Experience is hard to come by. Your first online course is something you can only learn by doing.
They answer is: you’re not, and you won’t be until you actually gain some experience. And unfortunately, experience is not a thing you can gain second-hand.
At a certain point, you have to reconcile yourself to some rough edges as you fine-tune your course.
However, there are some learning moments you can prepare yourself for in general, even if you don’t know how the specifics will play out.
Here are a few lessons you can only learn from diving in the deep end and launching your first course.
1. Testing pays off.
Have you ever described yourself as “Type A” or “Type B”? They’re rough generalizations of personality traits which I don’t entirely subscribe to, but they have a rough application to online education in that most aspiring educators either lose themselves in perfectionism which prevents them from ever launching (Type A), or adopt a “fast fail” method that causes them to launch preemptively and fall hard (Type B).
Testing can scratch both these itches while forestalling some of the biggest problems with each approach. If you’re anxious about launching your first course and want to get it just right, running a beta test and inviting some peers to review your course can help straighten out some of the kinds and lead to a smoother launch. Or, if you’re the type of person that just wants to jump right in, a test run is a definitive step forward without exposing your course to the risks of launching unprepared.
2. Get to know your learners.
Most educators go into their first online course with a lot of assumptions, and to a certain extent, this is unavoidable. After all, until you have learners, it’s hard to learn much about them. But after launching their course blind, many educators make the fatal error of continuing to operate on those early assumptions, without adjusting their expectations to the new group.
The reality is that your learners aren’t a homogenous group. They’re individuals with histories, interests, and needs far more complex than you can imagine from demographics and data sets. Learning more about them will help you better target your course in the future so that you can provide more value.
This information is also crucial for your own course management. For instance, one overlooked aspect of online courses is that they’re offered worldwide. This means you could be delivering material to someone half a world away. Based on this information, you may want to consider offering some office hours at different times of day, so that learners in different time zones can connect with you and benefit from that one-on-one attention.
3. Your learners have more going on in their lives than your course.
Your online course may have taken over your life for the past several months, but your learners are in a very different position. Most online learners are working that course around the rest of their everyday life: in their off-hours from work, between traditional classes at a university, or on the couch during their child’s nap time.
Many instructors set expectations based on the conception that their learners are prioritizing this course in the same way they have. This can lead them to overload their coursework, require more engagement and faster response times, or otherwise overwhelm learners with too much too fast.
Of course, pacing is always delicate. Too slow, and your learners will lose interest and drop out. Too fast, and they’ll become overwhelmed. The key is balance. With your first course, you’ll learn as much as your students. Talk to them, find out what works, and be ready to iterate.
4. Your attention is a valuable resource. Spend it well.
Most of us naturally prioritize easy tasks over hard ones. It’s tempting to spend an entire day dealing with busy work and feeling “accomplished” because we got so much done. The problem is, too many of those tasks are low-priority objectives—things we can accomplish with half our brain turned off, because the truly difficult tasks take too much mental power to grapple with.
However, your learners are going to find far more value—and be far more satisfied—if you spend your energy wisely. Engaging with learners on a forum takes time and energy, but it signals to learners that you’re listening, even if you can’t respond to every comment. And offering office hours may seem like a huge expenditure of your time, but students will appreciate having the lifeline—even if relatively few of them take advantage of it.
The point is that, while these measure are more difficult, they’re also more valuable. And if you find yourself spending lots of time on low-value tasks, those are the first you should try to automate.
Do or do not, there is no try.
Launching your course is inevitable. And the end of the day, some lessons can only be learned by trial and error. Your course is unique, your learners are unpredictable, and the only way to become an experienced professional is to bring your course before your learners and listen to their feedback.
So, if you’re still holding back for that perfect piece of advice to help you launch a flawless course—don’t hold your breath. Preparation and testing are good, but at a certain point, you need to get your feet wet.
The good news? You can learn right along with your learners, and your second course launch will be even better than your first.