10 Steps to Create a Next Generation Online Learning Experience

By: Edward Daciuk, Principal Learning Strategist, ExtensionEngine


Online Learning 3.0 encompasses experiences that leverage learning science and technology to minimize time-to-efficacy while increasing learner engagement beyond watching a talking head and completing multiple choice questions. Today’s online learners expect more than didactic content and simplistic assessments. They’re used to sites like Amazon, Facebook, and Google; sites that use technology to make the user experience pleasurable and increasingly useful. 

Here’s a 10-step guide to help even anyone, even a tech novice, to prepare quality online learning.


      1. Have A Business Model

        This might seem like an odd first step; however, countless organizations, even elite ones, launch online courses expecting learners will simply show up because they’ve released their “precious” content online. That’s a flawed assumption

        Unfortunately, many program managers mimic the classroom model by trading on content for success instead of treating it like a business. In any other business you’d inquire about competition, differentiation, pricing elasticity versus competitors, cash flow models to decide on investment levels, etc. As Yahoo and AltaVista found out when Google showed up; on the internet your competition is only a click away.

        You need to provide more value than the alternative ways your audience can learn.

      2. Treat Learning Like a Product

        Another mistake is treating online learning like a course instead of a product. This might surprise those coming from an educational background, but learners don’t want a course; they want to learn something. Probably so they are capable of doing something afterwards. Starting with a course mindset can inadvertently limit the way an offering is designed.

        Think through features that will help learners achieve their objectives instead of sinking into a syllabus format mentality. The best feature might be a video, but it also might be a live project or an SMS message depending on what the learner needs.

      3. Take the Learner’s Perspective

        Talking head courses have become the norm because online learning managers take a production perspective: “I have this content, I need a system to host it, and I need to upload and launch the content” Wrong. This is an artifact of the syllabus learning model, and research shows that this didactic method is less effective.

        Consider the learner’s perspective: what are the biggest hurdles to optional (i.e. not required by an employer or school) online learning?

        The top 3 are:

        • Lack of time
        • The learning isn’t personalized
        • The content is boring

        Learners don’t want to waste time on things that aren’t relevant to them. They want help on things giving them trouble. Ideally, it’d be fun and even provide a way of showing others what they’ve learned.

      4. Make It Fun

        Recently, a Harvard professor was telling me that his most watched online course segment was the one where his cat kept running around his head. YouTube’s low production-quality video is more popular than expensive TV shows. The point? Don’t be so stiff (another leftover from the university lecture model that’s been driving talking head courses).

        Learning is serious but the format doesn’t have to be. Have a sense of humor. Be playful in your designs. Reward good behavior in a fun way. Use cats. Fun actually helps engagement.

      5. Have “Buzz” Built In

        Like any competitive product you need to make a splash to acquire users. It could be a striking design or learner experience. It could be an innovative learning technique. It could be project-based work in full view of the entire Facebook community. Regardless, bake buzz in at the beginning of the design process. You’ll be happier later.

      6. Start with a Just-In-Time, Lifelong Model

        Learning just-in-time is a more efficient model than spending time learning something that I might need in the future. Begin with a model that assumes learners will be with you for the long haul and can access learning as needed. This is better for them and creates a stronger customer engagement model for you.

      7. Do Your Research

        A lot of the best learning science driving in-person training, e.g. active learning, cohorts, coaching, etc. has been lost in recent iterations of online learning. Research these methods and develop ways to incorporate them online. Don’t just grab an off-the-shelf LMS and have that drive the learner experience, take charge of the user experience. There are a lot of tools out there to help with group projects, coaching, personalized learning, data analysis and gamification. Incorporating them is really the only way you’ll get to 3.0.

      8. Come Up With a Product Roadmap

        If you’ve designed a great learning experience and researched the tools you’ll need, you’re going to have the realization that you’re unlikely to be able to include everything in version one.

        In this case, develop a product roadmap instead of a single specification.

        A roadmap will take a long view and help you to prioritize instead of settling for a lesser experience. It will also help build confidence for internal stakeholders when they see that version one required some trade-offs and that future investments are part of the plan. (This should sync with your business plan.)

      9. Be Data Driven

        Data is a driver in design and decision-making over time; it should be included in your system design early on. Go beyond completion metrics. Use data to figure out where learners are losing time, where they are getting stuck, which features are driving engagement, which features are creating drop-off.

      10. Iterate

        The online learning market is changing fast. Your direct competitors (or indirect competitors like LinkedIn or YouTube) aren’t staying still. Plan from the beginning that this will be an ongoing journey and not a one-off project. If you combine the roadmap with strong data analysis functions, you should be in good shape to stay competitive over time.

Wrap Up

A lot of online learning program managers settle for less than stellar online learning. They can go wrong in multiple ways. They take a production instead of learner perspective. They let technology dictate learner experience instead of the opposite. They take a “launch and done” approach. They don’t make good use of analytics to improve over time. But you can do better. Follow the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to a market-winning, next generation, online learning platform.


Edward Dacuik.jpg

Edward Daciuk is Principal Learning Strategist at ExtensionEngine where he runs the corporate and nonprofit groups. At ExtensionEngine, his learning clients include Harvard, MIT, Microsoft, J&J and other great brands. He has over 20 years of experience building online products and has helped start, build and sell three separate technology companies.

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