6 Essential Tips for Planning an Effective Online Course


Most edtech conversations often focus on “tech”—the new apps, data systems, assessments and other technologies. But the “ed” discussions—particularly the art of teaching with these tools—are often remiss.

Over the last two years, I taught online courses on Python programming and iPhone App Development at Udacity; over 100,000 students registered for them. While creating these classes, I learned many things — including how difficult it is to translate in-person teaching philosophies to a different medium. In the process, I established a set of tips that I hope would be helpful to anyone considering teaching online.

In the first of my four-part series, 20 Tips for Teaching Online, I’ll focus on several aspects of online course creation, including planning, techniques for teaching, community building and assessments. My hope with this piece is to contribute to a conversation on how to teach more effectively in an online space and what we can learn from research and expert teachers in physical classrooms. Let’s begin!

1. Use Lesson Plan Templates

“Where do I begin?” is a question I often ask when designing an online course.

I have found that using guides like the Backwards Design Template (PDF) can add structure to this process. Two questions from this template that I spend a lot of time thinking about are: “Who will take this course?” and “What are my learning objectives?” This information can help inform all of the subsequent design decisions you will need to make while creating your course.

2. Identify Component Skills

Think back to the time you were learning to drive. You had to learn to individually master and then merge component skills like changing lanes, interpreting street signs, and applying brakes, etc. You can perhaps break down other tasks like playing the piano, or mastering calculus, into component skills.

When designing an online course, I recommend that you pinpoint the component skills your students need to learn to master the content. You can then create an environment where the student can practice those skills individually and eventually learn to integrate them.

I also suggest reading Chapter 4 from How Learning Works, which highlights research that suggests a significant enhancement in student performance “when instructors identify and reinforce weak component skills through targeted practice”

3. Involve Your Learner

For many online courses, students sign up a few weeks before the course officially launches. This means you may have access to prospective student emails while you are designing the course.

One way to involve those learners in the course design process is to ask them about their objectives for the course. You can analyze themes from those responses and then include the student-generated learning objectives in your lesson plans.

I tried a version of this in an online course where I taught students to make an iPhone app. Apple had just released a new programming language called Swift, which we were using to help students create their first mobile application. Over 10,000 students expressed interest in taking this course before it was publicly available, so we asked them if they had any Swift-related questions. Upon sifting through hundreds of student responses, we featured a list of top 10 Swift questions in the course. These included queries like “Why is the language called Swift?” and “How stable is the new programming language?”

4. Explore Misconceptions & Debates

Expert teachers ask, “What misconceptions do my students have about the material?” Some even set up a pre-test to elicit such misconceptions. They then create circumstances within their course where learners are confronted with those misconceptions. I recommend that you add this question to the list of things you think about when planning the course.

Expert teachers also ask, “Whose voices do the students need to hear besides my own?” They foster debate and invite guest speakers to provide novel perspectives to their students.

One great example of this is in the online course, “ Learning How To Learn,” where the instructor, Barbara Oakley, presents tips on how to learn more effectively and then interviews guest speakers who have mastered those skills.

5. Prototype For A Great Course

Once you have decided upon the learner and learning objectives for your online course, you will most likely make several design decisions around the activities you want your students to undertake. For instance, in an online course on introductory programming, I asked my students to rename special files on their computer to reveal a secret message to a loved one.

I recommend that you solicit feedback on such activities from representative learners while planning your course. A great resource to consider here is the framework offered by the d.School at Stanford University that can help you gather comments from learners while using low-fidelity prototypes.

This method of capturing feedback early in the design stage can help sharpen learning activities. For example, when I shared the “secret message” activity with a few testers, I discovered that my students were using both PC and Mac computers and that the code used to rename files was slightly different in those environments. Once I gathered this insight during the design stage, I was able tweak my code to accommodate all learners.

An additional benefit of prototype testing is that it will help you identify expert blind spots in your course. Learning scientists classify expert blind spot as the inability of some instructors to make accurate predictions about the difficulty level of new ideas as perceived by their learners. In other words, experts are sometimes unable to recall what it feels like to be a novice and are unaware of the difficulties a beginner experiences with their subject. Prototype testing the course in the design stage can help you identify such spots.

6. Make Emotionally Satisfying Content

Here’s a question: What do you think are the characteristics of a well designed product? This product could be a phone, a website or an online course.

Don Norman, the author of Emotional Design, suggests that things that are well-designed are not just highly functional, but also emotionally satisfying.

Think of a simple coffee cup. Now the cup needs to satisfy its primary purpose, which is to hold a hot beverage. If it did not, we would all think that it was poorly designed. But that by itself doesn’t elevate the cup to a well designed status. To do that, the cup also needs to be emotionally satisfying for the user. One way the designer can accomplish this is by creating grooves in the cup’s handle that allow the coffee drinker to place her fingers comfortably.

As teachers, the key lesson we can learn here from designers (of great phones, cups and cars), is to ask the following question: Is this activity or presentation emotionally satisfying for my students?

This exploration led to me to change the main student activity in one of my online courses. In an initial version of the course on how to make an iPhone app, I was planning on helping my students make a calculator application. I eventually settled on an app that allowed the learner to record her voice and then manipulate that audio to make herself sound like a chipmunk or Darth Vader. Even though this change did not alter the learning objectives for the course, my hope with this revision was to empower the students to create an app that they would feel proud to share with their friends.

At this point, I must mention the work of Professor Walter Lewin, a former physics teacher at MIT, as additional inspiration to create content that is emotionally satisfying. When teaching ideas around the conservation of energy, he shunned traditional teaching methods and decided to put his life on the line to demonstrate the world of physics to his students.

Now, if any of these tips were helpful, I invite you to stay tuned for the rest of this four-part blog series. In the next post I will discuss teaching techniques that can boost engagement and enhance learning outcomes in an online course.

Kunal is a course developer and instructor at Udacity.

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