Help your learners make it across the finish line by following these tips.
Spend any time looking online for resources about online courses and time management, and you’ll probably find plenty of articles aimed at students full of study tips to help them get through a program. However, there’s a big problem with this: these articles put the entire burden for completing a course on the learner. The assumption seems to be that if learners are dropping out, it’s because of a lack of commitment on their part.
But as educators we know the situation is more complicated. Sure, there will always be learners who aren’t motivated enough, who signed up on a whim, or who simply don’t care. But the far more common situations is to find learners who are overwhelmed by their obligations both online and off, who weren’t prepared for the amount of work an online course would take, and who are struggling to feel connected to their course community.
Online instructors can take several steps to address these problems. Instead of viewing the situation as irremediable, let’s look at three ways you can be part of the solution and aid your learners on the path to success.
1. Make it mobile.
This is the first and most important rule of accessible online education: your leaners need to access it wherever they are. The more restrictions you place on your learners in terms of time and place, the harder it will be for them to fit it into their lives.
Mobility in online education isn’t just about having a responsive website that can be accessed from a smartphone—it’s also about the way that content is presented. If you have videos, do those videos have subtitles so that learners can watch them in a crowded location? If you have tests, can those tests be completed using swipes, taps, and gestures, or will learners need to type out long written answers on their phone?
And don’t neglect user experience. Even tiny irritations can be prohibitive to a user experience. For instance, if it’s difficult for your learners to move between discussion topics and threads on your forum, they may decide to engage less. This will weaken your community, which will in turn lower the value of your course.
2. Break it into pieces.
Huge study blocks are hard for learners to complete in one sitting. Keep in mind that in many cases, they may only have their work break for a few minutes while their kids are taking a nap to check in to your course. If all your content is in hour-long video blocks, they may never have a chance to dedicate that much time to completing a lesson.
Instead, keep content as bite-sized as possible. This will lower the barriers for them to take a lesson. You may find that your learners can easily complete an hour’s worth of lessons in a day if they come in fifteen-minute chunks—or less! You may find your learners find it easier to binge short lessons than commit to long ones.
Shorter lessons not only make it easier for learners to squeeze a bit in whenever they have a few minutes of down time, they also make it easier to retain information. A side benefit to shorter content is that it forces you to edit yourself and structure information more carefully. If you have to make your point in six minutes, your learners will remember it better than if you wander your way through a 40-minute lecture.
3. Set deadlines.
It may sound counterintuitive, but deadlines are actually a big help to a lot of learners. Deadlines help your learners gauge early on what sort of time commitment they need to make in order to complete their course material. If a learner thinks it will only take a couple hours to complete a lesson, they may set it aside for a week or two thinking they can catch up quickly. When they discover that the lesson actually takes closer to five hours, they’ll already be so far behind that it will be impossible to catch up.
Even if the student accurately predicts what the workload will be like, deadlines help keep them on track. In a psychological sense, knowing you have to get something done is a big motivation to get it done.
The number of deadlines you need to set will depend on the kind of course you’re teaching. If you only have a couple hours of material to get through a week, a single, weekly deadline may be enough. If your course is more intense, consider setting a deadline for every five hours of coursework. This could be a simple assignment, or a requirement to participate on a discussion board. Even a simple check-in requirement may be enough to keep your learners engaged.
Let’s stop asking our learners to be superheroes and start looking for ways to make learning more accessible.
I saw an article recently telling the story of a new mother who managed to complete her online training while her newborn was taking naps. That’s an amazing amount of dedication, and she deserves to be commended. But that should be the extremity—not the standard.
The easier you make it for learners to complete your course even on the go, the easier it will be for them to complete it at home and under ideal conditions. And if they can do that, then they’re less likely to find themselves stressed and straining to complete coursework elsewhere.
It’s not about watering down the learning material; it’s about removing learning barriers and creating a support structure wherever possible.