Online Teaching Tuesdays: 5 Tips for Creating Highly Engaging Online Courses

Got Wi-Fi? Online Teaching Tuesdays is a series of resources for teachers who want to transfer their skills to an online classroom setting. Whether you're interested in full-time or part-time online teaching, explore this rapidly growing field with us!

Online education has been experiencing remarkable growth, and improvements in technology will only serve to increase the trend. In the 2014 – 2015 academic year, there was a 3.9% increase in enrollment in online courses. Over a quarter of all students were enrolled in at least one online course, and of those, almost half (2.85 million of 5.8 million students) were enrolled entirely online.

Part of online education’s success stems from the ability to leverage technology to increase the reach of education. A large driver of the demand for online courses comes from mid-career Americans, as this previously underserved audience is in need of access to low-cost and high-quality education.

The performance of online students has been found to be comparable to that of traditional students, making online education a powerful tool in the arsenal of the modern educator.

But knowing what a tool can do is not the same as knowing how to use it.

The key to educating, across any medium, is the ability to engage with your students. The following tips will help you create engaging online courses that will enable you to teach online effectively.

1. Arrange your syllabus into short courses.

The organization of your course material is the first key to making an effective online course.

Online students can have misconceptions about the nature of online education and expect the convenience of working online to mean the course will be easy. When they discover the amount of dedication it actually requires, many drop out.

One key to avoiding this outcome is to present your course contents in an easily digestible format that will feel manageable to the students. Keep in mind that they will need to be interpreting this information on their own, without the normal cues that they would receive from other students in a typical classroom setting.

Effectively presenting your course work requires considering the students that will be following your instructions, and how well they will be able to track their own progress through the materials.

Dividing and presenting your course material to online students can be a balancing act. Too many lessons can be intimidating, but if you include too few, students may begin to question the value of the course.

A good guideline is to have at least ten, but no more than fifty separate lessons. If the content of the course is too complex and requires more than fifty, group them into short sections that will allow students to easily follow their progress.

2. Supplement with videos.

Videos are a staple in online education. There are many educational benefits to presenting course materials in video format, including:

  • Increased student motivation
  • Enhanced learning experience
  • Higher marks
  • Development potential for deeper learning of the subject development potential for deeper learning of the subject development potential for deeper learning of the subject
  • Development of learner autonomy
  • Enhanced team working and communication skills
  • Learning resources for future cohorts to use

Another advantage of video usage is the ability to allow students to explore lectures on their own time, preserving class time for interactive discussion.

What if you don’t have access to a video production team? As technology improves, it is becoming easier to create high-quality videos, even with just a laptop or your smartphone!

3. Break long videos into smaller sections.

Of course, adding in just any video isn’t going to be effective.

People’s attention spans are short, so simply recording long lectures doesn’t help with student engagement. You will need to consider the best way to divide your content for ease of consumption.

A large-scale study performed by MIT researchers found that videos no longer than six minutes in length were the most engaging. They also make additional suggestions, such as alternating between video of the instructor speaking and informational slides and speaking in a natural and enthusiastic tone, instead of slowing down and enunciating.

4. Include short, non-graded quizzes.

In addition to presenting course materials to your students, you need to help them to internalize the information. One of the most effective methods for this is to include frequent, short, non-graded quizzes.

Frequent quizzes have been shown to improve performance, and have a number of additional benefits, including:

  • Aiding in retention
  • Identifying gaps in knowledge
  • Encouraging study
  • Promoting better organization of knowledge
  • Allowing students to have immediate verification of correct or incorrect answers
  • Providing feedback to instructors

By including these quizzes as a required, but non-graded element of the course, they are less likely to intimidate students. Without the pressure over a grade, the students can focus on using them as the educational tool they are.

5. Require participation in discussion forums.

To effectively teach online, you will need to encourage interaction between students. This can be achieved by requiring their participation in online discussion forums.

By including these forums in your course, you are creating the ability for communication to take place at any time. Students can continue conversations that were sparked during the class, or may bring a forum discussion into the classroom with them. Participation in these discussions helps students to become more familiar with new topics that are being presented.

There are a few things to consider when including discussion forums in your online course:

  • ‘Netiquette’: These are the rules for behavior and interaction in your online forum. They will need to be established and enforced, just like behavior in a classroom.
  • Participation guidelines: Be clear about deadlines and rules for participation.
  • Discussion topics: Prepare thought provoking topics to promote interesting discussions.
  • Monitor discussions: Watch for unanswered questions, students who are not participating or who need encouragement, as you would in the classroom. 

An effectively managed discussion forum will be one of the best opportunities for you to interact with your students, and for you to help create your sense of presence in the online classroom.

These tips should help you to plan and implement an effective and engaging online course. What kinds of techniques do you use in your classroom that could be adapted to teaching online?

Eduardo Yi is the lead content marketer at Teachable, a platform that allows everyone, from creative individuals to established organizations, to easily teach online and create profitable businesses.

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