i-Three Issue Corps – 10 Keys to Developing Engaging Online Extension Courses

binoculars-on-a-ledgeHave you ever taken an online course?  Was it required or for fun?  What was your motivation?  Semester-long, short course, less than a week?  For a fee or free?  Did you complete it?  Was it a good experience or more like how NOT to teach online?

From your experience, think about three things that make an online course good and three things that make an online course bad.  Was it easier to come up with three bad examples?

The keys to a good online course boil down to engagement.  So, what does it mean to be engaging?  Definitions include, “very attractive or pleasing in a way that holds your attention,” “tending to draw favorable attention or interest,” and “to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons.”  Synonyms include absorb, engross, interest, and involve.

I am currently developing an online course in Urban Food Production for backyard and community gardeners in Eastern Nebraska as part of the i-Three Issue Corps and want to make sure that my course is engaging so that learners have a good experience.  Here are ten suggestions you too can use to make your online Extension courses more engaging.

  1. Use Good Design Principles & Make the Learning Environment Visually Appealing

Another word for engaging is attractive.  Have you ever visited a website and immediately left because it looked and felt outdated or awkward?  Think about the first impression of your online course from the learners’ point of view.  Are they going to want to stick around?

While your creativity might be limited by the learning management system supported by your university, here are a few best practices to follow to make your course attractive to all learners:

  • choose simple backgrounds and fonts
  • choose fonts, font sizes, and colors for readability and accessibility
  • close caption all audio and video components or provide scripts
  • keep the screen clear of clutter (if an image has nothing to do with the lesson, skip it)
  • maintain a clear, organized structure to optimize navigation throughout the course
  • make sure all pages and linked documents are free of distracting typos and grammatical errors
  1. Develop an Engaging Getting Started Module & Syllabus with Clear Objectives and Expectations

Teaching a successful online course means being clear about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.  Learners want to have confidence in our leadership and their ability to achieve their goals.  This starts with the syllabus and introductory course information.  If learners are lost and frustrated from the beginning, they’re less likely to complete a course, especially if it’s not mandatory.

  1. Be Present & Responsive

That brings me to my next point, be present and responsive.  Learners need to know that there is a real person (or persons) behind a course.  Introduce yourself in the Getting Started section of the course with a photo or video.  Tell them a little about your background, your hobbies, why you’re passionate about this course.

Devote time each day to respond to emails and calls.  Nothing is more frustrating for an online learner than to have technical issues or questions about content and have to wait a week (or more!) to receive a response.  With high enrollment courses, especially those with mandatory enrollment, you may want to hire someone to handle this day-to-day management.  If this is not possible, post an FAQ with troubleshooting techniques and offer your help via a weekly Zoom session.

If your course includes a discussion forum, act as a facilitator (the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage) by commenting and asking questions to keep the conversation going and make it a true learning experience for all participants.

  1. Make it Media-Rich

Boredom and distraction are engagement’s worst enemies.  Use pictures, charts, infographics, animations, audio, and video to give learners multiple ways to interact with the course content.  If they wanted to just read text they could visit a webpage or pick up a book.

  1. Utilize Guest Speakers

As Extension Educators we’re used to public speaking and we know how to put together a presentation.  But Extension is a team and no one is an expert in every topic, so we should invite colleagues to contribute to our courses when appropriate, if for no other reason than to save learners from listening to the same voice in every module.  This also introduces course participants to other experts in the area that they can contact with questions, follow on social media, or to get involved in applied research.  Another way to accomplish this is by inviting guest moderators in a discussion forum (e.g. if you have an Master Gardener, intern, or technician that is particularly knowledgeable about a topic but not comfortable being recorded).

  1. Make it Relevant

Adult learners are busy and if they’re going to devote their precious time to something, they want to know why it’s important and how it relates to them.  We can accomplish this by tying course content to real-life applications and benefits (how it will save them time or money, how it will give them the vocabulary to talk to buyers and customers, etc.).

One way to make course content relevant to participants is by giving them some autonomy in how they complete course requirements.  For example, we can require completion of a certain number of modules, but let participants choose which modules they complete.  Or we can give research/writing assignments that participants can tailor to their individual situation and interests (e.g. it is more valuable to let a prospective orchardist write a paper on orchard management than on meat production, though both topics may be taught in an organic food production course).

  1. Chunk Information

Chunking information into easily digested pieces shows that you respect that your learners’ time and attention are limited.  Small bits of information are easier to process, comprehend, and retain.  This builds confidence and motivation.  If a learner knows that each learning resource will take no more than 15 minutes to complete, they’ll be more likely to squeeze one in during a lunch break or before bed.

  1. Challenge with Puzzles

Utilize crossword puzzles, flash cards, fill-in-the-blank, drag-and-drop labels on a figure, true/false, matching, multiple choice questions, etc. for learners to self-check their comprehension throughout the course.  Come up with problem-solving exercises, internet scavenger hunts, and case studies that require participants to look for and find solutions.  These activities may be required before learners are allowed to move on to the next module.  They make the content interactive and reinforce comprehension of the material.  This will help them quickly identify content areas they need to devote additional attention to and give them confidence going in to any major assessments.

  1. Tap into Emotion

If participants feel emotionally connected to the subject matter, then they are more likely to be engaged, absorbing the content and applying it to their situation.  Use the personal experience and goals of your course participants as a resource.  Ask them to reflect on periods of their childhood or experiences in the workplace.  Incorporate realistic and timely stories and news articles that they can relate to.  Utilize scenarios and exercises that introduce conflict and dilemma to force participants to consider how they would react in a given situation.

  1. Grow Community through Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool for collaboration and sharing.  The social media strategy for your course may rest on the discussion forum included in your learning management system or take on a life outside of the formal course through a participant-contributed blog, Pinterest board, or group Facebook page.  Posting photos, experiences, and found resources related to what they’re learning in the course will foster learner interaction with the content, the instructor, and peers, and ultimately enrich the experience for all participants.  And sharing their wins/failures as they try to apply that information to their daily lives allows participants to encourage, commiserate with, and help each other, truly forming a community.  Plus, you can then use information and photos from their posts to report course impact.

Binoculars photo source: https://pixabay.com/en/binoculars-view-focus-optical-1209892/