6 keys to a good online course

Here’s a hint: It’s not really about the technology

good-online-courseOnline learning is about changing the delivery of instruction, but if it’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that good teaching, just like in the traditional classroom, makes or breaks the course. But what are the other characteristics of a good online course?

“In the current frenzy around online education and MOOCs, we spend a lot of time focused on the science of what technology can enable — and less on the art about what may actually make an online course good,” writes PandoDaily.

Surprisingly, recent studies on MOOCs from Duke University, as well as many current articles on the topic of ‘what makes a good online course’ from both educators and students, all agree that the actual technology platform, or the recording technology used, has very little to do with an online course’s success.

Instead, common factors like ‘good teaching,’ and ‘good organization,’ often used as keys to a good traditional course, are still the characteristics of a good online course. However, these keys are adapted for an online environment.

For example, good organization not only includes the natural order of topics covered, but for online courses includes ease-of-use for navigation and technology accessibility.

‘Good teaching’ for online courses isn’t just about making the topic engaging and digestible to students, it’s also about providing a sense of ‘relatability’ and community.

In this story you’ll discover a concise list of the six keys that characterize a good online course, synthesized from some of the most-shared articles on the topic, as well as recent Duke studies on what makes a ‘good’ MOOC.

What do you think are the keys to a good online course? Do you think students also play a large role in making the course as successful as possible? Be sure to leave your comments in the section provided below the story, email me at, or find me @eSN_Meris on Twitter.

(Next page: Keys to a good online course, 1-3)

[In no particular order]

1. The subject is career skills-oriented.

In a major boon for Duke University and their online offerings, their course, “Data Analysis and Statistical Inference,” hosted by Coursera, was its most popular MOOC to-date, with over 85,000 students in the class from around the world.

To better understand what made this course so popular, Duke conducted a survey of its students, with one of the questions asking: “Why are you taking the course?”

Perhaps a no-brainer, but something important to keep in mind, is that students overwhelmingly took the course “because it teaches useful skills.” The second most common reason for enrolling is related, says Duke, since students also took the course to “expect to learn a skill relevant to their academic field.”

Learn more about Duke’s survey here.

2. It’s organized by learning objectives.

Another factor Duke credits for the MOOC’s success was in the delivery of learning objectives. The course had seven units, organized by learning objectives, and students are given very clear instructions on what they are expected to be able to do at the end of each unit.

Another way of putting this? Know what your course aims to teach and let your students know your vision.

3. There’s access to a variety of different materials.

Duke’s survey also noted this characteristic, but multiple sources from major universities, as well as students, have said that access to different multimedia and traditional materials is one of the major benefits to taking an online course.

However, multimedia doesn’t just mean a video lecture. In a separate study using data from a variety of MOOCs offered by Duke, the University found that when instructors offered innovative ways using different mediums to relay the course objectives, “watch lectures” is not significant—meaning students didn’t want, or need, lectures to complete the course.

“We believe this suggests that content can be effectively delivered in MOOCs in ways other than only through video lectures.”

Learn more about the study here.

It’s also important to remember that there is a balance between offering enough engaging material and overwhelming students with options.

“Sometimes, overloading a course with too many ‘extras’ can be confusing to students…Good online courses enhance learning by including videos, interactive activities, podcasts, and other multimedia elements. To make multimedia use successful, these elements must always have a solid purpose and must be done in a professional way,” explains Jamie Littlefield, a distance education expert who specializes in writing about alternative education.

(Next page: Keys to a good online course, 4-6)

4. Make it personal.

A significant plus to teaching online is the ability to create community through online forums and through personal touches to videos.

“Whether a course is offered by grass root organizers or by big concerns like Coursera; or by major universities like Duke, Michigan, Maryland or Georgia Tech, connection is the key,” writes education blogger Nan Zingrone, who has taken multiple online courses.

In an informal student survey offered by Duke, students who completed the University’s online courses said being able to not only participate in, but watch recorded, Google Hangouts on Air enhanced their learning.

And Duke’s other survey of their most popular MOOC found a “significant relationship between forum activity and completion,” especially when a course, like Genetics, was found to be “difficult.”

A sense of community can also come through with what Zingrone describes as a professor’s personal touches:

“It was the intimacy of the…broadcasts that kept me coming back for more…There’s nothing like getting a glimpse of the profs’ working environments, with clocks, calendars, pictures on the walls, coffee cups, and even pets…This glimpse of home and office, combined with the close face in the camera and the doodling on the slides, made the courses more sticky, more inviting, more likely to be the first ones I hit in the morning.”

5. Self-directed assignments.

“As much as possible, good online classes provide the opportunity for students to make up their own minds and take responsibility for their own learning,” writes Littlefield. “Some of the best courses allow students to create their own projects or focus on an element of the topic that they particularly enjoy. These courses try to avoid being overly scripted and instead give adult learners [the freedom] to construct meaning on their own.”

6. Style, baby, style.

One key to making a good online course that most traditional courses don’t have to consider is style, which includes everything from the title of the course to ease of navigation.

“Would you buy a course with a title like ‘Learn HTML’ or ‘Dissecting the Philosophical Parallels of Schopenhauer and Nietszsche? Probably not,” explains online course provider Udemy. According to Udemy, titles should be three things: short, descriptive and punchy.

Another consideration for style is in ease of navigation, since “what makes sense to the original course creator often doesn’t make sense to students that are trying to navigate through an online course” explains Littlefield. “Good courses are usually reviewed by several outside parties to ensure that students can easily find what they need and work through the course without unnecessary confusion.”

Finally, the accessibility of the course via personal technology is extremely important, as Zingrone notes: “Georgia Tech and Duke were committed to high production values in the recorded lectures and other materials that were presented on screen. In fact [one] wonderful course was so high quality, my aging Gateway laptop faltered under the strain. I had to give up before the course finished…”

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