Local engagement matters, whether it's with a designated teacher or a group of like-minded peers. Students dedicated to the same purpose already give each other a tacit sense of encouragement and validation: "I am part of a collective." They can also actively remind each other to carry out weekly assignments and responsibilities. Take the experience of prayer groups, "faithful people reminding other faithful to pray," which are highly effective in reminding people to follow through with their common cause of worship. I'm not equating MOOCs to a prayer circle or ascribing any religiosity to online courses, but the phenomenon highlights the value of human interaction and friendly reminders.
This can have a direct impact on the question of attrition: why students don't always make it through the MOOC? If we adopted a game theory mindset, we might outline the costs of "shirking" or "defecting" by not doing your work for the MOOC against the benefits in completing it. Let's examine this issue through the lens of the Democratic Development MOOC: unless you are a very committed democratic activist, you are not going to follow through if the costs (time, effort, brain power) rise. Activists have high intrinsic motivation to want to complete the course because they are already deeply interested in the material, but for other students closer to the edge, how can you raise the "costs of defection"?
Since MOOCs are free (only time investment needed), we might frame the issue in terms of commitment. How do you raise commitment to these classes? Here are some potential strategies:
Reward progress and achievement. The most basic way is to make available a statement of achievement based on completion of assignments. This gives students a tangible sense of recognition, and can also make a difference for students by setting out achievable milestones and standards of achievement. Pokémon, anyone? Gotta catch 'em all! (Cue gamification?)
Host a graduation ceremony. This goes beyond the statement of achievement, as it gives students recognition tied to a unique real-world experience.
Build a sense of community. Let students feel they are part of a larger enterprise of learning. It's especially helpful for forming community when the topic is emotive or heartfelt. If the professor is well-known and charismatic, that is another big plus, because students feel they are in the instructor's orbit. Craft e-mails and announcements with this overarching concept in mind.
Invite student participation. Have them contribute to a Wiki, report on conditions of democracy in their country, or submit photos and videos of local elections. Get past the forum, and start creating products that can have a useful life beyond the end of the class, to motivate student participation further.
Organize a support group or reading group. In addition to the mutual reminders and sense of belonging mentioned above, you are now not only accountable to just yourself, but to a group of friends as well. Leaving a class, or even just sloughing off a week, will have social repercussions.
Create unique events and experiences. Inspire a feeling in students that they are part of a special experience. "If you don't take part in this course, here at this moment in time, you are missing out!" Offer opportunities for engagement sprinkled throughout the quarter. Periodic events bring repeated traffic, and it's simply harder to forget that a course exists if time-sensitive opportunities are baked into the schedule. If you can put out enough new interesting experiences, such as an interview with an influential political leader, or a live webcast where the instructor answers student questions, it helps students stay engaged with the course material and in the community. Through this process, whether it's through lecture videos or other interactions, learning happens.
In the end, if we care about exposure to ideas even more than the completion of specific required elements, then incentivizing student engagement in a multitude of forms becomes a rather fun exercise in imagination.