Would you like to conduct effective and engaging online courses? Whether you’ve ever led virtual classes in the past or are just getting started in the world of online learning, this article will give you a lot of practical information that can help you to improve your teaching techniques.
E-Learning and Online Learning is a very broad topic. While there is a lot of information that can help you to be more successful as a virtual teacher, the tips below have been compiled from my personal experience in facilitating online courses over the past decade. While they are not comprehensive, they can help you to get going in the right direction. The following are 12 best practices on how you can effectively run e-learning or online courses. This information is very valuable if you are planning to create your own info product or membership site.
1. Make Sure the Content is Accessible With a Mobile Phone
As you design your online course, make sure to account for mobile access, as recent trends have shown that students are likely to view content from their smartphones or tablets. This allows students to learn while on the go, which is one of the things that online students are looking for. It also affords a unique opportunity for students to make the most of their down time, perhaps a long bus ride or a lunch break at work, decreasing the dropout rate for a course.
Check all of your content to make sure that videos play back on various mobile devices, including Android and iOS operating systems, and are easy to watch while they are being played. Consider how any text shown may look from a small screen. Vertical video composition can also make it easier for students to take advantage of their mobile devices for playback of lectures or content. One tool that could help to design mobile training portals is Mobile Website Speed Testing Tool by Google
2. Use Video as Your Main Form of Content
More than ever before, online students are seeking out video content. Video is not just something that they enjoy, but is also something that surrounds them all the time, whether it is for social interaction through Snapchat or Facebook, learning about something new through a YouTube tutorial, or simply sitting back and watching television.
Online Video Education.
In terms of online learning, video is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. Here are just a few of the benefits offered through video:
- Video content can be more interesting and directly relevant to students than text.
- Video is easy to review more than once, allowing students to watch parts of the content repeatedly, as needed.
- Video can be accessed from mobile devices and tablets when set up correctly by the facilitator.
- Video content is often more memorable than text.
- Last, but not least, video content can catch the attention of students who are living in a world of distraction, engaging their senses more effectively than traditional text.
As you implement video content in your online courses, here are some of the action steps you can take to maximize the effectiveness of your content:
- Keep videos short and to the point. On average, your videos should run between 5 and 6 minutes in length. Studies have shown that students tend to lose interest or become distracted during longer video sessions. If you are covering an expansive topic, consider breaking things up into a series of focused videos, which will then make it easier for your students to review as needed. To learn more check this article about the optimal video length for student engagement.
- At the end of each video, include a question that drives your students to do their own research or try out a new skill related to the content of the video.
- Invest in good recording equipment and make sure that any background noise is addressed, as poor audio quality can distract your students from your message.
- Along with good recording equipment, make sure to pace your videos well, using intonation and enunciation to make your messages easy to understand and engaging, while speaking roughly 10-15% faster than in daily conversation so that topics do not drag on.
- When possible, try to record multiple videos in a single session. This can help you to develop rhythms in your content and to manage your time as an instructor well.
- Within the video itself, seek out opportunities to create movement within the content. If you are screen sharing, don’t leave your screen in the same place for extended periods of time. Use engaging colors and professional design on all media.
- Consider using a combination of tools within your video, sharing information through PowerPoint, a view of your browser, relevant sites, and videos of you as the instructor.
- Host your videos professionally using services like Vimeo Pro, rather than depending on YouTube.
- Add secondary materials to your course for students to review, including handouts or instructional challenges in which the students can apply their knowledge of a new tool in a hands-on way.
- Invite your students to openly share their feedback and adapt your teaching style accordingly.
3. Harness the Power of Student or Participant Feedback
One of the hallmarks of a great online instructor is that they listen to and learn from student feedback. This is one of the key tools in a teacher’s arsenal in order to improve content effectively.
When you are first getting started as an online instructor, you may want to ask for student feedback at the completion of each new module or section. Things that you might want to ask are: Which tools helped you to learn the best in this section? Was anything unclear? What did you enjoy most about this section?
It is also helpful to give your students multiple ways to communicate their feedback to you. While the forum can be a great tool for reaching the most active students, you may need to get a little bit more creative to reach the rest of your students so that you can get well-rounded feedback. While the most active 20% of your class is important, it can also be helpful to find out why your inactive students have not engaged in the class.
Sending out an email or an anonymous survey through Google Docs can help you to do this, or you may want to reach out in a new way and ask for students to send a feedback video using a tool like Screencastify or a Cloud App, which allows students to create 15-second videos.
As you seek out feedback, remember to keep your questions open-ended, asking general and specific questions, such as: How would you improve this content? Which activities or resources were the most helpful to you? Which ones were the least helpful?
As a whole, student feedback is the fastest and best way to improve the experiences your students have while in your class, increasing your chances of making a long-term impact with your content.
4. Drip-Feeding Your Content
In some cases, students enroll in courses with full access to all course content. As they try to maneuver their way through the materials on their own, they can get confused, which can lead them to become unmotivated.
Drip-feeding is a common practice in which instructors schedule the content delivery for lessons or modules. Instead of having full access to all the course materials at once, students have access to new lesson materials in scheduled segments.
There are numerous benefits associated with content being drip-fed to students. This method provides greater clarity and structure to the students, helping them to focus on what is most relevant and important, which can keep their motivation levels up. It also makes it easier for the instructor to facilitate the course, as each week brings a new topic.
For those wanting more control over their delivery methods, many content delivery systems offer settings that will not allow students to access the next module before they have completed their quizzes or assignments in the previous one.
5. Take Time to Learn About Your Learning Platform
There are a number of great learning platforms on the market today, including Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, Claned, and many others. Most of these platforms offer great tutorial videos to help new users become accustomed to the tools and features provided. Take advantage of these tools to maximize your online course.
While platform videos can be helpful, instructors can also reach out to other facilitators using the tool to find out about the creative ways in which the platform can be used. Consider speaking with other teachers in your organization or spending some time researching best practices for the platform online.
As you learn about the power of your platform, make sure that you explore the analytics features. These tools provide metrics like how many students have visited the course, how they are engaging with the content, and how long students are spending in particular sections of the module. This can help you to spot trends in student engagement, which you can then use to improve your course.
6. Communicate Effectively Through Email
While there are a number of ways to communicate with your students, email is still the most important tool at your disposal. For most students, this is the #1 way that they will expect communication, including reminders and basic information.
At a minimum, instructors should plan to send out a weekly email at the start of each module, providing clear instructions about any assignments or tools that will be introduced or due that week. Along with factual information, teachers can help their students to connect with their courses by sending interesting articles, tips, or other sources of inspiration to excite the students and encourage engagement.
Another way to use email to increase student engagement is to review the metrics from your platform to check in on the students who have not visited the course within the past 5-7 days and send them an email reminder. I picked up this tip from Aki Taanila at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, and it is a great way to encourage inactive students to re-engage in the course.
In your reminder email, mention that you noticed that they hadn’t been to the course in a while and ask them if they have any questions. Within your email, encourage them to respond to the email if they still plan to continue on with the course. This gives students an action step to respond to, which can help them start to participate more actively.
Last, but not least, email can be used to send interesting or surprising information about the topic covered in that week’s module. A good time for this kind of email is at the end of the week, as it provides students with a chance to review what they’ve learned and discover ways that others are applying the information covered. This is probably the most important e-learning best practice.
7. Email Automation in e-Learning
When you design an online curriculum, automated email communication can be a valuable tool, especially if you plan to teach on a topic more than once. Not every email communication can be automated, especially when dealing with specific student questions, but in general, automation can save you time and energy as an instructor.
Implementing email automation for the first time in a course requires some input from people who are familiar with the benefits and obstacles associated with this particular technology. In order to bring email automation into your course, consider looking into the ways that it is used in other sectors, as well as the ways that other instructors in your field may be using it.
Every time you create a course, you can create a set of pre-written emails that will motivate and guide students. These emails can be scheduled to be sent at particular dates and times throughout the course.
Depending on the course you are teaching, you may want to consider creating some of these kinds of correspondence in advance to be sent out automatically:
- Welcome email with basic instructions on how to get started in the class;
- Weekly emails sent on the same day each week with motivational content and information about that week’s topics;
- Reminder emails about major assignments or for students who may be missing course requirements;
- FAQs for important assignments and/or exams.
Remember to divide your pre-written content into short, easy-to-read segments in order to keep the attention of your students.
Many of the email marketing tools offer an array of automations, including options for students to respond to a quick multiple choice question, such as a question about whether or not that student understands a particular tool or assignment, and then to save those results for the instructor to review. This provides students with an opportunity to give meaningful feedback with a quick touch of a button. The system can then send out an email based on the response given, in this case, perhaps including additional resources for the student, which allows the instructor to interact with students in a more personalized, yet efficient, manner.
Because of the power and complexity of some of these automations, it is helpful to spend some time with an email automation specialist when you first begin to use this kind of technology.
In the future, artificial intelligence will help to create these kinds of automations, providing even more powerful systems.
8. Create Clear Instructions to Avoid Student Confusion
In many cases, students get started in a course without fully understanding the instructor’s expectations for their involvement in the course. To avoid this issue and set up your students for success, it is important to clearly communicate your expectations for the course, learning activities, and student objectives. This can include things like what resources are available and how to use them, as well as what kinds of learning modalities the students will use in the course, such as visual or auditory content.
Focus your energy on the beginning of the course, which usually requires the most attention from your students. Helping them to start off well can set the pace for how your students will interact during the remainder of the course.
As you communicate these things, be sure to sell the “why” of the course. This may sometimes be called the learning outcomes. It serves to explain how the students will be able to apply what they’re learning to their lives, either directly or indirectly. When possible, try to give at least two “whys,” one for students who are just starting to explore the topic and one for students who are delving deeper into a topic they are already somewhat familiar with.
Establish timetables and due dates, but include some flexibility so that students can catch up if they fall behind. Most students enrolled in online courses seek out these kinds of classes because of the flexibility they offer.
Create a video to welcome students to the course, showing your face when possible to encourage personal connection. Share any first steps the students should take to familiarize themselves with the course content. It can also be helpful to talk about the course schedule and how the students can expect to have access to you through the message board, email, or other avenues.
Finally, create an FAQ document with at least 8-10 questions for the students so that they can easily access this information as needed. Encourage the students to print out a copy of this document for easy access. Included in your FAQ should be general questions about things like how much time they should expect to spend on readings or lectures each week, as well as technical questions like how to troubleshoot for video playback issues. Add to this document throughout the course as you receive and review student feedback.
9. Utilize Forums and Quizzes Effectively
For an online course, the forum is often the heart of all course activity. You can know that you have a successful course when you observe a lot of student engagement within the forum. Likewise, a lack of engagement in the forum usually indicates a lack of engagement with students.
The forum should be a place that gets students excited about the course topics and inspires them to apply what they are learning. As you post to the forum personally, remember to communicate in a way that resonates with your students.
Model what kinds of interactions you want to see on the forum by sharing success stories, case studies, questions to ponder, and current events. Encourage your students to reflect and respond to these on the forum, going deeper than a simple opinion as they articulate their thoughts.
You can also encourage students to post their own discussions around current events and topics, sharing how various links and events relate to the information in the course. Urge your students to upload a picture of themselves to their student profile, which can also help to personalize their content. That’s one of the reasons why E-Learning and Online Learning is important.
It is possible to create and use Facebook groups to encourage discussions as well, but recognize that it can be more difficult to have threaded conversations outside of the learning platform.
You can also invite students to review what they’ve learned through quizzes at the end of every module or section. This is a great way to allow students to self-check their understanding of a topic. Generally, multiple choice questions are the most helpful, as you can set up your quiz in a way that allows students to see the correct answers and their total score at the end of a quiz. Open-ended questions with specific instructions can also help you to monitor how well your students grasp the topic at hand.
10. Measure Student Engagement and Activity Levels
In the past few years, technology has evolved in such a way that it has opened up new measurement tools that can allow greater insights into trends and metrics than ever before. This is true in every field of business, but is truly vital to success in the e-learning market.
Every online instructor should take the time to learn about the analytics tools offered by their learning platform. While this can seem like a daunting task, it will pay off in the long run, as it will help teachers to better understand how their students interact with content, allowing them to make changes in their courses, adapting them as needed to make them as engaging and effective as possible.
Here are some of the most important course metrics you can analyze as an online instructor:
- Percentage of active users on a weekly basis: This can be particularly helpful when comparing different cycles of the same class, to see if various changes in the course lead to more activity from students.
- Most popular content: By seeing which content is viewed the most, you can see what kinds of materials are the most effective. Content at the beginning of the course will also have a higher viewing rate, on average.
- Least popular content: This can help you to see what materials might need to be changed or adapted.
- Time students spend on the platform: Again, as you seek to improve your course, this figure should go up.
- Content (audio or video) that is not viewed to completion: This can help you to see what materials might be too long and need to be subdivided.
- Forum activity: These metrics can show you how many students are active, how many discussions are taking place, and how many interactions are student-initiated (a good indicator of engagement).
There are also some helpful individual metrics that you can monitor for each student, in order to see where students may need a little more guidance. These include:
- The last time the student accessed the course materials: This metric can allow instructors to send reminders to students who haven’t accessed the course within the last 10 days, giving gentle guidance before they fall too far behind.
- Progress levels: These metrics can allow instructors to view what percentage of the coursework the student has completed.
Every learning platform offers its own system of analytics. As you seek to understand the specific analytics tools offered by your platform, you can also speak to other instructors who are using the platform to learn how to use them appropriately.
When combined with student feedback, analytical insights can give you a powerful way to see how the course is currently working and how it may be able to be improved. Personally I see a huge potential for new Learning Management Systems like Claned which provides smart learning data and uses artificial intelligence to help teachers better understand how the course is going.
11. Enhance Your Presentations With Visual Tools
On average, most students in an online course will learn best when strong visual content is provided. Modern students are surrounded by visual content in their everyday lives and some of the most valuable companies in the modern market spend a lot of resources to provide great visual elements, which can add to their consumer appeal. Likewise, having intentional visual tools can add value to your course.
The most common mistake made by online instructors is creating content using black text on a white screen, devoid of any imagery.
According to the Disruptive E-Learning platform, SH!FT, there are six reasons why visuals are so powerful in online coursework, as you can see from the image below:
Six reasons why visuals are powerful (image credit: shiftelearning.com).
In my personal experience, the most compelling reasons to offer great visual content are because it helps students to retain information long-term, which can positively impact the success of the course, and because visuals can trigger emotions, which personalizes content, enabling students to benefit from a long-lasting learning experience. To learn more, read the article 10 Types of Visual Content to Improve Learner Engagement
12. Understand the Emotional Curve of Your Students During the Course
In education, business, and even our personal lives, emotions influence and impact our levels of commitment to the various tasks we undertake. This is certainly true for online coursework, as well. Many students start the course excited to learn, but experience various ups and downs as their personal schedules change. Students can give in to negative emotions, becoming confused or overwhelmed, and begin to lose interest in the class after the first two to three weeks.
Recognizing the roles that emotions play for your students can help you to guide them in overcoming these obstacles.
- Encourage your students to become aware of their own emotions toward the topics at hand by offering regular opportunities for reflection and self-assessment. Some topics tend to be more inherently interesting than others, but preconceived ideas about what a topic will entail can negatively influence how dedicated a student may be to that week’s assignments.
- Deadline reminders can help students to overcome their initial emotional indifference to a topic, re-engaging them in the coursework.
- Use inspirational stories of the successes of past students to surprise your students. This can help them to see the ways that others have successfully applied the information being covered in their lives and allow them to relate to the aims of the course more directly.
- Be prepared to identify the students who may be struggling or lagging behind, offering support and inspiration.
The key to overcoming the emotional obstacles the students may face in an online course is to remind the students regularly of the future benefits the students will receive from completing the course, which can help them to commit to the tasks at hand in the moment. For any assignment, relate it back to the basic why of the course.
Are there any tips you would like to add? Let me know in the comments.