An Excellent online course: Learning from COVID-19

Delivering online learning in higher education the last few years has been a bit rough. It was rough for the front facing teaching staff, rough for the workers who rely on students being on campus and rough for people in my line of work (Education Design).

At the start of the pandemic, my colleagues and I helped to transition the entire faculty from a face-to-face focused environment to one where online learning was the only option. Stakes were high and people were under extraordinary pressure. We all did our best. Many of my teaching colleagues deserve medals for the work they did and the effort they expended to make sure students weren’t disadvantaged. They become video conferencing experts overnight, became amateur videographers in two, and interfaced with that nasty LMS a whole lot more than they might’ve otherwise.

The dust from that very weird time has now started to clear. The pandemic is (checks the current numbers) mostly in the rear view mirror and students and teachers have started to go back to campus. Face-to-face classes are in session – albeit with more absences and with more caution than before. There have been many learnings along the way. Some of these learnings are new. Many are not.

Learning from past publications

In the year 2008, well before the onset of COVID-19, a couple of academics named Henry & Meadows published an article entitled ‘An absolutely riveting online course’. Funnily enough the 9 key principles they detailed 14 years ago are more relevant now after COVID-19 than ever before. It is both enlightening to realise how much impact using tried and tested principles can have on student learning outcomes and satisfaction, and maddening that so many were taken ‘unawares’ as to what excellent online education requires.

The 9 Principles for a Riveting Course  as outlined by Henry & Meadows (2008) are:

  1. The online world is a medium unto itself
  2. Content is a VERB
  3. Technology is a vehicle, not a destination
  4. Great online courses are defined by teaching, not technology
  5. Sense of community and a social connection are essential
  6. Excellence requires multiple areas of expertise
  7. A great web interface will not save a poor course; but a poor web interface will
    destroy a potentially great course
  8. Excellence comes from an ongoing assessment and refinement
  9. Sometimes the little extras go a long way.

The article itself is worth reading in its entirety, but I want to touch on a few points that resonate with me the most for different reasons.

The online world is a medium unto itself and content is a verb

Along with love, a verb is a doing word. That means the content shouldn’t exist if a user doesn’t do anything with it.

When communication is asynchronous, instructions and content matters more than ever. Every word on a page should serve a purpose. Is it instructional, informational or superfluous? Too little or too much detail can work against the intent of a message.  Signposting, a key element of academic writing, takes on additional significance in the web because of its dynamic nature. The placement of text, images, hyperlinks and other calls to action all impact the progress, learning and understanding of a user/learner. At all points, learners should be interacting with the text on the page. Reading, clicking or thinking. If they aren’t, ask yourself “Why is this even here?”.

Excellence requires multiple areas of expertise and ongoing refinement

This principle resonates with me both as a Learning Designer and as a person who has worked in teams for the majority of my life. What does it take to be excellent at producing online learning? A team effort and continuous reviewing and improvement. What does it take to do something substantial in a work environment generally? A team effort, continuous review and a desire to improve.

An online course (an excellent one) requires a battalion of people to ensure it is of a particular standard due to its complexity. Vital roles include Learning Designers, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), editors, videographers, graphic designers and educational technologists. Individuals need to put aside their differences and work together. No one person can achieve as good a result on their own.

This team approach particularly resonates with me as the Learning Design (LD) role needs the contributions of others such as the SME to be able to work effectively. It is very much a partnership where the LD shifts and shapes around what is needed the most. One day you are developing or editing content, the next you are writing assessment, the day after that you are testing to ensure an activity works in the way it should. The Learning Designer also acts as project manager and bridge builder through the learning design process, ensuring other members of the team are aligned in purpose and product.

It’s not possible to build an excellent online course on your own.

Lastly, excellence requires continual refinement and evaluation.  Evaluation in course production and other complex projects is often missed, neglected or tacked onto the end without any planning. A good evaluation is built into the course development process. Help to steer the work of a team by crafting key evaluation questions before the project kicks off. Consultation with key stakeholders such as learners/end users to ensure important voices are heard. Ensure their feedback is thoughtfully incorporated into the next iteration and/or initiative.

Sometimes the little things go a long way

Nothing could be more true for life, either professionally or personally.



Leave a Reply