What Makes a Good Online Course?

Not all online classes are created equal. Unfortunately, there's a whole heap of shoddily produced, bore-you-to-tears classes out there that, in the end, just don't provide quality education. On the other hand, there are some truly inspired, engaging, and educational classes that really live up to the potential of distance learning. Here are a few key factors that make all the difference to the quality of online courses:

1) Proper Pacing
It's a fine balance to strike, but the best online courses are the ones which are properly paced. Proper pacing means the student is neither bored nor overwhelmed; they have plenty of time--and notice--to complete large projects, but also are kept engaged by small assignments in the interim. These small assignments should never stack up and bury the student in stress and anxiety, nor should they be pointless, tedious busy work.

2) Multimedia Integration
The really exciting part of online classes is the fact that they can present content in ways that books and lectures can't. Great online courses take advantage of this fact, and incorporate various multimedia elements into the presentation, such as videos, podcasts, interactive activities, and more. This is certainly more engaging than reading a long text document, and the information is much more likely to be retained. It's not enough, however, to simply add in multimedia for multimedia's sake. The content must be done well, and with a clear purpose. A forty-minute video of the professor mumbling into his webcam does not qualify as good use of multimedia.

3) Quality Content
When a course's content is of high quality, you find yourself engaged and curious, and as a result you learn much more naturally. This is in stark contrast to those courses which only use dismal, bland textbooks and regurgitative, fill-in-the-blank quizzes. Low quality content feels like a chore, and the information is seldom retained. High quality content can be of any modality: videos, websites, audio presentations, etc. What's important is this: does it lend itself to natural learning? Would an expert in the field recommend it to anyone curious about the subject, regardless of the online class? This is the sort of content used by the best online courses.

4) Self-Directed Learning
The best online classes recognize that their students are adults who have the ability to make up their own mind and take responsibility for their own education. When the course is too micromanaged, when the assignments are dictated to the smallest detail, students become frustrated or, at best, don't make any meaningful discoveries on their own. Good online courses give students the freedom to design their own projects and explore the aspects of the subject which are most interesting to them.

5) Community Connection
One of the biggest risks that online courses face is a sense of student isolation. Great online courses combat this risk by encouraging online interaction between students and faculty. For example, a class may have an off-topic discussion board, where students can feel free to chat about anything that interests them--the playoffs, for example, or a tasty new recipe. Or a class may require students to work on a group project together via an online forum. This fosters a sense of community, and gives students the support needed to ask questions or seek guidance.

6) Multiple Learning Modalities
Everyone learns differently. Some students are very visually oriented; others need to hear information out loud to retain it. The best online courses integrate as many learning modalities as possible--visual, auditory, kinesthetic, musical, and so on--into the presentation. This way, students are able to study in the way that works best for them.

7) Intuitive Navigation
The layout of the course should be clear and easy to follow. Students should always know what to do next, and should always know how to access relevant information and resources. The best courses have been reviewed by third party organizations and are designed to be intuitive to navigate.

8) Reliable Technology
Many courses, in an attempt to be flashy or stylish, utilize a host of technologies in their presentation, often requiring students to download a dozen new plug-ins or sign up for outside services. The problem with this is that it doesn't always work, and everyone wastes a boatload of time and energy troubleshooting. The best courses use only technologies which are as reliable and as universally supported as possible. This makes the online learning experience much more pleasant for everyone involved.

9) Room for Additional Exploration
Great online courses provide curious students with resources which provide additional information and and a greater depth of detail. It's another fine balance: having too many supplemental add-ons can be confusing or stressful, but it's important to give students an opportunity to learn more if they wish to do so. The key is to clearly differentiate the core class requirements from the additional resources, so students know exactly what's expected of them, and what options are available.

10) Creative Design
It's a hard quality to define, but the best courses are designed to give students a varied and fresh learning experience week after week. All too often, online courses fall into a formula, and repeat that formula over and over for the entire duration of the class. This will be a very dull experience for the students, and the actual educational value of the course will suffer as well. The best courses are designed by people who put careful thought and focused effort towards creating a unique and engaging class experience, from start to finish.

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