The Problem of Motivation in Online Education

Editor’s Note: This article is a revised version of an article that appears in a 2012 issue of The Social Media Monthly. If you like it, you might want to download The Social Media Monthly iPad app or iPhone app and subscribeor order a print subscription.

Online education has never looked more promising. In May, Harvard University and MIT launched edX, a $60 million not-for-profit venture in online education. Joined by the University of California, Berkeley, these prestigious universities are offering free online courses to students worldwide, with certificates of completion. It prompted a Forbes writer to ask: “Will edX put Harvard and MIT out of business?”

With tuition and student debt uncomfortably high, and video publishing and digital collaboration on the rise, online learning appears to be the Way of the Future. There’s only one problem: we’re lazy.

The university, in many ways, is designed to combat student laziness. There’s the revered professor, who surveys the room for nappers, frowns when handing back a D on a test, and bans Facebook. There are other students, who ask you questions in the hall and want to collaborate on homework. There are your parents, who may be footing the tuition bill and expect some return on investment. In other words: lots of social pressure on you to pay attention and put in the study hours.

Online, it’s just you and the screen. “We’re social animals,” explains Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Canada’s Carleton University. “There’s no doubt that not being in a social context changes a learning environment, and you’re going to lose some things.” Some online courses lack any real social interaction, and they don’t make up for it elsewhere. “Some people, in the name of online learning, create the most boring websites that no one would ever go to,” he adds.

When online courses have no set dates – no 12-week agenda with regular Monday, Wednesday, and Friday sessions – student motivation can suffer. “From my research on procrastination, I would argue that it leads to anemic intentions, weak intentions,” Pychyl explains. Like the procrastinator with no deadline to spur some action, we put off our learning.

Katherine Zimoulis, a PR specialist at Taft and Partners, experienced this during an introductory public relations course on Mediabistro: “When I was traveling a lot for my job, it was easy to ‘excuse’ myself from class work,” she recalls.

If online education sites are ever going to put the Ivy League schools out of business, they’ll need to take a crash course in the psychology of student motivation.

Lesson #1: Encourage autonomy

As human beings, we feel most motivated when we are the ones in control of the situation. “The moment someone’s taking away your sense of agency, undermining your autonomy, you’re less motivated,” explains Pychyl. “It’s kind of like, ‘Okay, what hoop do you want me to jump through next?’” The drive for autonomy is part of self-determination theory, a theory of what motivates human behavior, explains Michael Pantalon, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

For online learners, encouraging autonomy means giving them choice. When Pantalon ran an online course for medical professionals, he offered students the option to read the study material first or dive right into a simulated crisis situation. Coursera, which has free courses from top universities like the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, gives students choice by allowing them to speed up instructional videos as much as 2x. Codecademy, a site for learning programming, has a smorgasbord of one-off courses that you can take in any order you like.

edX courses

edX courses

Lesson #2: Get social

To make up for the lack of social interaction, online education sites are developing a variety of solutions, like commenting, forums, and integration with social networks. Udemy, which offers free and paid courses with a focus on technology and business, has online forums for each course where students can ask and answer questions. In the MITx discussion forums, students earn karma points that go toward privileges like editing comments or closing threads. MITx also has a wiki where students share knowledge.

A few sites value social interaction so much that they actually have an offline component. In SkillShare’s “hybrid” classes, students are assigned a project; go online to ask questions, give feedback, and share resources; and meet in person to collaborate. Coursera lets students organize meetups, billed as “a great way to meet your fellow ‘Courserians,’ swap stories, share ideas, form study groups, and have a great time.”

Coursera student Dawn Smith enjoyed the socializing happening online. “Absolutely loving that my Coursera classmates and I are chatting about our lives and experiences from around the world!” she said.

Lesson #3: Give feedback

The self-determination theory of motivation posits that one of the basic human drives is a feeling of confidence. Online courses can instill confidence by giving students regular feedback and helping them track their progress.

For example, Khan Academy – a not-for-profit aiming to make education available to anyone worldwide – features a Vital Statistics page that tracks your every move on the site. You can see how you’re doing in each subject, and trace it all the way back to the individual problems you answered.

Khan Academy statistics

Lesson #4: Teach self-motivation

Cute badges aside, the way to solve the problem of motivation is to teach students to motivate themselves. This sentiment was echoed by Diane Saarinen, a publicist at Saima Agency who took a PR certification course online: “It’s BYOM – Bring Your Own Motivation,” she says. “No can motivate you but yourself.” She uses techniques like waking up early (less hustle and bustle and bleeping devices) and journaling about how she’s doing and what her goals are.

In studying procrastination, Pychyl has found that creating short-term “implementation” goals works better than abstract goals: for example, “read a chapter every afternoon” rather than “pass Philosophy 101.” Pantalon, who wrote a book called Instant Influence about motivating people (including yourself) to change, recommends starting with some self-reflection. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why are you ready to do it? What will the positive outcomes be?

For example, Zimoulis, the PR specialist from above, set goals to finish her assignments before watching her favorite TV show. And she also stumbled upon Pantalon’s approach: “I kept myself motivated by researching jobs and careers I felt I could pursue once I had this course under my belt,” she recalls.

Although this type of internal motivation may be harder to ignite, it can burn faster and longer than external motivation and the allure of sometimes-gimmicky rewards. “When you have too many people telling you why you should be doing what you’re doing, it gets in the way of you really figuring out your own deeply personal reasons,” says Pantalon.

The problem of motivation isn’t a new phenomenon in education. I suspect that things like field trips, and star stickers on top of tests, and the “dunce” corner all have their roots in subpar student motivation. Online learning has some distinct advantages – it can be tailored to your needs, your interests, and your schedule – but it still faces the problem of motivation. We’ll have to solve that problem before e-learning becomes the norm, and it isn’t a no-brainer.

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact
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