What Makes One Online Course Better than Another?

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” ~John Dewey

The world of online courses is peopled with both skeptics and believers, but whichever side you stand on, education has changed as a result. From my vantage point, I have seen some subjects taught dazzlingly well on video, better than they could have been in a classroom. And I have seen some courses that were so miserable and overpriced that calling them educational makes a mockery of the word.

Laptop with online courses   Earlier this week I was talking about this with Michael Kuzmenko, Manager of Academic Partnerships for Higher Education. He commented that “The market is flooded with online courses; it’s difficult to understand what makes one better than the other.” It’s a great point.

What does make one online course better than the other? Is it the teaching? The sheer availability? How well we learn? I have heard the argument that online teaching is weaker, and therefore so is online learning. In this paradigm, it is only availability that makes online courses worthwhile.

And yet, I know many people who have gotten their degrees online and learned effectively that way; people who have taken individual courses for professional knowledge that they definitely profited from; and people who have gleaned fresh insights that they couldn’t have learned otherwise due to that very same availability.

One related question I have often asked myself is this: “What is the difference between an online course and a textbook or e-book on the subject?” Because there should be a difference, and it’s within that distinction that we can also find the answer to the question of what makes one online course better than another.

Looking into the research a bit, I read a great paper (“How Students Learn—and How We Can Help Them”) by John F. Kihlstrom. He draws a clear line between what you can get out of a book v. from a teacher: “There is no more efficient way for students to learn, I think, than from a well-organized course of lectures accompanied by a well-written textbook.”

In other words, you need both, and they are not the same. A good online course, by extension, conveys what a teacher brings to the table. Not just knowledge. Teaching.

Here’s how I unpack the difference. A textbook or e-book is passive knowledge. We read, learn, and absorb without testing or refining that knowledge through interaction, reflection, and feedback from someone more deeply knowledgeable than we are.

I’d argue that the role of the teacher is to help us think both critically and creatively about what we’re learning. To see nuances, contexts, and connections that we cannot see on our own.

It is precisely the opposite of how we learn from a textbook or e-book, in that it moves us from passive learning to active learning, through the help of a teacher to question, test, and refine our knowledge through interaction, reflection, and feedback from someone more deeply knowledgeable than we are. An online course, to be effective, must provide these elements to be more than just a book, and for one course to be better than another.

But what do we, as potential students, look for to know we’re getting those elements?

I asked course production expert John Sacco (Craftsy and The Great Courses), what he thought makes one course better than the other, and what students should look for to tell the difference. Here are his tips:

  1. Look for the passion in the teacher and those behind the scenes creating the course. Look for solid previews or promotional videos, not just course descriptions, which show the teacher in action—and by extension, the production team.
  2. Look at what the teacher and production team does to create a more personal experience for the student—one that would not be possible in a classroom. Are they applying all the tools of their trade to enhance the teachings? For example, the course description and promo should show that:
    1. You’ll be seeing demonstrations better than you could in person—split screens, slow motion as well as normal speed, carefully edited for the best, most comprehensive experience.
    2. Important teaching moments or difficult concepts will be reinforced with text and 3-D graphics.
    3. You’ll have the ability to use integrated platform software to tag video with notes and questions.
  3. Bad courses make you a third party observer from the last row in the classroom. Good courses engage the student and pull them into the subject matter with simple production 101 techniques:
    1. Multiple up-close angles, as well as overhead cameras
    2. Graphics
    3. Great (i.e., clear) sound
    4. Music where appropriate
    5. Great lighting (easy to see demos, nothing in shadow, no harsh light)
    6. Well-paced edits so you feel the course is moving along at a lively clip, but slowing down for difficult points

Production values, as Sacco noted, aren’t just for show. They’re to help teach even though the teacher isn’t in front of you, and to help you learn even though you aren’t in front of the teacher.

You might argue that the #1 thing that makes one online course better than another is not only how closely it mirrors the in-person experience of being taught, but also how it improves upon that experience.

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Want a quick cheat sheet for what to look for in an online course? Click here to download “14 Tips for Assessing an Online Course—Before You Commit.”

Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #38 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” We’ll examine what teachers and students say frustrates them about online courses, as well as solutions they offer to make sure the experience is both engaging and effective.

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course: https://www.marcymcdonald.com/contact.html

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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