3 Must-Have Components of Successful Online Courses


Online courses have really taken off over the last few years, with one in four students now enrolled in an online course. Online courses offer learners several advantages over traditional courses. For professionals, they are given the flexibility to balance work, family, and learning, through the ability to study anytime, anywhere, at a time that’s convenient for them and their lifestyle. Online courses are generally significantly cheaper than on-campus courses, with a faster completion time should the learner require it, or alternatively, longer completion times for those who may require additional time on specific areas. Most importantly, online courses have become a more effective way to learn in comparison to traditionally-led courses due to their ability to utilize new, more engaging learning methods.

63.3% of higher education officials feel that online courses are “critical to their long-term strategy” with two-thirds of academic professionals rating online programs as being as good if not better than their in-person counterpart courses. The number of students taking at least one online course in 2012 surpassed 6.7 million; a figure that is certain to have risen significantly since.

Whether you’re building online courses for K-12, higher education, or corporate learners, the basic premise of developing successful online courses remains the same. Online courses should be developed in a way that best promotes the learning potential of the students involved. Without a clear understanding of the components required for an online course, its success is at risk, posing limitations to student achievement and, simultaneously, educator insights.

We’ve taken a look at the three must-have components of successful online courses.

1) Engaging Content

Content is probably the most important element of any online course. The quality of content used is essential in provoking student interest and maintaining a high engagement level. Identifying clear course outcomes by setting specific learning goals can help form a framework for the creation of valuable, relevant course content. Another point to note regarding course content is the importance of providing a manageable amount of content. This means considering the level of work that is reasonable to expect of learners while ensuring that the necessary course material is covered.

Delivering courses online means that you have an opportunity to mix things up by including multimedia and other interactive, engaging features that will help to keep your learners’ interest levels up.

2) Deeper Assessment

Assessment is a critical part of any successful course, whether it takes a more traditional format or an online approach. A combination of formative and summative assessment gives learners the best opportunity to continuously improve their knowledge of a subject area whilst preparing for an end-goal. This combination of assessment for learning and assessment of learning offers learners guidance on their learning process throughout the duration of their course.

With so much variety in learning styles, it’s important to create assessments which go beyond traditional test formats, creating quality learning experiences regardless of a student’s learning style. The use of technology-enhanced items (TEIs) in assessment has become extremely popular in recent years. TEIs present an opportunity to create deeper assessments, which inherently make for a more authentic and engaging student learning experience. Selecting a response from a list of options (like in an MCQ format) is said to be a lot less challenging than responding by constructing an answer or completing an interactive task to contribute to a response. Through a constructed response format, a clearer, more complete picture of the student’s depth of understanding is achieved. Along with this, the range of alternatives for approaches to assessment is broadened, meaning test-taking skills aren’t as critical to the outcome of the learner. Higher-level thinking skills can be assessed in this way, addressing more learning styles than what MCQs offer.

3) Corrective, Targeted Feedback

As with any form of learning, feedback is a critical component. It serves so many purposes from both the learner and educator perspective. Without well-constructed feedback, learners are vulnerable in understanding whether they are meeting learning expectations, what they are falling behind on, and what needs to improve for them to succeed. Course feedback must be timely if it is to be effective. Communicating with the learner promptly after course assessments means that the material is still fresh in their head, giving them the best possible opportunity to improve their understanding of the subject. The use of formative assessments in online courses is especially effective as the course is still in progress, allowing the student to act upon any insights and feedback that educators have offered them.

Feedback needs to be corrective and targeted. Fortunately, the use of technology in assessment can allow for instantaneous student and teacher feedback through the use of auto-scoring. Teachers can check how a group of students are doing and can identify trends; perhaps an area which requires further instruction. Students can also visualize their progress and gain an understanding of where they stand against other learners, identifying areas where they should invest more time and effort into.

Another form of feedback that is especially beneficial to learners is the implementation of hints and worked solutions in formative assessments. On a basic level, educators can include a distractor rationale or a prompt for students who are struggling with a particular question. On a more complex level, on getting a response incorrect, a student can receive an example of a correct answer along with an instruction to revise a specific area of the curriculum. This targeted feedback approach means that the learner gains an understand of where they’ve missed the mark while receiving specific direction to facilitate further learning.

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