Online Learning: How to increase learner engagement

Online Learning: How to increase learner engagement

Online learning

The problem with online learning

One of the big problems all online and e-learning courses face is keeping people engaged and learning. The estimated drop-out rate of online and e-learning range from 30% for non-compulsory organisational and institutional e-learning, such as courses provided by universities and companies, for example, up to over 90% for MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses, which are publicly available online learning courses made freely available to anyone with internet access.


There are considered to be two different types of MOOCs:

  1. cMOOCs, which are connective MOOCs or massive open online courses that share digital online learning elements and environments and are connected together in a variety of ways.
  2. xMOOCs, or extended massive open online courses. xMOOCs tend to be based on content provided by universities and other educational institutions that provide significant research-based content and background in the online learning content 

As a result, a lot of research effort has been focused on finding out why the drop-out and engagement rates (not the same thing) are often so low in online and e-learning courses. People dropping out or leaving a course tends often (but not always) to stem from a lack of learner engagement.

Open to all

Online learning engagement

The 3 dimensions of online learning

A number of previous studies into any form of learning have found that learners engage in three different dimensions or ways:

  1. Cognitive engagement, which means that the individual is focused on what they are trying to learn and committed (not distracted) to that learning.
  2. Emotional engagement, which means that the learner feels a sense of progression, absorption and interest in the topic at hand. Additionally, the sense that the learner is becoming good at what they are learning, and succeeding, has a significant impact on engagement.
  3. Behavioural engagement, which refers to completing learning tasks, reading, and possibly practising any behavioural skills required.

What the research says helps with online learning engagement

Previous studies have found a number of issues contribute to learner engagement including:

  • Relevancy to the individual’s immediate environment and issues.
  • Level of significance that the learning has to the individual at that moment in time.
  • Learner goals, such as gaining a qualification or promotion, for example.
  • Enjoyment. Many studies have found that enjoyment is a key predictor of learner engagement and includes such aspects as playfulness, fun and a sense that they are doing well.
  • Sense of progression and achievement, in particular, the feedback that the individual is succeeding and moving forward has been found to be particularly important for engagement.
Massive Open Online Course
Global Online Learning

The impact of gamification on online learning

A new study (sent out to members in 2019) into the impact that gamification has on learner engagement in MOOCs and whether gamification, or the provision of video/online game elements within an online course, has a significant impact on reducing learner dropout and increasing learner engagement.

The elements of gamification

There are a number of elements that are involved in the gamification of learning which include:

  • a narrative or story/flow
  • rules of the game and methods of enforcing those rules
  • individual, team or group play
  • 3D environments
  • the ability to build a reputation/ranking
  • player feedback
  • challenges and pressures, such as time pressure
  • synchronous communication
  • marketplaces and the ability to build trade
  • avatars or online identities

Games and serious games

Within the online gaming world games tend to be split into ‘games’ and ‘serious games’. Serious games tend to have an objective beyond simple enjoyment, such as for learning or in order to complete tasks (as gamification is being increasingly used in work environments in order to help people complete tasks in an ordered and timely manner).

Immersive game environments

A number of previous studies have found that immersive game environments, such as Second Life, for example, can enhance learning and the construction of new knowledge. However, studies have also shown that there are a number of issues that can detract from learning in such environments, particularly technical issues and the problem of having many individuals in the same digital space, all with freedom of movement and behaviour. In fact, previous studies have shown that technical and human relationship/interaction issues can create significant levels of frustration and demotivation in online gaming environments.

Lucid benefits of freedom of movement

The human relationship/interaction issues which occur from having many people in the same digital space or with freedom of movement and behaviour are known as ‘ludic’ issues, wherein there is spontaneous and undirected playful behaviour.

learning any time any where
online learning any time any where


Firstly, the study found that gamification (or providing elements of gamification) within an online learning course on its own is not a sufficient and necessary predictor of learner engagement.

The study found that there are a number of factors which contribute significantly to whether gamification successfully results in higher levels of learner engagement in online learning or not:

  1. The quality of information the course authors provide and whether that information is useful, complete, understandable and reliable to the learners, was found to be a significant predictor of user satisfaction with the gamification elements of the online learning course.
  2. Interestingly, the system quality and service quality were not significantly predictive of either user satisfaction or the use individuals made of gamification elements of online learning.
  3. The study found that only user satisfaction, which is largely based on the quality of information provided and the experience they have, predicts the use they make of the gamified elements of the course.
  4. Both the use the individual makes of the game elements and the user satisfaction from those elements contribute to the individual impact the learning has and the organisational impact the learning has.
  5. In terms of gamification, two factors made a significant difference as to whether the game elements were both used and useful in terms of learning:
    1. The level of enjoyment the individual derived from using the game elements.
    2. The level of challenge they experienced. This means that the game needs to provide sufficient challenge that the individual is motivated to continue and yet not be so difficult that the individual cannot progress on the challenge or feel a sense of progression, at least after some effort.
  6. The ‘fit’ of the gamification elements within the learning course was found to have a significant impact on learner engagement and organisational outcomes for that learning.
  7. Lastly, the study found that courses with low or zero gamification had:
    1. Significantly less learner engagement and
    2. Fewer organisational outcomes

when compared to courses with higher levels of gamification.


This study shows that gamification can have a significant positive impact on both learner engagement and organisational outcomes in online learning courses.


Aparicio, M., Oliveira, T., Bacao, F., & Painho, M. (2019). Gamification: A key determinant of massive open online course (MOOC) success. Information & Management, 56(1), 39-54.


Review of the study

  1. Quality of the research: 2/5 This was based on a single survey – needs a longitudinal study and across more learning environments / with different game elements.
  2. Confidence: 4/5 – The measures look robust and the findings align with other studies.
  3. Usefulness: 4/5 – more work needs to be done on which gamification elements have the greatest impact.
  4. Who is this research useful for: Anyone engaged in or managing learning and development, learning provision, online/ e-learning design and practice.
  5. Comments: This is an interesting study as it is the first really empirical study to measure learner engagement factors and organisational outcomes across a series of real MOOCs.

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

  • JJ Ayers says:

    In my own doctoral dissertation (2015), I found that there was a fourth dimension related to learning related to cognition. As such, I distinguished between the two by calling them Meta-Cognitive (the long-term memory associated with application of knowledge) and Interim-Cognitive (the short-term memory associated with quick responsive, rote thought).

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