Everyone wants to learn the same thing from painful situations: how to avoid repeating them. ~Gary Zukav
Outside my window, our roosters are learning to crow. I never realized that they couldn’t crow until they reached a certain age, or that they had to practice.
They began uncertainly. At first I thought they were ill, or choking on a bug. They wobbled between notes. The closest comparison I can think of is that of a nearly dead car battery trying to turn over.
They made me think of the practice sessions I used to attend at The Teaching Company. One day I was watching a professor deliver a lecture for the first time in the studio.
After five minutes, I turned to the team and said, “All the usual things.” Then I left, without another word. But they knew exactly what I meant.
That’s because the challenges for everyone delivering an online course are universal, no matter how knowledgeable they are in their field or how polished they are in live presentation.
Recorded lessons are just a different animal.
The good news is that you’re not alone if your first draft—or even your fifth—of your online course has these same problems. The other good news is that they’re all fixable.
#1. Cursed by a Scholarly Tone
Lecturing pedantically with every big word you can think of, not to mention convoluted sentence structure being made ponderous by a lot of passive syntax, is a common problem, even for subject matter experts who aren’t entrenched in academia; this sentence is an example, although I should probably throw in a few words like “obfuscation” so you’ll know I’m a true sesquipedalian.
Gosh, that was fun to write. But it would be miserable to say on camera, wouldn’t it? Try reading it aloud. Smoothly.
Impossible, right? And yet, many people burden their lessons with sentences just like that one.
Can you imagine being on the receiving end of that sentence, trying to learn something from it? Ouch.
Solution: Talk to us as if we’re having a conversation (albeit, a one-sided one). Use contractions. Shorten your sentences. Use active verbs. Use fewer adjectives and concise wording.
Wait, that’s what Strunk and White say to do. Yes, the masters of pithy language nailed this one.
If you’ve never read The Elements of Style, stop reading this and pop over to amazon or jog to your nearest bookstore to grab a copy. The authors explain everything you need to know about writing concisely and energetically.
#2. Taking Forever to Get to Something Interesting
Background, blah, blah, blah. More background, blah, blah, blah. Set up the course content, blah, blah, blah.
Ten minutes later (although I’ve waited as long as 40 minutes), the teacher gets to the real content. They begin teaching. They get to the nitty gritty. They get engaged themselves, so we get engaged.
Few students want to know all the research that was ever done that led to your choosing this field as a career, or to this being your topic, or to [fill in the blank]. They want to learn something, pronto. Online learners are impatient.
Solution: Give them the goodies right away. Start with something that fills you with awe. Give a tip about how to [fill in the blank] before you say anything else. Jump into the pool with your clothes on.
No, I don’t mean that literally. But it would certainly get our attention. Grab us, quickly let us know where we’re going, and move into what we’re here to learn.
Most people wander into their subject like a snail making its way through the field, across the street, down the hill, across another street, and at last to the public pool. Where it dips its antennae into the water before moving forward again.
That leads us to the third challenge.
#3. Structure Is Out of Whack.
Introduction. Body. Conclusion. How hard can it be?
Surprisingly, many teachers struggle to structure that course so that it has all three sections in proportion. The introduction is the shortest part, matched in length (more or less) by the conclusion. The body is the longest part. Short, long, short.
I’ve watched introductions that took up most of the lesson. I’ve watched the body go on for days and never reach a conclusion. I’ve watched conclusions that ran for half the lesson. I’ve watched many, many variations on this theme. Something out of balance.
If you’re learning a new subject, you need to know where you’re going and why (after an engaging opening gambit, naturally), but then you want to move on.
You want to have some meat on the bones of whatever subject you’re chewing, but you don’t want to chew forever. You want to know what it all adds up to, how it comes together in the end.
You want to wrap things up neatly—perhaps have an ah-ha! moment—but then you want to pack up your things and go. You don’t want the ending to drag on like the 1000th refrain of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
Solution: Highlight each section in different colors, or mark them on a hard copy. Compare them. Balance them.
Is the body the longest part? Are the introduction and conclusion shorter than the body? Are they approximately the same length? Are they longer than the body?
You can also do a word count and compare the sections that way, but I find that seeing the visual divisions is more effective.
If the parts are out of proportion, revise them. Adjust your content so your structure is balanced.
Doing this will clarify your content and give more energy to your delivery as a result. It will make it easier to discern if you’ve taken too long to get to something interesting, or if you’ve rushed out of the lesson without pulling it all together.
I confess that the list of “all the usual things” is longer than just these three items, but conquering these three will have immediate and meaningful impact.
Delivering an online course may be a different beast, but it’s one you can tame. It just takes awareness of the challenges, willingness to revise, and practice.
Before long, you’ll have the confidence of the roosters, now waking everyone at the farm.
And keeping us up all night.
Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).
Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #46 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.”