This is the first in a series of blog posts about my experiences of what makes up a successful online course.
This set of ingredients is based on what has worked brilliantly in short online courses I have been involved with over the years. The model we have used at The National College is a very specific blend – I’m not saying that online courses will definitely be unsuccessful if they do not feature all the following ingredients but I have seen this concoction working time after time.
For our audience, we must be getting something right.
I’ll expand on each of these ingredients in future posts but for now here’s a brief overview:
Successful online course shopping list:
1. A group of participants
Obvious? Well, the power of the style of learning we use in our short online courses comes from the interaction of the group – their discussions, their professional challenge, their support and their sharing. It’s a social constructivist approach, if you are interested in the theory.
2. An expert facilitator
In certain circumstances online groups can be self-facilitating but in our model the learning is supported, guided, promoted and enriched by a subject matter expert who is also an expert in online group facilitation. This is a complex and difficult role, requiring high level skills. It combines the best of face-to-face facilitator practice with the unique challenges of promoting coherence and, therefore, learning in an online group.
3. Tasks and products
Of course, an online course needs a structure – a design for learning. The vast majority of our short online courses have been designed by subject matter experts who are also expert online facilitators. In most cases, these designers also facilitate the first iterations of the course. The design of the courses has evolved over the years and we have tried variations but at the core, quite simply, are tasks for the group to complete (online and offline, in groups, individually and in pairs) and products which the participants create.
4. An appropriate online learning environment
The most willing group of participants and the greatest facilitator in the world cannot be successful without an online environment which has the right tools to support the unique learning blend in short, online courses. At the National College, we ended up designing our own functionality which was added to our bespoke professional networking platform to enable the delivery of the courses. However, simple (and free) tools can be used to replicate the experience. I have experimented with the open source BuddyPress plug-in for WordPress and have managed to create an environment which is close to the National College’s platform.
5. A reflective blog
Our facilitators tell us that some of the most important, deep learning in short online courses comes from the participants’ own reflections and when their peers/facilitators discuss these reflections with them. Reflection is a skill and it’s not enough just to assume everyone knows how to reflect but it is a very powerful learning tool, if the correct scaffolding is provided. The ability to keep these reflections together in a single, personal blog space or to make collections of them to use for reference or as learning evidence is also key.
6. Group discussion
This is one of the core activities of the online course. Sharing of experiences and reactions to resources and tasks must be actively and expertly facilitated in order to develop new knowledge, challenge assumptions and create connections. The skill of the facilitator will enable discussions to be threaded, summarised and weaved to enrich the experience for all participants.
7. Buddy pairs
Some courses use the technique of organising participants into buddy pairs so that they can provide support and challenge to each other as they undertake tasks. Working for the mutual benefit of the pair is another powerful feature of a short online course.
8. Web conferencing
Since the National College started using web conferencing over six years ago, meeting in a live, virtual space has been an essential element of online short courses. In careful combination with email, discussions, phone calls and any other appropriate forms of contact, facilitators use web conferences to form and bind the group together.
9. Knowledge management and curation
Too often ignored in online courses, the participants and the facilitator have a joint responsibility to store knowledge for later reference and sharing. The blogging system which is built into our learning platform allows users to keep all their reflections and products in one place. They can then make collections of posts as pdf documents to use as evidence for qualifications or just personal records and reminders of their thinking and learning from the course. Facilitators need to be creative in how they keep, organise and share the collective products of the course. Even if this is just a dropbox of products, group access can and should be retained for future use.
Our online short courses have never been directly accredited apart from a certificate of completion. This is because they have generally been part of larger qualifications or small, stand-alone units. We are now actively investigating how Mozilla’s Open Badges could be used to accredit our courses. Still in its infancy, many organisations are becoming aware of and interested in the concept of awarding the portable, virtual badges. Eventually, we would like to integrate Open Badges with our member profiles to enable course participants to have a lasting record of their achievement.
11. A podcast
OK, this is a bit of a mischievous final entry to the list. However, imagine if you, as facilitator, could keep all course participants up-to-date with audio messages which are automatically downloaded to their mobile devices? Now that’s what I call a motivational tool.
So that’s what we do.
- How many of these ingredients are in your mix?
- How many of these do you think are unnecessary?
- What should we start doing?
I’d love to hear your views.
Creative Commons image credit: *clairity*