How to Avoid Alienating Learners in your Online Course
Learners will have better outcomes with the right kind of support from their instructors.
One of the biggest struggles online educators have in growing a successful online business lies in engaging and retaining the learners who have already signed up for their course. Online learners frequently feel out of touch and disconnected, and these feelings can be enhanced by unintentional communication mistakes from the educators themselves.
The good news is, these mistakes can be addressed—and doing so will lead to better learner outcomes. Here’s just a few ways you can avoid alienating learners so that you can build a stronger online course.
1. Just because your communication is automated doesn’t mean it has to be impersonal.
Using automation is a great way to save yourself a lot of busywork, but it’s also a way in which many educators struggle to communicate naturally. As a result, automated messages can often feel forced and a bit robotic. Your learners could walk away feeling like they received a message from a chat bot, rather than something written by a flesh-and-blood human being.
When you’re writing an automated message, think about the learner who will be receiving it. Maybe even assemble a list of long-time learners you already know fairly well, or failing this, of friends or colleagues with whom you have a good connection. Look at that list, and imagine one of them were to receive your email. Would it feel warm and personal and like it was coming from you? Or would it feel cold and indirect?
Remember: you’re not an automaton. It’s OK to let your personality come through, so long as it reflects your brand.
2. You do you have time for individual student outreach (if you plan it well).
Automation is a great tool (we’ll get to it again in point five), but it can’t replace everything. With the time you save by automating routine processes, it’s a smart idea to reinvest some of it in both your course and your learners.
Many educators don’t consider making themselves personally available for a few reasons: they may think they won’t have enough time, they may not know how to set up online visiting hours, they may feel uncomfortable with making themselves available, or they may not have thought of it as an option. However, it’s often not as time consuming or as difficult as you would think.
For instance, you could set up an online chat room and post times when you’ll be available live to discuss questions with learners, you could offer fifteen-minute calls over Skype to learners who would prefer a video call, or you could offer personal tutoring lessons for an additional price for students who need more time. For all these methods, you control the amount of time you make available, and when that time will be.
3. Double-check your course material for stereotypes to avoid misunderstandings.
No one likes to feel labeled, especially in an unflattering way. And yet it’s far too easy to grab a tone-deaf example to illustrate a scenario, especially if you’re eager to publish your course. Consider it an extra step in proofreading your course: if you reached for a common trope while composing your draft, use the revision process to think of something more original. Even better, draw from personal examples if you can.
If a learner does voice a complaint about one of your examples, thank them for pointing it out and be ready to update your material. Unless the scenario is very involved, doing so usually doesn’t take much time, and it often leaves learners with a positive feeling of being heard.
4. Post behavior guidelines and be ready to moderate your forums.
After all the hard work you put in to developing your course, you don’t want to find it’s been undone by learners who have created a negative environment in your online discussions. Since only learners can access your forums, you’re unlikely to see some of the serious harassment that can become problematic elsewhere on the Internet.
However, that doesn’t mean everyone will know how to handle a discussion well, and having a policy in place can be a proactive measure toward creating the kind of environment you want, rather than reacting to situations when they occur. This can also help you if someone on your forum does get out of hand. Rather than having to level a seemingly arbitrary decision in the moment, you can point to a published statement of rules and expectations.
5. Check in regularly with learners, even if you have to automate the process.
We said earlier that automation can’t fix every problem, but it can help you identify and respond to learners who may have fallen off your radar. For instance, if a learner goes a while without signing in, you can send them an email to remind them about their goals. So long as you’re following point one (use a friendly, natural voice), doing so can be an effective way to re-engage your learners.
Your learners signed up because they want to be engaged.
Online instructors have some significant challenges to face that traditional instructors often don’t. It’s harder to establish a good rapport with learners when you can’t interact with them in person. And as anyone who’s ever sent or received a poorly-phrased email can attest, it’s easy for misunderstandings to arise when the other party can’t hear your tone of voice.
However, as daunting as these challenges may be for you, you do have an important point working in your favor: your learners signed up because they want to learn from you. If they’ve paid for your course, then you’ve already gained their trust, to some degree. Your biggest challenges will be fighting for a place amidst your learner’s busy schedule. Use the advantage you have to build a community in your online course, and your time will be well spent.