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What Makes a Good Online Course?

The Top 10 Traits

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Let’s face it: there are a lot of low-quality, low-learning, boring online classes out there. But, there are also some spectacular online courses that engage students and help them learn in ways that aren’t always possible in a traditional classroom. Most of these top-notch online classes tend to share some traits in common:

1. Natural Learning Content

Serious students Two student boys studying...
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Reading a generic textbook and answering fill-in-the-blank questions isn’t a natural way to learn, and good online classes stay away from such formulaic materials. Instead, they try to engage students with content that is a natural fit for learning about the topic. Here’s a smart test for determining if content is worthwhile: would a self-directed learner interested in finding out more about the topic want to use that book / website / video if he or she knew about it? Would the content be something an expert in the subject would recommend to an interested stranger at a dinner party if asked? If so, it’s probably the kind of content good online classes always include.

2. Student-Friendly Pacing

Good online classes know how to pace the assignments so that students are neither bored nor overloaded on any given week. These courses are specifically designed so that plenty of time is allotted for working on major projects and that minor assignments keep students engaged in the meantime.

3. Sense of Community

The best online classes are created with community in mind. Students are welcomed into the course and feel free to interact with the instructor and their peers in a friendly atmosphere. There are several ways that community can be created in online classes. Some include off-topic discussion boards where students talk about everything from last week’s football game to their favorite recipes. Others encourage students to post real pictures as their avatar graphics or require students to complete group assignments. Strong communities help students feel comfortable taking risks and asking for help.

4. Smart Use of Multimedia

No one wants to scroll through hundreds of pages of text documents – that’s simply not how we’re used to experiencing the web. 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 (watching a home video of a professor adlibbing dryly about a topic is certainly worse than just reading the content as a very long text document).

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. 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 to construct meaning on their own.

6. Ease of Navigation

What makes sense to the original course creator often doesn’t make sense to students that are trying to navigate through an online course. 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.

7. Additional Roads of Exploration

Sometimes, overloading a course with too many “extras” can be confusing to students. But, it’s still helpful to give students ways to learn more outside of the prescribed curriculum if they choose to do so. Good online courses provide supplemental ways for students to keep learning, but differentiate that from the core content so that students aren’t overwhelmed.

8. Appeals to All Learning Styles

Not everyone learns the same way. Good course make sure to appeal to visual, kinesthetic, and other learning styles by providing a variety of multimedia content and carefully designed assignments that help students learn in the way that works best for them.

9. Technology That Works

It’s sometimes tempting to overload a course with flashy tech elements or have students sign up for dozens of outside services. But, good online classes avoid this temptation. Instead, good courses include carefully-selected technologies that are reliable and fully supported. This helps students avoid the panic that comes from encountering a required program that just won’t run or a video that just won’t load.

10. The Element of Surprise

Finally, good online classes usually tend to have something extra that gives them that additional "oomph." It’s clear that designers of the best courses think outside the box. They avoid giving the students the same bland experiences week after week and surprise them with real opportunities to develop their thinking and grow as a learner. There’s no formulaic way to do this – it’s the effort of designers thinking about what works and carefully crafting content that makes learning meaningful.

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