Digital Mums Five things to look for when choosing an online course

Five things to look for when choosing an online course

A career for life is a thing of the past. The ability to adapt and evolve is now essential for the modern professional.

An obvious way of doing this is through online courses. You can see just how much potential they hold as a flexible, low-cost way of upskilling as a professional. And because of their potential they've been hailed as a revolution for both higher education and adult learning.

But despite the hype of the last few years (Year of the MOOC anyone?) online courses haven't radically disrupted either of those areas.

Although numbers have skyrocketed and they've been accepted into the mainstream, there is still a massive question mark over their quality and ability to retain students. One study showed that average completion rates for MOOCs were as low as 6.8%. The founder of the online course provider Udacity Sebastian Thurn was so shocked by their retention rates that he significantly pivoted their learning model (for the better).

Many online courses are innovative in the way that they use technology. Unfortunately, they aren’t as innovative in the way they teach. Current research shows that traditional models of learning are lacking when it comes to giving people new knowledge and skills. Old models are ineffective because they:

  • are overly theoretical and focus too much on passive learning - most students forget things quickly if they don’t apply what they learn straight away;
  • don’t allow space for students to deepen their understanding of the subject matter through group work;
  • aren’t rooted in the real world so often students aren’t committed or engaged in their learning.

Learning through these models is hard enough when you’re a full-time student. It can be nigh on impossible when you have a job or kids, or both.

All over the world, innovators are pushing the boundaries of what it takes to really learn offline but this cutting edge practice isn’t being adopted by online courses. But there are online courses that are evolving beyond these traditional learning models, maintaining high quality while retaining their students and embedding their learning. And these are the ones you want to look out for.

So when looking for an online course, here are some of the characteristics of good courses that you should be looking out for.

They focus on learning by doing

Take coding. For the average person, there's only so far you can take coding by reading about it or watching how-to videos. To learn how to code for real there's no way around it - you have to start coding yourself. It's the difference between being able to pass an exam about coding and actually being able to code.

The concept of having to code so you can learn how to code has been widely accepted, leading to the upsurge in the number of 'code as you go' courses (Code Academy, Treehouse, General Assembly's Dash to name a few).

These types of courses work because learning works best in a real world setting. They provide the space for students to make mistakes and learn from them.

Research into how people learn demonstrates that it is much more powerful to learn this way, rather than watching endless tutorials and doing ‘practice’ pieces of homework that only you and a tutor will ever see. This is because the content has meaning in your life. You remember and learn more deeply when putting things into practice as you go along.

And just as importantly, learning by doing is engaging for the student. When you feel yourself progressing you can't help but be excited and motivated. This means you're more likely to stick with what you're doing and less likely to quit.

With coding it's clear why you need to learn by doing. But it can be difficult to see how this applies to other subjects where the skills you're learning aren't so obviously tangible. But it does apply. Learning by doing is important for any subject or professional skill. And teachers and course providers can make seemingly non-practical subjects very practical by using project-based learning.

Project-based learning is a teaching method that involves getting students to investigate a complex problem or challenge. It focuses on active, rather than passive, learning and spending extended time to work through something in depth (check out some of the great resources here if you’d like to find out more).

One of the best case studies for the benefits of project-based learning is a group of high schools California called High Tech High. They integrated project-based learning into their curriculum well over a decade ago. Instead of normal classes and homework, virtually all of their students' learning is focused on completing projects. And the impact it's had has been impressive. Over a five year period 99% of their students attended university compared to just 72% of the national average, even though they don’t select on ability.

Project-based learning hasn't entered the mainstream yet, but it's gaining credibility as a result of the growing body of research around it. Even Udacity now promotes itself as a way to 'market your career through project-based learning.' When you're looking into an online course, a focus on projects and learning by doing is a must.

They connect learners to employment

For an online course to be effective it has to directly connect learners with the skills and tools they need to get, or stay, employed.

This is often countered by the argument that focusing too much on the vocational misses out on the intangibles that traditional learning provides - critical thinking, gaining new perspectives on the world, the space to question things.

And they're right. A well-rounded education is important and a vocationally-focused online course will never be able to fully replace that. But when focusing on professional development, you can afford to be much more vocational.

There are some bigger picture reasons why we need to be connecting them. By 2020 the world could have a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers. In a survey conducted by Manpower a few years ago, 46% of senior HR executives thought a lack of skilled talent was making it harder to implement their business' strategy. These are startling statistics and clearly show that education isn't preparing people for the realities of work in the 21st century (the social enterprise Innovation Unit wrote a great book about this if you’re interested in reading more about it).

When you’re a busy professional looking for a promotion or to make a career move, you want your online course to get you as market-ready as possible. If it doesn’t, then there’s not much point in doing it.

So when you’re looking to do an online course for your development, make sure to ask the course provider how many of their students received promotions after they finished. Or what percentage of their students found jobs in a relevant field. If they are connecting their students to work, it’s the sort of thing they’re going to be shouting about. And if they’re not then you might be better off looking elsewhere.

They act more like tutorials than lectures

To paraphrase Jose Ferreira in his fantastic article about MOOCs, most online courses are more lectures than they are courses.

This is not a bad thing in itself. Video tutorials are fantastic tools for learning. But they're only offering a small part of an educational experience.

The internet has made it easy for anyone to film a series of videos, put them in order and call them a course. And this is a good thing. The more people that can contribute to the discussion around a topic the better. The democratisation of teaching has been one of key the drivers that has made the internet so revolutionary.

While many of these videos are not high quality, many are made by industry experts and are outstanding. Depending on what you’re learning, this can be all you need to get going.

But when it comes to more complex subject matter, great content is not enough to develop your skills. Developing content is an important part of an online course, but the real work comes in mapping out learning journeys, facilitating meaningful tutor / student and student / student relationships, and building feedback loops to iterate and evolve over time. And because most online courses are not made by educational experts, they lack the things that really make a difference to your learning experience.

Without these, you’re watching videos rather than completing a course. That’s not a bad thing by any means. But you shouldn’t expect to suddenly acquire a host of new skills by doing it.

They use peer-to-peer learning

Peer-to-peer learning is one of the most effective ways to embed learning. But not nearly enough online courses are making the most of it.

Many claim to include peer-to-peer learning, but this usually amounts to an empty forum or a Facebook group. Some might go as far as to make you do some group work together. But very few actively have you review, critique and get critiqued by your peers.

At Digital Mums, we women with children to become social media managers. Our students have regular online sessions with their peers where they share problems they're having, critique each other’s work in a kind and helpful way, and brainstorm ideas together. These interactions are some of the most important they have for internalising their learning.

If a paid course doesn’t even mention peer-to-peer learning then it’s worth thinking twice about whether to sign up. When they do mention it, make sure to ask what this means in practice. It’s not the end of the world if an online course isn’t built around peer-to-peer learning, but it speaks volumes if they’ve included it in a meaningful way.

They teach you how to learn.

The concept of having a culture of learning has morphed from being barely an afterthought to an essential strategy to innovate and survive as a business. Learning any one particular skill or trade is now less important than knowing how to stay on top of your profession by adapting and learning new skills.

A course only lasts for a limited amount of time. It can only teach you things up to the point you completed it. The reality is that in some industries, especially anything digital, any course you learn is going to be out of date the second you finish it. This means that the ability to keep yourself refreshed and updated after you complete an online course is as important as the content within the course itself.

Good courses don't spoon-feed you, but rather give you the autonomy to figure out things for yourself. They teach you how to develop your own skills, where to look for and find news and updates, and how to best integrate them into what you’ve learned already. Look for online courses that focus on making you autonomous and that promote the fact that they constantly update their own content.

A final word

There are positive signs for the future of online courses in professional development. The growing respectability and acceptance of online courses throughout the business world is a huge step in the right direction. And there has been a wide recognition among providers that MOOCs need to change if they’re going to be effective. These two factors will drive online courses to get better and better in the future.

But for now the quality still wildly varies, which means that you need to be especially vigilant when researching and making your decision. Looking for online courses that include the features listed above will go a long way to ensuring you make the right one.

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