There’s been much ado about course completion rates online. In the last few years, for example, many pieces have been written about the less than 7 percent completion rate of MOOCs. Any concern about completion rates in self-guided learning misses the point, however: course completion rates among self-enrolled learners are just not as important as people seem to think.
Why? Because motivated learners don’t need to finish a course to get something out of it. Sometimes a student needs to jump into a course, consume one module and leave the rest untouched.
This is not just a trendy new approach to instruction. At a time when everyone and everything is competing for our attention, this approach empowers learners to view online learning as accessible and personal, two of the most popular pain points of traditional online programs.
The stories of Mary and Otto
Mary is a busy marketing professional who is forced to learn on the job in order to advance her career. She knows she needs to improve her Excel skills overall, so she enrolls in an Excel for Business course on Learning.ly. Turns out, today is the day Mary needs to quickly learn how to create a pivot table in Excel. Luckily, there’s a 10-minute section of the course that specifically covers pivot tables. So she goes to that module, engages with it, and learns everything she needs to learn to create a pivot table by the end of the day.
Otto is an entry level sales development rep who thinks he is better suited for a career in PR and social media. Otto asks his marketing director what he can do to be considered for a spot on the marketing team. The marketing director asks Otto to complete all six Introduction to Social Media courses on Hootsuite’s Online Academy, Podium, and to go through the free Inbound Certification Course in HubSpot’s Academy. Otto has been doing a lot of his own reading about the social arena over the last six months so he skips over two of the six courses on Podium, and a few of the social modules in the Inbound program. He passes both exams with flying colors, and his marketing director has confidence he can fill the role.
Both Mary and Otto are motivated learners who need to pick up skills in a hurry; forcing them to sit through a traditional course to get the knowledge they need would be counterproductive. Both of them have benefitted from microlearning.
What is microlearning?
Microlearning is a style of teaching and delivering content — usually online — which champions the use of short, highly-informative chunks of material.
Motivated heautagogic learners know exactly what they need when they need it, and often that doesn't mean following the path charted by an instructional designer.
While instructional designers should absolutely offer learners what they believe to be the most compelling and thoughtful presentation of content, instructional designers often don’t know what challenges their students are facing.
They don’t know what knowledge the learner already has, or what limitations the student may have when it comes to time, so it may be very beneficial to the student if courses are designed so that motivated learners can dip in, get the knowledge they need, and dip back out.
A course designer who wants to accommodate microlearners can do so easily, using a simple formula based on the classic five-paragraph essay: a 30-minute course with five sections (including an introduction and conclusion), each including three two-minute lessons.
Alternatively, a designer could also use the Ignite approach by coming up with a series of five-minute presentations.
The important thing is that the material is made available to learners in an engaging way or the information is communicated in a unique way that forces learners to take note for as long as is necessary to get what they need out of it.
Measuring the success of microlearners
Course completion rates aren’t the only way to measure success in a self-enrolled course. In fact, there are more meaningful ways to measure the instructional outcomes of microlearners than simply checking to see if they’ve finished a course. How you measure that success will depend on your goals, and on the goals of your instructional program.
You can, for example, examine engagement: when the learners engage with a lesson or activity, how deeply do they engage? For instance, if a lesson includes a video, did the learner pause, rewind or fast forward? Did they re-watch certain parts? Did they come back to it several times? Also, did they leave a review or refer a friend?
Related reading: What’s New in Video for Online Education? We Asked the Experts
Additionally, in the case of companies educating their customer, you can measure success by tying behavioral metrics like engagement to customer success and retention. Or, if the course is a product of a marketing team’s lead generation strategy, you can measure success by counting the learners who became customers.
A word on clicking through
Microlearning is a powerful tool, but before you decide that it’s okay for all your learners to engage with only certain lessons, it’s important to take into account the goals of your online learning program.
If the goal of a program is to certify that learners have clicked through, or consumed all the content in a course, then it would be fair to say that learners who only click on one third of the modules have been unsuccessful.
A more important question to consider is this: why are we so interested in certifying that people have clicked on, sat through, or consumed all the provided information? What does that tell us about their knowledge, skills or abilities? More importantly, what does that tell us about the value the learner may or may not have derived from our program?
If the goal of a program is to get learners what they need when they need it, perhaps completion rates don't tell us the whole story.