Tips for developing online courses

  • Keep it focused. Learner hours are computed based on time spent by a learner, including media, discussions, readings, assessments and activities[1]. Learner persistence appears to be better when completion can be achieved in discrete chunks.  

                      Short Course:       1-2 sections totaling 5-10 learner hours.

                      Standard Course:  4-8 sections, totaling up to 40 learner hours.

  • First impressions matter. Learners make swift decisions about a course early and are quick to walk away if a course looks uninteresting. Make that first experience a good one, with exciting material or presentation format!
  • Clarify the intended audience early. Understanding your intended audience will allow you to hone your pedagogical approach. Additionally, clarify to the audience that they are who we want to take this course in all relevant course materials.
  • Incorporate inductive learning. To encourage deep learning, prompt learners to reflect on their own experiences or interact with some new information to identify patterns and generate an understanding of underlying principle(s) or concept(s).
  • Keep the learner perspective in mind. All course materials should be learner-centered and contribute directly to the pedagogy of the course. For each piece of content, consider: how will a learner use this video (or assessment, activity, etc.)? Will this video (or assessment, activity, etc.) effectively engage a learner in my intended audience?
  • Set expectations early. Supporting documentation such as the syllabus and intro sections should state goals or exit level outcomes and provide a compelling short description. Clearly communicate prerequisites, amount of effort, level of participation, timelines, and deadlines. 
  • Keep it short. Pedagogical segments ideally do not exceed six minutes. Research supports learners have limited attention spans; the mind starts to wander after just a few minutes. Media and activities (including text, videos, assessments, and interactive elements) should be discreetly segmented and frequently varied; i.e. long text segments or videos should be broken into “chunks” with an interspersed activity/assessment wherever possible. Similarly, longer assessments should be scaffolded with earlier activities, building to a capstone. 
  • Keep it compelling: encourage a conversational delivery style. The use of a conversational, enthusiastic style when delivering content, both via video and in text, can promote learner engagement by creating a social connection to the course staff and instructors.
  • Always ask: is there a better way to tell this story? Direct-to-camera video can be an engaging instructional format, but from the learner perspective, this is an inherently passive encounter. Consider text-based instruction instead of video to allow learners to return easily to key content. Link out to, or adapt, existing content that provides background information instead of reproducing it in a lecture format. 
  • Get to the point (weed out extra information where possible). Look to reduce the cognitive load on a learner by eliminating non-essential information, such as extra content, unnecessary imagery, music, or non-essential content that may be confusing or require extra mental effort. Limit contextual information or preambles to the minimum necessary for pedagogical precision. Graphics and text on screen should accompany video instruction and highlight key points. Passages of important instructional text should be indicated typographically (bolding, italicizing, set off in a summary box, etc.). Key information in assessment explanations should likewise be typographically indicated.
  • Present important information using multiple media types wherever possible. Key information should be indicated to the learner in a variety of compelling formats. Where possible, utilize the principles of universal design for learning and provide multiple ways to learn and reinforce learning.
  • Highlight “Learning Objectives” or “Guiding Questions” to help learners focus on what’s important. This practice helps focus the learner’s attention to a specific set of concepts or elements and reinforces the learning objectives. Research suggests this approach helps learners focus their attention and reduces student distraction by unnecessary information that may confuse the learning goals, resulting in improved retention and subsequent performance on assessments. 
  • Make the assessments great! Promote active learning — include assessment questions or interactive activities after key segments. Assessments should be clear and relate directly to key material. Take the time to develop full answers, use hints, and incorporate explanations and demonstrations (where appropriate) as a default. For courses with summative assessments, research suggests that practice tests are valued by learners and results in higher rates of persistence. 
  • Reinforce knowledge. Build the course in ways to reinforce learning objectivesWhere courses rely on a growing body of knowledge or skills, provide multiple opportunities to review and solidify. Where it makes sense, include reference to the location of the course material where the answer may be found.
  • Provide opportunities for social learning. Where appropriate, incorporate opportunities for learners to meet and learn from each other via the Moodle platform or other discussion tools such as WhatsApp groups. Keep in mind, some courses may initially run with facilitation, but will ultimately become available to learners as self-paced material. Design your course so that all the critical elements, including social learning, can also work in self-paced mode.
  • Extra Credit. Build a review infographic or video, supplemental interview, or other resource that goes a step beyond the core content to provide added value to learners.

[1]  Learner hours do not mean just number of hours of videos watched but total time overall. Video hours should be substantially lower than learner hours, with a recommendation of 3-6 hours total video for a standard full course.