The Secret to Keeping Online Course Participants Engaged to the End

"Nobody uses it!" cried the head of Learning Technology.

That was way back when I was working alongside some of the brightest and best in developing online learning tech at the Henley Management College (now the Henley Business School).

But my own students were using it. Over in Singapore where I was running the Asia Pacific arm for the Henley MBA programme. We were using the exact same platform with the exact same content. But there was a big difference.

We were running at 87% of students using the platform regularly (that is more than once per week). And a further 7% using it once a week, with a last 7% essentially not using it after the first week.

What was interesting, was that just under a quarter of my MBA students were highly active. Without being cajoled or forced to by imposed rules, they actively participated. They formed groups in the forum and shared notes, ideas, problems and solutions.

The remaining 63% were active after being cajoled, nagged, steered, reminded until they gained some intrinsic momentum.

Now consider that the rest of HMC Distance Learning MBA was showing just under 22% active engagement, we knew that we were doing something that others weren't. It was not a racial or cultural thing at all. We had a greater proportion of Chinese Singaporean members than other centres, but we had out fair share of Caucasians, Indians, and other races.

So who are this 20-25% of people who are active users? Are they nerds, geeks or what? Do they have a special liking for technology?

No. It turned out that 70% of our actively engaged students were musicians! The common factor for nearly all was that they had chosen to learn and play a musical instrument.



It turns out that adults who choose to play a musical instrument are people used to self-driven practice and learning. Going online to learn was just another facet of self-driven practice and learning. That is, they have self-discipline.

Another quarter of them were athletes.

Thus 95% of actively engaged and completing students were musicians or athletes.

Once these individuals committed to achieving something, they followed through. 

For most others, left to their own devices, and without some extrinsic force (achieving a certificate, parental or boss pressure, forfeiture of something they value for not following the rules of engagement) aka, treating them like adults, find it difficult to maintain momentum.

So the secret to having your entire cohort engaged from the beginning is only to allow musicians to participate?

That would make your life easier for sure. But there's no guarantee, unfortunately. However, I continue to check on the individuals' most engaged from the beginning and usually learn that they do indeed play a musical instrument. And typically, the individuals on my programmes who are self-driven all the way through, are (or were) musicians or athletes.

Wouldn't it be fantastic if all students, participants or clients were like this? 

There are other factors in play (for more on the background you are welcome to read my thesis (which focused on using technology-based simulations rather than eLearning but it is still very relevant.)

In short, your digital programme or product must be:

  1. Easy to navigate and find
  2. Well written content (entertaining if possible)
  3. Relevant to the individual (examples)
  4. Easy to apply (results focused)

Interesting that number 1 is about navigation. Nothing puts people off more than not being able to find what they are looking for. It makes them "feel stupid", and they give up quickly.

So how about the other three-quarters?

You might imagine that the younger generations are taking to online learning and development easily. But this does not appear to be the case.

Sure, they can use the tech very readily. But remember that they use tech that is incredibly simple to use. It requires almost no effort on their part.

Plus, they are using technology platforms for entertainment and keeping themselves informed about what is going on in their social world.

This is often more important than the real world a few inches in front of them. It is not uncommon to see a train load of people all staring at small screens and text chatting with somebody.

But deliberately learning? 

Very few.

When you create a digital product or programme that includes a digital component, you are not competing with "traditional" learning and development. You are competing with Instagram, FaceBook, SnapChat, YouTube, NetFlix, Spotify, Pokemon Go or Candy Crush.

Or whatever else is the "in-thing" (sorry, I'm in my mid-fifties, I cannot keep up ;-) )

We ask our participants to turn to their laptop, tablet or phone for a learning session and they have one touch access to numerous distractions. Attractions that many of them are addicted to because that beep notification of an incoming message gives them a dopamine rush.

Yes, the very same chemical we want to leverage to motivate them to learn.

Tell me. Which is easier?

  1. Learning how to do something that will make your future better, or
  2. Checking an incoming message from an unidentified someone but it might be important/affirming/fun or interesting?

And if you have never played Candy Crush, don't. It is crack cocaine addictive.


I don't think so.

But it's not easy and it isn't completely effortless.

Getting back to my 63% non-musicians, no athletes who were engaged. And, by the way, completed their MBA by Distance Learning as well.

[Normal completion rates for the Henley MBA by Distance Learning at this time were less than 45% of total cohort! That is, we nearly doubled the completion rate while implementing new technology. Caveat, Facebook didn't exist at this time!]

The secret to keeping students engaged to the end.

Genuine and personal care from the tutors and online coaches.

The tutors who ran our live workshops were all trained and required to actively participate in the online community.

Students who were not participating were contacted by other means and encouraged, cajoled, reminded or nagged accordingly. They were reminded of their own commitment (money and time so far). They were reminded of the promises they had made to those same tutors at the beginning. They were helped to managed their priorities. In short, the online tutors counselled non-participants personally. They actively encouraged online discussion and championed good practice.

This means that your online tutors and coaches need to be actively involved, just as they would be in a live or traditional setting. Only more so. Much more so.

Every tutor or coach involved needs to want every single student or participant or client to complete the course.

Can you make them participate or complete?

It is much easier on the tutor or coach if there is some requirement for them to participate.

  • Some HR departments require a percentage of active participation (much like universities do for their students).
  • Some use group participation as a requirement. 
  • Other companies require active participation by the participant's direct line managers (as mentors), and performance reviews include this component.

That is, they add an extrinsic motivator. But the online tutors and coaches still need to drive engagement and completion.

But they should be motivated to complete it themselves!

Perhaps they should, but they are not all intrinsically motivated. Especially when they have not personally chosen this course or programme. Nor have they paid for it with their own cash.

Which reminds me why you shouldn't give your programme or product away for free.

Creating Engagement

How then, do you create engagement with your digital product or component?

Leverage the Power of The Group

Wherever and whenever you can. Even complete strangers brought together into a group spin off each other. You set the ground rules and moderate when essential, but otherwise, the group itself can be the most powerful tool at your disposal.

Keep groups small. I like 6 to 8 in a group, and one online tutor can support 4 to 6 groups at a time (i.e. 24-48 participants). Several of the biggest online course creators have very large groups, and many use a private Facebook group as a means of self-support. Completion rates though appear to remain very low for them.

What about 1-2-1 coaching programmes?

Disengagement usually manifest itself in them not turning up for their allotted coaching session. 

In that case, get hold of them by whatever means necessary and find out what their problem is? But you will need to reach out and keep reaching out.

Similarly for those who are not completing the assignments or worksheets or not logging into their learning. Keep an eye on the tracking and reach out to help.


There are some delightful and sophisticated tech that you can use to gamify your digital product or component. Leaderboards work brilliantly for groups

Amazingly, gold stars for completing your assignments for a week become incredibly valued. Especially when they get seen by a group, and you have a leaderboard for them.

Indicators on your profile for your engagement work well. Again, best in group settings, but the old "karma points" awarded on bulletin boards and forum software still have a powerful motivational element. 

Other Point based rewards

Think air miles for learning. The points that you earn for participating, adding a post, for example, submitting a worksheet, answering a question. These might simply be points, or they may have transactional value or earn you different access levels? The options are many.

Find out what works for your target audience by asking them what online games they play and why they do so.

Keeping Momentum

Maintaining momentum is about continuing to "up your game" as the people behind your digital product or programme component.

The longer your programme takes to complete, the more effort is required of your online support team. Engagement is not a one off thing.

Life gets in the way.

I cannot count the number of my students who have "excused" their non-participation at some time during a longer programme. And every excuse is valid. Not always true, but certainly valid.

When addressing this, you usually have to come back to their priorities. They signed up for this programme to achieve some goal (which hopefully you discovered at the beginning). Why was that meeting with their boss more important than their own development to achieve their own goal?

Re-prioritize with them and push to get them to block out their development time in their own calendar software.

No Student Left Behind Policy

Of course, you can care less about your students or clients completing, but I like to stick with a "no student left behind" policy.

As your business grows and you hire more team members to support and coach your participants and clients, you might want to implement something similar yourself.

Yes, it is a big undertaking. But here is the way I look at it: That one person left behind might be my reason for being here.

What are the biggest challenges that concern or face you in Going Digital?


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