Motivation in online education

June 2016


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DR MAGGIE HARTNETT draws from her new book Motivation in online education to discuss what drives people to pursue and persist with online learning.

With the rapid growth of the internet and related technologies, the way we interact with each other and the world around us is changing. This is particularly true for tertiary education where the availability of online courses and programmes is increasing markedly.

There are good reasons for this growth. The nature of work is changing and we can now expect to have several different careers over the course of our working lives. This makes the availability of ongoing education opportunities very important. Online learning (internet-based study where students are at a distance from on-campus classes) can offer the flexibility students need to fit study around other life commitments.

This is particularly true for mature students who are often juggling study with family and work commitments. Perhaps a lesser known benefit of online learning is its ability to provide greater equity of access to people who may have previously been excluded from education.

Alongside the advantages of online learning there are also challenges. Research shows there are a range of considerations that are crucial to online learner success. Primary among them is learner motivation. Poor motivation is a decisive factor in contributing to high dropout and non-completion rates from online courses.

Learners in context

Motivation is a term used to describe an impetus that causes someone to do something. In the past, motivation to learn has been viewed as a personal quality that an individual brings to their learning.

For example, learning that aligns with personal interests and goals, is meaningful and engenders a sense of self-efficacy all contribute to an individual’s motivation to learn. However, this is only part of the story. Aspects of the learning environment, such as the curriculum, learning activities and the role of the teacher also affect (positively or negatively) motivation. Collectively, these combine in complex and dynamic ways to influence the motivation.

Motivation and technology

When it comes to technology it is often viewed as inherently motivating because it provides a number of qualities that foster motivation such as curiosity and novelty. The novelty factor does tend to wear off, however, as users become accustomed to it.

Learning online, however, can provide freedom and choice to decide when, where, what and how to learn (i.e. agency). Learner agency is a key aspect of fostering motivation but it’s unlikely to be sufficient on its own. Competence and social support are also needed. Clear guidelines, ongoing guidance and timely feedback, for example, allow learners to make accurate, ongoing judgements about their capability, necessary for ongoing motivation. This is particularly important in online courses where teachers may not be immediately available to answer questions. Social support, in the form of supportive learning relationships with the teacher as well as other learners, can offer emotional benefits in addition to study-related assistance which are known to foster motivation.

If you are embarking online, whether via formal study or in a MOOC, consider learning and social support features alongside the convenience and flexibility aspects of online learning to ensure a motivated and successful learning journey.


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