between three participants who started to post a lot of comments and documents with the aim of getting on top of the leaderboard. We wondered how to deal with this, but it didn't seem to interfere with the learning process and it was also funny. What we did though - is consciously reward other people, for example people with a special case or the first with a certificate.

Online collaborative learning for large numbers: use clear instructions and mentors

With 500 participants, guiding groups takes a lot of time. We tried to lower the number and upper the motivation by making it voluntary. During the intake, people could sign up for group work and we made it clear that this would take an extra 4 hours. We hoped for a maximum of 120 people (20 groups of 6), but this 370 signed up! A bit overwhelming but also fun. Many people who had not registered during the intake were very eager to participate when they saw the enthusiasm of the others. We have formed another new bonus group for these participants.

To keep it manageable, we opted for (1) clear assignments and (2) the help of voluntary mentors. Each group had its own mentor – not for content guidance but mainly to help the group organize itsellf and see to it the groups did not get stuck. Each mentor has fulfilled this role differently.

We have chosen to group people by region/language area, so for example French-speaking West Africa together, Spanish-speaking people together. The advantage was that they could collaborate in their own language and did not have to bother with large time zone differences. I personally think that this has been an important success factor, also in understanding each other's context. Especially for the Latin American groups. Once in a while, that didn't work out because a lady from Asia ended up as part of a French-speaking group.

Last but not least, we had the groups work on a real life case of one of the group members. As a result, the first assignment was mainly filled with getting acquainted and choosing a case. This took a relatively high amount of group collaboration time, but ensured the groupwork was very practical and participants could go in depth.

A number of ways in which we have tightly managed the group work:
  • Four short assignments of an hour with a tight deadline, all assignments were online and were explained again in the Zoom sessions. The assignments worked towards a clear final assignment: writing a blog. 
  • There was guaranteed feedback from experts; but only after handing in the assignment before the deadline
  • The opportunity to work for an hour in your own group in Zoom every Wednesday after the guest speaker. Many groups have taken advantage of this. The groups were free to choose their own time, however this can be quite some hassle.
  • In the first assignment we stimulated the creation of a Whatsapp, Viber or Signal group for fast communication within the group. Some groups opted for email as a means of communication.
  • We asked for one contact person. This made it easy to get in touch.
  • In the first assignment we asked to choose a name for the group. These became names like “11 tomatoes”, “Simba”, “Asian Booster” and “los Andinos”.
Volunteering for group work worked very well for motivation. Of the 38 groups, only 1 group has not started. There are 34 groups that submitted a good final assignment. However, only 4-6 people were active in each group. I wonder if that percentage would be higher if you formed groups of 4-5 people. The fact that you could win as a group also helped. The groups were motivated to submit a blog, and there was a respected jury and clear judging criteria.

Collaboration learning worked for course engagement:  group members progressed further in the course

The beauty of the Curatr platform is that you can form groups to monitor and compare the performance. For example, we compared participants with group work with the other non - group work participants. Progress is measured in points. The group people clearly got more points.


The mean score of the participants with group work was: 317.3

The average score of the participants without group work was: 219

It is an indication that group work helps to keep up the engagement with an online course. This may be chicken and egg: the participants with higher motivation may be more likely to sign up for group work. 

Fortunately, there is also other research that shows that collaborative learning contributes to the capacity for self-directed learning online. Wang et al describe in ‘How does group cooperation help improve self-directed learning ability in nursing students? a trial of one semester online learning that nurses' group work contributes to self-direction and collaboration skills. This helps participants in online learning to plan their own learning activities. I personally think group work works as peer pressure and builds social capital. For instance, in one of my own groups someone became ill and received emotional messages wishing him strength and thanks for his efforts. Such a bond can also be formed in a short time. A second study confirms this 'Does collaborative learning improve student outcomes for underrepresented learner?'. The study found that online collaborative learning compared to a course without led to better results, a feeling of community and less dropouts.  

We also asked which learning activities they learned the most from. The online resources, plenary sessions and online discussions score the highest, but there is also a group that puts group work first or second.

Intake, feedback and a certificate also contributed

In addition to social learning and good content, I think there were a number of other factors that helped to keep people engaged. First of all, a good intake and selection. People were asked if they had time (some answered no and were therefore not selected :)) and what their motivation was. The 500 fortunate participants were selected from more than 900 applications. In addition, there was continuous feedback from the experts and some mentors on the contributions. This was highly appreciated and even more feedback was requested. In addition, there was a clear structure with a final weekly assignment: the gateway to the next week. When all gates were completed, people could download a certificate. This was certainly an incentive for many participants.
“Yippeeeeee! On June 30, I obtained my certificate. After trying the last quiz several times, I finally crossed the line. I would like to say a big thank you to the organizers of this course, all our wonderful tutors, mentors at the plenary session and all participants for making the last 5 weeks unforgettable for me, having fun while learning. You are all much appreciated. Lots of hugs!"

“I feel good, very good, because I got my certificate today. My appreciation goes out to all supervisors of the four modules. Mr Erik Slingerland, our mentor, thank you for your tireless efforts to ensure that we complete the group assignments on time. To the course organizers and the entire WCDI team, God bless you for giving us this opportunity. Fellow participants… Congratulations to all of you. WE DID IT!!"


It is clear that collaborative and social learning have contributed to keeping participants engaged in the food systems e-course. The organization and supervision takes time, but you can minimize it through clear instructions and the use of voluntary mentors. Online you have to look redefine participation differently compared to face-to-face. You will never get 100% of participants doing all learning activities. Someone who does not fully participate but does participate in two online sessions can also learn something from this what he / she wants to learn, self-management and making choices become more important. It seems that a percentage of 50% is a good achievement for a large-scale online course.


blablabla said...

Very detailed and interesting, fascinating reading - shows much more creativity in thinking about course design than is often the case, and suggests that large-scale online education actually can be good at building relationships. I would have been curious to know how many paid people were managing the course during the five weeks and how many hours a week it took to do so.

Joitske said...

Thanks, that's a good question! I had 12 days (which I really needed!) and a junior helping. Besides we had a team of 5-6 experts. 2 were involved throughout, the other for their own theme weeks. I don't know the days they used, but I think they needed a total of 10 days. This is all for the implementation. They preparation was done separately.