Retention for Long-Term MOOC


Originally published on my Medium. Before getting into Product Marketing, I ran a Product Design and Strategy Consulting firm called with Shyam Kumar. This post is from then.

The Challenge in MOOC

It's user-retention, and that’s no secret. The fact is that users lose interest and tend to drop-off way more often than ideal. Research shows that almost 95% of users fail to finish courses, and that’s a troubling thought when the rest of the world is looking at MOOCs to replace the conventional classroom system.

Companies have been fairly successful in making online learning more effective by using micro-learning for easier consumption and retention, creating interactive courseware, social proof and referrals, employing elaborate gamification systems, sending constant reminders and notifications through streaks, and so on.

However, there is something amiss in the big picture — the efficacy of these services is due to a curious and self-motivated user-base. What if the students weren’t the most motivated lot? What if the courses were more dry and technical than usual? And what if the courses went on for months at end?

I served as a Product Design and Strategy Consultant to a company taking on that very challenge, through the latter half of 2017.

Reports indicate that only 20% of higher-ed students in India are employable and that’s a pressing issue for everyone right from the students to the government, to the companies that need a constant influx of talent. This is largely attributed to the poor quality of education in Engineering colleges around the country. Universities, colleges, governments and companies have all tried to address this issue in various ways like providing monetary incentives good academic performance, setting up skill development centres, and even providing elaborate recorded lectures. The results have been far from satisfactory and people have started to look towards eLearning as a viable solution.

Enter Stuworx

Stuworx is a EdTech startup that is trying to take on the incredible challenge of enhancing employability amongst Higher Education students in India. Stuworx is currently working with a few colleges in Hyderabad, as part of their beta program.


The Initial Research

Insights from Student Survey

  • Most students don’t know what courses to choose and end up relying on relatives, friends or acquaintances for guidance
  • Students don’t have a go-to forum to read up on industry news and updates, or converse with peers
  • Students seldom have any interaction with industry personnel and lack information on how their learnings translate into professional work
  • Surveys showed that prospective employment was the most important aspect to students

Insights from Employer Survey

  • Content currently available (from universities or other service providers) is long, un-engaging, and uses language and analogies that alienate a big chunk of the target demographic
  • Delivery of content is restricted to in-class or poorly developed and designed software solutions.
  • Engagement methods like gamification, social learning etc are never used to boost learning.

The Solution

The solution was going to be a complex offering, navigating effective course design, user experience and behavioural aspects.

Prep - Instruction Design Framework

We started by creating an instruction design framework that included methods and features like Micro-Learning, Interactive and adaptive assessments modules, through online IDEs (since most courseware was IT related), and even things like pop-culture references or memes. Our User Experience strategy included gamification, notification reminders, omni-channel progress tracking etc. With a healthy amount of visual design and tech considerations, the fantastic engineering team set out to build the first-cut product and they did so incredibly fast.

Pilot Run

Upon completion of development, we started testing the with a few colleges within Hyderabad and soon enough, we started seeing students learn and do better on evaluations. The analytics looked good enough for a public launch but there was one issue that was still on everyone’s mind —we still didn’t have a solution to our long-term engagement issues. For eg: what incentive does a student see between, say, chapters 23 and 24 of Course-2 in a 4-course program that helps them come back to the portal? 

No amount of gamification or social proof can solve a retention issue over that long a term.

Even if we got everything from our content to our UX right, just statistically speaking, we were looking at a drop-off rate 8x the industry average, considering our course durations, and that would only be further amplified by the lack of self-motivation in our target demo.

The Iteration

  • Incremental goal reminders —Since the survey showed that almost all students saw jobs as the biggest incentive for them to consider such programs, we added a component in our progress tracking messages and mails. For eg: In the Web Design and Development Program, upon completion of Basic HTML and CSS courses, our messaging would show ‘Be eligible for XXXXX more job opportunities by taking the Javascript course’. This was lauded by the administrative personnel of the colleges enrolled in our beta program.
  • Industry relevance showcase — The lack of a news and updates platform, coupled with lack of industry exposure, gave us the idea of also demonstrating industry relevance for the courses. For eg: A progress mail for the ReactJS course would have snippets about the latest developments in the world of ReactJS, as well as external links to articles on products built using the same. Students, almost instantly, started taking greater interest in specific technologies and forking more open-source repositories. This also helped in narrowing down better guests for our Industry Interaction or AMA module.
  • Ecosystem extension — These are aspects we’re constantly conflicted about and are considering very cautiously. Since the survey results showed an abject lack of discussion fora, we’re looking at opening up our discussion boards to external links and off-topic threads.


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Disclaimer — The aforementioned is a compilation of the various features or components we added to increase our user-retention in the long-term. They are still being tested and it could be a while before we can make strong inferences on the efficacy of our approach.