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Mastering the Art of Online Education

What does it take to develop an engaging online course?

The program at the American Distance Education Consortium 2016 EdFuture Conference, held at the University of California, Los Angeles in September, revolved around the challenges of online education—from the opening keynote presentation, “The Increasing Importance of Knowing How to Learn—On-Line and Off-Line,” to the closing keynote, “Re-Setting the Fulcrum — Access, Personalization, and Success in the Age of Educational Technology.” 

That’s because while online education has exploded — according to some estimates, the e-learning industry has grown 900 percent since 2000 — there’s still much to learn about the best ways to connect with and teach an online audience. Organizations recognize that online education is an effective way to increase their reach and engage new audiences — and that there’s an art and a science to virtual education.

Some organizations and companies specializing in this space have mastered art and science, creating courses with thousands of participants. One such organization is edX, which was founded in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT, and offers about 1,300 online courses, most of them free and open to learners around the world. To do this, edX partners with universities and institutions, and hosts the courses and their content.

While individual institutions create their courses in consultation with edX, Nina Huntemann, Ph.D., edX’s director of academics and research, said the organization has learned a lot about what strategies and designs are successful. Huntemann spoke with Convene about best practices.

What is the first thing to do when thinking about creating an online course?

You have to determine the audience. Who is the learner, and who do you imagine this course and this experience is for? When you deliver education at scale, to what might be an incredibly broad audience, participants may be geographically, gender, and language diverse.

How will the anticipated audience influence how to go forward?

If it’s a more introductory class, you might cover a broad number of topics and set in place how much content will be available per module. You need to determine how much information is digestible by the learner in a set amount of time. Also, what type of structure will you use? How will you combine video, assessment, and open response, for example? If you’re doing a deep dive,
you might provide more difficult content and rigorous assessments with simulations or open responses. 

Nina Huntemann: ‘The concept of  interleaving is  really important.’
Nina Huntemann: ‘The concept of interleaving is really important.’

What’s an effective strategy to make sure online learners are absorbing the information? 

The concept of interleaving is really important. At its most basic level, that means delivering a video talking-head style, and then providing an opportunity for the student to check their knowledge. A video introducing a new concept should be followed by the opportunity to do something with that knowledge, like a short multiple-choice quiz, or going to a discussion forum to talk about what was covered, or taking part in a simulation. The most important thing is that you stop the delivery of material to allow the learner to practice and check their knowledge before they move on.

How much information should a course present at once?

A really common error is that people often try to replicate the traditional lecture, but online. Instead, at edX we have people storyboard out the material, think about how it fits together, in what order, and how to present information, with natural transitions and opportunities to practice that knowledge built in. We encourage shorter videos, for example, because it’s easier to consume bite-sized bits of knowledge — not just because of time and flexibility — but also because of how much you can really learn at one time. Using smaller-size content and the interleaving method leads to greater retention.

How critical is the manner in which students communicate with instructors and fellow students?

It’s incredibly important. There are often discussion forums, and we encourage our teams to set up “seeding” conversations to open up a thread with a directed question or prompt. It helps with the basic structure and organizing of conversations. We like to see instructors participating in forums as much as they can, but we’ve also seen a lot of success with “community T.A.s” [teaching assistants] chosen by the instructor, who can help answer questions and participate in the discus-sion to boost student engagement.

What are some best practices around this?

Communicate with learners on a regular schedule in a structured way. This could be a weekly email, or responding to a lot of discussion questions at once with a video. It makes learners feel heard, and these videos can be archived for the next round.

Most of edX’s 1,300 online courses are offered free.
Most of edX’s 1,300 online courses are offered free.

Are there other methods to retain students through a course?

The edX platform shows students how they’re doing at every moment in the course, using a progress bar. We show them how many questions they’ve answered, their current completion, the grades they have. Unfortunately, we’ve seen plenty of instructors who collect papers and don’t get them back [to students] for weeks on end. It’s very demotivating and makes students feel like the professor doesn’t care. This platform provides automatic ways for students to know instantly how they did and where they stand in the course.

Does student engagement help with retention also?

Yes. Students are engaged for a myriad of reasons, and we want to tap into as many as possible. Some will engage with a provocative video, or an ethical dilemma to be considered, or interesting problems without an obvious answer. Presenting material in an open-ended way allows them to discuss and participate. 

Michelle R. Davis

Contributing Editor Michelle R. Davis is a writer and editor based in Silver Spring, Maryland.