Having tried both Coursera and Udacity, I can attest to the quality of the content and the format. Put another way, technology is no longer the primary barrier to the success of massive free online courses. It’s not even accreditation, though that’s a big one. The biggest barrier is motivation.
One of the major advantages of free open educational content and tools is that you can absorb them whenever you want. But that makes it that much easier to blow them off. Both Coursera and Udacity are at around one million students, but Coursera estimates only about a quarter finish a course. The pivotal question for MOOC’s is how to raise that completion rate.
Here’s my suggestion: Coursera, Udacity, edX and others should partner with Pact, the motivation startup originally out of Boston, now in San Francisco. I’ve written about Pact here and here, but the basic idea behind their initial app is that users risk money against their fitness goals. Pledge to go to the gym three days a week and if you meet your goal, you get your money back, plus a bit extra. Fail to meet your goal and you lose it.
Pact has said for a while that they’ll soon be expanding outside of fitness, and education sounds to me like a perfect fit. Put up some money to commit to doing a course online, and get a portion back if you complete it and even more if you pass.
I put this idea to Pact’s founder and CEO, Yifan Zhang, and she was up for it.
“Pact would love to work with online learning companies like Coursera and Udacity,” she said by email. “We think learning is a great application for our incentives system, and we’ve been building the backend to work with goals outside of exercise.”
Pact isn’t the only one in this space either; StikK is another potential partner for the MOOC’s.
The other option is for the edu startups to build their own motivation applications, but that’s easier said than done. While Pact and StikK may seem to be on to a very simple idea — people respond to incentives — they’re both staffed by people who have serious training in behavioral science. And, over time, my hope is that the motivation ventures will expand beyond just financial incentives, powerful they are, to the various other factors that motivate us. Better for the MOOC’s to leverage deep motivational expertise than try to do it on their own.
So what say you, Coursera and Udacity? You’ve done an amazing job on the content, the tools, and the community. Now you just need to crack the motivation layer. Just ask for a little help.