Microsoft, working with Intrepid Learning and INSEAD School of Business, recently delivered the company’s first corporate MOOC, Business Strategy and Financial Acumen, to over 1,000 savvy and notoriously difficult-to-delight Microsoft Sellers. Over 85 percent of the sellers completed the rigorous training (this is 17-times higher than the completion rate for the average academic MOOC) with a 95 percent satisfaction rate. What drove these results? Here are the factors that we, the director of design at Intrepid Learning and the project manager from Microsoft, see as making the difference.

An important factor was that the MOOC was offered to only a select group of sellers, so learners felt a certain honor in being selected to participate.  The concept of exclusivity at scale was a vital “hook” to engagement, but ultimately success of the program would come from respect for the learner embedded in the course design.

Respect for the learner + best practices for engagement = success

One-way, inflexible, broadcast-style training fails to work, to the extent that it doesn’t respect the modern learner’s time, intelligence, workload, and competing life and work demands. So how do you make completing the training worth a busy learner’s while? We believe the answer is by using these seven basic best practices for learner engagement: content, context, curation, communication, collaboration, competition, and certification.

  1. Content: The content has to really add value to the audience (especially if it’s an audience such as sales people) over and above what they can learn on the job themselves. The content needs to come from a source that is trustworthy, and it needs to be presented by someone who has credibility with this audience. For this course, it was vital for the partnership to include global business school INSEAD, whose professors not only understood global business strategy on the theoretical level, but who tailored those theories to Microsoft Sellers in their everyday work.

  2. Context: There are a million books, articles, listicles, and top-ten tips learners could read if all they want is conceptual knowledge. What learners need to know is how new concepts apply to their particular job (each specific learner’s context) and more importantly, to their customer’s problems (their specific customer’s context). A good rule of thumb: for every concept presented in the course, also present two examples of how that concept applies to a hypothetical or real customer situation (give an example and a non-example), specifically a situation that relates to the market the learners are navigating right now. In this course for Microsoft, we created context by following up concepts with examples and discussions around how these applied to the seller’s current customers.

  3. Curation and co-creation: Apart from curating content to present to the learners, you should curate learner input from the course in real time and present it back to the audience. This achieves multiple objectives—acknowledgement and reward for those who contribute, and bringing together individual insights into a shared understanding of the topic. Two good methods, both of which we used in this course:

    • Scan the discussion forums for the most incisive individual responses or interesting discussion threads on a topical issue, and highlight them for the cohort at large.

    • Identify common topics and questions from the forums, and have the professor or instructor post a short video responding to those topics or questions. Word clouds are another easy, visual way to concisely summarize what your learners are talking about.

  1. Communication: Everyone is busy! Your learners are no exception. They need to know exactly what is expected of them and when. Hitting the right balance of communication from the course to the learners, in platform and offline, is critical. Not so much communication that they start to ignore it, but not so little that you let them miss important deadlines and due dates. Two more “C”s to keep in mind here: consistency and conciseness. In the Microsoft sales course, we sent a reminder email every week three days before assignment deadlines, and kept bulletins about new content short, to the point, and relevant.

  2. Collaboration: The way people on the job usually apply their skills is in a team context, so your course should mirror that, using group learning activities. This kind of practice also lowers the barrier for carrying learning over to the job after the course is over, by helping to build the muscles that learners will need to exercise later. Examples:

    • Discussion forums that get groups to focus on solving a problem together

    • Exercises designed to leverage missions (real-world assignments) with follow up requests to review and vote for the best (using the “like” button).

    • Create opportunities to apply a concept offline with a coworker (or a team) and bring it back to the platform through a shared, peer-reviewed report, so everyone can learn from each other.

  3. Competition: Collaboration is good, and necessary, but don’t ignore the driving motivation for any group of motivated professionals—the need to compete. As we saw clearly in the Microsoft sales course, if you leverage points and badges in such a way that learners can see progress towards their own goal and be able to see what others are doing, it can be a tremendous driver for completion. Our platform’s Leaderboard showed individuals their score and progress, as well as how each one was stacking up against cohort averages.

  4. Certification: Credibility, and the ability to show it off later, can be a big boost to a learner’s motivation. For our course, the certification was an executive education certificate from INSEAD, which carried a lot of cachet among sales professionals. But you can build other “certifications” and give your learners a way to show professional credibility within your organization even without an outside partner using badging or internal certifications.

The MOOC design team at Intrepid Learning showed that “respect the learner” is one of their core values, and these seven “C”s (content and context, curation and communication, collaboration and competition, and certification) make good sense for many learning situations. In the case of Microsoft’s sales training it all came together to phenomenal success!

But don’t fret if your organization’s reality might require modifications to this mix. There are always ways to mix and match the tenets of learner engagement according to your particular needs and requirements. Experiment and modify—just be sure to keep your learner firmly in mind, and be aware of how your seven Cs relate to one another. Great content, for instance, must be placed into a specific context. A MOOC must create opportunities for collaboration without ignoring the driving motivator of competition. And so on. The bottom line is, if your learners are engaged with the course and excited about their learning journey, they’ll really learn.