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How to Choose the Right Tools for Your Online Course

By Amy Ahearn

A growing number of schools and nonprofits are building their first online courses. If you’re considering migrating your professional development program, curriculum, or training online, you’ll quickly be asking: “What platform should we use?” With a huge array of choices—CanvasOppia and Udemy, just to name a few—on the market, it can be hard to narrow in on the best fit for your budget and learning goals. Many companies make bold statements about their ability to “personalize” instruction or generate rich learning analytics. Which claims should you believe, and which you dismiss as entrepreneurial hype?

Five practical factors to consider as you hone in on the right platform:

  • Number of accounts: How many students will need accounts to access the course? Many platforms charge per the number of users.
  • Hosting: Do you have the technical capabilities in-house to host your own site, or will you need to operate on someone else’s domain?
  • Public or private course instance: Does it matter if your course is publicly available and open for anyone to enroll in, or do you only want it accessible to your students?
  • Learning Data: What learning analytics will you need? Are you looking for reports on individual students to provide formative feedback? Or will you need to aggregate data at the course level to share with a funder or other key stakeholders?
  • Learning Design: Most importantly, what are you trying to teach online? The most basic platforms allow you to embed videos and quizzes. More sophisticated platforms enable users to submit a range of file formats, receive targeted feedback, or facilitate exchanges between users through team formation, peer review and discussion forums.

Based on your answers to those questions, you have four types of platforms to consider:

  • Basic website and blogging tools like WordPress, Square Space, LearnDash, and even Google Docs can be used to hack together your own simple online course. If you’re testing how your instructional content will transfer to an online format, consider starting with a low-cost site. You can approximate many of the features offered by more robust learning platforms if you know some basic HTML. For example, you can embed a video, discussion forum (using Disqus or Google+), or flashcards (using Quizlet or StudyBlue) on a simple website and then get feedback from learners on the content and activities before investing further time and resources.
  • Online course platforms like Coursera, EdCast, Eliademy, Learnopia, Litmos, Moodle, NovoEd, Ruzuku, SchoolKeep, Skilljar, and Udemy are built specifically to host online courses. If you eventually plan to resell your online course, look for a platform that can create student accounts, generate learning data, and potentially process transactions. Additionally, ask companies if they offer the instructional features you’ll need native to their platform, rather than just as plug-ins. This will help ensure you have easier access to fine-grained learning analytics.
  • Learning management systems like Blackboard CourseSites, Canvas, Kornukopia and Schoology, are repositories of online tools geared towards the K12 and higher ed market to support a class or course. Their user interfaces are often dominated by features like a gradebook, file cabinet, and a course schedule or syllabus. These work well for blended learning, but might be overwhelming for a more straightforward online course.
  • Adaptive learning platforms like Brightspace, Fishtree, Knewton, Oppia, Realizeit and Smart Sparrow allow you to build learning pathways. Based on the responses a student submits, the platform “adapts” or “personalizes” the content they see. Some companies creating these platforms make grandiose claims, but currently they are best for domains where knowledge can be easily mapped and there are right and wrong answers. Adaptive platforms can help you assess a student’s mastery of a subject so you that can maximize in-person instructional time. Keep in mind that these platforms often require more instructional design work since you have to create multiple pathways instead of one linear course.

With that in mind, some final words of advice:

  • Don’t be seduced by free: Moodle remains a free, open source option with a lively online community dedicated to maintaining it. However, if you’ll require interface customization or customer service, those can often come with hidden price tags.
  • Consider the people behind the platform: Small startups often give you personalized attention from the CEO and are dedicated to the success of early clients. However, more established companies have a deep bench of engineers, community managers, and user experience designers working behind-the-scenes to address student feedback and quickly iterate. Online learning is evolving so quickly that you should pick a platform with a team that is receptive to your input as an educator and has the capacity to re-engineer itself as the market evolves.
  • Keep your content platform-agnostic: Consider how much of your content you can create as separate assets like videos or PDFs that can be easily migrated should another platform that better suits your needs come onto the market.
  • Don’t expect your online course to perfectly replicate an in-person experience: If you’re trying to chase down a platform that will deliver the same sense of immediacy, intimacy, and connection that an in-person experience can provide, you’re pursuing the wrong goal. Instead focus on what the technology can do uniquely well (such as enabling asynchronous participation), but realize that in-person facilitation and offline learning still often augment an online experience.

Amy Ahearn (@amyahearn11) is a Senior Innovation Associate at Acumen and has built online courses for Stanford University and a variety of nonprofit organizations.  


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