Once upon a time, Apple referred a fruit we eat, and Amazon referred to the jungles of South America. Nowadays, we know Apple and Amazon as large tech companies associated more with the digital world than the natural one. Times certainly have changed.
Likewise, learning is also undergoing a transformation, with online and workplace learning supplementing classroom training. I remember beginning my journey into the world of creating online courses more than 6 years ago. My team and I started with Udemy and other online platforms. It was an enriching self-discovery process. What has worked for me and my team was that in Udemy, I had a global platform that allowed me to purchase courses at an affordable price as well as create courses for the global audience. Still, there are lots of lessons that we picked up over the past 6 years. Let me list a few of them.
Do Your Learners Need to Complete the Online Course?
I have learnt ironically that people don’t realise that similar benchmarks when used to measure different outputs can lead to results which are biased and non-meaningful. Let me explain. For example, the issue of how many learners actually complete the course often crops up when determining how effective a course is. Administrators cite the completion rates of classroom training (bet 90% to 100%) as the gold standard of learning. To what extent the learner ‘drifts’ and gets into a ‘screen saver’ mode without paying attention is anyone’s guess. Are we certain that no learners in class answer emails or do their own work during training? Do all pay attention to the trainer all the time? If not, then why do we exert the same measure to online courses? In any course, classroom or online, it is expected that learners would already have some competency in that subject. It could be anything from 20% to 50%.
With classroom training, learners have no choice but to sit through the segments they already know. However, with online learning, learners have the option to skip segments they are familiar with. They are empowered to deep dive into segments that they need to know for work or other purposes. That puts learners in the driver’s seat which makes learning much more meaningful and empowering. Sitting through a classroom training session of which you already know 50% isn’t quite as fun although it does give the 100% completion rate. Ironically, if your learners actually complete 100% of your course, you should be alarmed because that should not happen for all your learners. Your learners should know about 10% to 20% of your course and they should be skipping certain parts which they already know. They should not be mindlessly consuming content. If they are not familiar with the topic at all, that means the course is too difficult for them.
Do We Read the Dictionary from Cover to Cover?
Many of us will laugh at this question but that’s precisely what we are asking when we measure online course completion rate. With online courses, there is also the notion that online courses are more of a reference book whereby you learn what you need to learn at that point in time before getting into the other segments later on if you need to. Many of us can testify that half of what we learned in class are often forgotten within a few days after the training. We only remember the segments which we need to apply to our work. Yes, we are competent to perform the tasks during the assessment but do we remember sufficiently to apply to our work 3 months or 6 months after the classroom training? Online courses (if they are asynchronous) have the effect of allowing learners the opportunity to deep dive into areas they need to later on. The just-in-time learning makes learning more effective and satisfying.
The Assumption that Content is king
Content is everywhere — just Google it. It is likely you can find multiple sources of information on most of the topics you search. How the content is packaged, whether it is in a manner suitable for assimilation is often the issue. Does the curriculum design make the learning effective? Does the online course match the learner’s ability and interest? Most subject matter experts (SMEs) think the world of their expertise. Rightly so, they may be experts in their own right but the knowledge that they possess has a very short lifespan given the new discoveries and innovations coming up all the time. SMEs need to step down from the pedestal they are on and get down to working through their content to make the knowledge accessible to the learners.
Worries about competitors stealing knowledge in most cases are unwarranted. Chances are, up to 70% of knowledge is already public information, and knowledge that is secret or confidential should not be presented online anyway. If an SME is overly possessive about their knowledge, it may lead to them being too conservative and careful. Inevitably, it will do them a disservice when showcasing his ‘limited’ expertise.
The Voice Swings Votes
Interestingly, most learners do not admit it but they like to look at good-looking people so between a pleasant-looking and an ugly-looking one, most will choose the good looker. Life is unfair, but that is how it goes. Likewise, for online courses that utilise a ‘talking head’, whether the presenter is pleasing to the eye is important. Most people know this already. However, not many people are aware that what is more critical is the quality of the voice of the presenter. If the good-looking person speaks with a strong accent or drones on and on, the learner will strain to listen to the presenter and this is a total turn-off for most learners, regardless of the good looks. A pleasant voice coupled with good animation, stock videos and images can often make or break a course. It tips the votes for the learners when choosing a course.
While many SMEs are possessive of their content and want to present the information themselves, it may be wise to get a professional voice-over talent as a co-presenter to do the heavy lifting. The SME can pitch in for the critical segments, for example, when sharing personal experiences or deep insights. The baseline content can be presented by the professional voice-over artiste. This makes for a much more pleasant experience for the learners.
Animation — Make It Playful and Meaningful
Based on our experience over the past 5 years, it is worthwhile to get the animation right. In fact, it is likely to be our winning factor in many of the online courses that we have created. Our secret sauce besides the pedagogical expertise that we bring to the table is likely the animation expertise that we have. We have hundreds of templates that we have produced. Most are customised to specific content with colours tailored to a certain corporate look and feel. This makes for a much more enjoyable learning experience, especially if you can blend colours with meaning to make the animation playful and fun. You can see some of the templates we have created below.
Contextualisation Builds Resonance and Application
Finally, I have emphasised that content, when contextualised to the learner’s needs, or based on organisational and cultural characteristics, can help learners resonate with the content, leading to effective application of learning. Resonance is when the learners see themselves in the course whether in the drama videos or the stories shared by the presenter. Application is when the learners feel a connection between what they have learned with the context they are in. Once that connection is established, learners naturally want to try out if the content works. Generally, online courses are not contextualised to cultural characteristics or specific learner’s needs given that these courses are global facing. They tend to be built based on the content characteristics (e.g. procedural for coding and other ‘how to’ courses). This may not be a bad thing as it warrants the role of the local trainer to contextualise the online global courses to meet local needs. It also means that there are jobs for local e-designers to create courses for staff in enterprises in their own countries.
There is no substitute for actually getting into the development of your own online course. As the local strategic partner to Udemy in Singapore, these lessons were learned, some painfully, most in a meaningful and enlightening manner. We are happy to share these lessons today. There are more lessons but if we bear in mind these key considerations, we are in a good spot to rethink our assumptions and professional beliefs and hopefully, escape some of the potholes that we found ourselves in once in a while. Have fun!
Dr Michael Choy is CEO ofTech Tree, Singapore. He runs an Online Course Design and Development company.