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The status quo doesn't translate into engaging online learning experiences. These 5 tips will help you create more engaging online courses.

Online learning gives people the opportunity to access world-class education regardless of their location. 

Whether students are earning new certifications, developing a skill, enjoying a new hobby, or making a major pivot in their career, eLearning gives students access to the information they want in ways traditional classrooms can’t. 

Incorporating common practices from a traditional classroom doesn’t always lead to engaging online learning. In fact, sticking to the status quo can create a poor learning experience for online students. 

That means copying and pasting common practices from the classroom can actually be bad for business. The eLearning industry is about evolving, it’s not just about unprecedented access to education, it’s also about changing the way we learn. 

Here’s how to avoid common mistakes people make when creating engaging and interactive online courses. 

But first… 

What is NOT Engaging? 

In order to understand what it means to be engaging, you must understand what is not engaging.

“Talking at people, giving people some stuff to read, and then giving them a test.” 

That’s Professor Aaron Barth’s definition of a boring online course. As he explains in his TEDx talk, he struggled at first to adapt his teaching style to an online platform.

For example, it’s all too common for online corporate training to include a bunch of slides students have to read, followed by some drag-and-drop exercises, and finished off with a quiz—which they may have to retake a dozen times before passing. 

Through trial and error, Barth learned that online students don’t want to be taught at. They want to be taught with

For Professor Barth, that means drawing on the power of stories—human stories—to create memorable experiences. It’s personal meaning, not clicking, that drives engagement. 

Now Let’s Get Into What IS Engaging

How to create a more engaging online learning experience for your students 

Online learning experiences need to be meaningful in order to be powerful. That means the practice of lecturing in front of a whiteboard needs to be retired along with the whiteboard. It’s not going to create an engaging online learning experience.

Here are five ways to create meaningful experiences with your online course, and keep students glued to your online classes. 

  1. Bring More Storytelling Into your Teaching 

Professor Barth notes in his TEDx talk that the earliest archeological evidence we have of human education used written or spoken stories to teach students lessons.

Our earliest instincts around education are actually based on storytelling … People teaching other people using human stories … It’s how we learned and it’s how we communicated.
We know that scenario and story based learning can accelerate our time to expertise on a given task because story simulates the way we learn through experience. Story based learning is more engaging than click-then-quiz eLearning. AARON BARTH (THOUGHT-LEADER AND PRESIDENT OF DIALECTIC) 

Here’s why this teaching method works: 

We’re hardwired to empathize, and stories engage our empathy. Empathy generates personal meaning–and personal meaning drives our ability to internalize what we’re learning. It also drives engagement which makes learning more effective for students. 

Storytelling → Empathy → Personal Meaning 

Incorporating stories and having students act out or discuss scenarios, helps you better teach complex skills like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity. An engaging and effective teaching model will ensure students retain what they learn–and will keep students coming back for more. 

  1. Create a Learning Community 

We’re social animals. (Some of us more than others.) 

An online learning community brings social learning into the mix. Students get a place where they can discuss course concepts, answer each other’s questions, and collaborate on assignments. 

Kate Baker created a learning community called The Veterinary Cytology Coffeehouse, for veterinary professionals who want to learn more about veterinary cytology and hematology. In her first year, the group grew to 35,000 members without any advertising. It now has over 65,000 members. 

Community creates a sense of accountability for online students. They’re no longer individuals isolated to their computer screens. They’re part of something bigger.  

I have found the online experience of engaging an individual without a group energy present to be the most difficult to address. In more traditional classroom settings, it’s common for students to meet outside of class in study groups, either to review material or practice for a test. You could try nudging them in this direction through your online course—perhaps with a quick tutorial on how to create a group calendar and set up their own Zoom meetings. PAULINE SCANLON, THINKIFIC COURSE CREATOR 

If you’re looking to take your active engagement to the next level, consider building a cohort-based course.

Community is at the core of cohort-based learning. While this course model can take more time and effort on your part, it drives more engagement, increases the information your students retain, and better develops those complex skills mentioned under number 1. 

  1. Do it Live 

By going live with some of your lessons, you introduce a new social element. 

Suddenly, students can engage with you and their peers in real time. Students receive instant feedback and their participation has an immediate impact on the lesson. 

With live lessons, Q&A sessions become a powerful tool for both the virtual student and the teacher. When one student has a question, it’s likely others do too.

Kent Bullard of the Institute for Automotive Business Excellence uses Thinkific’s Communities tool to run live Q&As for students.

“We have a casting setup, port through Vimeo, and embed the Vimeo URL directly into a Community Post,” says Bullard. “We use the comment function to manage engagement for those particular trainings.” 

Bullard is able to add dimension to his teaching with this simple process. In doing so, he also increases the value of his online course for his students.

For some topics, going live is a necessity. This is especially true if the topic you’re teaching requires practicing in front of each other and getting feedback in real time, like Jam Gamble’s course on public speaking.

Since my course focuses on building your confidence to amplify your voice, going live gives both my students and myself the opportunity to practice performing in front of each other and    getting feedback in real time.

It definitely has significantly increased student engagement.

My community has told me they feel more accountable since each class is live and appreciate the support they receive from one another as they go through the course.JAM GAMBLE, FOUNDER OF SLAY THE MIC 

“One must have A LOT of energy and passion to carry a 90-minute session,” Jam shared with us. “For me personally, I have learned so much more about my teaching/coaching style since teaching live twice a week. It’s also given me the opportunity to reevaluate and make any necessary tweaks as I go along.”

On Thinkific, you can incorporate Live Lessons into your online course using zoom.

  1. Have a Diverse Content Mix to Accommodate Different Learning Styles 

When you’re creating effective online courses, the same content structure won’t work for every course or student you teach. The key to creating transformational learning experiences is to be adaptable and implement differentiated instruction. 

Differentiated instruction acknowledges that each student absorbs different information in different ways

For instance, a student may find it difficult to learn by reading long blocks of text. That student may learn better when that same content is presented in a video instead. For others, the ability to go back and reread sections of text at their own pace may be more valuable than an audio-visual presentation. 

Here are some moves you can make to keep students engaged through differentiated instruction: 

  • Include More Videos in Your Courses. Here’s a list of home video recording setups you can try, and some tips on how to create effective training videos
  • Make Your Presentations More Dynamic. Prezi brings your presentations to life by using motion, zoom, and spatial relationships to present data. 
  • Level Up your Presentation with a Voiceover. Create a voiceover presentation to guide your students through the slides. Voiceovers allow you to replace text-heavy slides with images and diagrams. This lets you activate multiple senses and more deeply engage your students without cutting content. 
  • Make your Lessons Interactive. For many students, learning is not effective when they’re listening to a lecture and simply taking notes. In fact, interactive classes help students learn six times faster than other learning methods. There are several benefits to this kind of learning:
  • Keep an Eye Out for What Works for Others. Try some of the tips Esai Arasi and others have shared for making your presentations more engaging in Thinkific’s course creator community.

“There’s a lot you can do with a presentation to make it engaging. It’s not just about the design. It’s about the whole picture. ESAI ARASI, THINKIFIC COURSE CREATOR 

  1. Flip the script 

It’s commonplace that the best way to learn a subject is by teaching it. So why not give your students the chance? 

Having students teach what they’ve learned increases active learning and helps students retain what they’ve learned. You can facilitate student learning by using synchronous and asynchronous learning: 

  1. Synchronous Learning. This involves interacting in real time, and it’s helpful for live classes. Create a breakout room in Zoom, and have your learning group reconvene after class to share what they’ve learned—either with you or with other students. This practice can be structured as formally or informally as you deem effective. 
  2. Asynchronous Learning. After they complete a class, have students answer a question you pose, or answer each others’ questions. Even by coming up with questions to ask their peers—taking on the role of a teacher giving a quiz—students will reinforce lessons they’ve learned. 

Whether you choose the synchronous or asynchronous method, flipping the script in your online course positions you as the facilitator and puts the students at the center of the course. 

The Last Word 

Student engagement directly translates to online learning success. When you create a more engaging and interactive online course, you create more value for your students. That value directly translates to increased success.  

By incorporating storytelling, building community, and offering multiple forms of media when teaching, you become a better teacher—and help your students become better learners. 

Join the conversation! Share your online course engagement tips, and get advice from a community of like-minded course creators. 

This article was originally published November 2020, and was updated July 2022.