If you want to create a successful online course, think strategically about handling the biggest hurdles.

Every online educator dreams of creating a course that helps earners fulfill their goals. However, taking a course idea and turning it into a thoughtful, engaging piece of online content can be more difficult than it looks. While the hard work is often worth it, going into the task unprepared can cause many new instructional designers feeling disheartened.

That’s why, before discouragement sets in, when your course idea still fills you with optimism, it’s a good idea to take a hard look at some likely future setbacks and create an action plan for how to tackle them when they arise. Knowing how to approach these problems proactively will keep you from being caught off guard, and will give you the steps you need to push forward without losing momentum.

Here are the top seven challenges instructional designers face when creating a new course.

1. Creating engaging content for learners.

Of course, the first and most complex challenge instructional designers face is creating a course that will appeal to their audiences. This is what the entire instructional design field is based on, after all. (If you don’t know where to start with instructional design, we recommend our blog roundup of some of our top posts from the past few years.)

The key to creating engaging content online is to remember that your learners will need to engage with it in different ways. There needs to be a reason for an online course to be the delivery method for your educational material—instead of a book or a video. Engagement can come through quizzes, community, or gamification (among other things), but that element of interactivity is essential for learners to come back for more content.

2. Accommodating the busy schedules of learners.

Online courses are different from in-person courses in that online courses don’t usually have an assigned time. (This is also known as “synchronous” vs. “asynchronous” learning.) For many learners, not having to show up at a physical location at an assigned time is the primary benefit. It gives them a chance to take courses according to whatever schedule is convenient for them.

But the lack of a schedule can also make it difficult for learners to dedicate the time they need to the course. They may be overly optimistic about what they can do, and may end up struggling to fit in a lesson between other tasks also demanding their attention. Finding ways to keep your content bite-sized will make it easier for learners to fit it in where they can, or binge if they have a solid block available.

3. Overcoming technical challenges among learners.

Many learners are more technologically astute than we might assume. Even older learners are likely to have spent most of their careers on a computer, and may even have been the ones designing it.

But it’s a certainty that almost every online educator will regularly encounter someone who needs technical help, and this can be a real discouragement for many learners.

First and foremost, it’s important not to ever make a learner feel that their lack of computer skills is something to be embarrassed by. Everyone starts from somewhere, and even proficient users can get tripped up by a bad design. Instead, keep track of the difficulties that arise, and work to develop ways to mitigate them, or save explanations to help your learners get used to their new online course structure.

4. Keeping up with emerging instructional tools and technology.

Speaking of new technology, it’s not just learners who sometimes struggle to keep up. Emerging technologies within the e-learning industry itself are likely to become major differentiators, as some courses stick more visibly to a traditional teaching plan, and others venture into experimental waters.

Not ever new technology will be right for your course. You may find you teach perfectly with presentations and quizzes. But knowing what your options are—and being prepared to incorporate them if need be—can help you find ways to innovate. AR goggles might not be the solution you need today, but a new interactive branching scenarios plugin could be the answer to your prayers.

5. Choosing the right e-learning platform.

Of course, the new tools and technology you are able to use will depend a lot on your Learning Management System (LMS). Some LMSs integrate more easily with new technology, while others are locked into a proprietary platform that makes innovation harder (even if it does save you some time working out details on the back end). Whether you choose a hosted or non-hosted LMS can have a big impact on how well you are able to handle some of these challenges in the future.

LMSs also come with many features that you may want to consider using as you design your course. In fact, the earlier you choose your LMS, the more you can build your course around its capabilities, and won’t be caught flat footed if some of them don’t work the way you had hoped.

6. Designing for broad audiences.

Traditional classrooms are often dealing with cohorts of learners that are of a similar age group and background. But an online course will capture so much more than that. That diversity can be a real strength, but it can also make it harder for you to create a course that resonates with all your learners. Use imagery from only one racial background, and you may alienate learners of another ethnicity. Use too much generational slang and you may confuse older learners.

In some cases, it may help to narrow your target demographic. Creating a niche course may mean you don’t get the same range of customers, but it can also meant that you get significantly more from your special subset. In others, you’ll need to find ways to make your course adaptable to different learners so that no one is left out.

7. Supporting learners through the rough spots.

Finally, just as you’ll hit some rough spots when designing the course, your learners will also hit some difficult patches when taking it. Don’t leave them to fight their way through on their own. Instead, be ready with a helping hand in the form of automated check-ins, micro quizzes, and even online office hours where you can schedule a Zoom meeting to see how their doing. A little bit of outreach can keep a student for life.

Thinking ahead can make the biggest problems less daunting.

It isn’t possible to predict everything your learners may need with your course, which is why beta testing and frequent interaction are so important. But knowing what to expect can keep you on the right path when challenges inevitably arise.

Don’t stop with this list, either. Think about the specific needs and concerns of your learners, and be proactive in addressing them. The more you think about your course from the perspective of your students, the stronger your instructional design will be.

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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