UX thoughts about MOOCS

Studying user experience and engagement in Coursera

Can UX Design Improve MOOC Completion Rates?

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The following article was published in “MOOC: News and Reviews” October 10th 2013:


Posted by on Oct 10, 2013 in Commentary, Featured

Massive Open Online Courses are currently disrupting the higher education landscape. Still, MOOC completion rates are remarkably low (normally below 10%) compared to traditional online and offline courses as shown in this data visualization developed by Katy Jordan earlier this year.

MOOC Project by Katy Jordan

Even if most research in this area is just starting, researchers, professors and MOOCs providers have already ventured several reasons that could explain the exaggerated dropout rates:

  • Price as an entry-barrier: MOOCs are free, so, some people enroll just out of curiosity to check out new courses.
  • Scope of interest: Some students can be interested only in one specific topic or section. They enrolled to have access to the videolectures or discussion forums but have no intention to finish the course.
  • Extrinsic motivations: Since most students will not earn credits or “valid and trustworthy certificates” from MOOCs, they are probably less concerned about the requirements to pass the course and just focus on their learning interests.

While all of them seem valid hypotheses and should be further studied, research I am carrying out with my colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign is focusing on another factor that has seldom been considered:

  • Design: MOOCs’ information architecture, usability and visual and interaction design could also be having a negative impact on student engagement, retention and completion rates.

With the volume of students enrolled in a MOOC (50,000 is a typical size), every instruction that is not clear enough and every assignment that is not engaging enough could result in the loss of hundreds or thousands of students. And still you can find many MOOCs with poor interface design, fundamental usability issues or inappropriate information architecture.

With this research project, “UX and engagement in MOOCs,” my colleagues and I aim to better understand MOOC student profiles, behavior patterns and completion rates and to use these insights to design more effective and enjoyable MOOCs.

Thus, one of our basic research questions is: Can User Experience Design help increase MOOC completion rates?

What is user experience?

For those not familiar with this term, User Experience (UX) is defined as “a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service” (ISO 9241-210:2010.) User Experience professionals study users’ problems, needs and expectations and use this information to create products or services that could meet users’ needs and provide them with meaningful and enjoyable experiences.

UX design MOOC

manmadepants via Flickr

What is the value of user experience?

Nowadays, the value of delighting your customers with great user experiences is rarely in dispute. A recent article from Harvard Business Review, “The rise of UX leadership,” stated that most executives currently promote UX as key to their product strategy.

The benefits of investing in UX are normally explained in the following terms:

  • Increased revenue

If you have an ecommerce platform and your users are not able to finish the checkout process, fixing UX issues can directly increase your sales, help your company build customer loyalty and probably gain recommendations. A real example is explained in the article “The $300 Million Button.”

  • Reduced expenses

If you have a call center to address customer inquiries, fixing UX issues in your product can significantly reduce of the number of calls and help your company save money. Besides, your customers will probably be happier by not needing to call your customer center.

  • Enhanced productivity

If all your employees are losing one hour every time they need to find something within the corporate intranet, fixing UX issues can help your company recover thousands of employee hours per year, increasing your productivity without hiring extra people. For further details, you should read the article “Intranet users stuck with low productivity.”

  • Minimized redesign and redevelopment

Once you start writing code, making changes is usually hard and expensive. UX design teams usually prepare prototypes of products or systems to be built to define structure, layout and features, as well as to perform reviews and adjustments before starting development. Incorporating UX methods helps prevent misunderstandings, avoids hours of development hours wasted and contributes to a better working atmosphere.

What is the value of user experience in the MOOC context?

The importance of delivering a great user experience is not restricted to the business end, though. Considering the specific MOOC context, the gains of UX can be established in these terms:

  • Increased revenue Increased completion rates and student satisfaction

If the interface design of your MOOC does not effectively highlight next assignments and due dates, some students might involuntarily miss a deadline and drop out of the course. Fixing UX issues could have a positive impact in assignment submissions, completion rates and student satisfaction.

  • Reduced expenses Reduced hours answering “Help forums”

If a significant number of students are asking in the Help Forums where to find specific content, where to check a deadline, how to send an assignment . . . your course organization or interface design is probably not usable or intuitive enough. Fixing UX issues could allow instructors and TA’s to spend more time fostering interesting debates about the course content instead of answering Help Forums. The result could be higher engagement and better learning outcomes.


Andrew Catellier via Flickr

  • Enhanced productivity Enhanced learning

If the link to one of the key resources for your MOOC is placed in a counter-intuitive section, your students might be losing part of their available time just trying to find it. Some could even get frustrated enough to drop out of the course. Fixing UX issues could reduce the time students need to invest in understanding the course logistics and handling its interface and give them more time to actually learn and improve their academic performance.

  • Minimized redesign and redevelopment Minimized course implementation rework

As in product development, making certain instructional design changes once your course is fully prepared within the MOOC platform can be difficult, costly or just impossible. Thus, preparing a quick prototype of the course design to discuss it – maybe even tesingt it with target users – and iterating before setting it up on the MOOC platform could save your team hours of configuration or custom development and provide students with a more effective or enhanced course design.

In brief, UX can play a critical role in several MOOC success measures: the satisfaction level of your students, the number of students completing your course and their learning outcomes.

Why is UX a shared responsibility between MOOC providers and instructors

A MOOC’s interface design is often determined by the platform since some of the features – learning and testing tools – cannot be edited or customized by professors. Therefore, part of the responsibility in delivering a great user experience directly falls on to MOOC providers .

In the early stages of the innovation lifecycle, UX might not be critical. Early adopters are usually so excited with the new products that they will probably manage to use them despite their UX issues. The problem starts when these innovative products succeed and want to move from early adopters to mainstream users, which are less permissive with respect to poor usability. At this point, having a product that is useful and meaningful is suddenly not enough. It has to be intuitive and enjoyable to use to achieve success. We believe MOOCs are now “crossing the chasm.”

Designing MOOCs

baldiri via FLickr

Some of these MOOC providers have already acknowledged the importance of UX and are moving forward in this direction: Udacity hired Google’s former Head of User Experience and Design, and Coursera stated that “user experience is a #1 consideration for everything we do” and is currently looking for a Director of User Experience Design to lead their UX efforts.

Regardless of possible platform UX improvements, though, universities, professors and instructional designers will always have the last word on shaping the user experience of their courses. How they organize the content, how they label the menu sections or how they structure the different pages is absolutely crucial. And for these decisions, one should consider human-computer interaction guidelines, usability best practices or recommendations for writing usable online texts.

In fact, our main concern is precisely this one: Do MOOC teams have enough UX skills, knowledge or tools to optimize the User Experience Design of their courses and therefore improve MOOC completion rates?

Author: Elena Sánchez

UX professional passionate about User-Centered Innovation!

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