How engagement and belonging can lead to online educational success

A post by Cristina Mancigotti, Capacity Development Coordinator at UNU-MERIT’s Capacity Development Office 

Students consider dropping out of courses for a number of reasons, but our research shows that peer discussions and local context examples during class sessions can increase engagement and completion rates in online courses.  

Challenges for online students and educators

During the course of an interview, we were not surprised to hear a student telling us that they considered dropping out of our online course at the start because “there are so many things we are required to do that the time I am committing [to this course] could be spent on something else”. This is a common challenge facing participants when taking online education, especially when it is outside of a degree programme.  

For tutors and developers of education programmes, it is not easy to bring the formal and informal elements of face-to-face education online. For example, how can we replicate the interaction students experience during in-person classroom breaks or in the corridors? This was one of the questions we addressed during the design and delivery of an online education platform, the Community of Learning for Africa (CoLA). 
Lessons from our Community of Learning for Africa (CoLA) project

Back in 2016, Mindel van de Laar et al. completed a needs assessment on ‘Communities of Learning for Sub-Saharan African (SSA) PhD Students’. Based on this work, UNU-MERIT created the CoLA, an open access online learning community aimed at supporting PhD fellows in SSA to expand their research skills by offering online courses on social sciences themes. The idea was to offer additional resources, such as tutored online courses and a repository of tools and discussions boards. Participation in CoLA was not intended to replace the role of the local supervisors or to change the affiliation of the PhD fellows.  

The project ran from 2017 until 2021, and several tutored and fully online courses were offered to SSA PhD students, free of charge. One of the main challenges faced in the offering was the large number of dropout students, despite the continuous improvements of the project through rounds of feedback and listening. For example, we introduced the use of certification through Educational Badges which encouraged the completion of the online courses. 

In 2021, Mindel van de Laar (director of UNU-MERIT’s Capacity Development Office) and colleagues tried to incorporate further elements to increase the motivation of participants. We put a greater focus on peer exchange and learning, as well as more online activities to directly link the theoretical knowledge with local and contextualised examples. To assess the effectiveness of these practices, we conducted a small research project by analysing different data sources, such as course learning analytics and semi-structured interviews with course participants.  
Conclusions on how online education can be improved

Our findings showed that peer exercises and networking were valued by participants, as they provided opportunities to exchange views from PhDs coming from different SSA countries. The appreciation for online exchange, however, only became clear to students after experiencing the peer sessions – indeed, none of the students indicated in advance that online peer networking was valuable to them. Another interesting finding was that participants highly appreciated – in the context of online tutorials and peer exchanges – the use of the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach, a standard practice at UNU-MERIT and Maastricht University.  

The findings from this case were collected and analysed in the book chapter “The Value of Community Engagement in Online Doctoral Education”, with leading contributions from Mindel van de Laar and myself, as well as contributions from other UNU-MERIT colleagues. The chapter was recently published as part of the book “Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 21st Century”. 



    Laar, M. van de, Rehm, M. & Achrekar, S., (2017). ‘“Community of Learning” for African PhD students: Changing the scene of doctoral education?’, Transformation in Higher Education 2(0), a17.  

    Mindel van de Laar, Richard E West, Paris Cosma, Dennis Katwal & Cristina Mancigotti (2022) The value of educational microcredentials in open access online education: a doctoral education case, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, DOI: 10.1080/02680513.2022.2072721 

    Van de Laar, M., Mancigotti, C., Cosma, P., Katwal, D., Monono, E.N., Zinyemba, T. (2023). The Value of Community Engagement in Online Doctoral Education. In: Daniel, B.K., Bisaso, R. (eds) Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 21st Century. Springer, Singapore.  


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