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Create & Sell Online Courses | Thinkific

Creating online courses doesn’t end at uploading videos to your site and getting enrollments. As an online educator, you need to ensure that your students are actively participating in your course and getting real value out of it. This will pay off in the long run as people come to recognize your course as the most valuable in the market. In this post, Dr. Eileen McGurty, an expert in online education, shares her strategies for boosting participation in online courses.

We’ve all been there. You work like the dickens to create course content and market it like mad. Enrollments start pouring in. And you are thrilled with the numbers! You are anticipating an enthusiastic group of students that lead to an amazing community of learners through conversation and discussion.

The course starts, and the discussion tanks.

What went wrong? You’ve provided stellar content. You’ve asked students to jump online and offer their ideas.

Is anyone learning anything?

All the education research shows that more participation in discussion leads to better learning outcomes. Specifically, more participation in an online course leads to –

  1. Higher student satisfaction
  2. Higher levels of perceived learning
  3. Higher levels of actual learning

The higher the participation, the more likely students will complete the course, experience a deep learning that stays with them for longer, and feel satisfied and fulfilled by the learning experience.

High participation in discussion is also key to business success. In the crowded online learning marketplace, providing information alone is not sufficient for success in online education businesses. In order to carve out a profitable corner of the market, distinctive courses that create vibrant communities of learners with dialogue, conversation and discussion are necessary to get repeat students, fantastic testimonials, expanding referrals, and increasing revenues.

Thinkific has a great tool to incorporate discussion into courses. When used well, you can take your courses out of the sea mediocrity and into the realm of exceptional courses that offer distinctive value.

You can also add a Disqus discussion forum to your course, as simply as you would add any other content. This means your course can have as many discussion forums as you need in as many lessons as you want. Here’s an easy to follow tutorial for adding Disqus to your online course.

Keep in mind, however, software is just a tool. The truth is that student participation starts with your leadership. You must plan for and design it into every aspect of the curriculum. While the tool won’t create the leadership, you can harness the transformative power of the Thinkific discussion forum feature by applying proven educational strategies to your use of it.

Student participation starts with your leadership #teachonline Share on X

Use these 4 strategies to lead your students into a meaningful conversation and a rich learning experience that will yield great education outcomes as well as business success.

1.  Create purpose-driven engagement

If students know why they are participating and can see how they will learn from it, they are much more likely to jump into the conversation. Each time you ask students to engage in the course or with each other, clearly state the specific purpose of the activity and connect it to the learning outcomes for the course.

Learning outcomes are learner-centered statements about specifically what the student will be able to do as a result of the instruction. The focus is on how students will act based on what they have learned. By focusing on measurable actions that show learning, you take the focus away from you and what you will teach and put it where it belongs: on the student and what they will learn.  A foundation of learning outcomes gives you a reference point to determine if each discussion activity is useful.

Now for an example. Let’s say you are teaching an online course about anatomy for movement specialists (yoga, dance, or pilates teachers). Your overall learning outcomes might be:

  • Teach effective, safe, and dynamic classes to a broad range of students
  • Deepen and expand your personal practices
  • Cultivate a community of dedicated, loyal students
  • Build a successful career as a movement specialist

Notice how there is no mention of what the teacher does, presents, or talks about.

A discussion for a lesson focused on cultivating a community of dedicated, loyal students could ask students to describe what their idea of a “community of dedicated, loyal students” would be like – how would they behave, how would they interact, what is loyal? Or dedicated?

In order to be clear and direct with the students about the purpose of the discussion, tell them that their conversation about these ideas will help them identify the type of active community they want to cultivate.

2.  Provide clear guidelines for participation

Online course instructors often hesitate to get too specific with students about expectations. After all, the students are adults and the courses are not “school.” However, providing guidelines about work, time, commitment, and effort helps students to structure their learning – sometimes we need someone to give us a few boundaries so we can really blossom.

Present your guidelines as suggestions for how to maximize learning. Be sure to emphasize that there is no need for self-judgment if the guidelines are adhered to perfectly. You are providing a map for the easiest path to success.

A few examples:

  • Tell them up front a range of time that they should spend on the course (3 – 5 hours, perhaps).
  • Provide an estimate of the amount of time they might spend each day if appropriate (in the case of 3-5 hours per week, it might be 25 – 40 minutes each day).
  • Suggest how frequently they should engage with discussions and other collaborative activities. A good rule of thumb is to ask students to log in and contribute to the discussion at least 3 days per week if your course is organized in weekly lessons.
  • Encourage them to be of service to their colleagues in the class by following the “Post once, respond twice” strategy.

You could also ask students to make a commitment to these times and activities. In reality, they are making a commitment to themselves, so you don’t have to make it sound onerous. Keep in mind, however, that the moderate amount of stress that might come from this type of commitment can actually facilitate learning.

3. Prompts – ask good questions

Constructing useful and effective questions is part science, part craft. Don’t worry if you struggle with this; everyone does. Here are four characteristics of “good” questions.

A good question is open-ended

It elicits more than yes/no or “I agree” type responses. However, you don’t want dissertations, either! Find a balance that is specific and encourages dialogue.

Example – A wellness coach might offer a course with a unit about morning routines. The students were asked to get up earlier in the morning than usual to do the routine, and now you want to have a discussion about their experience.

Not so good: Were you able to wake up earlier in the mornings this week?

Better: Share with us your experience of waking up earlier in the mornings than usual this week?

Best: If you woke up earlier than usual this week, we’d love to hear your reflections –

  • Identify at least one practice that aided you in your commitment and explain why it was helpful OR
  • Describe how you felt in body, mind or heart: upon waking, after morning practices, or in mid-afternoon.
  • If you were not able to wake up earlier, we want to hear from you, too. Identify at least one obstacle to your progress in this area and explain how the obstacle hinders you exactly.

The first one is not open-ended. The second one is a bit too open. The third one does two things: allows for and affirms the student who was not able to complete the change and gives a specific framework for the students to articulate their experiences. A good question elicits higher order thinking/doing/reflecting.

A good question elicits higher order thinking/doing/reflecting

You want to create prompts that ask students to analyze, synthesize, assess, create, or implement.

Some possible stems to these types of questions: How, Why, In what way, Imagine, Suppose, Predict…, If…, then…, How might…, Can you create…, What are some possible consequences…, Evaluate, Weigh, What is your perspective….

Example:  Back to the wellness coach course. The students were asked to follow a model schedule for their morning routines.

Not so good: Is the model schedule useful to you?

Better: Tell us about how you are using the model schedule.

Best: In what ways has the model schedule helped you or limited you in keeping your commitments to yourself? Choose one and share your insights into how this structure has benefited you this week.

The first one is closed and does not require much thought. The better option is open but does not require analysis. The third approach is an open-ended question that asks for students to evaluate their experience AND offers a slight boundary to keep them specific.

A good question asks students to use the course content to formulate their response

When you directly ask students to explain their response with reference to the content (broadly defined) you provide another opportunity for them to digest it.

Here is an example for a course about How to Write a Winning Business Plan. You have asked students to critique several examples of mission statements.

Not so good: What do you think about each of these mission statements?

Better: Take one of the examples of mission statements and explain why you think it is effective or not.

Best: We have gone in depth about the 5 qualities of an effective mission statement. Choose one of the mission statements provided. Explain how effective it is by examining each quality we have studied. Use the resources in the course (readings, lecture, and examples) to formulate your response.

In this example, the first option is very open-ended but does not invite the student to look at any of the content you provided. This invites the easy, off-the-cuff response, “Uh… this is what I think….”

The second approach is more specific and asks for a judgment but still does not get students to use the course material in a meaningful way.

The third question gets very specific, reminds students of the important issues, and directly asks students to engage with the course content rather than just whatever they think.

A good prompt creates a diversity of activities (rather than simple question and response)

You don’t want to just do something because you think it’s cool or fun to try. Always ask: is this the best way to achieve the learning objectives. Some possibilities for alternatives to question/response include varying the size of the group (large or small); case studies; problem-solving, etc.

Example – You are teaching a marketing class to online entrepreneurs. You have an entire module on sales pages. You could use one of the student’s draft as a jumping off point for discussion.

Not so good: Let’s discuss how Mary can improve her sales page.

Best (but the same structure): Mary’s honored us with using her draft sales page as a learning tool. Let’s provide constructive feedback to her on each element of a fantastic sales page: The Headline, The Problem, The Solution, The Benefits, The Features, Social Proof, Guarantee, and Scarcity. Choose one of these elements and offer some suggestions to Mary.

Best (an alternative structure): Mary’s honored us with using her draft sales page as a learning tool. For each element of a fantastic sales page, two of you will work together to provide Mary constructive feedback. Get together via email or phone or skype and prepare a report to Mary. Mary will take all the feedback and prepare a second draft. (Provide a list of two students for each of the elements. Also, provide guidelines about constructive feedback/peer review.)

The first approach could turn into the Wild West. The second one is not bad but has a familiar structure that might get tedious. Also, the responses might be a bit lopsided with one element receiving more input than the others. The third approach would be the most impactful, despite the fact that it could be slightly more work to set up. It could be a difficult for students, too, because it will take more time to complete. Use these sorts of alternative structures only when you know they won’t be burdensome to students.

4. Provide effective feedback

A successful leader of a vibrant learning community provides effective feedback to individuals in the community. This is an area where you can really carve out your distinctive offering because you are involved in the learning journey of each student.

Individual feedback from the teacher requires more time, but it will make your course stand out as a personal experience that maximizes student involvement. While your ability to expand the number of students may be somewhat limited, you can still expand your business because your personal touch allows you to charge a premium.

Qualities of valuable feedback:

  • Timely – You have to be in there with the students. Regularly. A good strategy is to plan specific times during the week for engaging in the discussion. Put it in your calendar and act as if it’s an appointment with a client (maybe for an hour every Tues, Thurs, and Sun). You wouldn’t blow off a client meeting, would you?
  • Individual, yet universal feedback. You should respond to each individual in the course within the first module. Give specific feedback which points toward future endeavors. Of course, if they are going off track, you will have to bring them back in. However, you should also think more universally about each of your public responses. A personal response can help others to learn lessons from it, as well.
  • Challenge students to go further. If you respond only with short, positive statements, “this is so great!” you will diminish the effectiveness in two ways. First, you are the model so others will follow your lead and post short responses without much substance. Second, you won’t be building trust with your students. Students question the authenticity of exclusively positive feedback. They want you to help them grow, learn, expand, develop, get better at whatever you are helping them with.

If you regularly ask students to add more to their response (expand on something) or if you ask them questions that get at underlying notions and assumptions, or challenge them to go beyond their comfort zone, they will rise to the occasion! Don’t be afraid to ask more of them.

  • Personal. Try recording your voice for feedback and uploading the audio file to the discussion. Keep it to 2 or 3 minutes. There is something magical about hearing your teacher’s voice guiding you on your learning journey. Your students will be totally delighted! (The technical part of this is very easy to do).
  • Provides a summary and points to the future – At the end of a discussion, post a summary of the main points from the conversation. You can use the opportunity to reinforce the content as well as creating a space of support for their input.

Use these guidelines and you will be well on your way to leading an amazing community of learners in meaningful dialogue and engagement. A course with an active discussion at its heart is distinctive and remarkable, by providing top value to students. With a higher value, your course will be in higher demand, and students will be raving about it. Writing testimonials, posting on social media, and telling their friends about your leadership in fostering learning communities.

As another example of how to construct useful questions, here are two prompts to encourage discussion about the ideas presented in this post. I’d love to hear from you! And in the spirit of service to each other, I invite you to follow the “post once, reply twice” principle –

  1. Tell us about an online teaching experience when you did not get the participation you wanted in the course. How might one or several of these strategies have improved the engagement?
  2. Share a time when you had great success with student participation! What did that success look like (how much, how often, how impactful)? What strategies did you use that led to that success and were they similar in any way to the ones I have discussed?
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Eileen McGurty, Ph.D. works with entrepreneurs who aspire to create high caliber, high demand online courses. She’s spent nearly two decades teaching online, training teachers to teach online, and creating multi-level online programs. With Eileen’s guidance, you can harness your passion and knowledge to build a successful online course business. Maximize Your Impact with this free guide to getting started teaching online.