Should You Take an Online Course Before You Teach One?

As an online course instructor, what can you learn from taking one?

Most of today’s college students graduate having taken at least one online course. Many other adult learners seek online education to further their careers, or for self-improvement. But despite its rising popularity, many adults haven’t yet taken an online course—even though they may be interested in teaching one.

If this sounds like you, there’s no reason that should dissuade you from your own dreams of becoming an online instructor. Instead, the easiest remedy may simply be to try an online course out for yourself. If you’ve never taken an online course, or if it’s been a while since your last experience, you may be surprised by what you learn from the experience.

Still wondering if it’s a good use of your time? Here are a few ways taking an online course can make your own course more effective.

1. Familiarize yourself with online course formats.

Online courses come in many forms. My own experience includes an online language app which required daily use, interactive chess lessons which combined video with practice puzzles, a college-level literature class, and some experimentation with a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) in economics.

Each of these provided a vastly different experience. The language app was mobile, while the other courses were online. The literature course tried to mimic the formula and structure of a traditional classroom, while the other courses had no timeline. The chess course (quite naturally) made heavy use of gamification, while the MOOC economics class relied on open forum discussions.

The point isn’t to say that one of these styles is better than all the others, but that each style was suitable for its specific application. That said, they aren’t always obvious. You may have assumptions about how to structure your course, while taking a course might open your eyes to completely new ways of educating.

2. Gain first-hand experience with potential pitfalls.

Online courses can be a mixed bag. You may find a lot of positive inspiration in a course, while also creating a list of things not to do. Even if you don’t have a solution, understanding the hurdles online learners have to jump through can help you provide better support.

For instance, my own experience in a traditional online college course was teacher engagement provided a lot of support and encouragement, but that the discussion questions often felt forced and artificial. Meanwhile, I found it simple enough to blow through a few videos in the MOOC course. However, when my enthusiasm waned, the lose structure of the course and the lack of personal commitment made it easy for me to drop it like a bad habit.

3. Think of ways you might do things differently.

It’s easier to identify problems than it is to discover solutions. However, first had experience with a course can make it easier to think creatively about ways to do things differently.

The traditional course I took would have struggled to create a more engaged community given the limitations of the semester. While taking a fifteen-week course made it easier to stay on schedule, it also created a definitive end point to the class. However, a group project, or a few synchronized learning moments where the whole class got to have a discussion in real time might have helped to break the ice.

Meanwhile, the MOOC course, was probably too large for the professors to leave personalized feedback. But the course also failed to create a long-term community. While some learners left comments on the lessons, these were ordered with the oldest comment at the time, so that learners had to scroll through years of comments to find the most recent responses. This made it hard for any new conversations to begin. Ordering comments from recent to oldest might not solve every problem, but it would have been a quick fix.

4. Talk to your classmates about their experiences.

Insider knowledge is always hard to come by. It can be especially difficult to get honest feedback from learners in your own course, either out of reluctance to criticize, or because it’s not a priority for them. But since online courses often mean getting to know some of your fellow learners, you may find an opportunity to ask them about what they think of the course.

Even if you don’t have a chance to strike up that kind of conversation in a natural way, you can often read up on some of those opinions in the course discussion forum. If the learners in your course seem to voice some common criticisms, or ask many of the same help questions, then that’s something you could work to improve in your own program.

5. Learn something that you could use for your own course.

Finally, you can kill two birds with one stone by taking an online course in a subject that may help you create and run your own course. For instance, a course on marketing could help you sell the course, or a seminar on instructional design could give you insights into how to better organize your material. You could even take a course in your own field as part of your competitor research.

Either way, you benefit twice: you learn a new subject, and you gain experience with online education systems while you’re at it.

Taking an online course isn’t necessary—but it may be more efficient.

You can, of course, learn a lot about online education without ever taking a course yourself. But most of us are hardwired to learn by doing, and it may be easier for you to get the feel of an online educational environment simply by taking an online, course, rather than trying to read about it.

Author

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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