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Developing Online Courses: 14 Lessons Learned

I’ve been developing and teaching online courses for the past 5 years. It’s been one of the most challenging, rewarding, and illuminating parts of my career progression. Not only have I gained skills in working with educational technologies, but I’ve also learned a lot about training and development.

Here, in no particular order, are 14 lessons I learned:

  1. In online learning, the pedagogy must drive the technology, not the other way around. You can’t start with, “I want to add discussion forums.” You have to think about objectives and then figure out what technologies will best compliment them.
  2. Program objectives → course objectives → course module objectives → assignments/activities. They should be developed in that order. Do not skip steps or move things around.
  3. After doing it for a few years, you will be embarrassed by the first course you develop. That’s okay, as along as you are constantly striving to do better.
  4. Don’t be afraid to try wacky things. As long as they work in your course or program, it doesn’t matter if no one else is doing it.
  5. Assessing online courses or programs is fundamentally different from assessing their face-to-face counterparts. I could write a whole article on this but please, please DO NOT simply slap a face-to-face course assessment on an online course and call it a day.
  6. Break your online lectures into small, digestible, 3–5 minute chunks. Video is powerful, but don’t fill your course with 30-minute PowerPoints with voice overs. Students will not watch them.
  7. Do everything you can to maximize student-student interaction. The social element will do wonders for increasing student engagement. Take a look at your learning goals — and associated assignments — and figure out how you can get students to interact. For example, have them share their assignments with one another, discuss something on a discussion board, follow each other on Twitter, talk with each other on Slack, or meet with each other on Skype.
  8. Video creation can be a significant time commitment. On average, videos take me about 10x-20x the length to create. Assuming my notes and slide deck are already created, I can reliably create a 5 minute video in about 1–2 hours. Why so long? To do it well, you can’t just press record, talk, and put it on You Tube. You first need to review your notes, and if you’re using one, your slide deck. Then you can do the actual recording. (Which might take a few takes.) After that, you have to edit and put on post-production finishing touches (e.g., zooming, adding call-outs, etc.) And lastly you click “produce” on your software (e.g., Camtasia; Screenflow) and wait for it to process. Then you can share it with the world (or just your students).
  9. But video creation can be a valuable time commitment. Adding video is a great way to spice up a course. And, once you create a video, you can likely use it several times before you have to re-shoot it.
  10. Automate, automate, automate. I automate things like grading (when they are multiple-choice quizzes) and reminders about assignment due dates (which students will love you for). Is it because I’m lazy? No. It’s because I’m efficient. I want to spend my time interacting with students — addressing their concerns, helping them through the readings, assuring them they understand it better than they think, etc., etc. I don’t want to spend my time fiddling with a grading sheet.
  11. Be mindful of time zones. You may have students in your course who are in a different time zones, especially if yours is a program that attracts students from around the country/globe. Even if that’s not the case, students travel. They can do their homework in Jamaica if they want. That’s the beauty of an online course. So, either be flexible with due dates (“by the end of your day Friday”) or be very specific (“by Friday at 11:59pm EST). I started with the later but prefer the former.
  12. Be mindful of cultural references and jargon. Explain cultural references even if it feels silly (e.g., “Office Space was a popular movie from 1999 that poked fun at organizational interventions.”) And avoid jargon if you can. If you can’t, be sure to define it.
  13. Remember to bring the FUN! I have a 6-year-old so I like to channel his youthful spirit. This can be communicated not only through audio, video, and text, but also in the way the course is designed.
  14. And remember that Challenging = Fun. Scaffold your students through a series of easier assignments and then give them a challenge that you’ve prepared them for. There is nothing more motivating than the desire to defeat a challenge. Even my 6-year-old knows this.

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Career Coach for Tech Managers. I help tech managers upgrade their careers, their teams, their paychecks, and their lives.

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