What makes courses great, and what makes them fail?
Information for first-time online instructors is ubiquitous. Every learning platform publishes articles, and many course creators post information based on their own experiences. Although these articles are often great, their perspective is often a little one-sided. Again and again, the focus is on:
- Building mailing lists
- Course marketing
- Selling courses
The importance of these topics is not in question – after all, there’s no point in creating courses that don’t find an audience. However, the best basis to successfully marketing and selling an online course is a GREAT online course – and yet, there is surprisingly little information available on how to actually build great courses.
A great course needs to facilitate knowledge transfer, make it easy for the learner to acquire new knowledge, avoid distraction and attempt to cater to the needs of learners. But how do we actually accomplish that? Which building blocks make a course great, and what must be avoided?
Let me warn you: This is a very complex topic, and there is no simple recipe for success. However, you can approach the topic in a systematic way and improve your online course quality by adding a number of proven success factors and eliminating distracting factors.
In order to give you a head start, I’m throwing in a FREE bonus template at the end of the article. Don’t miss out!
Why Should You Care About Course Quality?
Let’s imagine your focus is only on marketing and sales. Your course production is streamlined to push out content as quickly as possible, but you neglect the quality of your course content. Here’s what will happen:
- You will probably make sales (yay!).
- Learners will start to take your course, but most won’t complete it.
- Since they didn’t finish your course, they won’t undergo a transformation. They will be unhappy with the time and money spent. They’ll leave negative reviews and ugly terms like “click bait” and “scam” may be used. They won’t recommend your courses to their friends as a result.
- They will never buy from you again.
- Depending on your visibility, a negative reputation will have a significant impact on future sales.
Now this sounds very negative and you may be tempted to claim that, surely, most course creators want to create good quality courses. I’d even tend to agree with you. However, bad quality doesn’t need to be the result of intentionally taking shortcuts – it may just as well be the result of not giving enough conscious thought to quality during course creation. If you’re not aware of quality issues, simply because you’ve never actively checked your course against a set of quality criteria, learner’s progress will still be affected.
Let’s not forget that online courses, in the end, are about teaching and knowledge transfer. Course marketing, as relevant as it is, is merely a necessary tool, not the goal. The goal is successfully teaching people, and this is where your priorities need to be. A high quality course is a digital asset, and sales, positive reviews and a good reputation will automatically follow.
If you focus on course quality, here’s the logical result:
- You will make at least the same sales initially.
- Learners will take your courses and complete them.
- Learners will leave good reviews, thus helping future sales.
- Learners will be happy with your course, and they may recommend courses to friends and family.
- If you publish another course, your learners may buy from you again (and share your announcement with their social media contacts).
- You will build a reputation as a trustworthy authority, thus helping future sales.
How to Measure Online Course Quality
There is no generally accepted definition or measure for online course quality, but we can borrow many ideas and learn from research that has already been done in the academic world. Systematic evaluation tools (called “rubrics”) have been developed for academic (online) courses that provide a useful starting point.
What these classification and evaluation systems have in common, is their very serious, scientific (and a little theoretic) research approach. This makes them somewhat hard to digest and apply. Their focus is on university courses which means the target environment is quite different from online courses. For these reasons I wouldn’t recommend applying them directly to your online course.
The 5 Buckets of Online Course Quality
In this article, I’ll outline a more lightweight, hands-on approach, suitable for online instructors.
For ease-of-use, I’ve chosen to group quality aspects into the following five buckets:
- The Right Set-Up
- Technical Quality
- Content Quality
- Presentation Quality
We start with criteria that are relatively easy to ensure and evaluate (set-up, technical quality). Content quality and presentation quality are harder to get right and you could spend ages racking your brain about didactics. Since you don’t have an endless amount of time, we’ll stick to simple recommendations.
Bucket 1: The Right Set-Up
Confused learners don’t learn well. Your sales-copy, your course description and your introductory lesson are all part of the course introduction. The goal of your course introduction is, put simply, to avoid any kind of confusion.
Introduce yourself, provide contact information and explain how to receive support in case of problems.
Tell your students what level of prerequisite knowledge is required, and what they’re about to learn. Learning objectives are a tool for communicating your course content, setting up the right expectations, keeping track of your progress during course creation, and evaluating your course content (and test questions) against. Never skip defining learning objectives! Writing them well is a topic in its own right and Paula provides some great tips concerning learning objectives in this article. You may also consider defining non-goals to further clarify course content and avoid wrong expectations.
Students need to know what kind of time commitment is required to successfully follow your course. Give them a learning time estimate. You will never get this 100% right, but if a student expects to learn your content within 3 hours when it’ll actually take them 2 weeks, they’ll become frustrated very soon. Give them a rough idea.
If you’re planning social elements, group work and interaction among your students, lay out the rules and expected behaviour.
Last, but not least, explain how your course works. Which course objects are you going to use? Are there going to be video lessons? PDFs? Downloads? Are software tools required and where can learners download those? How do the course elements work? Will there be exercises? How will those be graded and how can students upload the results? Is there a way to provide feedback?
You don’t want students starting to ask these questions during the course, as this will distract them from actually learning. Give them all the information right from the start!
Criteria from this bucket can be evaluated using simple checklists, and quality checks could be outsourced.
Bucket 2: Technical Quality
When you’re evaluating the technical quality of your course, you want to find anything that could trip up the learner in terms of technology. Technology should be a vehicle for improving learning, not for deterring from it. Your goal is to make sure your learners don’t notice the technology behind your course.
Start with simple checks:
- Do all my hyperlinks work?
- Do all my videos play on major browsers?
- Do all next/previous buttons work and actually lead to the next/previous pages?
- Do my classes display correctly on a variety of devices and screen sizes (and not just the one you used for development)?
You can then go more in-depth and check various quality aspects:
- Is your sound quality good (no echoes, …)?
- Are images displayed at a high enough resolution?
- Is video quality OK or do you need to tweak your encoding settings?
Technical quality is relatively easy to check as well. You may consider outsourcing this, as long as you provide clear instructions and checklists.
Bucket 3: Content Quality
A simple starting point for content quality checks is language. Spelling mistakes, less-than-ideal sentence structure and bad grammar not only make it difficult for learners to understand, they also convey a lack of quality that will have a very negative impact on your course’s perception and your reputation. Start by running your course content through a spellchecker. Proofreading services are available online, and even if you don’t want to invest into these, at least get a friend to read and correct your content.
Another obvious check concerns subject matter correctness. Incorrect information in courses can have a significant impact on your course’s perception. One major mistake may lead to learners questioning and distrusting the entire course. If possible, get a colleague from your field to do a peer-review.
Try to present relevant information. Resist the temptation to increase the size of your course with clutter. Clutter distracts from learning objectives. Along similar lines, exercises need to be clearly relevant for a specific learning objective. Random exercises are seen as a nuisance.
Quizzes and tests are quite hard to get right. As a starting point, only ask questions related to learning objectives and make your grading transparent. Do not ask trick questions. Make sure you avoid ambiguous wording and use simple language in test questions. Double check that all questions have been answered in your module before publishing. In other words, ensure that your quizzes are fair and relevant.
In order to ensure you’re getting content quality right, incorporate feedback mechanisms into your course. Your learners should be able to tell you about their perception of the course on a regular basis. Feedback at the end of a course is good, but lesson-level feedback allows you to weed out weak classes and bring up the overall course quality. This topic is rather complex, but you’ll find a complete description and actionable steps here.
Bucket 4: Presentation Quality and Usability
When marketing a course, most online instructors are aware of the importance of presenting their course package in an appealing way. Nice graphics, 3D box images and well written copy are part of convincing learners to buy.
In a similar way, presentation of course content is important for convincing learners’ brains to retain information. Visual clarity, consistent use of icons and other graphical elements, aesthetic design and a simple, easy-to-understand navigational concept go a long way in making it easy for learners to absorb information.
Try to use a simple course structure. The more layers and intersections you provide, the harder it will be for a learner to build a mental model and find their way around.
Usability is a term often used for discussing how self-explanatory a system is. In the context of online courses, we might use it to describe how quickly a user can start learning instead of reading instructions. If little explanation is required before a learner can start learning, chances are that your course’s usability is good.
The criteria in this bucket, unfortunately, are not something you can check for and easily correct after completing your course creation. You need to spend some thought on these aspects before and during course creation, come up with a concept, and consistently apply this concept to all your course modules.
Bucket 5: Didactics
The most challenging bucket of all, didactics (“the science of teaching”) deals with how to build a course so that learners have the easiest time possible retaining the information you’re trying to teach.
While you can check for technology errors and spelling mistakes after course creation, you absolutely need to consider didactics from the start. A simple check before publishing cannot suffice.
Let me start with your number one priority in course creation: Avoid passive consumption of content!
Passive consumption leads to low learning retention (around 20%), and thus, a lot of wasted time and effort, leading to unsatisfied learners. You don’t want that.
An example of a passive learning experience would be a series of videos where learners sit and “watch TV” for hours. The videos may be well made, with impeccable video and sound quality and good content. However, learning psychology tells us that very little of what you teach will be retained by your audience, unless you complement your videos with other tools:
- Get learners to try out for themselves what they’ve seen after each video lesson
- Incorporate little exercises
- Discuss exercise results in a Facebook group (social learning)
- Have students review each-other’s results
This immediately transforms a passive experience into an active one. Closely related terms for describing such approaches are interactivity and engagement. Interactivity refers to learning content that requires activity on the user’s part, and engagement refers to the user’s contribution to the learning experience. There is a variety of tools for fostering interactivity and engagement, e.g. exercises, games, interactive tools within lessons (hot-spot pictures), etc.
Video-only courses are not only passive, they also only address audio-visual learning. Best learning results are achieved when as many channels as possible are addressed. If you can present the same information in a number of formats, you’ll address various learning types and at the same time incorporate repetition.
Exercises both help to transform passive into active learning content and foster repetition (a key concept in learning retention). Force students to revise, rethink and apply what they’ve learned. Use exercises frequently, but make sure they’re relevant (not random), and don’t take more time than necessary.
Small chunks of (relevant!) learning material are more easily digested than large chapters. You should, especially, avoid very long paragraphs of text-only information. Be concise, not verbose! Simple language and sentence structure help your students. Instead of long, textual descriptions of complicated processes, consider animations and graphical representations. In many cases you’ll be able to add video (e.g. by filming a process in real life or creating a screen-cast of using a software tool) for illustration.
Research agrees that a strong instructor presence, cooperative learning and collaborative learning can make online courses hugely successful. This is an indication that incorporating a social element into your courses can have a huge benefit. An easy solution is a Facebook group for discussing course topics and exercise results.
Progress along the way should be made transparent. Provide multiple opportunities to evaluate what students have learned in the form of self-assessment and exercises. One small quiz at the end of each lesson is a good starting point. This allows students to immediately revise parts of the lesson they haven’t yet fully grasped before a pile of missing content has built up. If you’re using social elements, consider using peer feedback.
Applying Quality Principles
Now that we’ve looked at factors of online course quality, how do you actually go about applying these principles?
I suggest you define a QA process to follow whenever you publish a course. This doesn’t need to be complicated – if you have a checklist for your course creation, incorporate QA steps in this list (and if you don’t, you need to start using one anyhow). From the topics outlined in this article, you’ll be able to deduce which items match your own needs. Meticulously going through your QA checks (either by yourself or by requesting help) before publishing will be time well spent.
Once you’ve created the best course you can, start learning from your learners, collect feedback (remember our discussion from Bucket 3: Content Quality), and improve your course based on what your learners say.
Course quality depends on many factors, but starts with a very simple step: The instructor’s awareness of its importance. Your course quality checks can be simple or exhaustive, you can invest a lot of effort or a bare minimum. Regardless of how far you go, a course which is created with quality in mind will always beat courses that have been created without obeying quality principles. Better learning results, a positive impression of the course, an improved reputation for the instructor and, as a result, more sales are logical effects. What’s not to like?
As promised earlier, there’s a free bonus for you: I’ve created a quality assurance template for your course introduction with more than 5 pages and 20 criteria. You can get it here. Speed up your course production and increase your course quality at the same time!
About the Author
Hundreds of learning modules have passed through his hands, and Gerfried has seen what works and what doesn’t work in online learning. At soloprenaut.com, he provides actionable information to online course creators, transferring his experience from corporate Learning & Development to online instruction while trying to keep it simple. When he’s not working on articles or courses, he’s probably clearing his head by windsurfing or mountain biking. He’s always interested to hear from course creators about their struggles, so don’t be shy, drop him a line.