Even if you’ve taught in the classroom, teaching online presents new challenges.

If you’re preparing to teach your first online course, you may be wondering how online teaching differs from the traditional classroom. After all, the materials and the lesson plan seem like they should be broadly similar, and that moving a course online would be a relatively easy step.

Many educators have thought so in the past, but the reality can be much more complicated. Online education comes with its own series of difficulties, some as a result of the technology involved, others inherent in the medium. If you want your course to be successful, it is important to grasp these fundamentals first.

1. Know your learners.

The traditional classroom learner is fairly homogenous. If you think about your average college classroom, most learners will be about the same age, they’ll all have had to pass the same entrance exams, and most will be full-time students with relatively few outside obligations such as jobs and family to occupy their time.

By contrast, the demographics for online learners can be all over the map, and probably do not align with the traditional student. Online learners tend to be more self-motivated and independent—or else they have strong external motivations for taking an online program. But having enough curiosity to sign up for a course is not the same thing as seeing it through, and it’s easy for many learners to underestimate the time commitments involved.

Other online learners hope to gain new skills in order to advance their career. Unless their online education is sponsored by their place of employment, they’ll be taking your course on their own time. They may have families or other commitments taking up their free time, and that will affect the way they prioritize your course.

Over time, you will probably begin to notice certain patterns in the kinds of learners who sign up for your course, but those trends may be significantly different from the learners in someone else’s course. It’s up to you to find out who your learners are, and adjust your online course accordingly.

2. Don’t make assumptions about what your learners know.

The best instructors know how to put themselves in their learner’s shoes and match their course to their learner’s knowledge level. However, this is easier said than done. Far too often, educators forget what it was like to learn a subject for the first time, and they lose their learners along the way.

Understandably, this can be frustrating for learners and educators alike. To compound the difficulty, different learners will struggle with different parts of the course. And if you simplify it too much, some learners may begin to feel that the course is too easy, and they’ll become bored.

If you need to teach your course at a certain knowledge level, make sure you make your expectations clear from the start. You can even create a placement test for learners to take before they enroll, and offer them a recommendation on what course to take based on their results.

3. Recognize the difference between active and passive learning.

Many educators think they can create an online course simply by recording themselves giving lectures. This method has been tried in the past, but it often falls short of its goal. Watching videos tends to be disengaging for learners, who have so many other distractions online to contend with that their focus is split.

In fact, the over-emphasis on videos for education—without any active learning tools—formed a major part of our recent critique of Teachable’s learning platform. If video content is all you offer your learners, start a YouTube channel.

Active learning, on the other hand, encourages learners to engage more deeply with the material. It can mean regular quizzes to check their comprehension, puzzles to help drive home a concept, or even simple gamification elements to turn the course into a game. The more active learning you can include in your course, the more engaged your learners will be, and the longer they will retain course knowledge.

4. Your learners will run on different schedules.

As we said earlier, online learners are often working their course in at odd hours between work and family obligations. For some, this will mean doing lessons in the morning or during a lunch break. For others, it could mean some late nights. And that’s before you consider learners in different time zones. With everyone running on a different schedule, group discussions will be spread out over several days, and you will need to adjust your course schedule to allow for it.

This isn’t to say you can’t have real-time events where all your learners meet for a discussion session. In fact, such lessons might help your learners feel more connected to their classmates. But planning these events will require coordination with learner schedules as well, and you may need to plan them as small group sessions to ensure that every learner has a time they can attend.

5. Learner support is part of your job.

Online education is hard—for you and your learners. Even the most self-motivated learner can fall behind, feel isolated, or simply lose interest. With online education, providing support for learners who seem to be struggling to complete their course work is even more crucial than in traditional education environments.

That said, some of your support can be automated. If a learner falls behind on a quiz, doesn’t check in for a few days, or misses a deadline, you can set up an automated email prompt to offer help. Such steps can help a learner feel as though their success matters, which may be all they need to push through to the end.

Don’t let the challenges put you off launching your online course.

Despite the many challenges online education presents, the opportunities are greater. Online learning expands the reach educational programs to learners of all different lifestyles, in all different parts of the globe. The potential for learners to gain new skills and acquire new knowledge that they can then apply in their day-to-day life is huge—and, frankly, exciting.

Online certification also opens opportunities for educators to build their own businesses off their certification course. If you have a specialty you want to share, it may take some time to hone your course into the training program you envision. But a well-constructed course has a lot to offer learners.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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