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3 online courses that are getting things right

May 25, 2021

Amazing online courses are not the norm. If they were, they would not be considered amazing! However, they are certainly out there, setting the bar high for the plethora of decidedly average offers that still make up the mainstream. You know the ones: no sense of community, lack of coherent narrative, discussion forums that have less atmosphere than the surface of mars, and the personality of a chatbot.

That may sound harsh, but if 2020 showed us anything, it is that online learning is here to stay. Flexible, asynchronous high-quality digital education is democratic, inclusive and will hold the high ground in the future landscape of higher and further education, as well as professional development and enquiry. It is eminently unfair to judge all online learning negatively, because an institution tried to copy-paste traditional one-to-many classroom instruction onto the online space and created a decidedly underwhelming experience. Better design is out there, and we would like to introduce you to three of them, and examine what makes them engaging and effective.

Competency-based online courses at Northern Arizona University

Ok here is the elevator pitch. Imagine a degree that isn't focused on what you know, but what you can do. One which doesn't ask you to do multiple-choice tests and abstract dissertations, but actually build a skills portfolio that is evidenced through real-life projects or simulations and authentic assessments. Interested?

We are. The Competency-based degree program at Northern Arizona University has won some major awards for innovation. Students can learn at their own pace, with a personalized learning mentor. In qualifications such as business, there are some core units to complete, but even some of those are skills-focused, such as critical thinking and innovation.

Students do not enroll and then complete the course in lockstep with a cohort, but rather subscribe to the program in 6-month periods, which means that progress can be paused or accelerated depending on how you feel and what else is happening in your life. If you want to achieve your degree in one year, that is possible. Learning can be tied to your current employment for direct application and reflection, to a startup idea you have or have already launched, or combined with other studies you are taking elsewhere. The mentor will help guide you in how you can develop and evidence the skills that are measured by your program, and the rest is up to you. Credit is given for knowledge and skills you already have and can demonstrate in authentic assessments or practical projects, meaning there is no duplication of learning and the course meets you where you are. A subscription gives you access to all of the institution's learning resources so that you can explore the tangents and connections that interest you. The focus is on skills, and so you are free to direct the course of knowledge that you need for your personal context. In terms of a sense of community, NAU reacted quickly to the pandemic by "moving services such as campus recreation, health promotion, mentoring and counseling opportunities, career development and much more to a virtual format." The "campus" experience of online studying is not easy to master, but this is a very solid attempt that continues to be developed today. Beware, however, as competency-based online courses are not for everyone. Because you direct your own learning and the mentor does not directly "teach" the material, you definitely need to have developed a strong sense of purpose to motivate your progress and good learning skills that do not depend overly on others to scaffold for you. If you know what you want, however, and you know how you learn best, then the flexibility of this type of course online is an excellent opportunity.

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Cutting edge data driven practicality at AdsAccelerator

A very different type of course for our second example of online courses getting it right. This time, though flexibility and skills are embedded in the fabric of this course, the real edge is down to practicality.

The AdsAccelerator course is for Facebook and Instagram advertisers to take their game to a new level. We know this sounds like one of the ads that pops up on YouTube and tells you to "stop scrolling and start winning" with some revolutionary new learning approach. We have, however, been inside this course and poked around, and we are impressed.

Even before you get into the learning material, you can see that AdsAccelerator is laser-focused on the practical. Industry logos are everywhere, but the huge amount of testimonials from relatable people in non-shiny suits really drives home the message of how easy it is to implement the learning directly into your work.

This is really speaking to people who are just trying to get ahead in a technical and complex industry that is highly competitive and evolving at breakneck speed. They do not have time to learn the behavioral psychology behind the AIDA model; they just need to know how they can use it. The peripheral learning can be done at your own direction and pace around it- AdsAccelerator is about getting into the thick of it.

They have designed it well. There are starting points for people who are totally new to the industry, and more complex tracks for those that are well seasoned. The video narratives are clean, crisp screen shares that explain clearly what to do and why it should be done. The meta-structure of the topics is in a logical order as if you were explaining the whole thing to someone in conversation, and the content had to unfold in a logical order that wouldn't have the listener saying "wait...what?".

Micro-segmented content is the name of the game here, and it is a practical choice. Things change very quickly in this world, and these videos will need to be revisited regularly for revision. The segmentation not only means it is easier to keep up to date with the industry but the learning is personalizable with users able to dive into very specific areas.

The challenging aspect of this type of course design is the overall pedagogical approach. Individually, the video segments are very well-structured, and thematically they do follow a logical order. The repetition of ideas is also organized to make the learning stronger. Spaced repetition and spiral sequencing of content are really useful approaches to help learners acquire knowledge with less cognitive load.

Spiral sequencing is when "there is an iterative revisiting of topics, subjects or themes throughout the course. A spiral curriculum is not simply the repetition of a topic taught. It requires also the deepening of it, with each successive encounter building on the previous one." This is much easier to do in a static curriculum designed from the ground up, but the Ads Accelerator program went successfully on the challenging route. As such, these courses will work well for those who have quite well-developed learning and note-taking skills and/or those who are able to apply the learning immediately and iteratively to real-world tasks.

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Learning How to Learn with Dr Barbara Oakley

This is a fun one. The Learning how to learn course on Coursera is one of their most popular courses ever. Online learning does not always need to be super high-tech to succeed. A lot comes down to the learning guide or instructor, and a good progressive knowledge of pedagogy and modern theories of learning.

Dr. Barbara set everything up in her home basement studio. Her husband films and she edits, and the result of such grassroots beginnings, is Coursera's most successful course ever, with almost 2 million participants so far.

We recommend reading this New York Times article which outlines all the quirky but hugely effective tools she employs to really make this a hugely successful learning experience, but here we will summarize what we loved.

The videography is great. Dr. Barbara moves unexpectedly, pops up on the other side of the screen, and disappears. Our brains are constantly given reasons to pay attention, and this is not surprising given the real focus on neuroscience as part of "rewiring" our brains for more effective learning. The goofy animation is sometimes so bad that it's good because of its authenticity, and there is a huge sense of personality and connection throughout.

Great teacher practices what they preach. All of the learning devices referenced in this course are fully used in its delivery. Pacing and pausing help us to stop and internalize the content. Chunking of key groups of information helps us construct mental models that we can retrieve from memory and make our own associations with. All of this is supported with prompts for us to reflect on our own learning metacognitively.

If you want to see great pedagogy in action, with all the high-tech wizardry stripped away, go take a look at this course.

No more excuses

The existential shock of the pandemic is fading, and that means learner expectations will rise. No more will we have the patience for subpar learning experiences when the "reasons" don't stack up.

Hard to have a practical focus that keeps pace with industry in a big institutional environment? Take a look at AdsAccelerator and its micro-segmentation approach. The campus experience cannot be brought online, and you cannot have authentic assessments in virtual environments? Take a look at NAU. And overall, let's remember that the learning environment above all else must be based on a solid understanding of how we actually learn best. Strip away the tech and look under the hood. Dr. Barbara knows how the engine runs, and without that, all the app integrations and fancy animation in the world will take us precisely nowhere.

Online learning is here to stay, so let's get it right, and learn from the best.

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