What motivates online students

What motivates learners? What actually works? How to achieve worthwhile learning? These questions have challenged online educators and instructional designers for ever. And it would be a huge mistake to think that a new technology is sufficient for raising students’ interest and involving them with the content and activities. The technology itself is never enough, just as much as the presence of a flipchart and a marker in a traditional classroom does not immediately turn students into the most motivated and efficient of learners.

Existing literature on learning technologies mentions a number of strategies that can increase learner motivation. What most of them have in common is that, on conceptual level, they often boil down to transferring the strategies that have been found to be efficient in conventional classrooms into online learning scenarios.

For example, research shows that such effective strategies typically involve:

  • creating a supportive but at the same time challenging learning environment, 
  • providing choice and flexibility, 
  • establishing short-term goals, 
  • offering immediate feedback, 
  • stimulating student curiosity, 
  • creating personal and concrete content that students can relate to, 
  • using relevant, authentic and goal-driven learning tasks as well as 
  • creating opportunities for interaction, collaboration and personal growth.
In other words, what online educators need to do when designing online learning components is to put themselves in their intended students’ shoes and verify to what extent the event being designed can be described as (1) relevant and purposeful (2) stimulating and challenging.  
Relevance refers here to the necessity that learners see the purpose of the specific event, that they develop the feeling that without the event their learning process would be significantly impoverished. Therefore it is not enough to create a discussion forum in our VLE-based modules and cross our fingers that learners will start and participate in conversations. Without a clear purpose, learners will see the requirement to post on a forum as yet another burden on their time, which causes frustration and lack of interest. However, if learners become aware of a knowledge gap between them and their peers and that their peers may help them extend their own knowledge or help solve specific problems, there appears an authentic need to communicate and exchange ideas, based on curiosity and genuine interest. 
This is further linked to the idea of challenge and stimulation underlying learning design. Learners need to see that something about their knowledge and/or skills changes as a result of participating in the event, that through participation they slowly but surely move upwards. Therefore the event should be neither too easy (and, as educators, we sometimes tend to underestimate our students since it is often the weakest that protest most loudly against more challenging content), nor too difficult: Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development quite obviously jumps to mind. 
It may therefore be a useful exercise to analyse our existing online learning components, whether in blended learning or fully distance learning modes, and write down, on a piece of paper, where the relevance of and the stimulation in our learning activity come from. We must remember here that the more ‘immediate’ this relevance is, the more motivating the event will be for our learners. So, if our notes only include generalities and banalities like ‘extending knowledge’ or ‘practising skills’, without reference to any immediate benefits for learners, there is a strong case for rethinking the whole usefulness and design of the activity.