Online learning – Key points to successful design

I registered for a MOOC.

  • MOOC or an online course involves listening to some information, answering a few questions and doing some assignments occasionally.

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What is the solution for better online learning? How can you increase course appeal and make it more engaging?

Some alternatives are

  • Webinar based lectures with prior registration and limitation in number of students who can take the webinar.
  • Telephonic availability of the lecturer.

Scalability is not a challenge any more. Engaging the student and more importantly retaining the student is the new challenge.

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  • How are you going to design and deliver online learning?
  • Are you going to stand in front of the video camera, and speak with some slides at the back?
  • Or perhaps, you are going to be visible on an animated slide deck as a thumbnail somewhere with streaming audio?
  • Is that enough? No, it isn’t.

Engaging the student therefore depends entirely on your lecture design. You need to customize your lecture and here is where prior registration and limited number of students comes into play.

Let’s run through a quick check list of questions while designing a course.

When I design a course, understanding learner needs becomes the most important aspect of my solution design.

I need to do a learner’s and context analysis:

    • Who is the learner?
    • What does the learner hope to achieve at the end of the course?
    • Why does the learner need to take the course?
    • Are there improvement areas or is it new knowledge?
    • Where is the learner going to apply knowledge learnt in the course?
    • What are the different learning styles in the group?
    • How does the learner respond best?
    • How much guided learning is needed?
    • Can the learner learn independently?
    • What motivates the learner to learn and take the course?

These questions can be answered through

    • Learner profiles
    • Questionnaires
    • Direct interaction with average learner or specific learner

Does my lecture include recap points to check learner understanding? Can I give a customized feedback to learner?

Here, the concept of branching becomes relevant. If you can anticipate the several different types of responses and then guide the learner onto a pre-designed path as per response, then you have achieved a maximum level of customization without direct intervention.

Have I created enough to-do activities which are relevant to the course and can engage a very busy adult mind?

Have I created explore points? Are these explore points vague or directed to particular reference sites? Or are they just directed to a general source in Wikipedia?

How do I ensure that the learner comes back for the part 2 of the course?

  • Check if there is a carry-over assignment tying in to and as a pre-requisite for my next lecture.
  • Check if I can create a competitive environment by introducing ranking boards and other such competitive boards
  • Check whether material in part 2 is immediately relevant
  • Check if there is sufficient new content or is it just an expansion of old content.

How can I establish a relation with the learner?

  • Is there an SME on site or nearby to students (assuming it’s a small target group at a fixed or diverse locations) who will allow me to work in a blended learning component?
  • Is email interaction or phone interaction possible?
  • Can I create a specific forum or a small webinar at the end of every learning component?

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The biggest challenge in online learning is the lack of personal reach and thus it reduces the experiential learning component.  The learner is unable to associate a learning point with a specific ‘teacher’ remark or incident or live example. I still recall the rotten egg smell of sulphur dioxide (H2SO4) in my chem lab because we opened the gas jar for longer than the required time. And I am not even from the science stream, though I scored the highest in class in chem.

That’s another point for student retention.  What is the reward factor?

More than twenty years post my schooling, I recall my scoring percentile -and with it comes the satisfaction that I was not dumb, but up there among the best.

  • A competitive element, where one can excel over one’s peers is thus the most motivating factor.
  • A certificate at the end or a score is even more rewarding.

Here is where we instructional designers build in ‘gamification’ elements, scored quizzes, leader boards, online badges to display on forums, and/or carry over into reward ceremonies with trophies and cups.

Elements where MOOCs and other paid for online courses fail miserably. At the end of the day, online learning succeeds if

  1. Group is small and targeted
  2. Course design is customized and specific
  3. Reward elements are recognized for long term leading to career or other gains

Finally the MOOC model is based only on three factors:

  1. Scalability – Ability to reach thousands of learners online.
  2. Affordability – Free education in most cases
  3. Availability – Education at par across the globe

If the factors in MOOC model were to be woven into online courses, which are professionally designed, sponsored and made available to the masses by philanthropists, then perhaps the model would be more successful in making education a global experience.

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